We once heard a rumor that in Kulashi, Georgia, the Jews got along with the emigration authorities and, it was possible to obtain a visa. It was decided that I would go and check this out.

If the rumor would indeed prove to be true, all eight members of the family would have to move to Kulashi and register as residents of the city. We would then need to receive a new invitation from Eretz Yisrael, and only then would we be able to submit a request to the Georgian emigration office. Uprooting our family from Samarkand and settling into a new place would be difficult, not only physically risky, but also politically risky. Yet what wouldn’t we try in order to leave Russia?

The Georgian Jews were known to be remarkably brave and courageous. I heard that after the Revolution, when the government closed down many shuls throughout Russia, KGB officers were sent to Kutaisi, Georgia, to permanently seal the shul. The Jews poured out into the streets and protested openly. They surrounded the shul like a human wall and refused to allow the KGB officers to enter. The officers laughed sadistically and sneered, “We’ll come back and show you….”

They returned bearing machine guns and other forms of weaponry. The bold Georgian Jews, men, women and children, marched to the shul and laid their bodies across the ground. They said, “We are not moving from here. You can only enter the shul if you kill us first.” In the end, the KGB officers left empty-handed, and the shul remained open.

I went to Kulashi and was astonished to discover a large, vibrant Jewish community that lived as though they weren’t stifled under the communist rule. I had heard beforehand that there were 2,000 people in the town, most of whom were Jewish and religiously observant, but what I saw surpassed anything I could have imagined.

I arrived there on a Friday and I saw dozens of Jewish women going to the shochet, Chacham Yitzchok, to slaughter their chickens for Shabbos. The sight of this older Jew with a long, flowing beard brushing against a long kapota moved me very much. In Samarkand this was dangerous, but in Kulashi it was done openly and fearlessly.

(Although Georgia was one of the Soviet republics and Soviet law applied there as it did everywhere else, rumor had it that Georgians were granted slightly more freedom, because Stalin hailed from that area. When a visitor arrived in Georgia from another Soviet republic, he would be asked jokingly: “Where are you from? From the Soviet Union?”)

What I saw on Friday afternoon was nothing compared to the moving sight I witnessed on Friday night in the big shul. The place was crowded with old and young, and many children were present. Many of them couldn’t even get inside and had to stand outside!

I had visited many places in Russia but I had never seen young people in shul, and I certainly hadn’t seen small children. Hundreds of Jews crowded the shul, davening loudly and singing enthusiastically. I couldn’t restrain myself and tears of joy flowed from my eyes. When it was time for “Lecha Dodi,” a young boy got up to sing and the crowd followed his lead. I haven’t forgotten the special niggun for this liturgical poem till this day. I felt like it was worth traveling to Kulashi just to behold this oasis amidst the spiritual desert of Soviet Russia.

The next day, Shabbos, after the meal, Chacham Yaakov addressed the crowd. He spoke for around an hour and all of the participants listened intently. After davening I was told to visit the other shul in the afternoon where Chacham Refael would speak. He was a young dynamic rav in his thirties and a very talented speaker. People flocked to hear him. The shul was packed and Chacham Refael enthusiastically lectured on Torah, Medrash, and Aggada for more than two hours. Although I didn’t understand the lecture which was said in Georgian, I was exceedingly moved by the scene.

I had a supremely spiritual experience in Kulashi which embedded a deep impression within my heart, but as far as the purpose of my trip, I did not achieve anything. The rumor was proven false—no one was able to obtain a visa there either.

It was time for me to return to Samarkand. There were no trains nor direct flights from Georgia to Samarkand, and the only way to travel home would be to take a flight to Moscow and then fly from there to Samarkand. However, it was difficult to find a seat on a plane during the summer months when everyone was flying on vacation. Indeed, I was unable to obtain a ticket from Kutaisi to Moscow.

I had heard that in Georgia it was possible to obtain anything you wanted with appropriate bribery, and I thus hoped that I’d be able to bribe the right people to get on a flight. I went to the airport and headed straight for the runaway, locating the plane going to Moscow (this was possible to do in those days).

When I saw the pilot approaching, I went over to him and said,, “I must go to Moscow and I couldn’t obtain a ticket. I’m ready to pay for it plus more. Can you get me onto the plane?” The pilot regarded for me for a moment and then nodded. He said, “Follow me.”

We reached the door to the plane and he said to the stewardess, “This is one of my attendants.” He gave me a seat next to the cabin, where the stewardesses sat, and we took off. A short while later, the second pilot left the cockpit and I asked the main pilot if I could come in and pay him. We spoke for a bit and I asked him various questions about flying and navigating a plane. He said it wasn’t very complicated and offered to let me sit in his seat and play with the controls.

I was too afraid to play with such a toy. At least not while it was aloft and I was aboard it! The pilot said, “Watch, I will scare the passengers by making the plane lunge downward.” Standing near the pilot it was exhilarating to dive downward into the vast expanse of clear blue sky. From the passengers cabin we suddenly heard the passengers yell, “Why are we falling down?”

I returned to Samarkand, uplifted from my experience in Kulashi yet disappointed that I couldn’t use that venue to obtain exit visas.