As Shavuot approaches and Jews around the world are getting set to prepare and consume delicious dairy treats, we remember Zusman Rivkin, a Chassidic dairy farmer from Kfar Chabad, Israel, who passed away 10 years ago. This obituary was first published on July 9, 2007.

It’s not every day that a funeral for an elderly Chassidic Jew will stop at a barn on its way to the cemetery. But nothing could have been more fitting for the July 6 procession of the body of Zusman Rivkin, who died last Friday at the age of 78 from heart complications.

The longtime Kfar Chabad resident was buried in Israel’s ancient Mount of Olives cemetery outside of Jerusalem.

The odd path of the memorial service was certainly no surprise to those who knew the short and rigid Rivkin. Many in Israel traveled to see him at the Chabad-Lubavitch village, located in the middle of the country’s coastal plain. For the highly modern Israeli, he was a link to a past lifestyle they saw as inspirational in its austerity.

Until his very last day, “Zusik,” as he was known to his friendly neighbors, saw dairy farming as his “mission in the world,” lording over a herd of some 130 cows that collectively produced more than 1,500 liters of kosher milk each day.

White-bearded and donning a canvas hat and rubber boots, Rivkin used to hit the farm early to feed his cattle. Each day but Shabbat, he woke at 5:15 in the morning and drank a glass of hot water with a slice of lemon. After tending his animals, he headed to synagogue to study Chasidic thought and pray the Shacharit morning service.

He firmly stuck to his habits, noting that “an old thing, so long as it works well, should be kept.” Such was his approach to his afternoon Talmud lesson and his refusal to carry a credit card, even as those around him adapted to an increasingly cashless society. He even remained faithful to the decades-old furniture in his 200-square-foot home, which was built in the 1950s by the Israeli government’s settlement bureau.

Homeless in Europe

Born to a Chabad-Lubavitch family in the Ukrainian town of Gomil, Rivkin was 12 when the Germans invaded Russia in 1941, and his father, who worked in a leather factory with no plans on immigrating to what was known then as Palestine, was ordered to report to duty in the Red Army.

After a long, hard day on the farm, Rivkin would study the Talmud every afternoon.
After a long, hard day on the farm, Rivkin would study the Talmud every afternoon.

The rest of the Rivkins fled west to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, and after World War II traveled back east, wandering through displaced persons camps in Austria and France. They eventually reunited with their father, a rare event, considering that most of Gomil’s Jewish community vanished during the war.

The family made it to Israel, where Zusik was sent to study in the Central Lubavitcher Yeshiva-Tomchei Temimim in Lod. Unlike the other students, the young Rivkin did not pursue rabbinical studies, instead following the personal directives of the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—who instructed the boy to take up agriculture.

In the 1950s, he served in the Israel Defense Forces, operating a machine gun emplacement during the 1956 Sinai Campaign against Egypt. For 22 years after that, he guarded Kfar Chabad from armed Arab terrorists and thieves.

A Tough Livelihood

In many ways, Rivkin was of a unique breed. He drove around his village on his Fiat and Fergusson tractors, ignored newspapers and didn’t watch television. After years of milking his cows with his bare hands, Rivkin was known for his calloused palms and strong grip. He would nurse his hands in the summer time by swimming in the Dead Sea.

“I used to shake a hand, and people cracked,” he once bragged.

In an interview granted to the Ha’aretz daily newspaper four years ago, the farmer stated simply: “This is a tough livelihood for an Orthodox Jew.”