As the boys noticed Reb Berel coming out of his house and walking towards them, they could sense a story in the air. All they had to do was remain silent and walk very slowly, so that there would be enough time for Reb Berel to finish it before they reached the synagogue.

They were not disappointed. Reb Berel began his tale:

Imagine the third Shabbat meal in the court of the Modzitzer Rebbe. The tables in the synagogue crowded with chassidim, every available spot of floor space taken, and clusters of young men hanging from the windows. Yet despite the large crowd, there was absolute silence. The rebbe was singing!

The chassidim were soon swept away by the rebbe’s strong voice that could command four octaves. His tunes were a combination of soft notes and rhythmic ones, the sounds of nature and creation singing their own song, and a voice that rose up from the depths of the soul. As the rebbe sang, the darkness that settled in the large room as the sun set on the holy Shabbat took his listeners far, far away along with the music.

The hour grew late. It was time to recite the blessings at the end of the meal and end the Shabbat. Someone lit a lamp. People squinted at each other in the sudden light, and then, to their shock and surprise, they noticed a new face among them. A shudder ran through the crowd at the sight of the unknown Russian officer who had managed to make his way into their midst.

“May I speak with the rebbe?” he asked in the tense silence.

After the recital of Havdalah (the prayer said at the conclusion of Shabbat), the rebbe spoke to him privately.

“I am a Jew,” the officer said and then burst into sobs. “I come from an assimilated family. My brothers all converted out of Judaism, and I did too. I went into the army and climbed up the ranks until I became the commanding officer of the military orchestra, based in the nearby army fortress.

“This afternoon I was out walking, and as I passed here, the music pulled me inside. Listening, I felt layers of my heart peeling off and falling away; I felt as if some spark that had been extinguished years ago had been reignited. There was even a vague memory of something . . .”

“A memory of what?” the rebbe asked, trying to tug at the Jewish roots that obviously still existed somewhere in the man’s heart.

The officer creased his forehead in an effort to remember. “Two words rose up in my mind. Something like Baruch atah (“Blessed are You,” the words beginning every blessing) . . .”

The rebbe grasped at these two words. “Go home,” he instructed the officer, “and repeat these words to yourself again and again. Then come back to me.”

A few days later the man returned with his wife. She, too, was Jewish.

“We want to learn about Judaism,” they said.

The Rebbe of Modzitz began teaching them about one commandment after another.

Passover arrived, and the commandant of the fortress made his routine inspection. When he passed the house of the Jewish orchestra leader, he was surprised to find the family’s servant eating outside.

“What happened?” he said jokingly. “Did your master banish you?”

But the servant wasn’t smiling. “Yes, that’s exactly what happened. They actually asked me to eat outside, because they’re eating matzah according to the Jewish custom. Since I’m eating bread, which is forbidden on their holiday, they don’t allow me to eat inside.”

The commandant was enraged. An officer in the Russian army observing the Jewish way of life? There had never been such a thing! Immediately he issued an order of exile for the orchestra leader and his family, and they were forced to leave the fortress empty-handed. Not only that, they would have to undergo a military trial.

The Jewish officer went straight to the Modzitzer Rebbe. “What should I do now?” he asked.

“If not for this, what would you be doing now, on an ordinary day?”

“I would actually be with the commandant, the man who had me exiled in the first place. This is the fixed hour for his violin lesson.”

“Then go to him as usual.”

The officer didn’t hesitate. He went.

Understandably, the commandant was taken aback to see the man he had just banished, at his door, violin in hand. “Where are you coming from?” he asked.

“I’m coming from the house of the man who taught me my new way of life,” came the reply.

“Aha!” The officer nodded triumphantly, and his grave expression deepened. “They’ve brainwashed you.”

“No, no one tried to brainwash me. I was captivated by him on my own.” And then, instead of continuing to explain, he raised his violin, laid it on his shoulder and began an entrancing melody. For a long while the music of Modzitz filled the room. The quivering violin notes penetrated the commandant’s soul, as it played tunes of yearning for the Creator and of longing for the final redemption.

When the orchestra leader finished the melody and drew the bow off the violin strings, the senior commandant looked at him with tear-filled eyes. “You don’t have to say another word,” he said slowly. “I must see the man who taught you these tunes.”

“Was the commandant also a Jew?” the boys burst out as soon as Reb Berel concluded his story.

Reb Berel nodded. “And he too returned to Judaism through the power of the niggun (chassidic melody) that flowed from the heart of the Modzitzer Rebbe.”