The Maggid Of Netanyahu
Apr 29 2009
What is less well known is that the prime minister’s paternal grandfather, Rabbi Natan Mileikowsky, was a maggid (preacher), educator and rabbi popular on three continents. He traveled far and wide preaching a message of national renewal and asking for support from the Jewish masses for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.
I recently purchased a collection of Rabbi Mileikowsky’s sermons published in Yiddish under the title Folk und Land (Nation and Land) published in New York in 1928. Although the written word is no match for a powerful oratorical talent, the speeches in this book convey to the reader the power of Rabbi Mileikowsky’s message of Jewish renewal and his emotional relationship to the Holy Land.
Doing some research, I discovered the book had been translated into English and enlarged in 1991. Published by the Netanyahu family, it was not widely distributed. After a bit of effort I soon became the owner of the English volume – which contains important biographical information on Rabbi Mileikowsky – as well.
Natan Mileikowsky was born in Lithuania in 1879 to a family claiming close connection to the Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon. At the age of 10 he entered the famed study hall of the Volozhin yeshiva and studied there for many years until he was awarded a rabbinical diploma. Given the fact that this yeshiva was an elite institution, we must conclude that the young Natan was a genuine rabbinic scholar.
Even during his student days at Volozhin he became known for his speaking ability and began delivering sermons on behalf on the group Chovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion). In 1899, at the age of 20, he traveled through the various Jewish communities in Siberia spreading the Zionist message and raising funds for the cause.
Although Rabbi Mileikowsky had never served as a communal rabbi, his fame as a maggid contributed to his election as chief rabbi of the important city of Rovna (in Volhynia) in 1914. The outbreak of World War I, however, prevented his acceptance of the position and he remained in Poland.
Finally in 1920 he realized his dream and settled in the Holy Land, becoming a principal of a high school in Safed and instituting key educational reforms in that city. Shortly thereafter, the Jewish National Fund chose him to lead its fundraising campaign in England and he accepted the post, immersing himself in Zionist activities there. He was then sent to the Carpatho-Russian region to speak on behalf of the Zionist idea and in 1926 came to the United States, as chief campaigner of the Zionist Organization of America.
Here he not only delivered speeches on behalf of Zionism, joining men like the Rev. Zvi Hirsch Masliansky in spreading the Zionist message throughout the U.S., he also contributed articles to various Yiddish newspapers. In 1926 alone he made more than 700 speeches. Among the places where he spoke very often was the Boro Park section of Brooklyn, where at one point he raised several hundred thousand dollars for the Zionist movement and the rebuilding of the Jewish homeland.
His goal was to retire and resume his studies under the spiritual leadership of Rav Kook. But this was not to be. Rabbi Mileikowsky died in Jerusalem on the first day of the Adar Rishon 1935 and was buried on the Mount of Olives. He was survived by nine children, many of whom became famous figures in Israel.
One of the leading Yiddish public speakers of his time, Rabbi Mileikowsky was an influential force in creating the atmosphere for the rebuilding of a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael and enlisting support for that cause from world Jewry.
As Benjamin Netanyahu begins his second stint as Israeli prime minister, one can only hope he will continue his grandfather’s struggle for a safe and secure Jewish homeland and merit the support of not only world Jewry but the leaders of all nations.
Zalman Alpert is reference librarian at Yeshiva University’s Mendel Gottesman Library of Judaica.