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Bergson, Temerl

(surname also Sonnenberg or Berekson; d. 1830), patron of Polish Hasidism and benefactor of Warsaw Jewry. Little is known about Temerl’s background and early years, although her father, Avraham of Opoczno, is described as “learned and extremely wealthy.” She was briefly married and widowed at a young age to a merchant from Warsaw with whom she had a son. In 1787 she married Berek Sonnenberg, the son of the Warsaw plutocrat Shmul Zbytkower (Berek adopted the surname Sonnenberg under Prussian rule); they had five children. Upon her second husband’s death in 1822, Temerl oversaw his business enterprises, including a salt company and a bank. She won permission to own property outside the ghetto and was only the third Polish Jew to receive such land ownership rights.

Temerl’s contemporaries, including those who did not hold her positions, agreed that she deserved much credit for the burgeoning success of Polish Hasidism. As the premier patron of the movement in Poland, she was highly respected in its patriarchal religious community. In 1807, she and her husband supported the founding of the first Hasidic synagogue and study house in the Warsaw area, in the suburb of Praga. There she gave considerable financial assistance to Hasidic leaders and employed a number of future leaders in her various enterprises. Simḥah Bunem of Pshiskhe, eventually the most popular tsadik in the Kingdom of Poland, attended the Leipzig fairs as her firm’s agent, supervised her lumber trade through Gdańsk, and managed her holdings in the town of Ruda. He was succeeded in the latter capacity by Rabbi Yitsḥak of Vurke (Pol., Warka), who later became Polish Jewry’s preeminent intercessor, or shtadlan, within the larger Polish community. Upon the death of Ya‘akov Yitsḥak Horowitz (the Seer of Lublin), Sonnenberg-Bergson allegedly bribed officials to have his tombstone placed beside that of the renowned Talmudist Shalom Shakhnah of Lublin.

Although her precise role during the anti-Hasidic investigation of 1824 in the Kingdom of Poland is unclear, Hasidic tradition maintains that Temerl Sonnenberg was instrumental in exonerating its leaders and securing the legality of the movement. Hasidic leaders bestowed upon her the masculine honorific Reb, a label that Yoysef Perl satirized in his work of fiction, Megaleh temirin (Revealer of Secrets; 1819). Sonnenberg attempted to suppress his book by offering a high price for each copy so that she could burn them.

Sonnenberg also won acclaim for her general charitable works. In 1818, she donated a substantial sum to the Warsaw communal charity fund, and she bequeathed another large sum to an organization that cared for the Warsaw poor. Her tombstone, still extant, reads: “In this Land, a life that was mighty among princes / To her nation she was a protector against oppression—a helper during distress. / To the poor she was a mother. / She was a virtuous woman, powerful and famous.” Hasidic tradition extols her as a righteous woman who cared for the poor and both openly and anonymously supported the movement, visiting their courts and distributing her funds “like ashes.”

Suggested Reading

Yehudah Menaḥem ben Avraham Mosheh Boim, Ha-Rabi Rabi Bunem mi-Pshisḥah (Bnei Brak, 1997); Glenn Dynner, Men of Silk: The Hasidic Conquest of Polish Jewry (New York, 2006); Tsevi Meir Rabinowitz, Ben Pshisḥah le-Lublin: Ishim ve-shitot be-Ḥasidut Polin (Jerusalem, 1997); Nahum Sokolów, “Henri Bergson’s Old-Warsaw Lineage,” in The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe, ed. Lucy Dawidowicz, pp. 349–359 (Boston, 1967).