The Alte Rebetzin - The Rabbi's Wife


     The Alte Rebetzin was the wife of Rabbi Moshe Leib Shapiro, who was known for his controversial personality. He didn't get along well with his congregation in our shtetl, despite the fact that he was a very pious and godly person. He was a Talmudic scholar and well versed in the holy books, scriptures of earlier and later centuries.

     The general understanding of his odd personality was that he was upset about the Haskalah (enlightenment) movement that was spreading throughout Galicia. He was troubled about how this modernization had intruded into the Orthodox, Hasidic world. He also noticed how the Haskalah movement had influenced the Hasidic youth in the Galician shtetlach, and felt powerless to do anything about it.

     Rabbi Moshe Leib kept a keen eye on his congregation and tried very hard to persuade the young people not to stray from the Orthodox-Hasidic way of life. The Rabbi considered young people reading secular books or even a Yiddish newspaper a breach of faith.

     Chana Shapiro, the Rabbi's wife, who was endearingly called, "The Alte Rebetzin," was the granddaughter of the famous Rabbi from Sandz, the founder of a rabbinical dynasty. Her personality was entirely different than her husband's. She was a soft spoken, motherly person who looked at things from a different perspective. She also opposed any deviation from basic religious behavior, but her approach was more realistic, more understanding, and also more forgiving.

     Her insight prevented her from becoming angry at the entire world. She realized that the younger generation was thirsty for secular knowledge. She knew that no one could stop the young peoples' curiosity about the rest of the world, especially by force or threat.

     The young synagogue dwellers habitually kept an open secular book under the table while sitting in front of an open Talmudic tractate studying old-fashioned rules and strictures. From secular books they thirstily drew their knowledge about a different world.

     At the outbreak of World War I, when the army of the Czarist Russia broke through the Galician frontline, many of the residents in our shtetl were forced to evacuate. They were afraid of the unfriendly Russian Cossacks, the would-be occupiers of the area. Many of the evacuees from our shtetl, including Rabbi Moshe Leib Shapiro, wound up in Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

     In the fourth year of the war, Rabbi Moshe Leib became mortally ill and passed away. Because of his sudden death, the authorities wanted to perform an autopsy which is against Jewish religion.

     The family turned to Baron Rothchild to intervene. As a result of the intervention the authorities relented and released the body for burial. After the war ended, the widowed Rabbi's wife returned home, and took up residency in the big house that her husband built years ago before the outbreak of the war.

     Her son, Rabbi Nechemiah remained in Vienna. The Rebetzin's apartment was adjacent to the big sanctuary that was part of the building. The three-story brick building was one of the nicest buildings in town. The front of the building faced the market-square, and had two stores that she rented out. She also rented the two upper flats. The rental income partially helped her with the upkeep of her household.

     The sanctuary, that was called in Yiddish, "The Kloiz," had a rich collection of many ancient books, Scriptures, and Talmudic tractates that occupied an entire wall. The Holy Ark was a masterwork of woodcraft by an unknown artist. After the Rebetzin's return from Vienna, a special team of painters imported from another city refurbished the interior.

     Natives of Strzyzow who had immigrated to the United States funded the restoration of the House of God. There was an upper gallery for women, where the Rebetzin worshiped, but in the later years, when women began wearing hats instead of wigs, the Rebetzin was unhappy with their headgear.

     To demonstrate her dissatisfaction, she stopped worshipping in the gallery. At her request, a little cabin was built in a corner of the main sanctuary where she prayed for the rest of her life. The cabin had a little curtained window through which the sound of the prayers was heard to the delight of the Rebetzin.

     In her will she requested that her casket be built from the boards of the cabin. Despite the Rebetzin's old age, there were no wrinkles on her gentle, finely chiseled facial features. She was a heavy-set woman, and her face expressed love and reverence for everyone who came in touch with her.

     For household help, she hired orphan girls only. She personally saved their earnings for the girls' dowries. When there was enough money she married them off and another orphan took her place. As children who have lost a father cling to their mother, the same thing happened to the bereaved Hasidim of Rabbi Moshe Leib.

     After his departure they clung to the old widowed Rebetzin, considering her the rightful inheritor of the Rabbi's wisdom and piousness. Although customarily, women are not versed in the holy books, the Hasidim continued to conduct their Torah discourses in her presence.

     Every Friday night, Sabbaths and holidays, as soon as they had eaten their meals at home, they gathered around the Rebetzin's table. They discussed the chapter of the week, sang Hasidic songs and told tales about ancient rabbinical sages. The Rebetzin always prepared for the Hasidim a tasty, "Tzimes" (desert) from carrots with raisins, or a special chicken liver concoction that they ate with a lusty appetite, smacking their lips loudly.

     The Hasidim showered the Rebetzin with compliments, telling her each time that she had outdone herself. The lavish compliments addressed to the Rebetzin were a part of the ritual during each gathering. The Rebetzin's face shone with radiance like a mother hen listening to the Hasidim's remarks, watching the happy faces of her admirers.

     Following the treat, the Hasidim's spirit rose and they began singing traditional Hasidic melodies. The Rebetzin was a full sized woman who occupied a wide armchair at the head of the table. There was always a heavy prayer book and a Psalter in front of this dear lady. From these books she beseeched the Almighty and supplicated for the well being of the community.

     On weekdays there was a cup of small change on the table for alms for the poor. The Hasidim revered the Rebetzin and considered her as their leader, believing that the Rabbi's spirit hovered over her body. She was in her seventies during my boyhood when I spent many of my childhood days in the aura of her spiritual being. She spoke softly, with a smile on her gentle face, to the delight of her admirers.

     My father and I spent many evenings in the Rebetzin's house because we did not have a regular family household. I had no mother. There was only my father and I, therefore, the Rebetzin's house was like a second home to us, especially in wintertime, where we felt warm and cozy.

     My father of blessed memory, besides being a distant relative, was her confidant and her official representative. He paid her taxes to the authorities when they were due, and he also collected the weekly contributions for the upkeep of the sanctuary.

     After the Rebetzin's departure to a better world, my father told me that she had a premonition about the timing of her death. My father was privy to her will. In the will she expressed her wish that local women should not participate in the preparation of her body for the burial, because she considered them not pious enough.

     Seventeen kilometers from our shtetl, there was an extremely Hasidic little town, and that's where she had joined the Burial Society. She requested that upon her death, those women be immediately notified to come and prepare her body according the Jewish custom.

     One time during a routine visit by my father on a cold wintry day, when the days were very short, he noticed some sadness on her face. "Why such a sad face?" My father asked. "Don't you feel well?" In response, the Rebetzin spilled out her worries to my father: "You know, Reb Yankel," she said. "It worries me that I might die on a Friday, during the shortest days of the year and the women from the nearby town would not be able to come and do what they are supposed to do with my body.

     In the event they do come, I'm afraid that they will not be able to return home before the beginning of the Sabbath." "Rebetzin! What are you talking about? You have a long life before you, and you shouldn't be talking about death and funerals," my father reprimanded her.

     Shortly after this conversation took place, on a wintry Friday, the Rebetzin fell ill and lapsed into a coma. She was in a coma for a whole week till the next Friday, when she expired. It seemed as if she had prolonged her comatose state to provide a chance for all her children to be summoned to her deathbed. Once they had all arrived, she returned her noble soul to the Creator.

     It was on a Friday, at the beginning of the Jewish month "Shevat," on the shortest day of the year, when the women from the nearby town were summoned. They washed and purified the body according to the Jewish custom, while a pair of horses hitched to a carriage was standing by. As soon as the women finished their job they left and arrived home just in time to light the Sabbath candles. Everyone believed that the worrisome problem that the Rebetzin shared with my father was a prophecy. She foresaw that her end was near, and it would be on a short Friday.

     She was buried near another Rebetzin, her cousin from Lancut. Our town was proud that two great Rebetzins were interned in our cemetery. Unfortunately, the cemetery that was located in the center of town was wiped off the face of the earth during the Holocaust. No sign of the cemetery is left, except the memories of the Alte Rebetzin that linger in the memories of the few people that survived.

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