The Chofetz Chaim Video: The Rosetta Stone

At long last, Hollywood has finally contributed something to Torah. A collection of Fox Movietone newsreels from the silent film days is preserved and housed at the University of South Carolina. One item dating to 1923 preserves footage of Torah personalities attending the first Agudah Knessia Gedolah in Vienna. Remarkably, it includes footage of the Chofetz Chaim himself (of whom photos are rare), as well as other Torah personalities, the sight of which should quicken the heart of any Torah Jew.

Several of those shown perished before the War. Some survived. At least four were martyred by the Nazis.

A century makes a huge difference. Five of the eighteen personalities held doctorates. A good number were Germans, who still constituted a strong, distinct group within Agudah. One of those (Rabbi Leo Jung) was at one point a candidate for the presidency of Yeshiva University.

At least among the non-Chassidim, the couture stands out. Most look quite spiffy and dapper. (As one of my sons remarked, “and that was before Charles Tyrwhitt.”)

The Chofetz Chaim seems uncomfortable with the camera, and Hashgacha helped out. His facial features remain indistinct. Someone tries to cover the lens of the camera. Many others, however, seem either quite ready to pose, or stare at the camera out of curiosity. (Remember that motion picture cameras back then were quite massive affairs.)

I don’t know the source, but I received a guide to the other personalities and translated it into English. There seem to be some inaccuracies. I preserved the listing and timing as it was sent, despite at least one being out of order.

0:27 Rav Avrohom Tzvi Perlmutter, Av Beis Din, Warsaw
0:47 Rav Yisroel Friedman, Chortkover Rebbe
0:57 The Chofetz Chaim, accompanied on one side by his on, and on the other by his grandson, R. Kaplan
1:47 R. Yitzchok Zelig Morgenstern, the Admur of Sokolov
1:57R Dr Asher Michoel Cohen, Av Beis Din, Basel
2:05 R Yehuda Leib Tzirelson, Av Beis Din, Kishinev
2:22 R Elchonon Wasserman
2:28 R Asher Mendelson, Agudah, Poland
2:56 R. Dr. Pinchas Kahan, Av Beis Din, Ansbach
3:02 R.Tuvia Horowitz, Av Beis Din, Sanok
3:16 Moreinu R Yaakov Rosenheim, Pres. Agudah
3:55 R. Dr. Leo Jung, The Jewish Center, New York
3:16 R. Dr. Meir Hildesheimer, Berlin
3:58 R. Spitzer, Agudah, Hungary
4:13 R Chatzkel Sarna, Rosh Yeshivas Chevron
4:28 R Moshe Blau, Yerushalayim
4:34 R Dr Tuvia Levenstein, Av Beis Din, Zurich

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22 Responses

  1. Chochom b'mah nishtanah says:

    The reaction of those who I have shown this to was fascination and excitement. To quote some friends, they looked at it 50 to 60 times.

    A couple of notes.

    1) That they look like they’re out of a Charles Trywhitt catalogue is unsurprising. They are European, stands to reason that they would wear European style clothing.

    2) Askonim are nothing new.

    3) you’ve not mentioned how many people are smoking.

    I’ve got to go. I have to see the clip again.

  2. Baruch says:

    Many chassic rebbes and baalei mussar warned against phony frumkeit, how much of what we mistake for genuine religious feeling is really artificial and not very “religious.”

    With this in mind, I’m trying to understand my (our) excitement over this video and the ability to see the Chafetz Chaim walking for 13 seconds. Is this a reflection of my (our) genuine kavod haTorah and mora talmidei chachamim, or is it just childish curiosity? Is it because of my (our) desire to cling to the teachings and example of the Chafetz Chaim, or do I (we) just find it “cool” because it’s something so rare and unexpected?

    I don’t know.

  3. Nachum says:

    Despite the too-brief appearance of the Chafetz Chaim, it seems very clearly the same person who appears in the “standard” picture of him. I suppose we can go back to using it. (People only stopped because of a misunderstanding involving a completely different picture.)

    The Forward, of all newspapers, wrote an incredible description of the moment the Chafetz Chaim entered the hall. It’s in an Artscroll/Agudah book.

    Note the presence of, ahem, Zionists at the event. Apparently the original idea was much broader- even R’ Revel and R’ Kook were invited.

  4. L. Oberstein says:

    “Warning to some of our readers: A strange image appears at 2:26. It is rumored to be that of a [gasp!] woman. Frummer readers should shield their eyes”. In tghose days, the Hungarians lived in Hungary, the Galitzianers lived in Galicia, the Litvaks lived in Lita, so one could keep the standards of his or her community. Telshe didn’t have to ape Grosvardein. Because of the Holocaust, we dont’ have many Jews left in those places and the largest body of survivors came from those areas of south eastern Europe taht were part of the AXis and thus more of them survived.
    The Munkatcher and Satmar groups held to these opinions back then also,but we didn’t have to deal with them the way we do now . Now, they are rapidly growing and numerically seem to surpass us,or it looks that way. There has to be a backlash or we will lose moderate Jews. If they are the face of orthodoxy, if our yeshivos ,lead by Lakewood go to a rally against the internet where the rule is no English and no Hebrew speechs are allowed,we will drive away more acculturated American Jews.

  5. Jonathan Baker says:

    The camera need not have been that massive. We used to have my grandparents’ 16mm camera, probably bought when Uncle Dick was born in 1929. It was a little handheld affair, to hold 25 or 50-foot reels, no bigger than a contemporary mini-video camera. This describes that line of cameras. No sound equipment, no electricity at all, no exposure adjustment – there was one shutter speed.

  6. Nachum says:

    I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by the almost automatic appearance of anti-Semitism even in the comments of such a pareve video as this. What is disturbing is how quickly some of the Jewish-written comments go from “R’ Steinman is as great as the Chafetz Chaim” (somehow I doubt he would agree) to “R’ Steinman is an apikores” r”l, and it gets worse from there. And that’s the English comments…

  7. Jewish Observer says:

    This is unbelievable stuff. By the way I think the person trying to shield the CC from the camera is his son R Leib, a Mizrachi member or leader

  8. Mikey says:

    Compare the video with this picture . It has been said that this picture is not authentic, but after seeing the video and carefully comparing the shape of the beard it’s obvious to me that it really is the Chofetz Chaim. The facial features do not contradict the video either. The picture seems to be from when he was much younger, perhaps the age of his son who is to his left in the video. His son does have similarities to the Chofetz Chaim in the classic picture.

  9. Bob Miller says:

    Rabbi Jung ZT”L was from Uherský Brod, Moravia, not Germany, although some of his education was in Germany.

  10. Benshaul says:

    Thank you for the effort in posting the list of names. There definitely seem to be inaccuracies, and rumors abound about who is who. To be clear, we know with certainty SOME of the people in the film, others are difficult, and one needs to also know what many of them looked like when they were young. The list of gedolim, who were there is long, some were there as bochurim, and its hard to recognize them. Hopefully someone will make the effort to research, collate, and refine all the data and opinions. I would venture to say that in the crowd outside smoking(gasp!) are many personages.

  11. David Z says:

    Wait–if there are inaccuracies can we at least get them in the comments? Who’s at the end? He looks khashuv. 🙂 I LOVE the first guy–like Gandalf in a top hat (and I don’t mean that to make fun, kh”v, but because it is regal, majestic, etc. He is supposed to be av bet din Warsaw according to this list.

  12. lacosta says:

    >>>>we will lose moderate Jews. If they are the face of orthodoxy…,we will drive away more acculturated American Jews.

    while i suppose they would answer to sort of paraphrase ‘extremism in the pursuit of extremism is no vice , moderation in the face of kfirus is no virtue’

    …of course they will have succeeded in creating a religion/Kultur that is not only not an Or laGoyim, but not even an Or laYehudim….

  13. Shades of Gray says:

    “At least among the non-Chassidim, the couture stands out. Most look quite spiffy and dapper.”

    This reminds me of a sartorial post from the past(“Gedolim Cards: The Uncensored Set”, March, 2006):

    “These photos of gedolim (world-class Torah luminaries) in their younger days should not be missed. They range from the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th, and contain several dimensions of surprise. Some of the subjects are smart, rakish dressers. Some are members of a Zionist organization operating within a great Lithuanian yeshiva. Some display an informality rarely seen later in life. Many are clean-shaven.”

  14. Raymond says:

    How frustrating that there is so little of the Chovetz Chaim here. I wonder if that man blocking his view, would have behaved differently, had he known how much the Chovetz Chaim is revered in today’s traditional Jewish world. As for all of the other Rabbis shown here, the only ones I have even heard of are Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman and Dr Leo Jung.

  15. Nachum says:

    The title is “outtakes.” Does this mean there’s a more complete video somewhere?

  16. tzippi says:

    I wish I would have waited a day or two to read this. I would have liked to have basked in the wondrous afterglow a bit longer without all this going through my mind.
    I would say that fascination with this video is not childish but childlike. One of the lessons of the keruvim atop the aron is to tap into the traits of children: they trust in their parents, approach life with a freshness as everything is new and exciting, and aren’t jaded.
    Yes, people smoked then. Yes, they dressed stylishly. And – gasp – there were even women back then. I suppose that the sociological aspects are intriguing and quite possibly illuminating. But let’s try to hold onto that incredible heart-pounding excitement we likely had as we first saw the opening footage. (Maybe neo-Chassidus can help with that, but that’s another article ;-D)

  17. Bob Miller says:

    FYI, Dr. Emanuel Goldberg invented a compact portable movie camera in 1921 called the Kinamo (although this film probably came from a much larger camera).
    A paper, “The Kinamo movie camera, Emanuel Goldberg and Joris Ivens” by Michael K. Buckland can be found online. Here is an excerpt:

    “The Kinamo was the smallest of competing, compact 35mm movie cameras brought to the market in the early 1920s. The Debrie Sept, a spring-driven 35mm camera marketed in 1921, held five metres of film, enough to film for only 17 seconds. The hand-cranked Kinamo N25 appeared in 1921 and an attachable spring-driven motor was in experimental use in 1923 and marketed in 1924. The Bell & Howell Eyemo appeared in 1923. Meanwhile studio cameras acquire electric motors and within five years hand-cranked cine cameras were obsolete”

  18. Joe Hill says:

    It has long been well known that the Chofetz Chaim shunned being photographed and wouldn’t allow a picture to be taken of himself.

  19. Nachum says:

    Joe Hill: It is said that the one good picture we have of him (the famous one, which we now know to be authentic) is a passport photo, as he needed one to get to Vienna.

    It was also apparently at this point that he discovered that his last name was “Poupko,” his mother’s maiden name. The same thing happened to my grandfather.

  20. Zach Leiner says:

    Am Yisroel Chai! Yes, read into that all of the ironies you desire; it only bolsters its Emes.

  21. Elchonon says:

    I think R Chaim Oizer Grodzensky appears in 2:42 (the one thats calling another)

  22. Rami says:

    The guy who covers the camera is Maurice Pappenheim– son of Agudah Askan Wolf Pappenheim (and relative of Freud’s Anna O!).

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