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[Page 93]

The Ostrovtser

by Y. Opatoshu

Translated by Tina Lunson

The Ostrovtser Rebi “cultivated his character”. He tortured his body, he starved himself and, no wonder, he observed the fasts. He practiced this for half a century. In the evenings he would eat something just in order to maintain his soul and so on from shabes to shabes. Of the virile man who in his youth at his father's bakery could knead a batch of bread by himself, there remained no trace. His shoulders, his hands, his feet – all had become smaller, everything had collapsed. Even his beard, which had once been red, now had no color at all. The little beard grew sparsely and only around his chin.

The Rebi could not be warmed. He stayed in bed whole days because of the cold. On his withered feet, fur socks; on his dried–out hands, fur gloves. Although his body was cold, he never complained. But he did suffer greatly at being cold in his soul, that he was not the son of a good family. Since his father was a baker, they were just “psalm Jews”, no help either. They had to rise at the sprout of day, pour water over their fingers, say a few Jewish words and get to work with rolled–up sleeves, providing the town's Jews with flour, with loaves of bread, helping to fill the body, the living stomachs. Thus the Ostrovtser Rebi observed fasts for half a century, wanting to un–accustom his stomach to food and also pulling his father away from eating, wanting to raise them to a higher level. The Ostrotser's intimates knew this, the corporeal khasidim, who did not retreat from him.

Among the corporeal khasidim, Pinkhas occupied the seat of honor. He was quite manly, a young man, tall, broad at the shoulders, broad at the hips. His hair, black; his large eyes, sensual eyes, black; and his silky beard, black as pitch; the lips red as though they had just tasted a roast.

The Rebi did not move from his place without Pinkhas. Here Pinkhas prayed from the cantor's stand, here he read the Torah, here he passionately recited a bit of zohar. He did all of this for the Rebi. The Rebi, it seemed, could not listen to anything. From deep old age, from great weakness, he lay wrapped in quilts and dozed. From time to time he woke himself, opened his small grey eyes, sad eyes, that bid farewell to the world. Pinkhas bent over the Rebi, bringing his red sensual lips near him:


“Listen, Pinkhas, however long a person lives he must cultivate his character, must wean the organs for eating…”

Pinkhas knew that. He knew that the Rebi continued to wean away the “organs”, was continually “cultivating the character”. He also knew that the Rebi was already dozing again.

At 76 years old the Ostrovtser was entirely finished. He had no energy at all.

Pinkhas did as usual. He seldom came out by day. Here he prayed, here he studied, here recited devotions. And he did everything with fervor, as if he wanted to sit at the head of the service, wanted to help the Rebi free himself from the flesh. And as Pinkhas the insufficient scholar, with the red lips, with the sensual eyes, was standing over the Ostrovtser he did not appear to be the Rebi's assistant but like an evil spirit that would make a mockery of the Ostrovtser.

So then Khenekh the shrewd, himself a great faster, moved heaven and earth. He sought advice to get the Rebi to stop fasting so that he would not destroy the world. Khenekh did not like Pinkhas. He hated him. What substance could Pinkhas' singing have when it was rooted in sensuality, and led to insurrection. And if Pinkhas was the Rebi's impulse to evil, then he, Khenekh, was his impulse to good.

And Khenekh, the impulse to good, persuaded the Rebi not to be angry with Ger. The Ostrovtser was correct in the dispute, not the Gerer Rebi. Therefore the Rebi must let it go, must show the world that the Ostrovtser can surmount the pride, can scorn it. That is what Khenekh said. In truth he hoped that if they could, the Gerer would be able to get the Ostrovtser to stop fasting.

Pinkhas opposed this. La–di–da, such a journey, coaches, trains, and the Rebi was a sickly man.

This time Khenekh the shrewd took the lead. At 76 years of age, the Ostrovtser was willing to travel to Ger.

Every town, every shtetl, all of Crown Poland anticipated much from this encounter.

Ostrovtser khasidim hired a special wagon where the Rebi lay on a padded bed. On his feet, fur socks; on his hands, fur gloves. And he looked completely like a young boy after a terrible illness. At his head was Pinkhas. He peeled a pomegranate, put the seeds in his mouth and hummed a tune. At the Rebi's feet sat Khenekh – thin and mean, like a hungry wolf. In a silent language he directed the khasidim who stood cheek by jowl at the entrance.

In Ger they were expecting the Ostrovtser. Khenekh's “men” were already in the Ger court. They pleaded for the Gerer Rebi to endeavor to make an end to the fasting. Otherwise the Ostrovtser would perish.

The Gerer promised to do so.

All of Ger gathered at the train in welcome to the Ostrovtser. The finest Ger khasidim placed the Ostrovtser in a plush armchair, carrying him with song into the court. Satin coattails flew around woven sashes. Everything gleamed with talis–kotens, with high white stockings, with curled peyes. A khasid in rags and tatters tore through the satin coats and yelled into the Rebi's face, “Oy, it's really victory for Yisroel”.

From the court they approached the Rebi with seven–branched candelabras. The pale little flames reflected in the satin. The Gerer Rebi had approached earlier, approached with great joy, and advanced to the Ostrovtser.

“Sholem Aleykhem, Ostrovtser Rebi.”

“Sholem Aleykhem, Gerer Rebi.”

The Ostrovtser took off the fur gloves and stretched out a hand, like a child. Each regarded the other for a while. The Ostrovtser's hand was small and cold. The Gerer's hand was plump and warm. The Ostrovtser closed his eyes from delight and said quietly, “I am , may you be spared, cold.”

“They say” the Gerer began, “that the Ostrovtser Rebi torments himself too much, does not eat… The “Sfas Emes” did not do that. The “Khidushi Hari'm” did not do that. And the Kotsker did not do that…”

“And I, the Ostrovtser, say, that one can cultivate the character, in order to more easily wean away from the organs for food.”

“Saving a life is more important than fasting, it rejects a fast…”

“Oh Gerer Rebi, that is good.” The Ostrovtser reached both cold hands out to the Gerer and warmed himself on him, as a chilled child warms itself on a mother. “You, Gerer Rebi, have the merit of your ancestry. There is support here, an inheritance – the “Sfas Emes” is your grandfather, the “Khidushi Hari'm” is your great–grandfather and the Kotsker Rebi is your uncle. And since my father was a baker, and my grandfather was a baker and I know nothing about my great–grandfather, must'nt a Jew like me cultivate his character, must'nt wean away the organs? Ha? What do you say, Gerer Rebi? Why are you silent?”

The Ostrovtser spoke the last words unlike a sick man. If you will, even with anger. The court was quiet. The audience, packed together, stood agape, mouths and ears open. And as all waited for the Gerer's response, Khenekh the “shrewd” pushed forward in his ragged clothes. He pulled on the long neck, turned the head around and quickly roared, shouting: “Ostrovtser Rebi, how long will you continue to abuse your own father?”

The silence in the court became deeper, heavier, like the silence that hangs between one thunderclap and another. Because of the crowding the lights went out. The Gerer lifted his beard, as if he wanted to gather it to hide his eyes. The Ostrovtser burst into tears…


Rebi Mayer Yekhiel Halevi


[Page 95]

The Ostrowiec Rabbi Foresees the Holocaust

by Dr. Chaim Shashkes

Translated by Pamela Russ

[ ] translator's comments

That time, I traveled in an old-fashioned way with a regular train to Toronto, Canada. The Jews there wanted me to tell them what I saw in various places of the world, and particularly to bring greetings from my last visit to struggling Israel.

So, I stand and look around at the large hall “Amalgamated,” where the dear guest were sitting around long tables, and were satisfying their hearts with [eating] dairy foods and fruit.

My friend entered the hall – the lawyer Mr. Leibish Zuker, who comes from Ostrowiec, a city of great chassidic ancestry. And as I see him here, in distant Canada, memories befall me of the city and of the great religious leader, the Ostrowiecer Rebbe, Rebbe Meir Yechiel Halevi.

A little over twenty years ago,

[Page 96]

I came for the first time to this old community, with its 16 000 Jews. I went to Yechiel Zukerman's hotel, which was in a cellar, and the bedroom consisted of a large room in which there were ten iron beds. Around me were Jews with messy beards of all colors, in kapotes [black frocks] and satin yarmulkes [skullcaps], who came to visit their esteemed Rebbe. And since such a visit is a great holiday, everybody was drinking “le'chaim” authentic “finef un neintziger” [95% whisky], and they were snacking on the famous roasted “goose,” where there was no comparison to this food anywhere in the world, except in Lublin and Kalc. Such a roasted duck, with crackling skin made from actual griven [chunks of fried skin fat], with the spicy, salted flavor of roasted meat, I could never find anywhere else.

In this cellar, I heard snatches of stories of the Ostrowiecer [chassidic] court, which at that time were a true reality, but they were passed to the next generation as possible legends.

“The Rebbe is already fasting for forty years!” the chassidim, and non-believers of the city stated.

“What does that mean?” I ask. “Does he eat nothing all day?”

“That's right. Only after maariv [evening prayers] does his wife bring him a bowl of milk and water and a glass of tea. On Friday night, the Rebbe eats a small piece of fish, the wing of a chicken, and the following day, even though it's Shabbath, he eats almost nothing.”

As he sat at the Shabbath table and sang zemirot [Shabbat songs] with his chassidim, singing “Azamer bishvokhin” [“With songs of praise, I will cut away [the evil]”], he suddenly began sobbing deeply. They ask, “Why is he crying?” He moans, “I do not see any joy in our world. G-d's presence is in exile. We are all chased away from G-d's source.” And he looked all around him, as if he would have felt that all those around him, the chassidim, his children, and grandchildren, were judged. As if he had seen the march to the ovens … “Azamer bishvokhin” – the Rebbe sings this through his tears. After all, it is Shabbath…

From shul [synagogue], the Rebbe would bring only those guests whom no other host would invite: those who were handicapped, or those who were dirty.

The kabbalist, Reb Leibish Ozherower, once asked the Rebbe why he punishes himself by fasting. This is the answer he received: “I've already been fasting for tens of years, and G-d is helping me by giving me many strengths. I don't see that those other rabbis who do eat, are healthier than me.”

Whether from not eating or not sleeping (the Ostrowiecer Rebbe generally slept for two hours a night), terrible dreams would torture him. According to tradition, he arranged for a “changing the dream to the good” [hativat chalom] event.

This was a whole ceremony. Three simple chassidim, intentionally not scholarly ones, but those whom the Rebbe considered devoted friends, sat down opposite the holy man and as he expressed his worries to them, he repeated the following words many times: “I saw a good dream.” And the three Jews, in various combinations, also repeated the prepared reply which begins with: “Your dream is actually a good one.”

Interesting, that among these three “psychoanalysts,” who understood the rebbe's complicated dreams, there was one simpleton who sat there for a long time, a former soldier of the czar, Khatzkel Kavkazer. He was a little bit crazy, but an honest, poor man, after whom the young boys chased in the streets, and they threw rocks at him, but the Rebbe felt something special in him that symbolized the innocent, hunted, simple Jew. So, the Rebbe drew him in and sat next to him at the table, along with the most prominent chassidim.

The Ostrowiecer Rebbe was one of the greatest rabbis in Poland, who at the same time was the rabbi of the city. But there were two rabbinic tasks that this rebbe always declined to do: he never provided a divorce and he didn't allow tena'im [pre-marital commitment] not to take place [i.e., insisted on this being done] in order that a Jewish woman would never be shamed [should the marriage not take place]. If this situation was necessary because of health reasons, then the Rebbe would send the two sides to his halachic [according to Jewish law] judges.

I very much loved the tradition that was established during the last years of the Ostrowiecer's life, which was to carry the frail Rebbe across the streets and into the synagogue on the night of Yom Kippur for Kol Nidrei [opening prayer of Yom Kippur evening]. Thousands of chassidim, among them rabbis and great Torah scholars from the entire country, participated in this procession, as he wished everybody, “A gut yuhr” [a good year].

The Rebbe expressed his love for Zion by sending 300 ruble to Israel three times a year, in celebration of the three major Jewish holidays [Sukkot, Shavuot, Passover].

[Page 97]

Since the Ostrowiecer Rebbe rarely owned such a sum (he himself did not know what money looked like), he had to borrow this money from the ritual slaughterers with the reckoning of his own salary.

The Rebbe left behind many writings with which, after his passing, the book “Or Torah [“Light of Torah”] was published. As you leaf through this work, you encounter original mathematical works that tell of the sharp aptitude the Ostrowiecer's genius. In one place, I found a complicated calculation about how the above mentioned, after completing a few hours a day of work on the sky's “running subjects” [“rushing spheres”], he begins to travel through all the worlds in the cosmos on his light cloud. The numbers in the astronomy roll out smoothly, as one and the other [of the numbers] work out with each other. One cannot forget that the logarithmic calculations and integer methods of higher mathematics were unknown to this Rebbe. He would get the correct answers through primitive methods of regular arithmetic and real brain work.

The Rebbe had one son, Reb Yechezkel, or Chatzkele, who took over the rabbinate of the city after the passing of his father in the year 5688 (1928). Twelve years later, Reb Yechetzkel and his twelve children perished along with all the Jews in historical Kazimierz (at the Vistula).

The “Morgen Zhurnal
January 1948

Ostrowiecer Gaon [Genius]

by Sh. Pietruszka

Translated by Pamela Russ

[ ] translator's comments

I wish to relate some personal memories about the noted Ostrowiecer Rebbe who died during these days. As a young boy, I studied [religious studies] in Ostrowiec. I knew the Rebbe well, heard about interesting events in his life, and also heard about the old-time chassidim [Rebbe's followers]. So I would like to highlight that which I remember.

About the Ostrowiecer Rebbe's birth, I heard the following story:

His father, a simple Jew, a baker in the small town of Sobin, would go to the elderly Mogelnitzer Rebbe. The Mogelnitzer Rebbe had an amazing tradition: Every year, on the night of Purim, after the festive meal, he would twist his scarf into a ball, tie it up to his gartel [sash], and when the crowd would be dancing with great energy, he would toss the ball into the crowd. They called this ball the “pitke.” The person who caught the pitka, was able to ask for anything he wanted. Once, it was the simple baker from Sobin who caught the pitke, and he asked that he have a good son, and the Mogelnitzer Rebbe promised him this would happen…

But this blessing did not happen so quickly, because the Mogelnitzer Rebbe died in the year 5709 [1848], and the Ostrowiecer Rebbe was born five years later in the year 5614 [1853]. When he was born, his father gave him a name after the Mogelnitzer Rebbe, Chaim Meyer Yechiel.

Where did the Ostrowiecer Rebbe study during his youthful years?

I remember: Once, the Ostrowiecer Rebbe told us a story: When he was a young boy, he studied in Grodzisk, in the Beis Midrash [Study Hall] of the previous Grodzisker Rebbe, Rav Elimelech. In Grodzisk, there was a young man, a great scholar. The called him “Berel the genius.” When the Ostrowiecer Rebbe would speak about this Berel the genius, he did not have enough words of praise about his studies. As a young boy, the Ostrowiecer Rebbe studied with this young man, and from him, the Rebbe acquired his complete manner of study as well. With this, the Ostrowiecer Rebbe also related this episode: Once, Berel the genius gave the Rebbe [a young boy at the time] a challenge to find a specific question (he told us what the question was, in the Talmud section of Shabbath, with the viewpoint of “18 things; these do not purify, but these and these purify.” The discussion in this section of the Talmud is regarding what type of items and scenarios require purification, what are the appropriate enactments, etc.). Meanwhile, the men in the Beis Midrash needed whisky,

[Page 98]

so the men gave the young Chaim Yechiel a bottle with six coins to go and get some whisky. As he was returning with the whisky, he was preoccupied with the [question in the] Gemara [Talmud], and actually found the reference to the question. But meanwhile he tripped on a rock and broke the bottle of whisky. When he entered the Beis Midrash and the men saw this, they lay him on the table and gave him “his dues.” As he crawled off the table, he ran over to Berel and cried out: “But I found the question!” From then onwards, the chassidim no longer used him for any missions.

Torah studies in Ostrowiec went like this:

Every morning, we, young boys with good heads (I was still young and before my bar mitzva), would enter the Rebbe's room. The Rebbe was half sitting on a stool, his feet were stretched out on a second stool, or halfway on a table; the Rebbe was wrapped in warm fur clothing both in summer and winter. By his side, laying on the able, there was always a Gemara [book of Talmud]. When we entered, one of us asked a question. The Rebbe responded with a Talmudic thought. In the middle of this, one of us interrupted the thought and tried to change it. The Rebbe did not permit this to happen, and went on to show that he was correct. Soon someone else had another question about this. And this is how the pilpul [critical argumentation] went on for two hours. With his commentaries, the Rebbe demonstrated a tremendous sharpness, [knowledge of] all kinds of sources, which really were not connected to one another. These are the famous “Ostrowiec commentaries” which some studies, especially the Lithuanian ones, reference very critically. The Rebbe would apply these same interpretation methods and combine all types of calculations in the Talmud and Midrash. The calculations were so well figured out that they were very exact, to a hair.

The Ostroweicer Rebbe had an unusual tradition: On Shabbath and on the Jewish holidays, he did not speak Yiddish, he spoke only Hebrew. Also, during the week, before prayers, he would speak only Hebrew. His Hebrew was not rich in vocabulary, so for the words that he did not know, he would gesture with his hands and say: “Nu, nu.” But when we were learning the commentaries, it was not so much of an impediment, because all the young boys who came to study with the Rebbe had good heads, and one word was enough for them so that they could figure out the rest. For the common expressions, the Hebrew, the provisionary words, and grammar that the Rebbe used, were not really enough. But it is a fact that he never abandoned this tradition. For him, it [Hebrew] was genuinely a holy language.

As for fasting, for the Ostrowiecer Rebbe it was actually

[Page 99]

an unusual thing. When I remember about the fasting, it is honestly a miraculous thing.

The Ostroweicer Rebbe would relate how, when he was a young man, he was very strong, could break steel. But this person hardly ate anything. And sometimes he would even fast from Shabbath to Shabbath, actually from Saturday night to the following Friday night, without tasting even a little cold water. When I was in Ostrowiec, I don't remember such “fasting” periods, but then he even used to fast all day. And at night, when they would prepare a little milk and an old piece of roll soaked in it, he fell asleep in the middle of eating, had a dream, and then once again locked himself into fasting. And what those dreams were all about, he never revealed. Those times of fasting also affected his chassidim. There were many Ostrowiec chassidim who practiced the fasting on a very high level. I remember a Jew from Warsaw, Yechezkel Met, who would copy the Rebbe and fast from Saturday night until the following Friday night, took nothing into his mouth, and once they barely saved him. The chassidim who would come to the Rebbe for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, had a community kitchen in the courtyard. The “manager” of this “kitchen” was the old chassid Chaim Yechiel Stubnitzer, who would collect money from the wealthy chassidim and would cook potatoes and milk and then he would give everyone a plate of potatoes and half [a loaf of] bread. But he would only give this at night. During the daytime, everyone was fasting. Fasting – this dominated the Ostrowiecer chassidus, fasting and the study of simple discourse.

Now, since the Ostrowiecer Rebbe died, everyone will try to find allusions and likes [from the Rebbe] for his own group: for Mizrachi, Agudah, and so on. The truth is, that he was a sharp opponent of all modern movements, of all sorts of enlightenment, and of course, of Zionism. As the Rav [rabbinic leader], the Rebbe would direct the greatest Jewish court issues, and understood everything well, but he truly was a sharp opponent of every modern movement. I don't know how much he even supported the Agudah [religious group], It is possible that he even did not support that. But he was a very strong opponent of Zionism and Mizrachi. Forget about “Haskalah” [“Enlightenment”] education – this for him was treif [non-kosher]. When he found out that one of his students had sadly gone to a “bad cultural organization,” and wanted that education, the Rebbe suffered great pain. When his son-in-law, the deceased Gostyniner Rav, Rebbe Dovid Silman, became a member of Mizrachi, he [the Ostroweicer Rebbe] had terrible pain from this. I remember that when a group of young people, Ostrowiecer students (among them was also the Mizrachi deputy HaRav Shmuel Brodt from Lipno), took the Russian test in Plock for the rabbis, they telegraphed the Rebbe. He became very angry: “Good news, a festive moment. They now know Russian!” The Ostrowiecer chassidim used to say that the Rebbe himself also knows Russian; he passed the exam then took the rabbinic seat in Skierniewice. But I remember that when we had to speak with the “nachalstvo” [authorities], there was an interpreter.

A characteristic episode:

On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Rebbe did not pray with his chassidim in the Beis Midrash, but in the city synagogue with the businessmen, as Rav [chief rabbi] of the city. Once, a cantor came with a choir to recite the Kol Nidrei services [for Yom Kippur eve]. At the point of “ki hinei ka'choimer” [“We are as clay in the hand of the potter”] which concludes with “lebris habet ve'al teifan la'yeitzer” [“Look to the covenant and do not regard our evil inclination”], the cantor turned to the choir and began to conduct an entire composition. Very angry, the Rebbe ran to the cantor and told him, pointing from the prayer book to the podium, “Lebris habet” [“look to the covenant”], and then pointing to the choir, “ve'al tefan la'yeitzar” [“do not regard our evil inclination”].

Heint” [“Today”], Warsaw
4th of Nisan, 5688 [1928]


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