Yamim Noraim and Pesach Night in Lubavitch

My father recounted many more of his memories of Lubavitch in a letter he penned to his grandson, my nephew R. Yosef Yitzchak Zaltzman, an emissary of the Rebbe in Toronto.

He wrote how on the day before Rosh Hashana, before the Afternoon Prayers, all of the yeshiva students, young and old, would come to recite Tehillim along with the Rebbe Rashab. The Rebbe would read aloud, with devout concentration and heartfelt emotion. In the early morning before Yom Kippur, just as dawn broke, he observed how the Rebbe Rashab gave the chicken he had used in the Kapparos ritual to be slaughtered by the shochet.

On Rosh Hashana night, the Rebbe Rashab spent about two hours immersed in the silent Shemone Esrei prayer, his brow creased in concentration as he softly hummed the words of the prayers. My father would nostalgically recount how he merited to stand together with the other bochurimyeshiva boys—near the Rebbe Rashab, and from time to time the Rebbe’s sweet voice in prayer would reach their ears. One Shabbos, at seven in the morning, he walked to the mikvah to catch a glimpse of the Rebbe Rashab walking back from the mikvah to his house. It was a unique sight that always remained fresh in his memory.

One year, before his Bar Mitzva, my father participated in the Yom Kippur prayers in Lubavitch in the small shul next to the Ohel, the resting place of the previous Rebbes. The leader of the services was an old Chassid of the Rebbe Maharash who claimed that the Rebbe Maharash had appeared to him in a dream and requested that he pray in the shul next to the Ohel. That Yom Kippur, my father slept on the floor of the shul in a corner covered with some straw. It was a Yom Kippur that was engraved forever in his soul, and every Yom Kippur thereafter he would picture himself standing in prayer in that holy shul.

In general, my father’s visits to the gravesites of the Tzemach Tzedek and the Rebbe Maharash were embedded deeply in his heart, and he would often imagine himself standing at their gravesites, uttering the words of the Maaneh Lashon, the traditional grave-side prayers.

The night of the Seder in Lubavitch held a place of honor in my father’s memories of Tomchei Temimim. A small table was set up in the center of the study hall upon which a beautiful handcrafted wooden candelabrum was placed. This candelabrum was made by the Rebbe Maharash after doctors told him that working with his hands would benefit his health. It was made out of 613 pieces of wood, and comprised thirteen arms, for the 613 commandments, and the numerical value of the Hebrew word echad, "One." There was one central candle-holder and two rings of holders encompassing it. The outer ring had eight holders and the inner ring had four.

Surrounding the table with the candelabrum were another eighteen tables that seated about three hundred students. When the Seder began, they would announce: “Table One: Kiddush!,” and so on. At every table, when it was their turn, the students would recite Kiddush simultaneously, and when they drank in a traditional reclining position they would lean on the person beside them. My father said that it looked like a falling deck of dominoes; an entire table of people dropping upon the shoulder of the person to their left. On the final day of Pesach there was a large farbrengen, known as the “Feast of Moshiach,” which was graced with the participation of the Rebbe Rashab.

My father said that he once had the fortunate to hold the Mitteler Rebbe’s pipe. Despite its age—the Mitteler Rebbe had passed away nearly a century earlier—the pipe still emanated a fresh tobacco scent.

When my father spoke of Lubavitch, he would describe the dilapidated houses of the town made of flimsy wooden panels. They were small houses that were so frail looking it seemed as if one gust of wind could topple them. Once, while making his way to the mikvah near the small synagogue known as Binyomin's Shtiebel, he saw a tiny, decaying house in a corner that was said to be the house of Yossel, the uncle of the Tzemach Tzedek. He was a man of great spiritual stature, for whom the Tzemach Tzedek had great respect.

But my father understood that there was something special about those tiny houses of Lubavitch. He would relate the time the Rebbe Rashab was told of a certain Jew by the name of Chasidovsky, who had built a large house on Varantzavsky Street in Rostov. The Rebbe Rashab remarked that, “A big house makes for a great concealment.” The houses of Lubavitch may have been small, but they had plenty of light.

I once heard that one 19th of Kislev, all of the students attended the central farbrengen held in honor of the great day, but my father preferred to stay near the bed of a sick friend so he wouldn’t remain alone. They say that at one point in that farbrengen, the Rebbe Rashab said, “Who knows if the boys who came to the farbrengen are greater? Perhaps it is the boy who stayed with his sick friend!”

"Please Give me a Jewish Burial"

One day, a stranger came to Lubavitch. He entered the study hall, and my father observed him praying the Afternoon Prayer with great concentration, and sobbing profusely. In those days, new faces were a common sight in Lubavitch, and this person did not attract undue attention. Sometime later, my father went out to the yard and suddenly heard the sound of choking. He tried to locate the source of the sound, until he realized that it was coming from the outhouse. He rushed over and found the stranger lying on the ground with his eyes closed, completely unconscious. There was a distinctly toxic smell emanating from his mouth. On his chest lay a note, which read: No one is implicated in my death; please give me a Jewish burial.

My father ran to his friends, and they carried him to the yard and tried to resuscitate him. They forced him to vomit until he threw up the poison he had swallowed.

When he recovered, he told my father his story. He came from a wealthy family and was on his way from Austria to his relatives in the Land of Israel. On the way, he had been robbed of all his money and was left without a penny. For a few days he had nothing to eat and was too ashamed to ask for a handout. That day he couldn’t take it anymore, and after his heartfelt Mincha, tried to commit suicide.

My father raised money for the man’s trip, prepared a bag laden with food and sent him on his way. Before he departed, the man told my father his last name, “Brawerfon-Meisel-Gibori,” an unusual composite of an Austrian and a Hebrew name. He begged my father that if he ever went to Eretz Yisrael, he should locate his family who would pay him back for his efforts.

Over fifty years later, once we had arrived in Eretz Yisrael, I asked my father whether he had located the man’s family. He said that he had heard about a family with a similar name who once resided in the Gadera area, but he had not succeeded in locating them.

Trying his Hand at Producing Mashke

During the time he learned in Lubavitch, my father would travel on rare occasions to visit his parents and relatives in his hometown of Smargon. During one of these visits, he heard about a local man who was preparing to marry off his daughter but was having a hard time raising the necessary funds. My father felt sorry for him and decided to try to help by saving him some of the wedding expenses. He went over to the father of the bride and confided that he knew how to make vodka out of potatoes and could produce the amount needed for the wedding. In those days, alcohol was expensive, so his offer made for significant savings.

The truth was that my father had never tried producing alcohol before. His “experience” was limited to the one time he had watched someone produce vodka out of potatoes. But he commiserated with this man and decided to try his luck. My father was quite skilled with his hands, and he believed it would turn out well.

He ground the potatoes and mixed them with sugar as he had once observed, and he put the mixture in a warm place to ferment. Once a day he would mix the combination. Days went by and nothing happened. My father felt terrible, thinking that because of him there would be nothing to drink at the wedding. The man, as well, regretted having agreed to this young boy’s suggestion. My father was all of fifteen at the time.

But in the end, with Hashem’s help the mixture fermented over time, and by the time the wedding day arrived, his efforts had yielded a fine batch of vodka. My father was ecstatic, happy to have merited to help another Jew.