Six Centuries of a Jewish Dynasty
A True Family Saga

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Tightrope is the story of 750 years of the extraordinary Backenroth family, from the end of the Middle-Ages until now. It is a true story, based on diaries, letters, documents, and oral testimony.

The Backenroths – the name is German and means red cheeks in English – are found at many important crossroads in the history of Europe and the New World. They are represented in every important upheaval in Jewish life since the Middle Ages: the mass migration from central and west Europe to the east; the creation of the Hasidic movement; the Haskalah (Enlightenment); the rise of nationalism, socialism and communism and the birth of Zionism. After the pogroms in Russia in the late 19th and 20th centuries, some family members migrated to the United States and some settled in Palestine, but most remained in Europe and looked on apprehensively as Hitler conquered the continent. The Holocaust delivered devastating blows to the extended Backenroth clan. The core members of the family, who are the main protagonists in Tightrope, were also caught up in intolerable circumstances, but many of them conducted courageous struggles and managed to survive.

After the war, the survivors scattered across the globe. All of them built and established their lives anew: in Rio De Janeiro, against the backdrop of the hedonistic lifestyle of the wealthy Jewish community; in Israel, during the War of Independence and the period of austerity in the early days of the state; in Europe, still licking its war wounds, and ,mainly, in the land of unlimited opportunity – America – in business, in politics and in the intellectual community.

The history of the Backenroths is the history of the Jews. The experiences the Backenroths went through as a family are those the Jews went through as a people. The story is the same.

  The District of Galicia (currently part of Ukraine; in the past was part of the Poland and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire) Yom Tov Lipman Heller's
Grave in Vienna



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Last part of chapter three

            When a hasid wants to see his rabbi, he does not make an appointment because the rabbi has no set time table. What the hasid does is to whisper in the ear of the synagogue’s gabbai or sexton, or hands him a note, and then waits patiently. Sometimes, the rabbi may summon him on the same day. Sometimes, two weeks may go by before the rabbi deigns to grant him an audience. And there are also rare cases when the gabbai will come back to the hasid and tell him quietly, “The rabbi doesn’t want to see you. Come back in half a year. He may agree to see you before Passover.”

The court of Tzvi Hirsh was modest in the extreme, and his personal chamber starkly austere – a bed, a table, two chairs. His world outlook was strictly kabalistic, that is to say mystical and based on the teachings of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the Ari of Safed, the greatest of the kabalists. Tzvi Hirsh kept strange hours and had no regular daily order. He spent most of his time teaching and studying, slept little and ate frugally. The pleasures of the world were foreign to him. He was an ascetic, who lived by the power of his faith and all of his being was devoted to one thing: solving the problems of his followers, by contacting supernatural forces and working miracles on their behalf. His servants were the gabbais, the officials of his court, who provided his sparse needs. His followers, the hasidim, financed the court with their donations. Sometimes he would wake up in the middle of the night and sit down to write. Sometimes before daybreak he would summon his hasidim for a talk. His audience with Elimeilech and Tsiril also took place at dawn, as the sun was rising.

It started with a long silence. The elderly rabbi stood there in silence, brooding, his face pale, his lips mumbling a prayer. Elimelech sat on the guest’s chair and Tsiril on the edge of the bed. Elimelech looked around in wonder, amazed by the frugality. The little room was dark. The floor was bare. On the simple table was a jumble of books, some of them open, others with slips of paper inside them, and an inkwell with a quill inside it. The rabbi was short, his face wrinkled with age. On his head was a large black yarmulke. He was wrapped in a white kittel, the cloth coat worn by Orthodox Jews.

Until the rabbi opened his mouth, the couple were silent, and only after he mumbled “Nu… nu”, well... well, as if to say “Why are you here?”, did Elimeilech dare to speak up and begin relating his troubles. As he spoke, the rabbi took his seat, his head leant downward, his body bent forward, his fingers twisting his beard impatiently. Elimeilech delivered his prepared, organized and reasoned speech, and the rabbi nodded in silence. He was used to hearing such accounts of their travails from his followers. They all had cruel extortionate feudal lords, they all had large families to keep, and dwindling incomes. When Elimeilech had done, Tsiril sighed and spoke briefly about their son, Shmuel Leib II. He was 16 years old and was very talented, but the means were lacking to send him to study at a yeshiva in Krakow. On hearing Tsiril, the rabbi raised his head and mumbled a few words, not at all clearly, and then, ponderously removed his hands from his beard, stretched his arms downward to their full length and pointed his thumbs at the floor. Elimeilech looked on intensely and wrinkled his brow in wonderment.

“What does the rabbi mean?” he asked out loud, and glanced at his wife. The rabbi went on pointing at the floor, and said nothing.

“To plant?” asked Elimeilech. “To sow crops?”

The rabbi said nothing.

“Must we dig for water?” asked Tsiril. “Sink a well on our land?”

Still the rabbi kept silent, his arms stretched downward, his thumbs pointing at the floor. Elimeilech and Tsiril were mystified, but the rabbi said nothing. When his lips moved without making a sound, Elimeilech put his head close to the rabbi’s mouth, but still never grasped what the rabbi was trying to tell him. Then suddenly the rabbi bellowed: “You shall have a livelihood, the Backenroths shall have a livelihood, a livelihood there will be. You shall have wealth, immense wealth.” Thus shouted Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh of Zhidachov, his arms still stretched, and his thumbs pointing downwards. Elimeilech sighed. He drew close to the rabbi, took his hand and kissed it. Tsiril rose and bowed in gratitude. Elimeilech, exhilarated, blessed the rabbi hurriedly: “May you live to 120 years, 120 years of bliss, good years may you have, and thank you for the blessing, thank you, rabbi…” But the rabbi rose from his seat and impatiently shooed Elimeilech away with both his hands, as if he were chasing away a fly, and said only this: “Enough, enough, go now.” All of a sudden, the door opened, and the gabbai motioned them out.

Was there a note of anger or irritation in the way that the rabbi took leave of the couple? It’s hard to tell. Tzvi Hirsh used to preach frugality to his followers. Even on weekdays, and not only on the holy Sabbath, he strictly forbade members of the congregation to enter the synagogue with money in their pockets. Your wealth is not in material things, but in the spirit, he would teach them. This was the way that he led his own life, making do with the minimum and keeping away from material wealth. A parsimonious life, by his lights, was nothing to be ashamed about, but rather something to aspire to. And now he, the penurious tzaddik, was blessing the Backenroths with that very material wealth that he rejected and despised. He certainly would have preferred to bless them with spiritual riches, rather than gold and silver.

Either way, Elimeilech and Tsiril left the rabbi stunned. Until that day, Elimeilech had adhered to his strict orthodoxy, but when it came to affiliation between the two major camps in Judaism at that time, hasidism and those opposed to that new mystical trend – the rational mitnagdim, who stressed learning, he had stayed on the fence since leaving his parents home in Krakow and coming to Schodnica at the age of 15. His wife, Tsiril, on the other hand, had been brought up by a hasidic father, and she believed in the tzaddik of Zhidachov and had talked her husband into consulting with him. Now, Elimeilech felt his hands trembling. The very presence of Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh had filled him with excitement and the signs that he made with his arms had utterly perplexed him. What had the miracle-maker meant? he asked Tsiril over and over. What did the arms stretched downwards mean? Why had he pointed at the floor with his thumbs?


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"Karpin has crafted a moving narrative that is candid and to the point. He brilliantly succeeds, as the back cover states, in narrating a most a unique portrait of Jewish life through such pivotal events as the migration from Western to Eastern Europe, the birth of Zionism, and the Holocaust".

Norm Goldman, American Chronicle, February 3, 2009


"The depth of research is outstanding; I cannot even begin to guess how many hours Michael Karpin has invested in this book. I do not give books a star rating, it is not my style, but if did this one would without doubt get 5 stars".

Simon Barret, Book Reviews, January 28, 2009


"The history of the Jewish people – before, during and after the Holocaust – continues to have an impact on Jewish daily life. Michael Karpin provides an essential piece of historical documentation that any student of Jewish history should be required to read. In fact, it should be a mandatory read for all Jewish people".

Lisa Pinkus, Bella Online Judaism editor, 2009


"Michael Karpin has produced a scholarly review of more than three centuries of history of one prominent Jewish family with the portrayal done in a most enjoyably readable fashion. If you are Jewish, you will love it. If not, but enjoy unusual historical tales, you still are going to find a most interesting read".

John H. Manhold, Fascinating Authors.Com, February 2009

"Tightrope is extremely fascinating, and I found it difficult to put the book down. It is a compelling book that details Jewish life in the fullest sense, from hardship to wealth, horrific times to joyous moments, and to the Jewish values and traditions upheld by one family throughout the generations. Their determination and their Judaism saw them through life’s bleakest moments. This reader found herself quite emotionally taken throughout some of the poignant and intense pages. Tightrope is extremely inspiring, and is a book that is filled with invaluable historical information. It is a testament, not only to the Backenroth family, but also to the tenacity of Karpin".

jewwishes.wordpress.com, February 19, 2009


"Based on diaries, letters, documents and oral history, the book opens in the mid-1300s as the family, escaping plague and blood libel, flees to the sparsely settled eastern frontiers that would eventually become Poland and Russia. Through 20 years of research and interviews that took him around the world, Karpin uncovered the story of this family which includes Torah scholars, oil barons, a Holocaust hero who saved hundreds of Jews, and a convert to Islam who was instrumental in the founding of Pakistan".

Diana Brement, JTNews.net, November 28, 2008


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Philadelphia, August 02-07, 2009

Michael Karpin's lectures:
Monday, August 3, 12:30 PM - 2:00 PM LUNCHEON:
Gesher Galicia - Tightrope: Six Centuries of a Galician Jewish Dynasty  
Monday, August 3, 3:30 PM - 4:45 PM   
SIG PROGRAM: Writing a Galician Jewish Saga: Research & Methodology


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Hardcover, September 2009
John Wiley & Sons, New York

Copyright @ 2009 by Michael Karpin
ISBN – 0470173734


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Regina Ryan is an independent literary agent. Her agency - Regina Ryan Publishing Enterprises – is located in NYC.

Regina Ryan's professional expertise is extraordinary and I appreciate her devotion. Her connections in the industry are outstanding, likewise her openness to the new-media's innovations. Regina's strong editorial background was very useful in helping me develop my projects in the most salable way. Prior to launching her agency, Regina was editor-in-chief of Macmillan Adult Books, the first woman ever to hold that position in a major hardcover publishing house. Before that she was an editor at Alfred A. Knopf Inc. She is a member of the Women's Media Group and the Agents’ Roundtable and a past president and former board member of the American Book Producers Association.

Ryan serves as an agent for authors who write primarily nonfiction for the adult market across a wide variety of topics: History, business, natural history (especially birds), science, the environment, women's issues, parenting, diet and weight loss, psychology, health, fitness and leisure activities including sports, travel, gardening and well-written narrative non-fiction.

Email: ReginaRyanBooks@rcn.com


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