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Zaidy’s Yom Kippur

Zaidy’s Yom Kippur

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I stand in shul, shifting my weight from one foot to the other, trying to ignore the groans of my unhappy stomach. I flip through the machzor to see how many pages remain until the end of the service. My mind begins to wander; I am transported back to another Yom Kippur, years ago.

In my daydream I am a child again, and my grandparents have come to spend the High Holidays with my family. My grandfather is in his early seventies, although with his long white beard and bushy black eyebrows, to me he looks at least a hundred years old. That Yom Kippur I tried hard to stay in shul instead of running outside to play with my friends. I sit in my seat listening intently and trying to follow along. Suddenly, my ears perk up to the sound of a familiar voice ringing out—it is an old voice, but powerful and steady. It is my zaidy (grandfather); he is saying the mourner’s kaddish for his father, whose yahrtzeit (date of passing) is on Yom Kippur.

My thoughts shift to another Yom Kippur in Communist Russia. Rabbi Aryeh Leib Kaplan has just arranged a minyan in a private house in Ch’ili, after being exiled there for the illegal activities of spreading Jewish teaching and observance in his hometown of Kiev. It is an old voice, but powerful and steady . . . The ever-watchful KGB, infuriated at Aryeh Leib’s persistence in his “crimes” even in his place of exile, send a goon squad to beat him up on his way home from the clandestine Yom Kippur prayer group. Aryeh Leib’s friend is beaten to unconsciousness, and Aryeh Leib just manages to drag himself to the nearest Jewish family to tell them about his injured friend before he collapses and dies. He leaves a young widow and four orphans. One of them is Zaidy.

Yet another Yom Kippur flashes through my mind. There’s a picture of Zaidy, but he’s young and strong. He is surrounded by ruthless criminals in a dingy prison cell, locked up like his father for the heinous crime of practicing Judaism in Communist Russia. In prison, each inmate receives one piece of daily bread. Zaidy knows that he must save that bread for after the fast, or he will die of starvation. However, if the bread isn’t stuffed into his mouth the moment it is handed to him, it will be grabbed by one of many greedy hands. Zaidy approaches “The Chief” of the cell—a hardened criminal whom all of the other inmates fear and respect. Zaidy presents his dilemma, and miraculously The Chief decides to help. The Chief puts the bread on a high ledge, and warns the inmates that he’ll kill anyone who touches it. Many hungry eyes stare at the bread, but no one touches it.

Later, Zaidy needs to know when the fast is over, but there is only one small window high up on the wall of the cell, and there is no way to tell the time. Zaidy approaches The Chief again and explains his dilemma: he needs to know when it is completely dark in order to break his fast. The Chief gives orders, and a human pyramid is formed—one criminal on the shoulders of another, until they reach the window. The inmates repeat this pyramid every couple of minutes, reporting on what they see, until Zaidy confirms that the fast is over.

The voice of the cantor breaks through my reverie and brings me back to my open machzor. As I resume my prayer, I once more think of Zaidy and my great-grandfather. I feel them smiling down on me.


Zaidy, Moshe Binyamin Kaplan, of blessed memory, passed away on the 13th of Tammuz 5765 (2005), at the age of 87. The story of his Yom Kippur in prison is just one of many of his heroic acts in order to keep Judaism in Communist Russia.

Devora Leah Riesenberg es parte del equipo de Chabad.org
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ruth housman marshfield hills, ma October 16, 2012

for Jack: maybe it's not over, when, it's over... Your description of such anguish, is what brings people to the Wall. How hard it is, to ever justify such terrible events, with a G_d of love. We all go to the wall on the terrible, and the extremes do exist in life, and make us weep, in sorrow, in questioning, and surely some do not believe a G_d who is omniscient, who is all powerful, could allow such horror. We use the word freedom of choice to answer this, but actually on a cosmic level, if you believe in Divine Providence it's all G_D, so yes, there is a deep, agonizing conundrum here.

I know only this, and that life has this polarity, moving from what is beautiful to what is ugly, from extremes of joy, of feelings of unity and one ness, to the agony of despair, of feeling cut off from the Source of all life.

I can ask, could we have, the one, without, the other? It's very deep, and we cannot answer this, only to say, we're humane, we feel, we want such pain to stop. So we work to stop this, doing our best but not in control. Reply

Anonymous September 24, 2012

My Zaidy I heard this story numerous times and I always cry and admire my Zaidy whom I love and miss so much. Reply

Jack Midland Park September 21, 2012

Yom Kippur and grandfathers My paternal grandfather was named Ayreh Leib and took time everyday to study with his employees to study Talmid. He died from internal injuries when struck in the stomach by a Russian soldier in WWI. He left a widow with six children who became peniless.
My maternal grandfather lived in Poland and paid one visit to USA prior to WWII. I remember his swinging a rooster over his head prior to Yom Kippur. He returned to Poland about six months before WWII. He and his family were murdered just outsife of their town and buried in a mass grave.
How did their observant lives help them to die ? Reply

Sara Massachusetts September 27, 2017
in response to Jack:

Our Forebearers Observance - a Compelling Legacy Faith taught them how to live with conviction & dignity - something over which they DID have control. Their suffering & deaths are a testament to their amazing resolution, dedication & purity of spirit - which is why their stories conjure such sadness at their tragic loss, reaffirming our sense of being part of a Jewish community.

So, years later, in our remembrance of those senselessly tortured & killed, in our observance of Jewish holidays & customs, we honor those who sacrificed. If Jews had not fought oppression & simply renounced their faith, Judaism would have withered, if not died. The heroism of those that perished because of their faith makes subsequent generations appreciate the freedom to worship & cherish a religion that has survived every onslaught. Their observance, their unconscionable suffering, passes to descendants & fellow Jews alike, a spiritual conviction compelling us to honor them & our sacred traditions. Your heritage is an inspiring gift. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma September 21, 2012

Death has no season, so I know I'll never die.. We climb when we read such inspiring stories, and I think life is a climb, of ascent, and the perfume of this, a scent, permeates such writing, the re telling of a story that invokes and revokes the terrible past, as in, something beautiful bloomed there, in that cell, and it all had to do with the roses that are brought, in worship, of G_d and a story that is sweeping and weeping in its nature.

A beautiful story for this time, a time of reverence, and going inwards, to the core of what matters for us all, a connect, a personal connect, to G_d. Go is for green, and this memory, may it be yet, green, and read and re read and re told, as beauty Is truth.

A Zaidy of blessed memory.

Just like anything, to sing, to sing, is a state of mind.... (jackson C. Franke). He went through the fire, truly, and he came out, and wrote such songs, such aching songs, of love. "See how high the rain falls/see the color in my hair/hunt for golden porridge bowls/hear the paper tear/ / to sing to sing! Reply

Miriam Adahan October 11, 2008

So inspiring! Few of us realize just how lucky we are until we read stories like this! Reply

Philip A. Goldman philadelphia, pa/USA October 7, 2008

within our mind Each of us has two sides of our mind, the positive side and the negative side. When we realize that a thought now comes from the negative side we have to remind ourself that we can go to the other side, positive or stay within the negative side. We MUST THINK of our nature be it positive or negative. We can CHANGE our thoughts as we choose. Reply

Melissa B Baltimore, MD November 8, 2006

A Touching Story Beautifully written and so touching! I'm crying! You must write more Devora Leah. Reply

Dan S Buffalo Grove, Il, USA June 6, 2006

zaidy This story reminds me of something my mother said to me a couple of years ago. My own Papa O"B"M, belonged to an Orthodox Shul when my mother was a little girl; anyways, my mother saw me swaying as I recited the Shmonah Esrai during High Holiday services one year. When I sat down, she whispered to me, "Papa would be so proud." Your story brought back that memory.
Thank you. Reply

Anonymous san leandro, ca December 16, 2005

Thank you for sharing this touching story. Reply

Anonymous Berkeley, CA November 22, 2005

Zaidy's Yom Kippur That is a truly inspiring story, and told mostly through the clear eyes of a child. I hope you will post more of the same. I thank you for lifting my mood. Reply

ines ades beachwood, cleveland, ohio October 11, 2005

zeides story I love Zeides story, i'm lucky my family did not have to go though this terrible tragedies, but i think that Zeides stories are the ones we can not afford to not tell to the new generatons. Pleses keep writing, you do it so well i get tears in my eyes.

sorry for my pour english. Reply

Anonymous toronto, Ontario October 9, 2005

Very inspiring... makes us all think about what our yom kippur should be devoted to. This article truly touched me. Reply

Shmuel Kaplan Baltimore, Maryland October 9, 2005

Proud Father A moving story, beautifully written by my daughter. Reply

Anonymous Baltimore, MD October 8, 2005

Inspiring tribute Thank you Devorah Leah for a very inspiring and well told story of her Zaidy, a wonderful tribute to his memory! I look forward to seeing more of her wriiting Reply

Anonymous U.S.A October 7, 2005

write more please!

This is an amazing story. I look forward to reading more by this author in the future Reply

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