“Not only Sultan but also father, grammar-school teacher, gymnasium professor etc.”
The above photo is of Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach (1851-1926), the third Belzer Rebbe, taking a stroll in Marienbad, now known as Mariánské Lázně in the Czech Republic. A spa town in the historic region of Bohemia, it was popular in the 19th century with ‘many celebrities and top European rulers’ visiting to enjoy the curative springs. Chasidic ‘royalty’ who know a good thing or two about material comforts were not far behind and many Chasidic, and non-Chasidic, rabbis frequented the spas during the summer months in the 1920s and ‘30s.
LuckyBatPoet has a set of photographs, Marienbad People, which includes barons and grafs and gives a flavour of the high society that descended upon the town in its golden era. Included in the set is a number of photos of rabbis, amongst them the Gerer Rebbe, Reb Elchonon Wasserman, Rav Dushinsky, the Viznitzer Rebbe and others. What however is striking about the photo above is because in another photo of the Rebbe the accompanying text reads:
Czech-German-Prague jewish writer Franz Kafka met 17.7.1916 this "miracle rabbi" from Belz in Marienbad and accompanied him and his followers in a long walk, he described this unusually, noteworthy and surprised meeting in a detailed letter to his friend Max Brod on 18.7.1916.
The above letter appears in the collection of Kafka’s Letters to Friends, Family and Editors and the photograph above almost complements the letter. There’s the chair carrier in the left forefront, the cane carrier to the right, the Rebbe with his ‘tall fur hat’, ‘long white beard’, ‘his hand resting on his waist’, the ‘silk [k]aftan which is open in front’, the ‘broad belt about his waist’, ‘the white stockings’ and a ‘demeanour marked by admiration and curiosity’. He could almost be writing about contemporary chasidim observing road excavations or gathering at a street commotion when he mentions ‘that characteristic Eastern European Jewish wonderment’.
Kafka had joined the Rebbe’s retinue at least twice and his report seems to possess all the naivety of an Alice in Wonderland. The similarities don’t end there. Like Alice he hangs about at the start doing nothing until there appears a bustling chasid, bearing a strong similarity to the White Rabbit, whom Kafka, like Alice, follows. The Chasid reappears though instead of searching for the Duchess's gloves he’s after spa waters for the Rebbe. While Alice observed a queen yelling ‘off with his head’ in this version it’s the Rebbe yelling ‘you are murderers.’
Kafka is drawn into a world he barely understands and is fascinated by everything he sees. When he observes the Rebbe’s comments to be ‘childish and joyous’ and that the thinking on the part of the escort is reduced to the same level he surely must be including himself. For he too stands accused of a childlike wonderment believing what he sees to be ‘truth’ which ‘an ordinary head cannot sustain.’ Alice morphs throughout her tale and it appears the Rebbe has brought about a metamorphosis of the author of the famous work of that name.
And as to the question, Who stole the tarts? I’ve scoured the photograph in vain for the ‘exceptional rogue’ with ‘the huge belly’, ‘smugness’ and ‘shifty eyes’.