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The Question You Promised to Ask

The Question You Promised to Ask

A Story of Reb Yosef Nemotin

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Author’s note: Reb Yosef Nemotin lived in Alma-Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan, where he served as Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s personal assistant until his passing in 1944. I heard this story directly from him some thirty years ago, a few years before he passed on. I don’t know if he ever shared this story with anyone else, but it was never told publically, and I feel obligated to share it now, lest it become lost.

After Reb Yosef Nemotin buried his beloved rav, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, he took care of his widow, Rebbetzin Chana, until she received permission to leave the Soviet Union. Once he’d escorted her to the train, Reb Yosef realized his work in Alma-Ata1 was done and began to dream of leaving himself.

Alas, he was refused

As soon as the Jewish emigration began in 1967, he applied for an exit visa. Alas, he was refused. He reapplied and was refused again. He became a refusenik. One may wonder why the Soviet government cared about an old Jew with his small family leaving the country, but having been a refusenik myself, I can tell you that this is how the KGB played with people’s lives. They let some people go, while keeping others. They expelled some political dissidents, while putting others in jail or simply keeping them on a short leash. There was no rhyme or reason. It was another way for them to exercise their power, another way to terrorize people. Nobody ever knew what to expect.

And so, every year, Reb Yosef applied for an exit visa and every year his application was denied. Even when the Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union reached its peak in 1979, still he was denied.

Throughout the years, Reb Yosef took care of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s gravesite. He’d visit, clear the weeds, and sit there reciting Psalms, often wondering sadly why the Rebbe, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s son, never came to visit. But he kept his sadness to himself.

Years passed and Reb Yosef grew ever more frustrated and disheartened about his predicament. He felt trapped in Alma-Ata. One morning in 1982, he opened his mail and found an official envelop from OVIR – the visa department of the KGB. Alas, it was yet another rejection.

Feeling bitterly disappointed and despondent, he went straight to the gravesite of Rabbi Levi Yitchak where he cried and cried. He poured his heart out to his beloved teacher, begging for a blessing to leave this prison-like country. Before he realized what he was saying, he promised, “Tateinu mit Rebbeinu (father of the Rebbe), if you help me leave this country, I will go to your son and ask him why he never visits your grave!”

Reb Yosef had never verbalized these thoughts before, and when he realized what he’d said he became frightened. After all, for a chassid to say something like that is quite a chutzpah!

He cried some more, said some Psalms and began to walk home. But as he approached the cemetery gates, someone called his name.

“Reb Yosef!”

Turning around, he saw a man he didn’t recognize running after him. He stopped and the man caught up with him and embraced him.

“Reb Yosef, don’t you recognize me? We used to be neighbors. You used to come to our house every morning to take my blind father to shul!” he explained.

"Don't you recognize me?"

Indeed, during the years that Reb Yosef served Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, he lived next door to a blind, elderly chassid. (Reb Yosef told me the chassid’s name, but I no longer remember it.) Every morning, Reb Yosef accompanied this neighbor to and from shul so that he could daven with a minyan. When the blind chassid died, he was buried in the same cemetery as Rabbi Levi Yitzchak.

“You were a child then,” said Reb Yosef quietly, feeling slightly embarrassed. “Now look at you… I haven’t seen you in more than twenty years!”

Reb Yosef’s face was still tearstained and the young man noticed. “What’s bothering you?” he asked. “Why have you been crying?”

Reb Yosef explained his desperate desire to leave Soviet Russia, and the many letters of denial he had received over the years.

“Don’t worry!” exclaimed the young man. “I work for the government now; I know who to bribe. Bring me 4,000 rubles tomorrow and I’ll take care of it for you. You helped my father and now it’s my turn to help you.”

Bewildered, Reb Yosef stood motionless and tried to gather his thoughts. Less than five minutes had passed since he’d poured out his heart to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, and already the promise of salvation had arrived! Could this finally be the miracle he’d been waiting for?

Although 4,000 rubles was a very large sum, Reb Yosef managed to put it together and the following morning he brought it to the young man. The man kept his word, bribed the right people, and a week later the Nemotin family received permission to leave the country. Needless to say, Reb Yosef was thrilled!

Upon arriving in the United States the family settled in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Reb Yosef had managed to bring some of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s manuscripts out of Russia, and he now brought them to the Rebbe. He delivered the manuscripts to the Rebbe’s secretaries and asked to schedule yechidus - a private audience.

On the day of the yechidus, the Rebbe went to pray at the gravesite of his father-in-law, the previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitchak Schneerson. Reb Yosef patiently awaited his return.

Finally he was ushered into the Rebbe’s office. As Reb Yosef recalled, the Rebbe was standing, which was rather unusual for a private audience. The Rebbe greeted Reb Yosef warmly, thanking him for his service to his parents as well as for the manuscripts.

Reb Yosef asked if perhaps he could keep one ofHe had his answer Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s manuscripts as a memento. The Rebbe thanked him again for bringing manuscripts, but explained that he could not now part with them.

When the audience was over, Reb Yosef began to back out of the room. As he approached the door, still facing the Rebbe (as is customary), the Rebbe’s face became very serious. The Rebbe looked Reb Yosef straight in the eye with his piercing gaze and said, “You are forgetting to ask me the question you promised my father you would ask!”

Reb Yosef fainted. He had his answer.

At the next farbrengen, the Rebbe greeted Reb Yosef warmly and thanked him publically, and he realized he was forgiven for his chutzpah. In several subsequent private audiences, the Rebbe asked Reb Yosef for details of his parents’ lives back in Alma-Ata. In return, the Rebbe gave Reb Yosef what every chassid wishes for - special interest, warmth and attention.

Footnotes
1.
Now called Almaty.
Dr. Alexander Poltorak, who holds a PhD in theoretical physics, is a noted lecturer on the intersection of science and Torah. He is Chairman & CEO of General Patent Corporation, a patent licensing firm. He served as an assistant professor of physics at Touro College and an assistant professor of biomathematics at Cornell University Medical College. He was US Co-chair of the subcommittee on Information Exchange of the US-USSR Trade and Economic Counsel. He authored A Light Unto My Path: A Mezuzah Anthology, and books on intellectual property. Follow his blogs at Quantum Torah.
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Levi Silman September 26, 2016

Thank you for sharing. Reply

GAry Melbourne September 29, 2014

Great story! Reply

Anonymous August 17, 2014

Beautiful story! Beautiful story! Reply