Sarah Lawrence College
Although Gerer Hasidism is sometimes considered a symbol of Haredi militancy in our own time, historians have highlighted the movement’s successful negotiation with modernity during the interwar period. Yet it was also during the interwar period that Gerer Hasidism’s court historians began projecting a deeply conservative image upon the earlier movement and its founder, R. Isaac Meir Alter (1789–1866). Most famously, Gerer hagiography invokes Isaac Meir’s alleged defiance of governmental prohibitions against traditional Jewish dress—known as the “clothing decrees”—during the 1840’s and early 1850’s. An examination of contemporaneous documentary sources casts serious doubt on the hagiographical depiction of Isaac Meir’s reaction to the clothing decrees. This paper re-characterizes Isaac Meir Alter’s Warsaw career as one of accommodation and political sophistication, not militancy.