I have never been to Belz, now part of the Ukraine. But I remember Belz…or at least, the stories of Belz told to me as a child by my mother.
On a wall in my home hangs a very large illuminated family tree dating from 1727. It lists the names of all my grandparents from that year until 200 years later in 1927, the names of all their children and the towns where they lived.
Everyone of those grandfathers were rabbis and continued to provide rabbis to the tenth generation.
I look at a photo of my mother’s grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Esor Weissman for whom I am named. He is sitting in a tall chair, an open book of Talmud on his lap. On his head he wears a large square yarmulke. Long payot reach almost to his chin. His beard was full and white and covered a part of the black kapote which he wore. He had served as rabbi in the town of Nemirov in the greater Lwow district. And he had been, as his fathers before him, a disciple of the Belzer Rov.
(I hate to admit it but all of my grandparents since 1727 were chassidim, of which I am not.)
I could never understand why, as my mother used to tell me, her grandfather left his home before Rosh Hashanah of every year to travel to Belz from Lwow, a distance of approximately 63 kilometers, in order to pray with his fellow Belzer chassidim in the great synagogue and in the court of the Belzer dynasty, the Rokeach family.
Why, I queried, would a distinguished rabbi leave his home and family alone before the holiest days of the Jewish year in order to pray with the holy Belzer Rov?
The earliest Jewish community settled in Belz, then a part of Poland in the district of Lwow in the 14th century. It received equal rights in 1665. And in the early 19th century Belz became a center of the Hasidic dynasty of the Rokeach family whose first Belzer Rov was Shalom Rokeach from 1817-1855.
The town was under Polish rule from 1366-1772 and then was incorporated into the Austrian Habsburg Empire. It became known as the kingdom of Galicia and the capital of Lwow now was called Lemberg.
At the end of the first World War Belz was incorporated into the newly independent Polish republic and from 1919-1939 it was included in the district of Lwow.
Belz was renowned for its great synagogue, one of the largest in Poland, with a seating capacity for 5,000 worshipers. In 1918, of a population of 6,100 residents, 3,600 were Jews and of that number almost 3,000 were followers and disciples of the Belzer Rov. My great-grandfather who always left home to be with them for the High Holydays, was one of them.
During World War II there were 1,550 Jews in Belz. 1,504 were exterminated by the Nazis.
In 1944, Rabbi Aharon Rokeach managed to escape and he arrived in Palestine in that year where he re-established the Belzer chassidut, first in Tel-Aviv and later in Jerusalem. Belz is the largest chassidic community in the world.
As I look at the photo of my great-grandfather taken in Lwow in 1927, I admire his piety. But I could never be like him.
For 240 years, according to my family tree, my Weissman grandparents of those generations venerated the Belzer dynasty.
And although I have never visited in Belz, its memories are ingrained in my heritage and in my heart.