My Father

A person can usually be measured by his appearance and his day to day conduct; his inner character is expressed by the particulars of his daily routine. My father, however, was an exception to this rule: he was, as the Previous Rebbe once described him, a penimi, an "inward" person, who lived by his own internal considerations alone, and whose inner character had no need to be reflected in his outer appearance or conduct. This does not mean that he was an introvert or socially awkward; on the contrary, as all those who knew him can testify, he was friendly and socially adept. However, for the most part, his true character was not on display. He was a businessman his entire life, and gave off the impression of an ordinary person. The truth is that he was a true Chassid in the fullest sense of the word, although it was only on rare occasions that his true essence came to the fore and one was able to see what was really important to him.

In Soviet Russia there were numerous rabbis and Torah scholars; however, when put to the test, they were unable to come up with the tenacity and sacrifice that the times demanded. Instead, they used their Torah knowledge to find what loopholes they could, perverting the Halachic recognition of civil law, and the flexibility of Rabbinic law1, to endorse their lenient views. This was not the case for my father: he did not surrender an iota to the pressures of the communist culture. Incredibly, throughout all those dangerous times in Soviet Russia, he never even so much as touched his beard, a remarkable testament to his deep, resolute faith and fear of G‑d. It was this same spirit that enabled him to fight with all he had to raise his children as he saw fit, and in all other matters of Judaism, as I hope to relate.

My father, R. Avrohom Zaltzman, was born on the 2nd of Cheshvan 1899, in the city of Smargon. His parents, Dovber and Shaina Zaltzman, had eleven children.

One day, a funds collector from Lubavitch by the name of R. Tuvia Skolnik came to the city of Smargon. While making his rounds, he visited the Zaltzman family, and upon seeing the poverty they endured, he convinced my grandfather, R. Dovber, to send his then eleven-year-old son Avrohom to the Tomchei Temimim Yeshiva in Lubavitch. The yeshiva had a reputation as a place of Torah study imbued with the fear of heaven, where the students were educated to acquire fine character traits and a pure love for their fellow Jews. My grandparents, despite their qualms about sending such a young child away from home, were glad for the opportunity to send their son to Lubavitch.

My father joined R. Tuvia, and after a long journey they eventually reached their destination. He was tested in chapter Eilu Metzios of the Talmud and was then called in for an interview with the principal. The principal of the yeshiva was Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson, who would, of course, later become the Rebbe Rayatz. The Rebbe asked him detailed questions, asking him why he had come to Lubavitch and why he preferred this yeshiva over other Lithuanian yeshivas. The Rebbe also asked him detailed questions regarding the material and spiritual situation in his home.

When he left the Rebbe’s office, he did not yet know whether or not he had been accepted and was very nervous. It was a week before Rosh Hashana, and the upcoming High Holidays would prove to be the Days of Judgment in the fullest sense of the words. On Rosh Hashana he sobbed throughout the prayers and begged Hashem to help him be accepted into the yeshiva.

He was thrilled when, after the Holidays, he was called into the office and told that he was accepted and would learn with the teacher, R. Leib from Viyatke.

Yeshiva life was not easy for a young boy like my father. My father related that during his initial stay in Lubavitch, he slept in the shul adjacent to the cemetery. The older fourteen-year-old boys “warned” him that he must make sure to go to sleep right away, since at midnight the dead rise from their graves, dressed in white, and peer through the windows to see who was still awake. “You can just imagine,” my father concluded, “how much I slept those nights, if at all!”

Lodging in the Rebbe Maharash's Home

At a later point during his yeshiva years in Lubavitch, my father slept in the old home of the Rebbe Maharash, which was then being used to house some of the students. This presented a rare opportunity to see the Rebbe’s dining room, the study he had used for private audiences, and so on. My father also related that his room was located next to the main study hall, and every Thursday night he was able to hear the students in the hall singing chassidic melodies and farbrenging,or simply sitting and learning Talmud or Chassidus through the night.

For one period of time, my father ate the Shabbos meals at the home of R. Hirsch, the butcher of Lubavitch. One Friday night during the month of Cheshvan, he arrived at the butcher’s house at a late hour and found the door locked and the family asleep. Dejected and very hungry, he trudged back from Brom Street, where R. Hirsh lived, to the yeshiva on Shilava Street. As neared the study hall, he could hear the Rebbe Rashab delivering a Chassidic discourse to the older students.

When he returned, his friends advised him to go to the home of R. Michoel the Elder (Bliner) who was known to be a Chassid with a heart of gold. My father recalled how, in the previous month, on Yom Kippur night, R. Michoel was so ill that he had to have his bed brought to shul so that he could pray there while lying down. My father felt distinctly uncomfortable bothering this old, frail Chassid, but due to his hunger, he listened to their suggestion and hurried to R. Michoel’s house. He knocked lightly and within a few moments R. Michoel opened the door. His frailty was apparent and it was quite obvious that he had been asleep for a while and had awoken especially for the young boy. R. Michoel went to the kitchen and served my father some lokshen.

A day had not yet passed and on the very night following Shabbos, R. Michoel passed away. My father felt obliged to join the rotation that sat in his house before the funeral to recite Psalms at his bedside. The funeral took place on Sunday, with the participation of the Rebbe Rashab and his son the Rebbe Rayatz.