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Ostropolyer, Hershele

(1770?–1810), folk figure. Although what we know about Hershele Ostropolyer is based mostly on oral tradition and folklore, he was also a real person. Hershele is thought to have come from Balta, Ukraine, and his name is based on the small town of Ostropolye (Ostropol) in Poland, where he served the community as a shoḥet (ritual slaughterer). According to legend, Hershele lost his job because of his constant joking that offended some leaders of the community. He then wandered through Ukraine, and was a familiar personality at inns and restaurants, which explains why such institutions figure so prominently in the stories about him. Eventually he found his calling—at the court of Barukh of Mezhbizh, the grandson of the Ba‘al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. Barukh was plagued by depression, and Hershele served as a court jester, frequently mocking the rabbi and his cronies and delighting the common folk.

After his death, Hershele was remembered in a series of Yiddish pamphlets recording his tales and witty remarks. He was the subject of several poems, a novel, a comedy performed in 1930 by the Vilner Trupe, and even an American television play in the 1950s. Hershele is also featured in Isaac Babel’s “Shabos-Nakhamu” (1918), a short story based upon a folktale about Hershele. Although there is nothing else in Babel’s work resembling it, Babel apparently planned to write more about him, as the story was originally subtitled “From the Hershel Cycle.” Eric Kimmel wrote two children’s books about Hershele: The Adventures of Hershel of Ostropol (1995) and Hershel and the Hannukah Goblins (1989). In the stories, Hershele appears as a wise fool of a type well known in world literature and folklore. He has been compared to the Flemish Till Eulenspiegel and the Turkish Nasreddin Hodja.

These stories about Hershele are typical examples:

One day Hershele was traveling, and he stopped for the night at an inn. The place was deserted: there were no other guests, and even the innkeeper was away, leaving his wife in charge.

“I’m dying of hunger,” Hershele told her. “Please give me something to eat.”

The innkeeper’s wife took a good look at her guest, and she didn’t like what she saw. Hershele was unkempt, his coat was torn, and he looked altogether unsavory. This fellow will never be able to pay the bill, she thought.

“I’m sorry, sir,” she said to Hershele, “but the kitchen is closed.”

Hershele shook his head and said nothing. Then he looked straight ahead and said to the woman, “In that case I’m going to have to do what my father did.”

Immediately the woman grew frightened. “What did your father do?” she asked.

“My father,” replied Hershele, “did what he had to do.”

Hearing this, the woman grew more frightened. Who knew what kind of father this man had? And she alone in the house! Perhaps his father was a thief, a murderer, or worse.

“Just a minute, sir,” she said, and soon returned with a full plate of chicken, kishka, fish, and black bread. Hershele devoured it all, as the woman looked on in amazement. When he had finished, he told her, “Lady, that was a wonderful meal, the best thing I’ve tasted since Passover.”

Seeing her guest was finally relaxed and satisfied, the innkeeper’s wife dared to ask the question that had been burning in her all evening. “Good sir.” She said, “Please tell me, what was it that your father did?”

“My father?” said Hershele. “Oh yes, my father. You see, whenever my father couldn’t get anything to eat—he went to bed hungry.”

When Hershele was asked if it were true that he beat his wife with a stick while she bopped him over the head with a rolling pin, he replied:

“Not really; sometimes we switch.”

Suggested Reading

Chajim Bloch, Hersch Ostropoler, ein jüdischer Till-Eulenspiegel des 18. Jahrhunderts, seine Geschichten und Streiche (Berlin, 1921); William Novak and Moshe Waldoks, eds., The Big Book of Jewish Humor (New York, 1981); Yeḥiel Yeshaia Trunk, Der freylekhster yid in der velt (Buenos Aires, 1953).