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Hershele Ostropoler, also known as Hershel of Ostropol, is a prominent figure in Jewish humor, and the Jewish equivalent of Nasreddin and Till Eulenspiegel. Hershele was a prankster who lived in poverty and targeted the rich and powerful, both Jew and Gentile. Common folks were not safe from his shenanigans, either, but were usually treated with kid gloves. He is also remembered by Ukrainian gentiles as something of an ethnic folk hero,[1] who could take on establishment forces much larger than himself with nothing but his humor.

While his exploits have been mythologized over the years, the character of Hershele is based on a historic figure, who lived in what is today Ukraine during the late 18th or early 19th century. He may have used his wits to get by, eventually earning a permanent position as court jester of sorts to Rabbi Boruch of Medzhybizh.[2]

In the Hershele stories, he was chosen by members of Rabbi Boruch's court in order to counter the rebbe's notorious fits of temper and lift his chronic melancholy.[3]

It is believed that Hershele died of a fatal accident that was brought about by one of Rabbi Boruch's fits of anger. Hershele lingered for several days and died in Rabbi Boruch's own bed surrounded by Rabbi Boruch and his followers.[4][5] He is thought to be buried in the old Jewish cemetery in Medzhybizh, though his grave is unmarked.

Hershele was the subject of several epic poems, a novel, a comedy performed in 1930 by the Vilna Troupe, and a US TV program in the 1950s.

Two illustrated children's books, The Adventures of Hershel of Ostropol, and Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, have been published. Both books were written by Eric Kimmel and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman.

In 2002, a play entitled Hershele the Storyteller was performed in New York City.

Tales and Examples

Rolls and Doughnuts

Hershele once entered a restaurant and asked for two rolls. Once these were brought to him he changed his mind and asked for two doughnuts instead. When he finished eating them, he got up and walked out without paying. The owner ran after him and demanded to be paid for the doughnuts.
- “But I gave you the rolls for them,” Hershele said.
- “You didn’t pay for the rolls, either,” the owner said.
- “Well, I haven’t eaten the rolls, have I?” Hershele replied and walked away.

Good Manners

One time Hershele and a vagabond friend bought two loafs of bread. Hershele picked them up from the baker, then handed the smaller of the two loafs to his friend and kept the larger one for himself.
- “This is very impolite,” his friend said.
- “What would you have done if you were me?” Hershele asked.
- “I’d give you the large loaf and keep the small one, of course!” The friend said.
- “Well, you’ve got the small one. Now what do you want?”

On a Dare

On a dare to slap a hated man in his Jewish hometown, Hershele did just that, unprovoked. When the man asked him why he did this, Hershele replied that he thought the man was Berle.
- “And if I’m Berle,” said the offended man, “does this give you the right to hit me?”
- “Keep your nose out of mine and Berle’s affairs,” Hershele replied.

The Pig

During the feast of Passover, Hershele once sat across from a self absorbed rich man who made derogatory remarks about Hershele’s eating habits.
- “What separates you from a pig, is what I’d like to know,” the man said derisively.
- “The table,” Hershele replied.


The Painting

Once, Hershele was trying to get by by selling antiques and trinkets in the market. Among his wares was a large canvas, that was entirely blank. One day, a customer asked Hershele what it was, and Hershele replied:
- "For a silver shekel, I will tell you about this painting. [The man, overwhelmed by curiousity, gives him a shekel]. Well, this painting is a famous painting, depicting the Jews crossing the Red Sea, with the Egyptians in pursuit."
- "Well, where are the Jews?"
- "They've crossed."
- "And the Egyptians?"
- "Haven't come yet."
- [Getting frustrated at having been duped] "And where's the Red Sea?!"
- "It's parted, dumkopf!"

Notes

  1. ^ Chapin, David A. and Weinstock, Ben, The Road from Letichev: The history and culture of a forgotten Jewish community in Eastern Europe, Volume 1. ISBN 0-595-00666-3 iUniverse, Lincoln, NE, 2000, pg. 79.
  2. ^ Wiesel, Elie, 1978, Four Hasidic masters and their struggle against melancholy: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, p. 54-56
  3. ^ Chapin, David A. and Weinstock, Ben, The Road from Letichev: The history and culture of a forgotten Jewish community in Eastern Europe, Volume 1. ISBN 0-595-00666-3 iUniverse, Lincoln, NE, 2000, pg. 79-84.
  4. ^ Wiesel, Elie, 1978, Four Hasidic masters and their struggle against melancholy: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, p. 54-56
  5. ^ Learsi. R., 1961, Filled with Laughter: A Fiesta of Jewish Folk Humor: Thomas Yoseloff, p. 183-184.
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