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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:

“What?”

“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…

 

oste020b.jpg
Rebi Mayer Yekhiel Halevi

 

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