They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust

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Mezhebezher rebe

In this painting you can see the spirit of the Mezhebezher rebe walking around the attic of the house of study (besmedresh). How did this come about? Many years before my time, Polish rowdies beat up Jewish students as they passed through a dark passage on their way to evening prayers. The students complained to the Mezhebezher rebe, "On our way to the besmedresh, we were accosted by evil spirits, and we were beaten up and our hats were stolen." As everyone knows, it is a sin for a Jew to go around bareheaded. The rebe was a big man. He was a six-footer and weighed about two hundred pounds. He knew the score. He told the students, "Tomorrow night proceed to services the usual way and I will personally drive out the evil spirits." The rebe put on a kitl, a white coat that looked like a shroud, and secreted himself in a dark place under a staircase. When the hooligans tried to accost the students, the rebe beat them up with his walking stick to within an inch of their lives. The rowdies thought evil spirits were attacking them and ran off. From then on, they never bothered the students again. As the legend goes, the rebe's soul, his spirit, resides in the attic of the house of study. When the community is in peril, the walks up and down, striking the ceiling with his walking stick. But in 1942, when the Jews were driven out of Apt, the rebe didn't help them very much.

In the Apter memorial book, Yitskhak Guterman tells a similar story about the "stick" of the famous rabbi Avrum Yeshiye Heschel, known by the title of his celebrated book Ohev Yisruel (Lover of Israel). Old Hasidim told Guterman the story. In those days, evil spirits would grab the shtraymlekh from the heads of the Hasidim and cause other problems. They told the rabbi what happened and he instructed them to make a "stick." The stick was a bar of iron about two feet long. It weighed hundreds of kilograms. It was about two feet long. Inscribed on the bar were the words Avrum Yeshiye Heshl. The word Apta (the Hebrew name of the town) was unreadable because there had been a conflagration in the attic of the besmedresh, where the iron bar was kept, and part of the bar had melted. Guterman remembers that when a famous rabbi came to visit and could not climb up to the attic, twenty boys went up there and brought down that iron bar. With great reverence, the boys would walk around the bar. There emanated from the bar a mysterious aura.