Saturday, May 12, 2018

Next year in Jerusalem: The Rabbis Handler

I came across Oskaloosa's Rabbis Handler --- Joseph and William S. --- while following up on a sad story involving Chariton's Max Rothschild, son-in-law of the former and brother-in-law of the latter, that I'll tell that another time.

That's Rabbi William S. Handler, above, in a Des Moines Tribune shot taken during 1964 in front of Temple B'nai Israel, then located at the intersection of South H Street and East High Avenue in Oskaloosa. When the photo was taken, Rabbi Handler had served the congregation for 65 years, but only nine Jewish families remained in the Mahaska County seat.

The congregation faded rapidly after Rabbi Handler's death during 1965 and the synagogue passed into other hands, was dismantled and diminished. That's one of its stained glass windows at left, now in the care of the Iowa Jewish Historical Society.

Then I came upon the following interesting bit of reporting about the senior Rabbi Handler, Joseph, and his wife, Anna, in The Oskaloosa Daily Herald of Jan. 2, 1905.


Old Song Comes With Peculiar Emphasis to an Oskaloosa Patriarch

Joseph Handler and wife, who have been prominent among the Jews of Oskaloosa for the last eight years, left last evening for Jaffa, near Jerusalem, where they are to spend the closing days of their lives. A company of fully fifty friends and relatives assembled at the "Q" station to say farewell.

The old gentleman and his wife came to Oskaloosa eight years ago from Russia, which country had been their home. They have been happy among their children in this city, but a longing for the home of their forefathers was strong. Life in the sunny climate of Palestine was preferable in their old age to a home amid their children in this country.

Mr. and Mrs. Handler have eight sons and two daughters in Oskaloosa and forty grandchildren make their homes in this city. The children are prosperous peddlers and the family is one of the most respected among the Jews of Oskaloosa.

The children who remain in this city are John, J.E., S., Max J., Geo., Barney, and Rev. W. Handler. The daughters are Mrs. B. Wetsman and Mrs. Max Rothschild.

Mr. Handler is quite patriarchial in bearing and looks but is still far from decline, although his years number sixty-seven. The family has no fears for his health during the exhausting trip. The mother of the family and his companion is fifty-seven years of age and has no fears for the journey to the home of her fathers.


Joseph and Anna were part of a growing tide of Jewish settlers heading for the ancient port city of Jaffa, a tide that by 1909 had swelled to the point that a Jewish suburb called Tel Aviv was founded. Today, that suburb dominates the blended Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality.

The senior Handlers lived out the remainder of their lives in Jaffa, but I've not been able to discover when their deaths occurred.

Joseph Handler was a native of Ukraine, most likely Kiev, where he was born during January of 1838. His first wife, Sarah Silberstein, was the mother of eight of the Handler children. After her death, Joseph married the widowed Anna about 1878 and they became the parents of two sons, Barney and Rabbi William S.

Russia became an increasingly dangerous place for Jews to live during the 1890s and the Handler family began to send its children to America, commencing perhaps with son J.E. during 1891. Joseph Handler joined his children in Oskaloosa along with son, Barney, during 1898. Anna and William came during 1899.

There had been a Jewish presence in Oskaloosa since at least 1861, when pioneering clothier and banker Isaiah Frankel and his partner, Emanuel Bach, opened the first Frankel Clothing Store during May of that year on the current site of the Mahaska County Courthouse.

Joseph Handler's children reported that their father served the Oskaloosa families as rabbi, too, but as early as 1900, the youthful William S. was leading the congregation. He subsequently married Rachel Falk and they became the parents of three children.

During the fall of 1964, Des Moines Tribune reporter Jane Boulware came to Oskaloosa to visit with Rabbi Handler. Her report was published, along with the photo at the top of this post, in The Tribune of Oct. 24 under the ratner banal headline, "Makes his own wine, bakes his bread, oversees milking." Here's the text:


There are only nine Jewish homes in this southeast Iowa town, but the families in them keep alive the faith of their fathers under the leadership of a venerable 83-year-old rabbi, W. S. Handler.

Rabbi Handler came to Iowa at the age of 17 with his mother, from the Ukraine area of Russia. His father had come earlier, with an older son.

Rabbi Handler says his father was a peddler of dry goods, as were many immigrant Jews in those days.

The rabbi, who had begun his training for the rabbinate at the age of 12, was accepted as leader of the Jewish community in Oskaloosa, a position he has held continuously for the last 65 years.

Services were originally held in homes. In 1916, a synagogue was built at South H. Street and High Avenue and was named B'nai Israel. About 40 families worshipped here at the time of its peak membership.

Today, the red brick synagogue is used only on Jewish holidays, and for special memorial rites. Ben J. Bernstein is president of the congregation.

B'nai Israel is an Orthodox Jewish community, adhering strictly to Orthodox rites and customs. Men sit on the main floor of the synagogue, women in the balcony. Jewish students from William Penn College attend, sometimes make up the quorum of 10 men needed for a service.

Rabbi Handler spends at least two hours a day in prayer, either at home or in the synagogue, reads his Bible and prayer book daily. He lives alone, does all his own cooking and housecleaning.

His wife died 36 years ago (during 1929); a son and two daughters have married and moved elsewhere.

The rabbi eats only kosher foods. He goes to a farm to supervise the milking of a cow to get the milk he drinks, bakes his own bread, makes his wine.

He is a qualified "shochet" (ritual slaughterer) and in his younger days regularly supervised the butchering of cattle. He still kills chickens according to Orthodox rites for members of his congregation.

The rabbi manages to meet his simple needs (food and house maintenance) on about $60 to $85 a month, his income for rabbinical services.

His son, Joseph Handler of Davenport, two daughters (one in Des Moines, one in Ottumwa) and six grandchilden come to see him regularly. A 90-year-old brother lives in Chicago.

But Rabbi Handler is content to stay at home. There is only one place he wants to go --- Israel.

"I would like to spend my last days in israel," he says wistfully. "My father and mother are buried there."


Rabbi Handler did not make it to Israel. He died a year later, on Saturday, July 10, 1965, at Iowa Methodist Hospital in Des Moines after a two-week illness.

Although B'nai Israel had been an active congregation in Oskaloosa for many years, it had never developed a cemetery there for the Jewish community. As a result most members of the congregation were buried in Des Moines --- the earliest at Emanuel, then at Jewish Glendale.

In accordance with Orthodox custom, Rabbi Handler's funeral was held on the Sunday morning after his death at Dunn's Funeral Home on Grand Avenue in Des Moines, followed by burial beside his wife, Rachel, and other family members in Jewish Glendale.

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