Note: The Israeli novelist Amos Oz passed away on Friday, Dec. 28, 2018, at the age of 79. In 2014, the city of Rovna (or Rivne), Ukraine, where Oz’s mother was born and raised, wished to erect a memorial plaque on the family home. They reached out for help from the city’s rabbi and Chabad-Lubavitch emissary, Rabbi Schneor Schneersohn, who in turn contacted the Oz family. Oz later invited Schneersohn to visit him on his next trip to Israel, and Schneersohn took the author up on his offer. Oz’s interest was at first piqued in Schneersohn’s famous last name, for Oz had a beloved teacher, the poet Zelda, who shared the name. Zelda was, in fact, the first cousin of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, and the rabbi of Rovna is a distant relative as well. But what started as a technical correspondence turned into a genuine friendship. At the outset of the Shabbat following Oz’s passing, Rabbi Schneersohn penned a letter to his friend, Amos. It has been freely translated into English.

Motzei Shabbat Kodesh Parshat Shemot, 2018

My dear friend Amos,

Here with you is Shneor Schneersohn, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s emissary to the city of Rovna, Ukraine, or, as you always made sure to say, Reb Shneur, with the emphasis on the Reb.

Just before the onset of Shabbat we were informed that you are no longer with us. I thought that after a day it would become easier for me to write, but now it is Motzei Shabbat of Parshat Shemot, and it is not so at all. Writing is difficult for me. You certainly remember the agreement between us: my strength lies more in speaking, and I left the writing to you.

As the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s emissary to Rovna, our paths crossed a number of years ago. It was a matter of technical assistance in deciding on the wording for the memorial plaque on the home of your mother, Fanya, of blessed memory. It started with an email correspondence, which was followed by phone calls to highlight some details, and after your daughter Fanya’s visit in Rovna, you asked me to meet you on my next visit to Israel. Since then our connection became a personal friendship.

I knocked at the entrance of your twelfth floor apartment, and you opened the door with a happiness that didn’t hide your curiosity. Your tall stature was dwarfed by the full bookshelves that were ceiling-high. We hugged like old friends and you offered refreshments in disposable dishes, out of respect and appreciation for kashrut. You expressed your excitement to meet a relative of “Zelda, the teacher,” your revered second grade teacher. You so wanted to hear all that is happening in Rovna, and I obliged. We sat and spoke.

Oz's teacher, Zelda Schneerson-Mishkovsky, who was also the Rebbe's first cousin.
Oz's teacher, Zelda Schneerson-Mishkovsky, who was also the Rebbe's first cousin.

I brought you a Tanya that we had recently printed in Rovna, you opened it and buried your head in its pages. You leafed through it and inhaled the smell of the pages and the letters, the scent of fresh print. You apologized and asked for privacy to be alone with the holy book that was printed in Rovna. You excitedly told of your grandson who serves in the air force, and about the privilege that you had to speak as a representative of the families before the soldiers who completed the officers course. You were happy when I, on my part, shared a family picture.

On a phone call we had later, you said to me: “Reb Shneor, you should know that the small cup of vodka from your last visit is still waiting for you.” And I accepted the invitation, and came again. You were happy to see me. You took out a binder containing material that you seemed to be collecting especially for my visit, from which you took out pictures of Rovna from the olden days, and whole pages of drafts, mainly testimonies from your mother’s sisters, of blessed memory, about life in Rovna, and you were telling me that this was content that didn’t make it into your book, A Tale of Love and Darkness.

We spoke about faith and about everything. We didn’t agree on everything, and more than you and I arguing, it was mainly you arguing with yourself. In our conversations, you expressed your pain by the ignorance of the younger generation. You were unable to hide your frustration with the fact that there is a generation growing up without values.

I told you about the programs of Torah study and Judaism in our community, and you wanted to know even the smallest details. You expressed your joy that in today’s Rovna there are people who are sitting and learning Torah. You wished to support our efforts financially, and you made sure to make donations for the Kollel Torah in Rovna and for other community programs. You did this with a special grace and you saw in your donation a unique privilege to be a partner in our activities.

Rabbi Schneor Schneersohn, rabbi and Chabad emissary to Rovna, Ukraine, with Amos Oz's daughter, Fanya Oz-Salzberger, at the formal dedication for the plaque placed by the municipality at the home of her paternal grandmother.
Rabbi Schneor Schneersohn, rabbi and Chabad emissary to Rovna, Ukraine, with Amos Oz's daughter, Fanya Oz-Salzberger, at the formal dedication for the plaque placed by the municipality at the home of her paternal grandmother.

For my fortieth birthday you surprised me with these moving wishes:

Dear Reb Shneor,

I have for quite some time been devotedly following your work in the community of Rovna. I will always be thankful to you for your role in creating a memorial for all of Rovna’s Jews, including many of my family members, who were murdered by the German Nazis and their collaborators. And with your assistance in commemorating, with a memorial plaque, the home where my mother, of blessed memory, had grown up and in which her family had lived before their immigration to Israel, a house I have described at length in A Tale of Love and Darkness.

My daughter Fanya told us about her meeting with you when she returned from Rovna and sang your praises. When I was finally privileged to meet you in person I saw before me a lovely man, warm-hearted and clever, knowledgeable and a great lover of the Jewish people. In our conversations I have found in you an interesting interlocutor and a charming conversationalist. The name that you were privileged to carry, Shneor Schneerson, holds within it a singular legacy.

A little bird told me that you, with your family and dear friends, are celebrating your fortieth birthday. Please allow me to add my voice to the voices of those who bless, hold dear and wish you and your family many more years of blessed activities, of love of the Jewish people, of Wisdom, Understanding and Intellect [Chochmah, Binah and Daat in the original, the Hebrew words that make up the acronym ChaBaD].

Your friend who holds you in great esteem,

Amos Oz

Amos Oz's inscription on a volume of his work gifted to Rabbi Schneersohn.
Amos Oz's inscription on a volume of his work gifted to Rabbi Schneersohn.

I remember you telling me about the disease and the treatments. You said to me: “Reb Shneor, I was always a fighter, I always fought, and I’m going out to war now with cancer. And I will win…”

You spoke of the wonderful people you met, the special doctor at Beilinson [Hospital] and the good friends who surround and embrace you.

The start of the current school year, this past Elul, was one of the most emotional days of my life: it was the day I brought my son to study in yeshivah for the first time. But first I stopped by to visit you together with my son.

It was evident that the treatments exhausted you, but you welcomed me and were happy to see my son. I told you that he is beginning his studies in yeshivah today. You didn’t hide your pleasure, and in a heartfelt manner wished him success. In that same visit I brought a shofar with me and wanted to give it to you as a gift. You could not hide your emotion. We spoke about the shofar and its meaning, and I even blew it, you across from me, covering your head with inner emotion.

I finished blowing the shofar. Your wife, Nili, may she live and be well, began telling me about your grandchildren. But you, you were still standing there in concentration, as though you were somewhere else. I was moved together with you and requested that you take the shofar with you to treatments, and not to forget to blow it whenever you feel the need.

The Israeli national poet Nathan Alterman at a Chassidic farbrengen at Kfar Chabad. Credit: National Library of Israel.
The Israeli national poet Nathan Alterman at a Chassidic farbrengen at Kfar Chabad. Credit: National Library of Israel.

We sat down, and you told me: “Reb Shneor, I must read something to you.” You began reading Nathan Alterman’s poem, “The Telegram:”

[Free translation from the original Hebrew]

Chabad Chassidim in Russia rushed a telegram to Tel Aviv,
Regarding a shipment of etrogs and lulavs,
On its way the telegram arrived
At the Russian military censor, and there…

The military censor
Lifted his head.
He flashed his glance, suspicious and sharp,
He turned here and there
And secretively asked:
“Shto Takoya” (What is) Chabad?

The secretary then grunted: We’ll search in the boxes
And check the alphabetically ordered files.
Ach… the acronyms of Soviet government institutions,
Are many and complex…

They pop up nowadays one by one,
And you must decipher their names…
And it is uncomfortable to ask… you will fail [to decipher] Chabad
And will have to get it from the supervisor.

And then the group officer enters, David Schneerson,
And the censor signals to him: Listen here, Dodka!
There is no one like you who is familiar with the complexities of the government,
Please, what is Chabad? Be a friend here!

And the officer, Schneerson, smiled, thinking.
He brings the writing close with his hand,
And he spoke: Ay Chabad, my dear censor friend,
Ay Chabad, my censor friend, Chabad!

Listen here, Gregory, listen Grisha, my brother, son of Ignaty,
You will understand me if you lend me your ear.
Oh Chabad! It is firstly an anti-Nazi organization,
Anti-Nazi, brother, definitely!

They do not recognize despair and surrender;
They are hot, like a rapidly spreading fire!
(If only the second front were in their hands,
It would have opened up already, brother).

And their faith is secure from any trouble or tragedy,
And their faith is worth battalions!
This is what their leader Schneerson has commanded them,
And I am from these Schneersons…

And as I speak of them
In my heart I feel
That this spark will never extinguish within me!
And more than once in battle, believe me, Grisha,
A fire—a flame of Chabad—burns in me!

Then Gregory said: indeed, David, I am a gentile,
But I understood you, I am not a fool.
We also remember Dmitry Donskoy,
Although he wasn’t born under the Soviet regime.

Because past and present join as one
In a nation that is standing engulfed in fire.
And so from Libya to the front in Stalingrad
The grandchildren of Chabad have not shamed Chabad…
Excuse me Dodka, I am moved.

This is how the censor spoke and suddenly extended a hand
Like a dreamer who was called: wake up…
And he stamped at the edge of the telegram of Chabad
The approval of the censor.

You read as if Alterman himself was sitting across from you, and when you reached the end, at the words, “I am moved,” you wiped away a tear. And you concentrated, as if you’re in middle of writing, when you’ve finally found the right words and are scared to lose your concentration.

We ended the visit and you promised me that you’ll be the one to win the present war. I answered, “You must!” We separated with a tight hug and a prayer in our hearts.

I returned to Rovna, my son began yeshivah, my daughter started high school, and you, with Nili, went back and forth between Beilinson and Ramat Aviv, enveloped in the warmth and love of your friends.

We continued to speak on the phone mainly about what’s new and improving and I was happy to hear of the treatments’ success. About your amazing doctors, about a seventy-nine-year-old with the vigor of a young man…

There was great hope, and there was great joy to hear the news that soon, soon the victory would be behind us.

When you visited Moscow recently to receive an award for your work, it was on the memorial day for Rovna Jewry, the Jews who were murdered in the sanctification of God’s name in the Holocaust, and you made sure to send me a request:

“Please say kaddish on our behalf for all of the members of the Musman family (Fanya’s family) and for all of the Jews who were murdered in Rovna.”

Oz-Salzberger reads at a memorial for the murdered Jews of Rovna.
Oz-Salzberger reads at a memorial for the murdered Jews of Rovna.

I replied to you: “We will say kaddish and light candles,” and you wrote: “I will wish you a Shabbat Shalom now, although today is Thursday, because tomorrow we will arrive right before Shabbat.”

The next day, on Friday, a few minutes before Shabbat, you sent me a message: “We have just entered our home in peace. Shabbat Shalom.” You were so sensitive, and it was so important for you to update me...

We spoke often. I was about to call you last Friday, but considering how busy Fridays before Shabbat get, and the many guests we were expecting, I was unable to fulfill my wish, and we did not have our weekly call.

I know that the afternoon is when you rest, and I told myself that we would speak after Shabbat. But you ascended to rest, an eternal rest…

In the afternoon, when I hadn’t received a response to my Shabbat Shalom message that I sent to you, the phone rang. It was a mutual friend letting me know of your passing, surrounded by a supportive family.

I was unable to utter a sound, I had no words in my mouth. The surprise was complete, we had agreed that in this battle you would win.

Amos Oz, Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Michiel Hendryckx.
Amos Oz, Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Michiel Hendryckx.

Dear Amos, may your memory be for a blessing, may you be a good intercessor for your wife, Nili, who stuck by you with great love, and for your daughters Fanya and Galia, your son Daniel, and the grandchildren whom you loved so much.

Watch over the Jewish community of Rovna, whose resurrection was so important to you, and whose development you followed so closely.

May these words be in memory of the soul of Amos ben Yehuda Aryeh, of blessed memory.

Schneor