Polen, Nehemia 193(?)-

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POLEN, Nehemia 193(?)-


Born c. 1930s. Education: Johns Hopkins University, B.S.; Ner Israel Rabbinical College, ordination; Northeastern University, M.Ed.; Boston University, Ph.D., 1983. Religion: Jewish.


Office—Hebrew College, 160 Herrick Road, Newton Centre, MA 02459. E-mail—[email protected].


Educator and ordained rabbi. Hebrew University in Jerusalem, visiting scholar; congregational rabbi for twenty-three years; Hebrew College, Boston, MA, professor of Jewish thought and director of Hasidic Text Institute.


Harvard University Daniel Jeremy Silver fellow, 1994; National Endowment for the Humanities fellow, 1998-99; National Jewish Book Award for autobiography and memoir, 2002, for The Rebbe's Daughter: Memoir of a Hasidic Childhood by Malkah Shapiro.


(Compiler with Lauri Wolff-Polen) A Blessing for the Sun: A Study of the Birkat ha-hammah from Early Times to the Present, N. Polen (Everett, MA), 1981.

The Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, J. Aronson (Northvale, NJ), 1994.

(Translator and editor) Malkah Shapiro, The Rebbe's Daughter: Memoir of a Hasidic Childhood, Jewish Publication Society (Philadelphia, PA), 2002.


An ordained rabbi and an educator, Nehemia Polen is considered a leading expert on Hasidism and Jewish mysticism and thought. Ordained at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, Maryland, he served as a congregational rabbi for twenty-three years before entering the field of education, and now directs Hebrew College's Hasidic Text Institute in addition to his teaching duties.

Polen received his Ph.D. from Boston University in 1983, studying and serving as teaching fellow for Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. While studying with Wiesel, Polen began work on his second book, The Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto. A well-known Hasidic educator, Shapira taught in the Warsaw Ghetto and compiled a manuscript of his teachings in the ghetto between 1939 to 1942. The work was buried at Shapira's death in 1943, along with a note that should it be found, his manuscript should be taken to Israel. After World War II the manuscript was discovered, sent to Israel, and published in Hebrew as Eish Kodesh, or "Holy Fire." The work achieves historical importance as the last work published by a Hasidic leader prior to the Holocaust. In his writings, Shapira ponders the purpose of Evil and searches for spiritual and mystical responses to the suffering and despair around him as the ghetto's Jews suffer under Nazi genocide. Reviewing The Holy Fire for Cross Currents, Rachel T. Sabath explained that "Shapira's response to the events engulfing him and his community demonstrates an attempt to transcend reality with Torah in new ways." "Polen suggests," Sabath added, "that Shapira's teachings can be applied to our own reality as well."

Writing in Tikkun, Lawrence Kushner commented of The Holy Fire: "The teachings of both Rabbi Shapira (and his disciple, Rabbi Polen) are so powerful and disturbing that the reader is quickly drawn into the inner workings of life and spiritual survival in the Warsaw Ghetto." Polen's Orthodox rabbinic education qualifies Polen to accomplish more than a mere historian, Kushner maintained: "He intuits that through the life teaching of Rabbi Shapira, he can teach us of a long-lost way to understand what seems to be gratuitous evil." Sabath concluded of The Holy Fire that "With careful attention to inconsistencies and the widest theological possibilities, Rabbi Polen is uniquely able to illuminate the unfolding of Shapira's theological responses to suffering."

It was while Polen was serving as a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow during the late 1990s that he became fascinated with the writings of Malkah Shapiro (1894-1971). The daughter of a noted Hasidic rabbi of Kozienice, Poland, Shapiro's memoirs examine women's spirituality during early twentieth-century pre-war Poland. Polen's research led to his translation of Shapiro's writings from the Hebrew and their publication as The Rebbe's Daughter: Memoir of a Hasidic Childhood.

Shapiro's autobiography focuses on her adolescence from age eleven to her marriage at age fourteen, and her curiosity about tradition, Hasidic spirituality, and Kabbalah. A contributor to Publishers Weekly commented of Polen's work in bringing Shapiro's writings to an English-speaking readership that he "masterfully translates Shapiro's lush descriptions, which offer an insider's view of a Hasidic master's family: the pungent smell of garlic and goose flesh; the fragrance of rose-scented soap; the taste of fresh raisin cakes; the sounds of chopping wood, quivering violins, and sacred singing; visions of cold blue air and snow sparkling on rooftops." Praised by critics, The Rebbe's Daughter won the 2002 National Jewish Book Award.



Cross Currents, spring, 1999, review of The Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, p. 134.

Publishers Weekly, April 29, 2002, review of The Rebbe's Daughter: Memoir of a Hasidic Childhood, p. 61.

Tikkun, November-December, 1995, review of The Holy Fire, p. 86.


Hebrew College Web site,http://www.hebrewcollege.edu/ (July 15, 2003), "Nehemia Polen."*