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A Chassidic Education in Communist Russia

A Chassidic Education in Communist Russia

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When reminiscing about the past, most people will only recall a few vague memories from early childhood. Not so those who grew up under the shadow of Soviet rule.
The war for Jewish education was both offensive and defensive: Parents struggled to keep their children from attending the communist schools, or at the very least to keep them home on Shabbos and holidays, if they were forced to attend at all. At the same time, they tried to provide their children with an authentic Jewish education at home.
The teacher once asked me, “Zaltzman, why don’t you ever sing?” Without thinking, I blurted out, “I don’t like your songs.” In the immediate second that followed my response I realized this comment of mine had placed me in jeopardy.
Remaining observant while attending a Communist school demanded much creativity on my part. Apart from being noticed for my irregular attendance, there was also the issue of my dress, specifically my headcovering and the tzitzis, the fringed garment, that I wore underneath my shirt.
At the end of the year, my secret was discovered when the principal found out that my regular absences were connected with the Jewish religion.
In those days of famine there wasn’t much, and you could barely discern the little dabs of butter in the cracks of the dark bread, but for our malnourished bodies, beginning the day with some buttered bread was revitalizing.
Our teacher was Reb Benzion Maroz, fondly known as Bentcha Maroz. When we meet today and talk about those old bittersweet days, it is clear to us that the fact we remained religious Jews is largely to his credit.
One time, he entered the yard while we were in the middle of a lively game of soccer.
One day, one of our friends came to school and boasted that his mother had registered him for school and the he would now grow up to be an educated person. “What will become of you?” he asked of us derisively.
We once had a really frightening situation at our school, and it turned out to be nothing short of miracle that I remained unscathed.
The cellar was neglected, and it was full of garbage, dust, and manure, previously having been used as a stable for horses and donkeys. But it was an excellent place for our studies, with many advantages over the room we had been using.
In addition to the subjects that R. Bentcha taught us, we absorbed a wealth of Chassidic values during his farbrengens.
One time, when my brother was a young boy, he wanted my parents to buy him a pair of ice-skates.
He kept to himself and did not mingle amongst the other boys his age. When he continued keeping silent, they began to tease him.
Because of the fear and uncertainty in the air, no one was thinking about organizing my Bar Mitzvah.