Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

12 Cheshvan 5765 - October 27, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Rabbi Alexander (Sender) Uri: Pioneer Ba'al Teshuvoh

by A. Yosefson

Rabbi Alexander (Sender) Uri was the great rebel. Uri's light shone against the founders and heads of Zionism in Eretz Yisroel. He was a heroic figure who forsook the sources of secular Zionism, and returned to the sources of the true religion. His friends: Meir Yaari and Yaakov Chazan (famous members of the Israeli Communist party), had a hard time stomaching his turning his back on them and found it hard to forgive. Their attempts to set up renewed links with the person they saw as `their own flesh and blood,' and as belonging to their philosophy, met with unequivocal rejection.

Books, plays and shows were written about the man, his image, and his deeds. His friends viewed him as an outstanding personality, a historical myth, a unique and chosen individual, who breathed new life into the idealistic Zionist leaders and was an inseparable part of the entire rebellious spirit of historical Zionism. Thus, his abandonment of the whole Zionist lie was doubly painful to them. His leaving the Haboneh kibbutz movement, and his return to the roots of our forefathers, to authentic Judaism, was tantamount to an earthquake for them. This intellectual man rebelled against the rebels, turned his back on those who had turned their backs, and deserted the deserters.

Once he was part of a work crew paving the road to the Berman Bakery -- from then on his road became the route back to the heart of true Judaism. He was the first of the returnees from the kibbutz movement, but not the last.

He Rebelled against the Rebels

Alexander Uri spent his youth in the secular, blue-and-white (Zionist) movement in Vienna. At the end of the First World War, in which he participated as an Austrian soldier on the Italian front, he found himself in a convoy of pioneers on their way to Palestine.

The arrival of the group with whom he made aliya strengthened the local group, which subsequently helped found the kibbutz Beit Alpha. The kibbutz was made up of many Hashomer Hatza'ir members who had been famous for many years as the philosophers and activists behind the Zionist movement. They included the first governor of the Bank of Israel, Mr. Yaakov Horowitz, as well as Meir Yaari and Yaakov Chazan. These people saw the physical building up of the land as a national ideal of the highest importance, and they swept along with them the elite of the secular and pioneer youth throughout the country.

Times were different then. It was in the 1920s, long before the declaration of the state. Externally, they faced Arab persecution, and internally, people spent their time paving roads and populating kibbutzim and moshavim. The land was built up slowly, stone by stone, layer by layer.

However, the gap between the high aspirations and claims and the harsh and cruel reality, which generated numerous casualties from sicknesses, starvation, and the Arab riots, was very great. In many cases due to the enormous hardships, those working on building up the land were overtaken by depression and despair. Many even took their own lives, and the cemeteries of those days still have many tombstones with this bitter story etched on them.

In the harsh hours of the dismal nights, often close to dawn, between digging long ditches and dragging buckets filled with soil from the diggings, with dark clouds shadowing everyone's faces, there was somebody who, with his fiery enthusiasm, kept the men from falling into despair. That pioneer, Alexander Uri, would raise his voice and his legs and begin dancing, pulling everyone into happy circles that gladdened their broken hearts and boosted them.

His friends from those years told this story, adding: "He was fairly bursting with fire and enthusiasm, and that is how he survived to the end. He just danced and worked, danced and worked. Others were broken; he danced and worked. He had exceptional mental strength, of a very rare kind. He danced to the music of his inner soul, to the sound of the real Chassidic song! Yes, that's what it was."

Later, Menachem Yaari, professor of economics and the son of Yehuda Yaari, one of the senior members of Beit Alpha, writes that the name `kibbutz' was taken from religious sources, and it means "an assembly and convening in the house of Chassidim."

Yaari writes about those nights recalling that the "Chassidic" singing would break out from the cowsheds during the milking, that the shepherds gathered their flocks to the notes of Chassidic songs, and that the peasants harnessed their mules amidst the same cheery sounds. The past which was implanted in them from their parent's home, even before they forsook it for other dreams, quivered anew in their hearts in those dark hours. Somewhere in the twilight of their spirits, the memories, which they had tried so hard to ignore and which they had chosen to rebel against, floated to the surface.

His relatives tell stories of Sender Uri's courage. They describe how, on one of his trips to kibbutz Ein Harod, three husky Arabs came up to him and asked him for some tobacco to smoke. Since he did not have any, they approached him with a big rod with the obvious intention to beat him mercilessly, possibly to death. Alexander did not lose his cool, he pulled a box out of his rucksack and, with a quick leap, felled them to the ground one after the other -- and then ran for his life.

Many books, plays and shows were written about the man and his deeds. His former friends from the distant past, and all his friends from those early days in Israel, saw him as an outstanding figure, a historical myth, an interesting and unique personality who stood out from the crowds and who breathed new and insurgent life into the ideological Zionist leaders in those difficult days.

Thus, his sobering up from the whole Zionist lie was extremely painful to them, his forsaking of the kibbutz movement HaBoneh, his return to the roots of his ancestors, to true Judaism. It was not only the pain of his deserting his friends, but something far more dramatic.

In those days, it was a step that took great daring, a rare courage to be the Nachshon who not only threw into question their whole way of life, but also threw out a unilateral and uncompromising exclamation to them: This is not the truth! This is not the way to go!

This voice, coming from someone who had been deep inside them, was a whole new voice. It was a new tune which has continued playing ever since, even in the fringes of the kibbutz movement. A tune that at least inquires and appeals, even if it goes no further than that. Sender Uri then, was the first to put up warning signs against the Zionist juggernaut.

Smoking Cigarettes through a Recorder

He shook them up, precisely because he was such a central figure among them, and precisely because he had such a wide influence on them. What was it about his charismatic personality that drew so many to him, such that many years after he had left they were still clinging to the memories of when he had lived amongst them?

It appears that many facets were mingled into his unique image, which survived amongst the kibbutz members for a long time as historical stories from those days. We will attempt to convey some of them here.

There are some interesting episodes told of his great originality and his inside battles in kibbutz life.

The story goes that once, when a serious economic problem cut back in the distribution of cigarettes to the members, Uri demonstrated his displeasure at the restriction by sticking eight cigarettes into the holes of a chalil, and then lighting them and smoking them all at once. Even then he was a rebel, though he still had not yet fought the great rebellion, the true one.

At Beit Alpha which is in eastern Jezreel Valley, Alexander Uri's friends tell stories that reveal his delicate sensitivities. He never allowed hitting horses or mules with a whip. More than once he threatened to fight anyone who, as he put it, abused animals and beasts of the land.

And when his friends wanted to travel in a cart harnessed to a mule, he lay in front of the mule and refused to move until they promised him they would go on foot. He was a rebel with a gentle soul. It was just that the rebellion had not yet been channeled to the right direction and the sensitivities were still searching for a path in which they would find expression.

Even after he had left them entirely and settled in chareidi Jerusalem, his friends describe how they bumped into him and were helped by him in their hour of need. He never turned his back on them or disdained to come to their aid. It was a powerful repudiation of the path they had chosen, but not of the people -- who needed help.

For example, in 1962 (5722), a group of pupils from Beit Alpha went on a hike to the Judean Mountains. In the afternoon, as they were sitting on the ground among the thorns and dense undergrowth, a boy named Nadav Nahurai was bitten on the shoulder by a poisonous snake. The boy was quickly rushed to Shaarei Zedek hospital in Jerusalem in a desperate race against time. By the time they arrived at the entrance to the hospital it was already evening and the gates were locked.

Suddenly, after a few nerve racking moments of waiting and without any apparent reason, the gates of the hospital opened up before them. They were immediately sent for emergency treatment to the doctors on duty. As they were being treated, a chareidi man with a thick black beard and wearing white socks, introduced himself. He enquired as to where the Nahurai boy was from, adding, to their astonishment, that he himself had been one of the early members of Beit Alpha.

For a full week the boy battled with the poison until he was healed. Rav Alexander Uri visited the boy every day, and on Friday he came to cut his nails and burn the cuttings, as mitzva observers are supposed to do. He loved the people, yet, at the same time, was unequivocally opposed to their way of life.

Who are You and What is Your Name?

In addition to his dramatic and sweeping personality, which made him a figure to be emulated by youth and young people of that period, Alexander Uri was known even from his younger days as a man of exceptional talents. He knew seven languages perfectly, and was accomplished in many spheres, from science to philosophy.

Naturally, since he lived in an environment in which intellectualism was greatly admired, he was viewed by everyone with the highest respect. And suddenly he left everything! Not in stages, but all at once. His desertion held up a mirror to that ideology, so that his deeds became the conversation of the day, and the next day, and of many days that followed.

Even when he had become another person altogether, they continued to speak volumes about his unique talents. The famous Dr. Wallach of Shaarei Zedek hospital heard about him, and invited him to work for him as his accountant. After he had consulted with HaRav Zerach Braverman and several other gedolim of Yerushalayim, he was told that he should take the position for his parnossoh.

When he expressed his hesitations, and his desire to learn and to make up for all that he had been kept from during the years of his youth, he received the following answer from his Rov: "Besiyata deShmaya your sons and grandsons will make up what you lost on the way." And the rov added: "Even you yourself will make up the studies eventually, in the course of time." And indeed he was zoche to have both parts of the promise fulfilled.

In his work, he found a fertile field for his prodigious talents as he put all the numerous accounts into miraculous order, and activated his skills and astounding memory to solve all kinds of problems that arose during the course of his work at the hospital.

With his remarkable diligence, he maintained his position at work for 26 years straight. The manager of the hospital wrote to him on the occasion of his retirement at the end of his life, the following: "For 26 years you worked here, and you never took off even a single day for sickness. It is obvious to me that no regular person could reach such a level of performance." It required honesty and tremendous inner strength, those same characteristics that gave him the ability to cut himself off, cross over, and return to his roots.

When the Fire Breaks Out

How did this great revolution occur in the spirit of a man who was one of those who laid the social foundations and one of the heads of the Zionist `rebellion' which led an entire people up the slopes of the spirit? How did it happen? Where was the point where everything started to crack, and then gradually broke apart? At which exact place did that deep chasm open up between him and them? Where did he cross that dividing line, and move to the other side?

According to the testimony of those close to him, the great moment of change in his life, which instantly transformed him into a rebel against the great rebels, occurred when he was sent with a group of workers to the Givat Shaul neighborhood of Yerushalayim. He was assigned to work in the local quarry, to pave the road for Berman's Bakery.

Once, a man passed by carrying books for sale, and Alexander Uri inquired as to whether he had in his hands the holy sefer Bnei Yissoschor. The man was astounded. When he had recovered he asked, in a tone of surprise: "What interest would a bareheaded pioneer standing in the middle of a quarry, dressed in short pants, possibly have in the sefer Bnei Yissochor?"

"Oh, a very great deal," answered Alexander Uri. "He was my grandfather. At my parent's home in Vienna, they even have the original manuscript of the book."

Up till that moment, it was simply a sentimental response, a statement about his roots. But as the conversation progressed, it apparently touched a raw nerve at the edge of his stormy neshomoh that could find no peace.

"And the grandson of that tzaddik and holy man is bare- headed and hews stones in Eretz Yisroel?" the bookseller, Rabbi Yehoshua Yonoson Rubenstein asked him, in an outright challenge mingled with pain.

This momentary meeting pulled a few strings in his heart and another tune began sounding there. That was the moment. That was the moment, that was the place.

From then on he could find no peace. He knew that the gates of his shaky world were about to be slammed behind him in open defiance, and new gates were about to open for him. He decided to rebel against the rebels, to go back to being the grandson of his grandfather! Meanwhile, with a heavy heart he went back to the hostel where he was staying while working on the Jerusalem road.

The bookseller kept up the connection, and came to visit him in the hostel where he was staying, in the Yemenite neighborhood at the border of the Yerushalmi neighborhood of Beis Yisroel, now completely in the chareidi sections but then in a mixed neighborhood. A spark had flickered in the darkness of his life, and he carried on kindling that flame, and at the same time breathing life into his heart.

Indeed, a storm was now brewing inside him and it was not long before he got up in a blaze of fire, left all his pioneer friends behind, and came to live in Meah Shearim to search for his Jewish roots.

After Pesach, during which he avoided his friends and their anger and derision, and sneaked out to prayers at the Yemenite shul next to his hut, Alexander Uri went up to Rabbi Rubenstein and told him: "You should know that I have cast everything behind me. My whole past has gone up in flames. I have nothing behind me. I am no longer a pioneer! Since it was you that caused me to leave my path, I am not going to leave you until you keep your promise, and help me to get into a yeshiva to learn."

When a fire breaks out and finds thorns, the past is burnt up completely, and from then on a holy fire is able to burn there, a mighty flame.

Later, Alexander Uri, who rapidly became `Rabbi Alexander (Sender) Uri,' related that he was one of the first rebels against the obscurantists: "Rabbi Yehoshua, bookseller, took me to a famous yeshiva in Meah Shearim. For an entire year I studied there with great diligence. I slept on a bench, though I was already used to that. From the time I became a pioneer I had gotten used to an ascetic lifestyle. During that year I cut off the big `tchup' (long forelock), took off my pioneer clothing and grew magnificent payos. They also brought me a Yerushalmi chalatle, and then I was just like one of the original Yerushalmi crowd."

Since he possessed excellent talents, he easily adjusted to the heavy study schedule with great zeal and diligence. Quickly, and with great stubbornness, he managed to overcome the natural gap that existed between him and his contemporaries. And as his fame grew, he married the daughter of HaRav Shmuel Brichta, one of the veteran personages of Yerushalayim.

All his life he made sure to learn from his grandfather's sefer, the Bnei Yissochor daily, because he felt deep inside that it had saved him from going to his grave. He felt that the great reawakening which led him to the truth and to eternity was only in his grandfather's merit and the merit of the holy sefer which he had searched for in Yerushalayim.

He was also grateful for the natural foods diet that he had been on during the time he had lived on the kibbutz, since it had prevented his soul from being soiled with forbidden foods.

And You Shall Complete all the Work

Until his last days, he kept in touch with his friends of the old times, the leaders of secular Zionism. He had deep and tortuous conversations with them for long periods.

In the beginning, they came to his house to win him back. They tried hard to convince him, to soften the heavy blow that they had suffered. Had he continued with them, there is no doubt he would have been leader of that camp, one of its heads, and they had lost their captain. Therefore they came to try. He would not cooperate and did not answer a single word, and gradually even ceased to hear.

He never tried to preach to them nor to change them. He only shone on them the precious, dazzling light of his path. Treating them with great cordiality, he drew them closer to Judaism, attempting to give them a small taste of the light which perhaps would return some day to brighten their souls and the souls of their descendants.

Only once did he deviate from his usual silence and agree to speak. It was during one of the central conventions, on a festive occasion where he was invited to give a talk. And then he did not spare them from his piercing, protesting and castigating criticism--though it was phrased in pleasant language.

The way in which he went in with all his 248 limbs and 365 tendons, struck roots and mixed in with the choicest and best of chareidi Judaism, to merge with the Yerushalmim without leaving behind any hints or traces of his past, can serve as a prototype for everyone. His son-in-law is one of the famous Admors in the Holy City, and his whole household, including his large and extensive family, derive from roots and interweavings possessing deep foundations, in the unique atmosphere of the old-time Jews of the city of Jerusalem from time immemorial.

In his last days, at the ripe old age of 94, during the last Melave Malka of his life, he expressed himself while singing the traditional song: `Rabu benei hamelucho, vetashlem kol hamelochoh, datz hasocher bir'oso ki nigmero melachto' adding, "it seems to me that I have also completed my mission on earth, at age 94 (datz), and the work is finished (nigmero melachto)." That same week he departed this world.

At the time of the levaya of his father-in-law HaRav S. Brichta, they reported in Jerusalem that close to 1,600 of his descendants accompanied him to his final rest.

As for the son-in-law, the venerable Rabbi Alexander Sender Uri, in Jerusalem they counted some 1,000 descendants who accompanied him, following his bier in grief and sorrow along the trail that he had blazed for them, with all his strength and the fire of his enthusiasm for the Word of Hashem, and the path of true Judaism.

He was a pioneer, who pioneered within the kibbutz camp to the true light. A shining example, for generations.


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.