A story of Edel RABINOWITZ ZABARSKA of Ostropol
By Deborah Glassman
Related to: Ostropol (Town)
I never know where to start this story, Edel lived to be a very old woman (1804-1895) and she held her oldest grandson's oldest grandson on her lap, and then was that little boy's favorite Bubby for four more years. She was a powerful figure in her family's lives when she was an old woman, but I was always moved by the strength of the woman the year she turned forty.
She had grown up in a family proud of its yichus [claims of meritorius descent from scholars and pious people], of the family of the great rabbi of Ostropol, Hasidic leader Rabbi Gedaliah of Linetz, who was himself of the first generation of the Baal Shem Tov's students. She was married the year she turned fourteen to a sixteen-year-old whose not so-far-back ancestry included the generation that created the Hasidic movement - the Baal Shem Tov himself, the Zlotzchover Rebbe (Rabbi Yechiel Michael of Zlotzchov), Mordechai Twersky,and more. Her husband's family had no registered last name yet; eventually his brother took the surname Korff and is remembered as the earliest of the Zhviller Rebbes in the town next door to Ostropol.
So this is a story of a girl from a famous family who married a nice boy and settled down to live happily ever after cooking good Jewish cooking, right? Well she married a nice boy and his family status was such that he became an established leader in the community very early. He was a member of the Kahal from the year he turned 24, was wealthy, respected, and life was good.
But the year her husband Avrum David turned 25, Nicholas I instituted his cantonisten laws, requiring that the Jews provide their young men for service not at 18 at which time his twenty-five years of service would begin, but at 13 so that he could spend five years "in training" for that quarter century enslavement. Even Nicholas didn't hide that this was a clear attempt to kidnap Jewish children and force them to convert to Russian Orthodoxy. He then put the burden of supplying these "recruits" on the Jewish community and, very relevant to Avrum David, on the community leadership.
It was difficult for a community to turn over its young men, it was almost psychologically impossible for them to turn over their children. The leadership tried to bribe the recruiters, but success in one town usually meant disaster in the next. Tens of thousands of Jews were forced into this slavery, and because there was such pressure, bandits had a flourishing business in kidnapping young Jewish boys. Many were actually younger than thirteen because a nine-year-old was easier to coerce. When community leaders stood up to the Russians, they met with mixed success. Some officials were bought off, some became enemies.
Avrum David made a powerful enemy in Zhvil, where the governor had a residence. It is not clear in the story as passed down, if the enemy was the governor himself or someone close to him. But when in 1840, the town of Ostropol was not able to come up with a sufficient number of Jewish recruits, Avrum David, a man approaching forty, exempt from service several different ways including as a First Guild merchant, was forcibly taken by several soldiers from the governor's own guard. Avrum David, a man literate in several languages, and known throughout the area, was never seen again. Many times an adult recruit could bribe his way into having a letter conveyed, a message delivered. The family was sure that Avrum David had never left the governor's premises, that he was murdered there. They were confident enough of that fate to name children for him the next year.
But this was not Avrum David's story, it was Edel's. Her husband was murdered but she was not a widow. She was an agunah [a chained woman] because there was no proof in a court of law that her husband was dead. No witnesses came forward to admit their part in his death, the body was not left where the community could find it. The enemy in the governor's office would encounter her occasionally and refer to her as a widow; when she asked him where she could mourn her husband, he told her many soldier's wives had that problem and admitted nothing.
Later that year, he took the opportunity to torment her one more time. It was the year surnames were registered in the Ukraine. Her husband had not had an official last name. Avrum David had been called by the non-hereditary surname "Tratscher" for a while but the family had decided that when the Russian government finally got around to last names (as they had been doing piecemeal since 1804/1805), the family would take the last name Zabarsker. It is not clear if it had been used by Avrum David's father Rabbi Michael (son of Rabbi Isaac of Kalish), but it hearkened back to Michael's famous great-uncle Rabbi Wolf Zabarsker, who was the subject of many stories about his saintliness. Wolf had died with no sons in Eretz Israel in the 1820s and the family had decided that they would honor him in this fashion.
The person who was ultimately in charge of the names in the gubernia was the Governor, and either he or his well-placed unnamed associate in this story, took the opportunity to change the name her oldest son was registering for the family from Zabarska to Zabarka -- changing the meaning from "of Zbarzah" to the Ukrainian vernacular for dog. For the next fifty years of Russian residence, this family had the dangerous name of dog -- dangerous, for it was of no legal consequence to kill dogs. Each member of the family who left the Ukraine, changed the name within days of the move, it was often mutated first to Sabarof or Zabarov, but in places as divergent as St Petersburg and Paris, long before they reached the name-shortening shores of the US, early generations were calling themselves Zabar, Barska, and every other reasonable and unreasonable form.
And coincidentally or by the good fortune for his brother's family of eventually gathering some powerful allies, and registering a different last name entirely, the name victimization was restricted to Abram David's direct descendants. Targeted by an important enemy, lLeft with small children to raise and older children to get established in the community, Edel could reasonably have made choices that left her with very little impact on her community. Oh, she could have been a noted materfamilias, [female center of the family] important in her own household, but more could hardly have been expected.
Except that is not how she lived her life. She continued to run her household but did not retreat within it. She had been used to organizing various charity programs, she now expanded those. Young women in the community required dowries to make successful marriages and finding dowries for poor brides was an activity long associated with the wives of kahal leaders in many communities of the Ukraine and Poland. Edel made this her own project in a special way. She decided that each bride was to have a wedding dress. Now this doesn't mean the one purpose one day dress of a modern American wedding, it means instead, the best dress of this woman's life, one that she would wear for many years of holiday attendance, many years at other people's simchas [celebrations]. Ostropol was not a tiny community. Many girls would need this assistance and Edel could have decided to contribute a dress or two that she made. But instead she managed a long-term project with many people contributing and many people benefiting. She dug into her resources to find the funds to pay widows to sew these dresses for the brides. The widow now had an income, the bride now had a dress.
I remember the part of the story that impressed me as a child. My great-grandmother Ratzi FRIEDMAN SOLOMON, the great-granddaughter of Edel, told her grandson this story when he was around thirteen. My father, A. Harold SOLOMON, that thirteen-year-old, told me that her voice shook when she said it, and I think mine shook when I passed it on to my children. Edel was so moved that it was the reason that she told her children who passed it on. One of the widows had said to her "what a wonderful gift you have given." And Edel, thinking she meant the wedding dress for the bride, said to her, "you are the craftswoman who has made this lovely thing." "I don't mean the dress," said the widow. And Edel, thinking this time that the woman meant the payment for the job, quoted Torah and said "a worker is worthy of his hire." "I mean," said the woman, "that your generosity made it possible for me to put money in the pushke [charity box] too, and I am so grateful to you for that!" My father told the story that way every time.
There is more I could tell. Edel had a business; she set each of her children up in business and traveled town to town to take care of their affairs; she organized the erecting of a new wall around the cemetery, many more details, but I will stop this story here. Edel has been dead 110 years, and yet my great-grandmother's great-grandmother still touches my life.
Copyright by Deborah Glassman, 2005