When my grandfather, Yisroel, was a cheder student in the White Russian city of Nevel, a younger boy had a notebook and pencil he cherished. Every day, the boy would sit down to write a letter to his mother using the two items. Once, an older boy stole over to the child as he sat writing his letter, snatched the pencil from the little boy’s hand and ran away with it while calling the boy names. The child began to cry bitterly at the loss of his pencil, as well as the insult and embarrassment in front of all the other students.

Yisroel saw this. He snatched the pencil back from the older boy and warned him not to start up with the letter-writer—or he would have to answer to him in a boxing match. After that, the precious notebook and pencil were safe with their owner.

When Yisroel was a child in his hometown, he was known as a prankster, and so after his bar mitzvah, his father sent him to Lubavitch to learn Torah and “become serious.”

“You Are a Good Son to Me”

The yeshivah was housed in combined quarters which included the home of the Rebbe Rashab (Reb Sholom Ber, fifth Chabad Rebbe), the study hall, and a goat which gave its good milk to feed the students and staff of the yeshivah. The goat had a long beard, so the students called it Boroda, which means “the bearded one” in Russian.

Once, Yisroel had somehow obtained a glass of vodka. He came out into the yard of the yeshivah. The goat was in the yard at that moment. Yisroel called the goat, and gave sips of alcohol to the animal. The Russian vodka had its intended effect on the goat, which is similar to what it would be on humans. Boroda began to dance, prance, jump, and intone, “Maa, maa, maa.” It didn’t take long for some of the students of the yeshivah to come out to the yard and join the goat dancing, jumping, hopping, prancing, and singing, "Maa, maa, maa."

And then suddenly and unexpectedly one of the teachers walked into the yard. Quickly, he inquired as to who was responsible for the commotion, and was told that this was the doing of Yisroel, the boy from Nevel. The administration was informed of this event, and Yisroel was sent out of the yeshivah. He was told to go home to his parents, back to Nevel.

As he was walking out of the office, Yisroel said quietly, “I am not going home.” He had made his statement, but where would he go if not home? That he didn’t know.

As he meandered the streets of the town, he decided to go to a bed-and-board establishment known to take in yeshivah students. Yisroel told the owners that he was going to stay with them. They did not question the boy. Two weeks later, the innkeeper sent a bill to the yeshivah for “housing the student Yisroel for two weeks.”

When the bill arrived, the boy from Nevel was summoned and asked to explain his ensconcing himself in the best bed-and-board in town on the yeshivah’s tab.

Yisroel explained.

He couldn’t possibly go home, he said, and disappoint his parents, who had sent him to learn in yeshivah. As far as his staying in the hotel, “I saved the yeshivah money,” Yisroel affirmed, “for, if I wouldn’t have where to sleep, I would sleep in the street and freeze to death. If I didn’t have where to eat, I would die of hunger, which would incur for the yeshivah the cost of shrouds, a burial plot and a telegram to my parents to inform them of my demise."

Regarding the goat, Yisroel said: “True, in the beginning I was misbehaving, and I was wrong for doing that, but in the end, I learned a lesson from it. The Rebbe, the students and the goat all spend their days in the same place. The students watch the Rebbe, and the goat watches the Rebbe. We have to learn from the Rebbe while watching him; otherwise, we are no better than the goat."

The administrators sighed, then laughed, then sighed again, and finally laughed again. Despite his prankish behavior, Yisroel from Nevel had a sharp mind, was studious, and the administration had noted his care and concern towards other students. He was reinstated.

Years later, Yisroel was dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah, together with the other Chassidim and the Sixth Chabad Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of righteous memory—who had been the yeshivah administrator at the time. The Rebbe placed his arm on Yisroel’s shoulder and said to him: Du bist mir ah guter zun (“You are a good son to me”).

Rabbi Yisroel and Chana Levin with their daughter, Mussia Zalmanov, shortly after their escape from the Soviet Union.
Rabbi Yisroel and Chana Levin with their daughter, Mussia Zalmanov, shortly after their escape from the Soviet Union.

The Smile That Stayed Forever

When Chana Pevzner was a young girl, she told her father that she wanted to marry a Chassid.And so, when it came time for her to get married, Chana’s father, Reb Mordechai Pevzner, went to Lubavitch to find a young man who would be an appropriate match for his youngest daughter. He found Yisroel from Nevel, who had made a name for himself as an accomplished student and inspired Chassid. Arrangements were made for a meeting.

At the appointed day, the young man came to the Pevzner home to meet the prospective bride and her parents. He came in a wagon pulled by a horse and driven by a coachman.

As was the custom in those days, the family sat down to dinner, and the young man and woman were supposed to get to know each other a bit during the dinner.

The conversation at the table was strained. And in his usual way, Yisroel lightened the atmosphere at the table with a joke.

Everyone at the dinner table laughed except for Chana. She did not utter a word. The young man tried to speak with her across the table, but the girl was shy and did not answer. The meal was over, the “Grace After Meals” prayer was recited, the would-be suitor shook hands with the would-be father-in-law and went back to the wagon.

Chana was stunned. She had already decided to marry this tall, handsome, funny and clever young Chassid. But he was leaving! He was in the wagon already going back to yeshivah. She had to do something quickly.

Suddenly, the door of the wagon burst open, and Chana flew inside. In another moment, he would have been gone forever.

“Why don’t you want me?” she cried out.

Yisroel smiled. “Oh!” he said, “Now I want you. You can speak!”

And that clinched the shidduch. “I think we should get married right away,” the chassan said, smiling. That was the smile that blazed through Chana’s heart and stayed with her forever.

Chana, and the Miracle of the Candle-Lighting

Yisroel and Chana had many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Their lives were complicated and difficult because of Stalin’s anti-religion laws, and even more so because of Yisroel’s fearless work teaching children Torah.

For many Jewish religious women in Communist Russia, the few moments after lighting Shabbat candles were their medicine against all ailments.

Chana’s hands—reddened from washing the floor in her family’s one-room home, kneading laundry soaked in lye on an iron scrubbing board and boiling the laundry; hands that not only cleaned, cooked and baked, but also worked the knitting machines in the work room, as well as planted and tended a vegetable garden—these hands now accepted the coming of Shabbat. Everything changed when Chana’s hands circled over the little candle flames and then covered her eyes, and she murmured the traditional Shabbat blessing.

When she uncovered her eyes, she smiled sweetly, said “Good Shabbos” to any daughters and granddaughters who stood beside her, and, at that instant, a miracle happened. My overworked, tired grandmother’s dark kerchief became a golden diadem studded with sparkling diamonds and her simple dark dress a red ermine robe.

And when she sat down in her favorite wooden straight-backed chair, Chana’s face was a ray of light as mysterious as Shabbat itself.

The hard work of the days of the past week dissolved into nothing, and all those present at this candle-lighting ceremony savored the stunning moment of peace and prosperity.

The Shabbat Queen had arrived.