Father’s Family

My mother once told us that Father’s father, Reb Shaul Levertov, was a descendant of the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), renowned author of the Tanya and Shulchan Aruch (Harav) and founder of the Chabad school of Chassidism. A close family member had in his possession a family tree detailing this descent. Unfortunately, after his passing, his wife sold it, not realizing its great value to the family.

Reb Shaul and his wife Yehudis were Chassidim of the Rebbe MaHaRaSh — Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch (1834-1882), the fourth leader of Chabad. Originally they lived not far from Lubavitch, in Orsha, a town in the province of Vitebsk in north-eastern White Russia (modern Belarus). This region was classic Chabad “territory,” where most Jews were Chabad Chassidim.

Later, Father’s parents moved south to the Ukrainian city of Krementchug. There they lived in its suburb of Krukov, over the river from the city itself. Krementchug had a significant Chabad community, including many renowned Chassidic personalities who exemplified Torah scholarship and devout Chassidic worship of G‑d. The city also had many “Polish” Chassidim — as other Chassidim were traditionally called among Chabad followers (although the region is far from today’s Poland).

Reb Shaul himself was a devoted and thorough Talmud teacher, imbuing his many students over the years with a burning love of Torah study. One student later recorded in his memoirs that, when he was aged just eight and a half, Reb Shaul taught his class the tractate Chullin — one of the most complicated in the Talmud!

Father was born in 1885, and his parents named him DovBer after the Mitteler Rebbe (1773-1827), the Alter Rebbe’s son and successor as leader of Chabad-Lubavitch. In keeping with their distinguished lineage, Reb Shaul raised his son in exemplary fashion, giving him a solid basis in Torah scholarship.


Recognizing his son’s fine capabilities, Reb Shaul decided to send DovBer away to a senior yeshiva where he could pursue advanced Torah studies. DovBer was just fifteen when his father sent him to the yeshiva of Lomza, a town in Lithuania with a high reputation for Torah scholarship.

Under the conditions of that time, sending a child hundreds of miles away from home could well mean that his parents would never set eyes on him again. Nevertheless, their son’s Torah education was of such paramount importance that DovBer’s parents were ready for this sacrifice.

Young DovBer’s father was too poor to afford a train ticket. So he did what other poor boys did in those days — he hid under the train seat through the whole trip, terrified that at any moment the conductor might discover him and throw him off at the next stop!

He reached Lomza safely, however, and studied Torah there for the next two years, delving deeply into the Talmud and its commentaries.


At that time, the now-renowned Yeshiva Tomchei T’mimim in Lubavitch, the center of Chabad Chassidus. had only recently been founded by the Rebbe RaShaB. Even among Chabad Chassidim it was not yet well known. Soon, however, word spread of the new yeshiva’s high standards of scholarship and unique atmosphere of devotion to serving G‑d, and the warm camaraderie of its students.

DovBer heard about this new Yeshiva from his companions in Lomza. As a serious Torah student, especially one from such a staunch Chabad Chassidic background, he was greatly attracted. Lubavitch sounded like an ideal environment where he could advance in service of G‑d through Torah study and devout prayer.

The new Yeshiva, however, was reputed to have rigorous admission standards, rejecting most applicants. DovBer decided to try his luck anyway. Without telling anyone, he packed his belongings and set out for Lubavitch.

DovBer presented himself to the faculty of Yeshiva Tomchei T’mimim. The mashgiach — dean of Talmud studies — Rabbi Zev Wolf Levitin (father of the well-known Chassid, Rabbi Shmuel Levitin, 1883-1974), tested DovBer’s expertise in Talmudic knowledge and immediately accepted him.

He studied in Lubavitch from 1901 until 1907. Among his fellow students in those early years of Tomchei Tmimim were such famous names as Reb Shilem Kuratin, Reb Shimshon Vitebsker, Reb Yisroel Neveler and many others renowned for their dedication to Chassidus.

During his five years in Lubavitch, DovBer continued his intense study of Talmud and Halacha (Torah law) — the subjects of study at all Yeshivos. For the first time, he also started delving into Chabad Chassidus, studied in great depth for four hours of the yeshiva’s daily twelve-hour study schedule. Chassidus was Tomchei T’mimim’s greatest innovation. Before then, Chassidim generally studied this profound philosophy only after their marriage.

Eventually he was granted Rabbinic ordination (Semicha). He also received authorization to practice as a shochet (ritual slaughterer) and bodek (who inspects animals after slaughter) — both highly qualified skills.

In Lubavitch, DovBer was treated with special fondness by the Rebbe RaShaB and his son, the RaYYaTz, the yeshiva’s dean. This close relationship was expressed years later when his first son — my brother Sholom — was born in 1927, and the Rebbe RaYYaTz agreed to serve as his sandek (who holds the baby during the circumcision ceremony). Unfortunately, the Rebbe was prevented from attending but sent his special blessing for the newborn to grow up as a Chassid who would be G‑d-fearing and learned.


In 1907, Father married my mother, Yenta Rivka Sokolovsky, who was also from Krementchug. Her family were Rachmastrivker Chassidim (whose Rebbes are members of the Twersky family, descending from the renowned Tchernobyl dynasty).

Mother was an intelligent and well-educated woman who had studied for several years at a secular high-school (“gymnasium,” as such schools were known) — for no Jewish girls schools existed then. Like many other Torah observant families, her parents employed special tutors to teach their daughters basic Jewish studies at home.

After his marriage, Father became Rabbi and shochet of the town of Kabilak, near Poltava, Ukraine. He was there for no more than about a year, but he became known among other Lubavitchers as Berel Kabilaker — a name that stuck to our family to the extent that no one knew us by our real family name! Later, Father was employed in other towns, such as Kharol, near Orsha, White Russia.

According to the recently unearthed records of his NKVD interrogation, he told their agents that he had been drafted into the Russian army in 1916 during World War I, serving until the Czar was overthrown in 1917. During the War, the family settled in Krementchug until they moved to Moscow in 1922. By that time, my parents had three little girls: Chava was born in Kharol in 1913, Basya in Krementchug in 1914, and Sheindel in 1918.

In the chaotic years after the War, when marauding bands often attacked Jews, Father once had a miraculous escape. A drunk White Army officer attacked him with his sword. Just in time, a quick-thinking friend of his turned over the officer’s sword so that it struck Father’s shoulder on its blunt side instead of its blade. This saved Father’s life, but the blow left a long scar on his body.

Moving to Moscow

As economic conditions deteriorated, living standards became intolerable. The family had little food and lacked vital necessities. My parents resolved to move to a larger city where there were more opportunities to make a living.

Before World War I, most Chassidim lived within the Pale of Jewish Settlement. Under the Czars, large cities such as Moscow and Petersburg had been outside the Pale, and few Jews were allowed to live there. Chassidim actually preferred living in small towns which had fewer temptations and distractions from serving G‑d.

During the war, the prohibition against Jews living outside the Pale was lifted. Many now moved to large cities, where there were more opportunities for making a living than in small towns.

Under the Communist regime, it was also easier for Torah observant Jews to keep a low profile in a large city, helping them to elude harassment and arrest. In small towns, anyone loyal to the Torah was a conspicuous target, especially Rabbis and other religious dignitaries, who were therefore among the first to move.