In a Dangerous Place and Time

What was life like in 1960s Russia? Today, long after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the resurgence of Judaism, that era may seem remote, even surreal. The Avner Institute presents powerful accounts (edited here) of Rabbi Hillel Zaltzman, author of Samarkand, describing his travels through the Soviet heartland for the purpose of the Rebbe’s work – each trip an adventure, each encounter with Chassidim and laymen alike an affirmation of faith when praying in public might land a Jew in Siberia.

From the memoirs of Rabbi Zaltzman:

As I related previously, in 5719 [1959] I opened a government workshop that manufactured cloth labels. Since they were tiny and we could print dozens of them from a piece of material that wasn’t large, I looked for sewing factories that would have large quantities of remnants. To them, this was garbage; to me, it was useful.

I heard about a factory like this in Tashkent, and I went there. After I located it and I saw that their merchandise suited me, I asked to speak with the manager, an Uzbeki and a Muslim woman. I prepared a bribe to move things along but, to my disappointment, when I entered her office another man with a Jewish face walked in too and sat at the table. Under the circumstances, I couldn’t talk about bribes.

I really didn’t want to speak to her with a stranger sitting in the room because I was afraid he would interfere with the deal. When I asked the woman who the man was, she said, “He is my assistant.”

I saw that I had no choice. I would have to present my request despite his presence.

“My name is Gilya Zaltzman,” I began. I said that I ran a workshop that manufactured labels in Samarkand and that the remnants of her factory would meet our needs. “May I suggest that instead of throwing out the material, you sell it to me at a low price? So we would all benefit.”

She said she had to consult with others. I figured that meant she would consult with her assistant. Who knew whether he would ruin the plan or not?

When I left her office, the assistant left too, and to my amazement he asked me: “Are you the son of Avrohom Zaltzman?”

Completely taken aback, I said “Yes,” and asked him, “Who are you?”

“I am Shmuel Mochkin.”

When he observed from my expression that I still did not know who he was, he added, “I am Mulle Peretz’s son,” meaning Reb Shmuel, the son of Rabbi Peretz.

I was highly excited to see the son of Reb Peretz Mochkin. I had heard a lot about Rabbi Peretz’s two sons, Yosef and Shmuel, who had been unable to leave Russia with their father during the big exodus of 1946 and had remained for many years in prison. Only recently had I heard that they had been released.

We fell upon one another in joy and had a long, friendly discussion as though we had known one another for years.

Shmuel continued, “The minute you walked in, I saw you had a Jewish face and realized you were one of our brethren. Since I didn’t know what you wanted, I decided to listen to your request and make sure the manager agreed.”

After that, whenever I went to Tashkent, I visited R’ Mulle. He always hosted me for lunch and we enjoyed spending time together.

“Hospitality begins when you meet the guest”

Over the years I traveled to many places and met different people, but there were a few who left a strong impression on me. One of them was a bachur, yeshiva student, I will tell you about now.

On my first few trips to Tashkent for communal matters, I did not know any of the Chabad community there, so I did not know where to stay. When I mentioned this to my brother Berel, he suggested I meet with his chavrusa, learning partner.

Years before, when Berel became bar mitzvah, there were no boys his age in Samarkand who were able to learn Gemara. My father sent him to Tashkent, where he learned with another Chassidishe bachur by the name of Reb Zalman Posner (Buber), a student in Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim in Lubavitch. Reb Zalman was the mara d’asra, the local rabbi and legal scholar for the Tashkent community. He was often hoarse, because of his constant Torah study in a loud voice. My brother and his friend had learned with him for a year.

Berel remembered that this young student worked in an office supplies store. “Go to that store and tell him you are Hilke Zaltzman, Berel’s brother,” he commanded, “and that I trust he will arrange a place for you to stay.” Thanks to his precise directions, I easily found the store upon my arrival.

When I walked in, suitcase in hand, I saw a thin young man dealing with customers in a hasty manner. Later, I learned that by nature he was that way. A few moments later, our eyes met and I could tell that he understood that I was a fellow Lubavitcher.

When he finished with one of the customers and returned behind the counter, I went over to greet him. Before I could introduce myself, he gabbled, “Wait a few minutes. I’ll close the store and we’ll go together.”

Although it was only half-past eleven, he announced to the remaining customers that he had to close the store immediately. At first I felt uncomfortable that he was leaving work because of me, but I relaxed when I saw that he was quite happy for the interruption.

After locking the store, he grabbed my suitcase with a friendly smile while saying, “Hachnasas orchim, hospitality, begins when you meet the guest.”

The slender young man walked in front of me with the suitcase. I followed as I thought: He didn’t even ask me my name yet! I saw that it did not matter to him who I was and where I had come from. Perhaps he preferred not to ask any unnecessary questions, which in those days was something of which we were wary, even among anash, the community members.

As we walked, I told him, “I am Berel’s brother.”

He turned his head. “How is Berel doing?”

I didn’t notice any particular surprise in his voice. My yichus, pedigree, made no difference to him; that I was a Lubavitcher bachur was enough for him.

Reb Zalman briefly described himself. He was still single and lived with his parents. When we arrived at his house he did not ask me whether I was hungry, but immediately sat me down at the table and served me a fine meal. He simply realized that if I had been traveling, I must be hungry.

He conducted himself in an exceptionally fine way. Thinking I would be careful where and what to eat, he did not urge me to eat any particular thing. He simply removed whatever was in the refrigerator and placed it on the table so I could choose what I liked.

From then on, every time I went to Tashkent, even after I had met many other Lubavitchers and had options of places to stay, I would always stay at his home. Over the years, I became very close with his family.

Superficially, Reb Zalman looked like a simple student. He also acted in a simple fashion. But when I watched him, I saw his innerness, p’nimius. He had a good head and knew how to learn.

He once said to me: “Hilke, it’s a shame that people don’t put a little effort into learning the abridged Code of Jewish Law. If they learned just one paragraph a day – and that’s not difficult to learn by heart – over a few years it is possible to learn the entire Kitzur Shulchan Aruch by heart!”

He added in a lighthearted tone, “You know you don’t really need to know how to learn in order to be a rabbi; you just need to know where to find the halacha, the law.”

After staying in his parents’ home merely a few times, I got to know him well. I saw how he came back home at night, exhausted, after an entire day of standing in the store and serving customers. His devoted mother prepared a hot supper for him, but he did not eat it until he had davened Maariv, the evening prayer, slowly. By then the food was cold, but that did not bother him. After the meal, he learned his set lessons in nigleh and Chassidus, revealed and concealed Torah.

Tired from the day’s work, he frequently nodded while learning. Nevertheless, each time, after a few minutes, he would awake and continue. He finished his lessons close to midnight and rose to read the bedtime Shma slowly, as befitting a Chassidishe bachur. Then he would sit on the sofa or on the bed, remove his shoes, and fall asleep.

When Reb Mendel Futerfas stayed in Tashkent on his way to Samarkand in Elul 5722/1962, he saw this young man at a farbrengen. Highly impressed, Reb Mendel declared, “He is a true oved Hashem, servant of G-d, and a person of stature. And the main thing – he was not ostentatious about it.” That was the greatest quality as far as Reb Mendel was concerned.

“Oblivious to his surroundings”

I heard a lot about Rabbi Eliyahu Bisk, the son of Reb Yitzchok Bisk, a Skverer Chassid and the son-of-law of the ritual slaughterer Rabbi Yisroel Konson. They said about him that although he had completed university, he remained a genuine yerei shamayim, G-d-fearing Jew, who even served as the baal koreh, Torah reader, in the secret Lubavitcher minyan in Udelnaya, a Moscow suburb. I heard that he worked in a large factory in Moscow and nevertheless managed to keep Shabbos. This was highly unusual for someone to work professionally in a government factory and keep Shabbos.

In general, to be a religious Jew in the Soviet Union was extremely difficult; under conditions like that, it was nearly impossible. Not surprisingly, they said about him that he managed to enter the Communist furnace (by learning in university and by working in a government factory) and emerge unscathed.

It should be noted that although Chabad people generally did not send their children to government schools, and certainly not to university, there were places, especially in the big cities, where going to university was the lesser of two evils. The Soviet Union had an obligatory draft, and whoever failed to convince the medical committee that he deserved an exemption could avoid army duty only if he attended university. Students did not have to serve in the army. Since the big cities were more difficult than the smaller as far as gaining an exemption, going to university was the only way out.

In my travels on various missions to Moscow, I had several opportunities to stay with Reb Eliyahu’s father-in-law Rabbi Yisroel Konson, and that is how I saw him and got to know what he looked like.

Once, on a flight from Moscow, I saw Reb Eliyahu get on the plane and sit down in the front, in the row opposite mine. He did not notice me and I thought: It will be interesting to see how he behaves when he doesn’t realize other Jews are present. In those days, people were exceedingly careful not to display their Judaism. We had ever-present paranoia about the people around us belonging to the KGB.

My fears dissipated after he put away his belongings and removed his cap, leaving a Chassidishe yarmulke on his head. Then he removed a Tikkun L’Kor’im and throughout the flight prepared the Torah reading. I took great pleasure in this surrealistic sight of a yarmulke-bearing Chassid seated among dozens of gentiles in Soviet Russia, immersed in his Tikkun and oblivious to his surroundings.

When the flight attendant served him a meal, I thought: I wonder what he will choose to eat. Sometimes there are fruits or seeds that can be eaten.

He did not even look at what was served. He motioned that he did not want anything and continued what he was doing. Later on, he took homemade food out of his bag and ate it.

“I saw a fire come out of the grave”

Yosef Nimotin lived in Alma Ata and took care of the gravesite of the Kabbalist Rabbi Levi Yitzchok, the Rebbe’s father, of saintly memory. I would meet him occasionally whenever he came to our house in Samarkand. Once, after we had finally gotten out of the Soviet Union, he said to me, “In Samarkand, the Zaltzmans were one of the most illustrious families. Over here, you are not considered anything special.”

I replied: “Boruch Hashem it’s that way and not the reverse.”

Reb Yosef once told me about a miracle he witnessed. A man who came every year to Reb Levi Yitzchok’s gravesite would first go to Reb Yosef’s house, where he stayed, then to the gravesite with Reb Yosef. He generally spent a long time davening there, about two hours, while Reb Yosef waited for him outside.

One year, the man went inside and Reb Yosef waited outside as usual. However, a short time later he saw the man run out in a fright. He said to Reb Yosef, “Take me right back; I must go home.”

“What’s the rush?” Reb Yosef asked. “What happened?”

The man stammered, “Come, come. I’m going home immediately.”

“What happened?” Reb Yosef repeated.

The man, still frightened, cried, “When I started davening, I saw a fire come out of the grave, right in front of me!”

Reb Yosef hurried inside to see what was going on and came right back out. “You are imagining things. Have you lost your mind? There is nothing there!”

But the man insisted: “Take me to the airport. I must fly home.”

Afterward, he found out that the man’s son was friendly with a gentile girl; just as the father entered the gravesite, the son had proposed to his girlfriend.

This e-mail is dedicated to Aharon Raymond Ben Devora & Brocho bas Devorah with best wishes for a complete and speedy recovery.

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