When my cousin Yaakov Pil returned from the warfront, some were of the opinion that he would be suited to teach in a school or work at some other intellectual job. My father, however, was certain that he was better off opening a store, enabling him to keep Shabbos. “Better a less honorable occupation in a Jewish atmosphere than a prestigious one amongst Communists!” he said.

The following incident vividly portrays the importance my father attributed to the Jewish education of his children:

The years leading up to and culminating in the infamous Doctors' Plot of 1953 were very difficult years for Russian Jewry. The situation was so dire that when my father bought new earthenware utensils for Pesach, my aunt Rosa criticized him, saying, “These days we have to save money and buy canned goods and preserves so that we will have what to eat on the long trip to Siberia.” That was the prevalent feeling: people were simply waiting for the moment when Stalin would haul us off to Siberia, to “protect” us from the murderous pogroms set to be instigated by the Plot.

I will never forget that frightful scene of Rosh Hashana Eve, 1952 or 3. We children were afraid to go to shul, so my father was preparing to go alone. But before he left the house, he turned his head to the heavens and prayed to Hashem in a voice choked with tears:

“Master of the world, what do I ask of you? All I want is for my sons to remain erliche Yiddendevout Jews!”

My father then raised his hands above his head and cried, “Master of the world, if it was decreed that my sons go astray, I ask of You to take me first so that I don’t see it!!”

My mother was horrified to hear this and shouted, “How can you talk like that before Rosh Hashana? Our children are yirei’im v’shleimim, they are pious and whole-hearted! Our children will never compromise on anything. They won't pass a day without donning tefillin, and will never treat keeping Kosher or Shabbos lightly. Other people did not stand strong and their children abandoned our faith, but thank G‑d, we are all yirei’im v’shleimim!”

My father was not pacified and said, “True, but these are very hard times. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? I’m telling you: if they go off the path, Heaven forbid, I won’t be able to live anymore.”

Such was the fierce devotion of a true Chassid in the Soviet Union of those days.

My Father's Hiddurim

In Russia of those years, we would stock up for the winter with sacks of potatoes and onions, and by pickling large amounts of cucumbers, tomatoes and cabbage. Before pickling the cabbage, they had to be inspected for insects and worms. My father always insisted that someone with superior eyesight had to do the checking. “We need young eyes for the job,” he said.

Us youngsters were recruited for the task. In order to motivate us, my father promised us a ruble for each bug we discovered. We jumped at the opportunity to earn a bit of money, and we scrutinized each leaf as if we were searching for gold.

My father had a number of customs that he took particular care in performing, or as they are called in Hebrew, hiddurim, or"adornments" of the Halacha. One of his more idiosyncratic hiddurim was his custom, while he was folding his tallis after Shabbos, to chant the name of the prophet Eliyahu with his various titles: Eliyahu Hanavi, Eliyahu Hatishbi, Eliyahu Hagil’adi.1 He would repeat each refrain ten times, and upon finishing he would begin again, followed by a third round, mentioning Eliyahu’s name a total of ninety times. When R. Berke Chein stayed in our house while he was on the run from the police, he noticed this custom and adopted it as well.

My father would then recite Veyitein Lecha, followed by a trip to the well to draw water. He would say that the water drawn on the night after Shabbos is sourced from the Well of Miriam. When running water was installed in the street and later on in the house, he would take water from the faucet instead.