After eight years in Poland, working for the Lauder Foundation, Rabbi Sacha Pecaric says he’s ready to move on. But first he has to complete his ‘,000-page Polish translation of the Torah.
Book four (Bamidbar/Numbers) is ready to launch, he said in an interview in his Teaneck home, and the publication of the final volume (Devarim/Deuteronomy) is planned for later this year. Between World War II and ‘001, when he published the first volume, there had been "no religious books, period" published in Poland. "Sociologically, this was an astounding success in Poland."
The translation was definitely aimed at the country’s Jews, however, and its commentaries (which account for the project’s size) "are without any apologetics are strictly Jewish, religiously Jewish," he said. By "religiously Jewish" Pecaric said he meant that he held to the traditions of oral law and did not veer into the "scientific," as in the Jewish Publication Society translation, one of several he likes.
The project is something that "no one ever dreamt of having" when he arrived in Poland in 1998 to help the country’s Jews, he said. "Conservatively," he said, there are between 5,000 and 15,000 Jews in Poland, largely dependent on how one defines "Jew," but the level of Jewish education in the community "has changed dramatically."
Pecaric has special memories around the launch of the first Torah volume. Ronald Lauder, president and chairman of the Lauder Foundation, was presented with his pre-publication copy in Warsaw on Sept. 11, ‘001, only a couple of hours before the day’s horrors began to unfold in the United States. The actual publication ceremony later that year was attended by the late poet and Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, who became a big supporter of the project and a personal friend. In Poland, said Pecaric, "it’s the pope and Czeslaw Milosz, that’s all everyone knows Czeslaw Milosz."
The two men met at the book launch party in Krakow. The poet had recently translated Psalms and Job into Polish and was "very interested in Jewish causes," Pecaric said. They lived only a few blocks from each other. "He came once for Shabbos."
The rabbi, "introduced as a friend" at Milosz’ funeral in ‘004, gave one of the eulogies. "For me, that was probably the biggest honor that I received in Poland."
Pecaric, who speaks seven or eight languages, said he "always worked with excellent editors" in the 15 religious texts he translated into Polish. He did point out that being the only person in Poland undertaking a project like the Torah translation "brings a certain chutzpah" to the endeavor.
The translations are not directly funded by the Lauder Foundation but through Pardes Lauder, its publishing house in Poland. Pecaric’s wife, Ksenija, an artist, illustrated the Megillat Esther he translated and a Shabbat songbook, among other things. The couple met in Prague in 1993 and were married later that year in Coney Island. Their elder son, Aaron, 11, attends the Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge; the younger, Shimon, is ‘.
The rabbi started off in the film academy in Prague, studying art photography; he received his doctorate in art history and aesthetics from that institution a couple of years ago. Meanwhile, he was becoming religious and, after studying in Israel, moved to New York in 1990, getting his rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva University and his master’s degree in analytic philosophy at Columbia University. Both he and his wife were born in the former Yugoslavia and did not grow up in observant homes.
Pecaric admits to being somewhat "ambivalent" about Poles and Poland because of anti-Semitism, which is not as bad there as Jews think and not as small a problem as non-Jewish Poles think. "And in the wintertime in Poland it gets pretty depressing" (the Pecarics were born farther south in the former Yugoslavia).
The couple’s decision to live in Teaneck was "a complete coincidence," said Pecaric, though they knew "it’s a YU stronghold." He travels to YU every day for Rabbi Herschel Schachter’s class.
Pecaric, who stresses that he’s Orthodox and not Lubavitch, said the work he did in Poland "gave me a lot of sensitivity for those who don’t think as I do." If he was hoping to change someone’s thinking, the rabbi said, he’d start by inviting him or her over for some of Ksenija’s chicken soup. "I’m not a psychological terrorist."