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11 Tishrei 5773 - September 27, 2012 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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The Admor of Pshevorsk Reb Itzikel Gevirtzman, ztvk"l

In honor of his yahrtzeit — Yom Kippur

Holy in life and holy in death. It has been said that one who is niftar on the Yom Hakodosh was a true tzaddik and has passed from this world having atoned for any trace of sin.

Many are the stories of the tzaddik Reb Itzikel of Antwerp that I have heard firsthand from my grandfather, z"l, and yblc"t my father, who were very close to him in the postwar years.

In my father's words:

"It was during the Selichos days when the phone rang urgently one morning. In French-accented, halting English, the caller told me that he had just been blessed with a baby boy whose bris would be on Rosh Hashanah. Would HaRav Stern come to France for yom tov to be the mohel?

"As a mohel of a few years standing, I was used to traveling to do the mitzvah of miloh. But to be away on Rosh Hashonoh? What about the davening, tekios and the holy atmosphere of the shul to which I was so accustomed? However, the opportunity to do a bris bizmano outweighed my personal convenience and erev yom tov found me on my way to the French border town of Aix-les-Bains. Naturally, my first stop upon arrival was at the home of Reb Itzikel, who at the time lived in France and with whom my father, z"l, had been very close when they both lived in Switzerland.

"Reb Itzikel welcomed me warmly and, perceiving that I hadn't yet eaten, proceeded to serve me supper. Despite my protests that I could help myself and that the Rebbe shouldn't exert himself, Reb Itzikel insisted that I was his guest and that he now wished to perform the mitzvah of hachnosas orchim.

"Just as I was finishing my meal, there was a knock at the door and a venerable figure entered the room. HaRav Chaiken zt"l, the rosh yeshiva in Aix-les-Bains, stood in awe before the Rebbe, a troubled look on his face. Having established a postwar yeshiva with his bare hands and yiras Shomayim, he would often consult with Reb Itzikel, who would lighten his burden and give him the encouragement he needed. This time, however, it was more than that.

"`The Rebbe knows that the Yeshiva is in dire financial straits and is currently running on a deficit,' began HaRav Chaiken. `More so, this morning the local butcher called to tell me that the yeshiva's bill is long outstanding and he can no longer supply meat or chicken to the yeshiva on credit. If we don't pay up, there will be no more meat deliveries. Rebbe, from where will we serve the bochurim their fleishig yom tov seudah?'

"Nodding in sympathy, Reb Itzikel waited until HaRav Chaiken had finished and then bade him pass his tall hat to him. As I watched speechlessly, the Rebbe turned the hat upside down in his left hand and held it at the edge of the wooden table. Then, without a word, he extended his right arm and, in one sweeping motion, shoved all the money that had been left as pidyon on his table from the many who had come to receive his brochoh for the new year. Coins and bank notes of various currencies were piled incongruously into the upturned hat. Smiling, Reb Itzikel handed the hat back to Rav Chaiken. `Now go and buy all the food you need for the bochurim!'

"At a loss for words with which to thank the Rebbe, Rav Chaiken left. As soon as he had gone, Reb Itzikel's daughter, having observed the scene from the next room, came running in.

"`Tatte,' she cried, `now we are also left penniless. How are we going to buy meat for Yom Tov?'

" `What's the panic, my daughter? To us the butcher will still sell on credit, whereas to Rav Chaiken, he refuses!' "


My cousin, Reb Menashe Stern, a close confidant of Reb Itzikel, related an amazing story about the Rebbe's foresight, in which he took part.

Once, when the Rebbe was in London, he summoned Reb Menashe. Giving him an envelope containing a large sum of money, he instructed him to drive to Golders Green and to deliver the envelope to a certain wealthy individual. A glance at his watch showed Reb Menashe that it was already 11:30 p.m. Given the twenty minutes it would take to reach the area, it would be almost midnight by the time he arrived there. He quickly explained to Reb Itzikel that perhaps he should push off his mission for the next day, for surely the man was sleeping and he had no wish to awaken him. The money could probably wait.

Reb Itzikel would not hear of it and, waving off all the excuses he insisted that R' Menashe set off immediately. Reluctantly, the latter agreed to knock quietly on the rich man's door just once. "And if he doesn't hear me, then I'm coming right back!"

Feeling a little uncomfortable, R' Menashe knocked softly at the ornately carved door of the address he was given.

To his surprise, its owner opened immediately and R' Menashe found himself face to face with the well-to-do Yid whose countenance was pale and drawn.

Stammering his apology at the lateness of the hour, he thrust the envelope into the man's hands, adding that "the Rebbe said to bring it now."

The recipient's reaction took him completely by surprise. Stunned, the Yid was staring wide-eyed into the envelope and, after a long moment, burst into tears.

"Know that your Rebbe has saved me," he sobbed, clutching R' Menashe's hand in gratitude. Then he explained, "My business has been going downhill lately and has reached the point of bankruptcy. Nobody knows my secret, but I am reduced literally to penury. I never bought anything on credit and cannot bring myself to do so. At the moment, I don't have money with which to buy food for my children to take to school tomorrow. I don't know how the Rebbe knew of this, but he has saved my very existence."


One more story from my father, this one with a personal twist.

Papa (Reb Shlomo Stern z"l), was performing a bris in Antwerp during Chanukah in 1957, when he met R' Itzikel, whom he knew from their earlier days in Paris. Papa approached R' Itzikel and said, "My Yisroel needs a yeshu'oh. He has been married for six years and has no children."

Reb Itzikel paused and then responded, "My great zeide, R' Naftoli from Lizhensk, was a very holy man and his blessings were always fulfilled. He hardly ever blessed anyone except on Purim. He would say, `Purim is when people disguise themselves — so I too can disguise myself as a real rebbe.' Now, I surely am not the holy man R' Naftali was, but if Yisroel comes to me on Purim, we will see what we can do."

Upon hearing the conversation, I made secret plans to travel to Antwerp for the day of Purim. I planned my day carefully so that my absence would not arouse any suspicion.

When I arrived at the airport, the clerk informed me that due to heavy fog over Antwerp, all planes were canceled. In a panic but hoping to find a solution that would get me to Reb Itzikel's home in time for the Purim seudah, I asked "What about Brussels?"

"Sorry," was the response, "Brussels is also fogged in."

Desperate, I blurted out, "Amsterdam! Can I get a plane to Amsterdam?"

"Yes, that is available."

Heaving a sigh of relief, I took the plane to Amsterdam, and then took a taxi from the airport to the train station and, after a two-hour train ride and another taxi, arrived at Reb Itzikel's home right in the middle of the seudah. Prior to entering I opened my case and removed an elaborate costume that I had prepared the day before. Putting on my long silk coat and streimel and gluing on a long, flowing beard, I carefully applied white makeup to my face in order to appear elderly.

As I entered the house, heads turned. I was so well- disguised that even my friends didn't recognize me and I was seated at the head of the table, next to Reb Itzikel. Many people tried to guess my identity and, as I began speaking in fluent Flemish, everyone realized that I was a Purim Rebbe.

My comical antics soon had the table laughing uproariously. With my changing of languages many times and using many witticisms and imitations, the seudah continued for hours and was a night that no one, except for the shikorim, would ever forget.

Near the end of the seudah, Reb Itzikel was handed a large platter of kugel. He began dividing the kugel into smaller pieces for shirayim. Still in my costume, I turned to R' Itzikel and said, "Ihr zeit oich a Purim Rebbe?"

Reb Itzikel nodded.

"I'll make a deal with you," I said to the unsuspecting R' Itzikel. "I'll promise you whatever you want, if you promise me whatever I want."

"Fine," said R' Itzikel. I handed my kvittel to R' Itzikel and, as he read it, his face turned white! "Dee vilst doss?" he asked.

Realizing that he had just promised to fulfill my wish, Reb Itzikel's demeanor changed. Reb Itzikel gave the order to finish the seudah and bentsch. After bentsching, the men gathered to daven ma'ariv and then R' Itzikel quietly sent everyone home.

Taking my hand, he said to me, "Let us go for a walk."

After a short distance, he turned and said, "Promise me that I will be the sandek."

I extended my hand and said to the Rebbe, "Mazel brochoh," signifying my agreement.

Reb Itzikel continued walking quietly and then added, "Make sure to let me know when there is a shinui letovah."

I assured him that I would.

A few months later, Papa was in Antwerp again. "We hope the rebbe will have occasion to come to England for a simchah," Papa said joyfully, intimating that the Rebbe would be the sandek at the forthcoming bris.

Reb Meir Nussbaum overheard and said, "But it could be a girl."

"Don't talk foolishness," Reb Itzikel said. "If I promised a boy, then that is what it will be!"

And so it was that a week after Purim, little Nosson Yehudah Stern was born, and I had the privilege of performing a bris on my own son, with Reb Itzikel as the sandek.

On his way back to the airport afterwards, Reb Itzikel told me, "Der Aibishter vet helfin. Ess vellen zain yinglach und maidlach, noch un noch." And that too came to be.

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