In the late 1950s, a man by the name of Yisrael Nachman Zeidman arrived in Samarkand. He had sunken eyes and frightened expression that seemed to bear testimony to a deep pain and a fear that lay in his heart. But he was a quiet, humble, and refined person, and we quickly discerned that he was also a pious man, and a great scholar. He respected everyone, young and old, and was the first to extend greetings to anyone who crossed his path.

At the time, we were still young and didn’t know the reason for the pained look on his face. It was only later that we found out, discreetly, that before coming to Samarkand he had lived in Ukraine, where he had been arrested and thrown into jail for ten years. When his jail sentence was complete and he finally returned home, he discovered, to his horror, that his wife had not been faithful to him and he had to divorce her. In an attempt to forget his painful past, he decided to move far away and that is why he came to Samarkand. Within a short time he married a G‑d fearing woman by the name of Liza, but due to their advanced age they were not blessed with children. Because of his refined nature, he did not want to live at the community’s expense and he worked as a bookbinder, an occupation that allowed him to keep Shabbos.

The first to recognize his special qualities was R. Tzvi Hirsch Lerner, who also came during the war from Ukraine together with his wife and two sons, Yaakov and Moshe. R. Tzvi Hirsch was a unique man, a good-hearted and kind individual who enjoyed doing a favor for a fellow Jew.

In those days, every refugee who came to Samarkand looked for work to support his family. R. Tzvi Hirsch Lerner was relatively young and healthy, and he worked as a porter. As a young child I remember that his son, my good friend Yaakov, told me that his father was constructing a sled for the winter so that he would be able to transport heavy loads on the sled instead of carrying them on his back.

Yaakov secretly told me that his father promised him that once he had completed the sled he would give us all a ride. Of course, we looked forward to this excitedly. You can imagine the joy we all felt -Yaakov Lerner, Mottel Goldschmidt, Michoel Mishulovin and I - when R. Tzvi Hirsch sat us in his sled and hauled us for a ride around the snow-filled yard. And as much as we enjoyed the ride, it seemed that R. Tzvi Hirsch enjoyed it more than we did. He was delighted by our thrilled shouts, because as children we did not own toys, living as we were on the brink of starvation. It satisfied him to bring a bit of pleasure to children who learned Torah.

Years passed and we grew up. R. Tzvi Hirsch became a successful businessman. When others were afraid, he enjoyed hosting the minyan in his house, and tried hard to ensure that everyone was comfortable. I remember well the Shabbos when I arrived at his house and discovered that he had acquired a new bench for us to sit on. As soon as I entered the house, he sat me down on the bench and enjoyed seeing how comfortable I felt on it.

R. Tzvi Hirsch was very friendly with R. Yisrael Nachman. He understood the feelings of a refugee in a foreign place since he too had come from the Ukraine as a refugee during the war. He helped R. Yisrael Nachman with whatever he was able. When R. Tzvi moved to live in the new city, he bought a house with an enclosed yard and arranged a separate apartment there for R. Yisrael Nachman to stay, free of charge.

Being that the yard was closed from all sides, it was also easier to gather in R. Tzvi Hirsch’s house for prayer without arousing suspicion in the prying eyes of neighbors. Such were the considerations of a Chassid when purchasing a house.

Taking further advantage of the yard's isolation from the neighbors, R. Tzvi Hirsch permitted himself to build a mikvah in the yard. We were unable to use standard heating methods to heat the water, as we were always worried that a surprise visit and the discovery a pool of heated water would immediately arouse suspicion. Initially we boiled buckets of water on a gas stove and then poured them into the mikvah, but this proved to be quite difficult and not too efficient. I put my “engineering skills” to use and succeeded in building a removable heating device. I constantly improved the heating mechanism until, in its latest iteration, it was able to heat all the water in fifty minutes. I fondly recall R. Tzvi Hirsch’s reaction when he saw how quickly the water heated up . He embraced me with joy and exclaimed, "Hilenkeh, the water began to boil!"

In those days, the law in the Soviet Union was that when a person retired he received a pension based on a percentage of the salary that he earned during the last year that he worked. When R. Yisrael Nachman approached retirement age, R. Tzvi Hirsch made pains to ensure that he earned a nice income. R. Tzvi knew that I was the manager of a factory and he asked me for my help. Since R. Yisrael Nachman worked as a bookbinder and earned a very meager income, if he would receive a pension based on his current salary, he would not be able to continue to support himself without help from others. He asked me to take Yisrael Nachman into the cloth emblem factory that I ran and to pay him a respectable salary for the year before he retired so he could subsist afterwards on the pension.

It was hard for me to accede to R. Tzvi’s request. No manager is thrilled with the idea of hiring someone whose documents state that he spent ten years in prison for serious crimes. The situation was much more delicate and complicated for me since my factory already had many illegal elements: it was closed on Shabbos and Holdays; only employed Jews; some of my employees had submitted requests to immigrate to Israel; and I myself was associated with the underground yeshiva and other communal affairs.

Every detail on this list was reason enough to avoid another problem, but I couldn’t ignore how beneficial this would be for the Torah scholar, R. Yisrael Nachman. I knew that if I didn’t do him this favor, he would be stuck with a low income and would be forced to be dependent on others, suffering for the rest of his days. I also couldn’t turn down the kindly R. Tzvi Lerner, and I realized the great merit involved, so I agreed to hire R. Yisrael Nachman.

I knew R. Yisrael Nachman to be a refined and learned person, so I tried to make the workload easy for him. Sometimes I would arrive at work a little late, after the workers had already begun working, and as I walked in R. Yisrael Nachman would approach me, flustered, and humbly ask, “What needs to be done today?” He realized the great favor that I had done for him, and he wanted to be of assistance in any way he could.

My friend Yaakov Lerner told me that he heard that when R. Yisrael Nachman was younger he had compiled a book of his responsa to halachic questions he had received. Apparently, his correspondents would use unbelievable titles when addressing him. Now, the situation I was in was an extremely difficult one for me to swallow: Here I was, a 21-year-old youngster, causing discomfort to someone who was much older than I, not to mention a pious, revered Torah scholar! In order to prevent this uncomfortable situation, I tried not to enter the factory immediately, and instead I would walk around outside so that he could see me through the window before I entered. This way he would expect my entry and would not feel ill at ease when I walked in.

I remember that one time we prayed at the Schiff home, and seeing as it was the last Shabbos of the month, we started off by reciting the entire Tehillim, as is customary in Chabad. Although R. Yisrael Nachman valued Chabad and its customs, he was afraid to take more time than necessary for the minyan lest the neighbors notice our illegal gathering. He suggested that we pray immediately and say the Tehillim afterwards. I was young and of an emotional character, and his suggestion annoyed me very much. I told him, “Saying Tehillim on Shabbos is an enactment of the and it cannot be changed. We will first say Tehillim, and then we will pray!”

R. Yisrael Nachman, the humble person that he was, kept quiet. Years later, when I recall this incident, I cringe for daring to talk so impudently to a person like him.

“It’s Not a Pshetel!

As in every Jewish community, Samarkand had some sharply different sorts of characters. One man living in Samarkand was a Jew who had learned in the yeshiva of Mir when he was younger. This was something he took great pride in, and he would constantly describe the brilliance of its students, how many pages of Gemara he had learned by heart, and so on. He was a man who prayed every day wearing tallis and tefillin and ate kosher, but he did it all without any enthusiasm. He had a certain coldness and an aloofness that hovered about him.

This fellow worked as a cashier in a factory, and as part of his job he had to go to the bank every day to withdraw money. To our astonishment, he would go to the bank on Shabbos too. When people would ask him, “You are a Torah scholar and an observant Jew. How can you work on Shabbos?” he would coolly invoke a Talmudic principle of dubious relevance, and reply, “Dina d’malchusa Dina—the law of the land is law.”

To us youngsters, he was a living example of a man whom we would never emulate. We felt that this was the type of pitfall that one could find himself in when lacking the illumination of Chassidus. We never imagined that such a personality could really exist until we saw it with our own eyes: a man, who considered himself to be a Torah scholar, quoting statements from the Gemara to justify his desecration of Shabbos! In order to appease those who questioned him, he would say that when he reached retirement age he would stop working. However, upon growing accustomed to working on Shabbos, he continued working and desecrating the holy day even after he reached retirement age.

In order to explain to us what kind of Jew this man was and how it is possible to use one's Torah knowledge to allow the forbidden, R. Dovid Okunov told us the of following episode: He once had the occasion to be in a certain city in Russia, and he stayed in the home of a Rabbi who lived there. Milk was served at breakfast one morning, and R. Dovid was surprised and asked in all sincerity from where hehad procured supervised milk - Chalav Yisrael.

The Rabbi told him, “Actually, it’s not supervised, but I am proficient in Halacha and know that there is a difference of opinion concerning the permissibility of unsupervised milk. Although the Shulchan Aruch states that we follow those who prohibit milk only overseen by a gentile, I follow the opinion that allows it. It is permitted to be lenient when there are two opinions.”

To us, this demonstrated how greatly Chassidus inspired us to remain steadfast in observing Torah and its laws to the highest degree, in even the most difficult of times.

During the summer, R. Yisrael Nachman would give us classes in Ethics of our Fathers, the Mishna customarily studied that time of year, sharing the explanations and sayings from various Jewish sages. This same former student of the Mir yeshiva would attend these classes as well. One time, R. Yisrael Nachman explained an idea from the Mishna with an explanation from a certain righteous Rabbi. Upon hearing the explanation, the man dismissed it saying, “Ah, that’s a pshetel,” by which he meant that it was just a cute thought, without any real basis.

Although Yisrael Nachman was a quiet man who did not raise his voice, he couldn’t tolerate this man’s casual manner in which he dismissed the words of a tzaddik. He turned pale in shock and nearly lost his voice. He then shouted, “What do you mean by ‘a pshetel?’ It’s the explanation of a great tzaddik. How can you dismiss what he said and speak so disparagingly?!”

The man began to justify himself, saying that he didn’t really mean to dismiss what the sage said. But R. Yisrael Nachman wouldn't accept any excuses. Calling an explanation of a holy sage "a pshetel" was something he could not tolerate. We all saw how important the honor of a tzaddik was to him, to the point that despite his great refinement, he would publicly censure someone for their lack of respect in this regard.

At the beginning of the 1970s, when we all received exit visas and emigrated to Eretz Yisrael, I wondered what would be the fate of R. Yisrael Nachman. But R. Tzvi Lerner didn’t abandon him then either, and he made sure to arrange exit visas for him and his wife. When they arrived in the Land of Israel, they lived in Nachalat Har Chabad, in close proximity to R. Tzvi Hirsch. I was pleased to hear that the young men in Nachalat Har Chabad greatly appreciated R. Yisrael Nachman’s vast Torah knowledge and arranged to have classes with him. After he grew weak and found it difficult to walk to the local synagogue, young men would go to his house and arrange a minyan for him there.