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My Father’s Machzor

My Father’s Machzor

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On Yom Kippur of 1951 my father, Rabbi Moshe Greenberg, faithfully prayed all the Yom Kippur prayers. All, that is, except one that is often regarded as the most solemn of the holy day’s prayers, the Kol Nidrei.

He was twenty years old, and a prisoner in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia. His crime was trying to escape from Russia.

He dreamed of leaving the country and reaching the land of Israel. But he was caught and sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor. He was separated from his parents and two sisters. His brother was already a prisoner in another camp for a similar “crime.”

There were about a thousand men in my father’s camp, all laboring on the construction of an electrical power station. About twenty of the prisoners were Jews.

As the summer drew to a close, the Jewish prisoners yearned to observe the upcoming High Holidays. They knew they would lack a shofar (ram’s horn), Torah scroll and tallitot (prayer shawls), but they hoped they could find a machzor, a High Holiday prayerbook.

My father spotted a man from the “outside,” an engineer who worked for the camp on certain projects. He believed the engineer might be a Jew.

So he waited for an opportunity to approach the engineer. “Kenstu meer efsher helfen?” (“Perhaps you can help me?”) he whispered to the man in Yiddish.

At that time, most Russian Jews were fluent in Yiddish. He saw the flicker of comprehension in the engineer’s eyes.

“Can you bring a machzor for me, for the Jews here?” my father asked. The engineer hesitated. Such a transaction would endanger both of their lives. Even so, the engineer agreed to try.

A few days passed. “Any developments?” my father asked.

“Good news and bad news,” the engineer replied. He had located a machzor with difficulty, but it was the only machzor belonging to his girlfriend’s father, and the man was furious when his daughter asked him to give it up. Maybe she told him why she wanted it, maybe not.

My father would not relent, however. Perhaps, he suggested, the man would lend him the book, and he could copy it and return it in time for Rosh Hashanah.

The engineer smuggled the machzor into the camp and passed it to my father.

To copy it, my father built a large wooden box and crawled into it for a few hours each day. There, hidden from view, he copied the prayerbook, line by line, into a notebook. After a month, he had copied the entire machzor. But there was one page missing—the one containing Kol Nidrei, the very first prayer recited on Yom Kippur.

Click Image to enlarge
Photo: Chabad Library
The machzor Rabbi Moshe Greenberg copied by hand in a labor camp in Omsk, Siberia, in 1951

My father returned the book, and autumn arrived. The Jewish prisoners learned the dates of the impending holidays from letters from home, and, on the holiday, they bribed the guards—probably with cigarettes—to allow them to gather in the barrack for services.

With his handwritten prayerbook, my father served as chazzan (cantor) and recited each prayer, repeated by the others in low, solemn voices. Seven days later, they met for Kol Nidrei services. But despite their efforts, none of the worshippers could recall all of the words of that prayer from memory.

After nearly seven years in jail, my father, along with many other political prisoners, was released, owing to the death of Joseph Stalin. The only item my father took with him was his machzor.

He was reunited with his family near Moscow, and later married. I was an infant when, in 1967, fifteen years after his release from prison, my family was allowed to immigrate to Israel. The machzor came with us.

My father, who still lives in Bnei Brak, Israel, doesn’t like to recall those painful years in Siberia. But on the rare occasions that I hear him tell a story from those times, he tearfully states that he had never participated in services as meaningful as those in prison.

In 1973, he visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe in New York and presented the machzor to him as a gift.

Click Image to enlarge
My father, Rabbi Moshe Greenberg

A few months ago, I visited the Rebbe’s library and found my father’s machzor. I looked at the worn book, with its fragile pages and Hebrew letters written in haste and with such respect and determination. I copied it—on a copying machine.

This Yom Kippur, as I lead the services at the Chabad Jewish Center of Solon, Ohio, I will have with me the copy of my father’s machzor, with the Kol Nidrei prayer still missing.

My father couldn’t recite Kol Nidrei during his years in prison. This year I will ask my congregation, and all of us, to say it for him and anyone else who may not have the opportunity to do so.

Rabbi Zushe Greenberg is the spiritual leader of Chabad Center of Solon.
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Dr. Leon Dogon Boston, MA/USA via chabadnc.com October 11, 2016

An inspiring tale. A great story which inspires faith for us all. This story should be told to our children and grand children as it will be to mine. Reply

Joanie Hunn Fairfax, VA September 15, 2013

The Machzor without the Kol Nidre What a wonderful story--so inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing and having a wonderful year! Reply

Anonymous Hove, U.K. via lubavitchbrighton.com September 12, 2013

Moving A very moving and inspiring story, I am constantly amazed by the resillience of our Jewish forefathers, no wonder even Hitler and Stalin could not crush them. Thank you for sharing it. Reply

Anonymous Carlsbad, CA via jewishoceanside.com July 18, 2013

What a Share!! Thank you so much for sharing this with all of us! An inspiring & uplifting story. Reply

Avi Harari Shanghai, China June 29, 2013

The Grinberg Tribe The story of Rabbi Moshe Greenberg is the story of the Jewish legacy. How the belief in the One God and his commandments give the power to withstand harsh conditions, exile, prison, starvation, and yet the tree has taken root and many fruits. Thanks to people like him Judaism, oral and written, survived and lasts forever. Reply

NDN UK June 24, 2013

Dear Greenberg Family, I read about the passing of your father and there was a link to this story. The picture of your father reminded me of the Rebbe's father, the earnestness, determination, yet something so calm and loving in his eyes... this story only confirmed what i saw in the picture and I want to thank you for sharing it with us all. He is truly an inspiration and source of strength to us in these challenging times. May he see nachas from you all and be of the first to rise from the dust with the coming of Moshiach and techiyas hameisim. Reply

Anonymous NC, USA September 25, 2012

Thanks for sharing this!! What a wonderful man and sounds like a great family too!! How blessed you all are!! Reply

Sherry Fishman Carroll September 25, 2012

Inspiring I have the good fortune of knowing Rabbi Greenberg in Anchorage, and Rochel Levertov in Austin. Both have been an inspiration to me, and it is now abundantly clear as to from whom they received their strength and emunah (faith). I think about what we face today, and it is so minute compared to our Zedahs and Bubbes. A gift prior as we enter into Yom Kippur. Reply

Polina Commerce Twp, MI September 25, 2012

Thank You for an interesting and inspiring story of your father. Reply

Chana AUSTIN, TEXAS May 29, 2012

family Rabbi Moshe Greenberg is my Zeidy on my mother's side, this story shows how amazing he is! By the way my mother (2nd oldest!) and several other children were born in Russia too! Reply

gestes Prescott, AR/US October 8, 2011

Machzor What a wonderful story of faith in difficult difficult times! Reply

victor fadlun rome, italy via chabadsouthcoast.com October 8, 2011

Kol Nidrè Thank you for your beautiful story. I lost my Father 4 months ago, and i will never forget how much important was Kol Nidrè for him too.

I wish that all of us will be good enough to follow the example of our parents. Reply

Renelda Moorehead New London, Ct. October 5, 2011

My Father's Machzor This story was as intended, UPLIFTING.
Thank you. Have a Yom Kippur full of love.
I have heard the Kol Nidrei recited, and had
the words translated. BEAUTIFUL. Reply

Jack Midland Park October 5, 2011

Moshe Greenberg's family Rabbi Greenberg had 17 children. To me, this means that he and his wife had to continue making sacrifices to maintain such a large family. I wonder if other families can do this. Reply

Anonymous stanton, Ca. October 5, 2011

i can only say "WOW"... Reply

michelle los angeles, ca October 5, 2011

thank you it's a very touching story ...
it's sometime so hard to practice the religion but in the same time we are so proud to be jewish..
Shana tova Reply

Anonymous Miami, FL October 5, 2011

Rabbi Moshe Greenberg thank you for the story of your father. What risks he took to obtain that machzor. Wonderful story that should be told in every house of worship- not just synagogues- all houses of worship. Everyone should realize the risks we take just to remain Jews. Reply

Marta Diaz Houston, TX/US October 5, 2011

the machzor I can identify with your father and the other Jews needing to connect on Yom Kippur, but not having the prayers at hand. I am Catholic and appreciate your story very much. Blessings! Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma October 5, 2011

a beautiful story There is wonderful, and there is, Wonderful.

This IS. Reply

Mary-Louise Scott Kettering, Ohio/USA October 5, 2011

my father's Machzor Gave me chills. I grew up in NY and am a Christian. As a child, my family was taken in by some Jewish friends, with whom we lived for about 1 year. That year made a deep impression on me and helped shape me as the woman I am today. Later on we lived in a German neighborhood where some people supported Hitler, others held him in disdain and still others (not Jews) had escaped the prison camps and were branded. I heard horror stories. What I did learn however, was that relationship with the Creator of all, prayer and other observances were key in ones life and need to be celebrated in Community. I keep coming back to sites like these to renew my own faith whose roots are deep in Judaism. Uncle Joe and Aunt Rebecca and now son Ray have passed on. Carol remains. We are in touch. I continue to learn much from the Jewish commnity and hope you will allow me to continue to do so through sites like these. Thank you! Reply

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