Tag Archives: mysticism

Finding Babette, My Great-Grandmother

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

This is a story about my maternal great-grandmother, Babette Muhr, whose life has interested me ever since I learned about her from the few memories that my own grandmother passed on to me.

I was fascinated to discover that Babette lived with the “Wundermann,” a famous holy man known as “The Baal Shem of Michelstadt.” For years, I tried to find the truth of this story, and ended up learning more about Rebbe Seckel Loew Wormser (the Baal Shem’s given name) than I did about Babette.

Few people knew the rebbe as well as the little orphan girl named Babette Muhr, who cried herself to sleep in the horse-drawn carriage travelling the 5-6 hours from her small home town of Reichelsheim, Germany to her new home in Michelstadt, near Frankfurt. Having recently lost her father and mother, the young girl was escorted by well-meaning townspeople who considered it a mitzvah to deliver the child to her new home. But wrap-around blankets and comforting arms gave little solace to the grieving child who did not want to leave her hometown and feared the new world ahead of her. The pitch-dark road leading to Michelstadt caused her to shiver with fright.

The legends surrounding the almost mystical rebbe describe him as poor and barely able to sustain his own large family of five children.  My grandmother called him a “Wundermann” for his many so-called miracles known to reach across the borders of Europe. His great heart always made room for those in need of help. At times his house was filled with almost 70 students from many parts of Germany, but it was always large enough to also accommodate orphans whom he fed with his limited means. The orphans lived with him and his large family, and there must have often been times when the rebetzin wondered how much thinner she could make the soup and still provide proper nourishment for the large brood in her dining room.

Little Babette learned many new facts about her new family within a few days after her arrival. One was that her new “father” was a vegetarian who would not touch any food that came from an animal, not even milk, eggs, or butter. On weekdays he lived on soup and coffee. On the Sabbath, he added a little more food to this meager diet. It was a lifelong vow of abstinence he had adopted during his student days in Frankfurt. Of course, in a household run on such sparse funds as that of the rebbe, meat was a great luxury.

Babette discovered very quickly that she would be exempted from his vegetarian diet. From the first day, she sat on a small chair next to her host while he cut up tiny pieces of meat from the family’s ration and fed them to the little girl. He was most concerned she had the proper food to grow on.

The rebbe had a running business that kept his family alive. He manufactured amulets designed with inscriptions to heal diseases. These “kemenot,” made of paper or parchment, included either the name of the Lord God or of an angel like “Rafael” who could heal specific diseases. The amulets were meant to be hung around the neck of the patient and promised speedy healing, especially when combined with prayers.

The twenty-odd Jewish families who made up Michelstadt during the rebbe’s lifetime (1768 to 1847) were well-to-do and did not appreciate his activities, especially those concerning the so-called “miracles” for which he was famous, which in many cases involved the healing of mentally ill patients. He had emissaries travelling in Germany and parts of Europe who took and delivered orders for the amulets and, in turn, collected the payment, which was due the rebbe.

It was around that time that his fellow Michelstadt neighbors rebelled against the rebbe’s extreme piety and his kabbalistic practices. Their complaints to the town authorities resulted in his arrest in his synagogue and a two-day stay in the local jail. These intrigues prevented the rebbe’s elevation to the post of Chief Rabbi in his hometown, handing that job to a competitor, and depriving him of an income.

After his wife of twenty years, Adelheid, died in 1809, the rebbe left Michelstadt and moved to Mannheim where he accumulated much fame as a healer. While there he healed a woman hospitalized for incurable insanity after local physicians had given up on her care. Her name was Benzinger and she had a 17-year-old daughter. While still in Mannheim, the rebbe became engaged to the daughter whose mother he had cured. He returned to Michelstadt, married the young lady, and reopened his yeshiva. It must have been during this second marriage that Babette joined their household and was raised by a woman not much older than her.

My grandmother said Babette lived in the home of the rebbe until she herself was married. Many years later, during a trip to Germany, my husband and I visited the town of Michelstadt, for I was always curious about the place that had sprouted so many family legends. We walked around the rebbe’s house, which is still occupied, but we could not get in because the lawyer’s office, which now rents it, was closed for the day. I looked up to the upstairs windows and tried to imagine Babette’s thoughts as she viewed her world when she lived there.

As I write these words, I am holding a photocopy of a marriage certificate which I recently received from the archivist of the town of Michelstadt. According to the certificate, a couple named Meier Oppenheimer and his wife, Babette Muhr, appeared before the mayor of the German town of Rimbach on September 6 in the year 1859 where he signed a document confirming their wedding performed three days before by the rabbi of that same town. It was their daughter, Bertha Oppenheimer Salomon, born in Fuerth, Germany in 1867, who became my grandmother.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.


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Frames of Reference

by Ferida Wolff (Cherry Hill, NJ)

One day I saw an ad in our local Jewish newspaper for a series of Kabbalah classes to be held at the Jewish Community Center. I asked my friend if she would like to go, as we were both interested in mystical traditions. She would and we went.

The teacher was a real deal Lubavitcher rebbi. He wore the black suit. His head was covered with a black hat. He had the beard.

The class consisted of mostly men and a few women. The men were there more to show what they knew. The women were there to listen. We were there to learn. The rabbi was soft-spoken. We hung on his every word.

When the series was over, the rabbi said that he would be willing to teach a private class in someone’s home. My friend and I excitedly waited for the end of class to speak with him. We were interested, we told him, in learning more. We assumed that we would be joining others with the same desire but it seemed we were the only ones who asked. This caused a problem for the rabbi. First of all, we were women, not the traditional target for teaching the Jewish mystical system. Then there was the issue of who we were personally. I was culturally observant, sharing holidays and simchas with my family and friends but didn’t keep to the religious dictates. I even taught yoga and studied Buddhism. My friend was a good Roman Catholic familiar with the Tao. We both practiced Qi Gong and meditated. Not the typical Kabbalah students. We were surprised when he agreed to teach us.

But there were conditions. We would meet in my house where, I surmised, he would feel more comfortable. He wouldn’t shake our hands and wouldn’t eat any food I offered because I didn’t observe kashruth. (Eventually he would take tea from a Styrofoam cup but not in the beginning.) If one of us couldn’t make the class, it would be cancelled; he could not be alone with a woman other than his wife. My friend and I respected his strong need to remain within certain boundaries as he respected our intense desire to learn.

We met once a week for a year-and-a-half, just the three of us. We discussed passages in the Tanya. We explored ethics. Our talk was animated and exciting but it was our silences that were enlightening. Often, after we had chewed on a topic for a while, we would lapse into a satisfying period of non-verbal communication that was almost a meditation, each of us deep into our own connection with the topic. We would emerge from it smiling, feeling full, knowing we had come to a new awareness.

The orthodox side of my family could not believe that I was studying Kabbalah; they knew my orientation. My friend’s family members just shook their heads. Meanwhile, we were walking a spiritual path that expanded our understanding of the larger picture of existence.

During the week, my friend and I continued the discussion – between chores and work, after dinner and sometimes before breakfast. The concepts were not easy; they demanded attention. We never knew when an enlightened thought would hit us, and, ready as we thought we were for clarity, we were never prepared when it struck. Like the time I was taking my morning shower and suddenly felt myself shatter. It was after we had been discussing the shattering of the vessel that led to creation. I had no sense of my skin holding myself together. It seemed that I was floating adrift and far from any recognizable landmarks. For a moment I had no idea where I was, what I was, where I belonged. Tears streamed down my face but they were tears of wonderment not sadness. I had experienced my own shattering of the vessel of self. I was free!

When I told the rabbi, his face lit up. He took my hand in his, a gesture that was both startling and profound. We smiled at each other, not speaking; we were both somewhere beyond words.

I was surprised that with my interest in so many spiritual disciplines, my freedom came through Kabbalah. My friend said she understood. She still went to church but because of her universal explorations she saw the rituals more as portals into meditation than as requirements for her spiritual practice. She continued to go because it was the place where she knew to connect with the Mystery. She said I couldn’t help connecting with the Mystery through Kabbalah because it was related to my being Jewish. These were our frames of reference no matter what we studied.

The class eventually grew and we started meeting at the rabbi’s house. People brought many perspectives to the table and not all of them were Jewish, but Kabbalah gave us all something to integrate into our own personal frames of reference.

Ferida Wolff’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Moment Magazine, Midstream, Horizons, and Woman’s World, among other periodicals. An author of seventeen books for children and three essay books for adults, she has also contributed stories to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and HCI’s Ultimate series, as well as online at www.grandparents.com and as a columnist for www.seniorwomen.com. You can visit her website for more information: www.feridawolff.com or her blog at http://feridasbackyard.blogspot.com/

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