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 usually got off lightly. He is also remembered by Ukrainian gentiles as something of an ethnic folk hero, 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.
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.
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. He is thought to be buried in the old Jewish cemetery in Medzhybizh, though his grave is unmarked.
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.
Tales and examples
- When Hershele was a child, he had a number of brothers and sisters, of which he was the smallest. Thus, whenever they had a meal, he'd be the last to get anything. As a result, whenever they had goose, he never got to eat a foot, which was his favorite part. One evening, he snuck into the kitchen before dinner and cut a foot off of the goose, slipping it under his shirt to hide.
During dinner, his father noticed that Hershele's shirt was grease-stained and that the goose's left foot was missing.
- - "Hershele," he said. "Did you take the goose's foot?"
- - "No, father," he said. "Maybe it was a one-footed goose."
- - "A one-footed goose? There's no such thing!"
- - "Sure there is. I'll take you to see one after dinner."
That evening, Hershele took his father out to a lake near their village. A flock of geese were sleeping on the banks, each tucking one foot into its body so that only the other was visible.
- - "There's one," said Hershele, pointing. Thinking to outsmart his son, his father clapped, waking the goose and causing it to lower its other leg.
- - "There. Now, Hershele, will you admit that you stole-"
- - "Wow, father! You just clapped and the goose grew a foot! Why didn't you do that to the one at the table?"
- Hershele was traveling along the road when he came to a small inn. He went up to the door and politely asked if he could have a bite to eat and a pile of hay in the stables on which to rest for the night. The innkeeper and his wife refused.
- - "Oh, really, you're going to say no to me?" snapped Hershel.
- - "Y-yes," stammered the innkeeper, beginning to get worried.
- - "You know what happens if you refuse me? I do what my father did when someone said no to him! Do you want me to do what my father did? Do you? Do you?"
- - "Give him what he wants," hissed the innkeeper's wife into his ear. "He's clearly insane. I don't know what his father did, but it must be something terrible!"
Agreeing with his wife, the innkeeper allowed Hershele to stay for the night, going so far as to offer him a large meal and a place at their table. After dinner, he offered Hershele one of his finest rooms, to which the vagabond happily agreed.
- - "So," he said as the dishes were cleared away. "Now that everything is settled, I'm curious: what did your father do?"
- - "Well, since you ask so nicely, I'll tell you," Hershele replied. "When my father was alone starving on the road, and he was refused anything do eat, why he'd go to bed hungry!"
Rolls and Doughnuts
- Hershele once entered a restaurant and asked for two rolls. When these were brought to him he changed his mind, asked for two doughnuts instead, ate them, then 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.
- One time Hershele and a vagabond friend bought two loaves of bread. Hershele picked them up from the baker, then handed the smaller one 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.
- 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.
- Once, Hershele was selling antiques and trinkets in the market. Among his wares was a large canvas, that was entirely blank. 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 curiosity, 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, dummkopf!"
- 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.
- Wiesel, Elie, 1978, Four Hasidic masters and their struggle against melancholy: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, p. 54-56
- 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.
- Learsi. R., 1961, Filled with Laughter: A Fiesta of Jewish Folk Humor: Thomas Yoseloff, p. 183-184.
- Best-Loved Folktales of the World ISBN 1-56865-172-4 pp. 462-464
- Cohen, Joshua H. and Pierce, Brooke, Hershele the Storyteller, performed at the American Theatre of Actors.