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Ber of Bolechów

(in some sources, Ber Birkenthal; 1723–1805), wine merchant, Hebrew writer, and memoirist. Born in the Polish province of Ruthenia (later Galicia), Ber of Bolechów proves the existence of a class of men within the eighteenth-century Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth whose worldviews encompassed deep traditional Jewish learning and broad secular knowledge even before the formal Jewish Enlightenment movement began in Eastern Europe.

Most of the information about Ber of Bolechów comes from his Hebrew memoirs, written sometime between 1790 and 1800 and first published by Mark Wischnitzer in 1922. They are a rich source on eighteenth-century Polish Jewish life, not only revealing the inner world of a Jewish merchant who was tutored in Polish, Latin, French, and German from an early age, but also illuminating the central role of Jews in the Commonwealth’s economy as merchants, lessees, and tenants of noble lands.

Ber of Bolechów was married at a young age and turned to business to support his family, first trading in wool, herring, spices, and other domestic products. But he soon joined his father, a veteran wine merchant, to import Hungarian vintage wines into Poland. His successful business required extensive travel to Hungary for the tasting, mixing, and importation of nonritual wines such as Máslás, Tokay, and Suchyjagod (a form of raisin wine). His dealings brought him into contact with a broad network of Armenian, Greek, French, and German wine traders as well as Polish noblemen and representatives of the Polish crown.

While Ber of Bolechów’s memoirs focus on business activities, their larger goal is to encourage his readers to combine Jewish and secular knowledge, particularly of history and political thought. Like his father, Ber of Bolechów read widely, and mentions in his memoirs works by Giovanni Botero, Humphrey Prideaux, Hugo Grotius, and Josephus. When bandits pillaged Bolechów, he noted that a female servant had rescued “over a hundred books, most of them by ancient authors,” from his library (Wischnitzer, 1973, p. 100). He believed that study of non-Jewish areas of learning and languages could protect Jews from unfair economic treatment by the Polish nobility and could help them to defend Judaism against religious slander.

Ber of Bolechów’s memoirs boast of the efficacy of his Polish-language skills in helping him to mediate internal Jewish matters, such as the case of a disputed will that went into arbitration. He felt that these same skills led to positive Jewish–gentile encounters, such as negotiations with the representatives of the king and noble landlords over Jewish communal taxes. Both in his memoirs and in “Divre binah” (Words of Wisdom; unpublished, ca. 1780–1800), a history of Jewish sectarianism, Ber of Bolechów discussed his role at the 1759 public disputation between the Frankists and the Jewish community. Ḥayim ha-Kohen Rapoport (1700–1771), head of the rabbinical court in Lwów, represented the rabbinic side against the Frankists’ charges (most notoriously, of the blood libel) and relied on Ber of Bolechów’s flawless Polish and knowledge of general history and Christianity to defend Jews. Though he was a wine merchant by economic necessity, it was as a shtadlan (communal intercessor) for the Jews of Bolechów specifically and for Poland generally that Ber of Bolechów hoped to be remembered.

Suggested Reading

Majer Bałaban, Le-Toldot ha-tenu‘ah ha-frankit (Tel Aviv, 1933/34–1934/35); Abraham Brawer, Galitsyah ve-Yehudeha: Meḥkarim be-toldot Galitsyah ba-me’ah ha-shemoneh-‘esreh (Jerusalem, 1965); Mark Wischnitzer, ed. and trans., The Memoirs of Ber of Bolechow, 1723–1805 (1922; rpt., New York, 1973).