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