Chazan Tzvi Hersh Tsatskis was a cantor, pianist and choral leader who maintained his Jewish faith in the Soviet Union despite persecution and brief imprisonment. Following emigration to the United States in 1970 as a young refusenik, he became a synagogue cantor and a beloved leader of Chassidic songs at many farbrengens of the RebbeMenachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. He passed away on 10 Shevat (Jan. 21) in Cedarhurst on Long Island, N.Y. He was 85 years old.

Born Grisha Tsatkis on Yom Kippur in 1938, in Kazan, Tatarstan, then part of the Soviet Union, the boy he grew up in a time when practicing Judaism was met with the harshest punishments. Despite the dangers, his parents risked imprisonment by inviting a Chabad chassid to visit their home to teach Torah to Grisha. Even as a child, his commitment to Judaism was steadfast.

“I attended public school, and I tried to avoid desecrating Shabbos as much as I could,” Tsatskis told JEM’s “Here’s My Story.” Generally, this was not completely possible, though I managed to play hooky on the Jewish High Holidays.”

After the war, his father was transferred to Moscow, where Jewish life faced even more severe challenges. But they painstakingly maintained kosher practices in secret and practiced Judaism however they could.

In 1955, Tsatkis pursued his passion for music and was accepted at the prestigious Moscow Conservatory of Music, aspiring to become a pianist. His commitment to his faith led to his arrest twice while attempting to attend services at the Moscow Choral Synagogue, resulting in brief jail terms but no further repercussions.

The desire to leave Russia for a freer life was strong in him and his family. In 1970, a Chabad chassid was able to deliver a letter to the Rebbe with their plea for the Rebbe’s blessing that they should be able to emigrate. Within a year, they received permission to leave, which Tsatkis said was an almost impossible feat at the time. Upon arriving in America, their first act was to visit the Rebbe to express their gratitude.

“That was the first time I participated in a farbrengen and saw thousands of Jews gathered together—something which was forbidden in Russia,” Tsatskis told JEM. “It was amazing to hear the Rebbe speak and to see everyone so happy, singing with such joy. For me, it was an unbelievable experience.”

“During the farbrengen, I was sitting by the door as far away from the Rebbe as you could get, and I couldn’t hear him very well from there. But even if I could have heard him, I wouldn’t have understood much.”

“Then, something happened—the Rebbe began to distribute wine from his cup, and I saw people lining up to receive it and say l’chaim.”

“I was sitting in the back, debating with myself whether I should join them. I wanted to, but not being a Chabad Chassid, I wasn’t sure if I should, until I saw the line coming to an end. And then, on an impulse, I got up and stood at the back of the line. Before long, I found myself in front of the Rebbe holding my cup. The Rebbe gave me a big smile, poured wine into my cup, and I said l’chaim. I started to walk away, but the Rebbe called me back. He motioned for me to come forward.”

“So I came back, and he gave me an even bigger smile and poured a bit more wine into my cup. I said l’chaim again, and then he spoke to me in Russian: “Don’t have any more doubts.” I was so shaken that I almost fainted. Then he said, “Sing!” And I started to sing the Passover song, “Who knows one?” except I sang it in Russian: “Ech Ti Zemlyak … .”

“After that, I was privileged to sing many, many times at the Rebbe’s farbrengens. And every time, it was a tremendous thing for me to do so, standing next to the Rebbe.”

Maintaining Jewishness in the United States

Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, co-director of Chabad of Long Island with his wife, Chaya, says he has known Tsatskis for decades, having seen him at farbrengens and worked with him as a young rabbi. “In 1981, we brought him and a boys’ choir out to perform at our Chassidic Music Festival, Teldon told Between 400 to 500 people came. He did a wonderful job, very special. Everyone loved him, kids and parents alike.”

Even after immigrating to the United States, however, Tsatskis did not always have an easy time as a Torah-observant musician.

Once, he was invited to give a concert of Jewish melodies for the Workmen’s Circle. During the first intermission, someone asked him to take off his yarmulke. He refused to do so. During the second intermission, another person came over to him.

“He said he was the vice president of the organization sponsoring the concert, and his organization was very happy that I was performing for them, but they were not comfortable with my wearing a yarmulke. Would I please remove it?” recalled Tsatskis.

“I got very upset at this, and I said to him straight out, ‘You are the second person to come to me and ask me to take off my yarmulke. And if someone else comes, then I will not only not take it off, I will take out my tzitzit and make sure no one has any doubt that I am a Torah-observant Jew.’

“That put an end to that.”

“When I came to see the Rebbe, I told him about this upsetting incident. As I was relating the story, I said, ‘I was giving a concert to a Jewish audience that was not observant.’

“When I said that, the Rebbe interrupted me: ‘Why do you say that they were not observant? They are observant; they just don’t know that they are observant!’

“I will never forget it,” wrote Tsatskis.

Tzatskis maintained his connection with Chabad and the Rebbe throughout his life, and visited the Ohel, the resting place of the Rebbe in Queens, N.Y., a short drive from his home in Cedarhurst, throughout the year.

In addition, he had a special tradition to visit the Ohel after the conclusion of each Yom Kippur, where he would join the many yeshivah students and others who had spent the holiday there.

“He would love to sing for the bachurim at the Ohel,” said Teldon. “These boys had never been by the Rebbe themselves and were delighted to have someone there who was singing for the Rebbe on a regular basis and by the Rebbe’s side when he was giving out kos shel bracha. Seeing him at the Ohel was really something special, and his singing would get the dancing going. It was really leibedik (‘enthusiastic’) with a lot of chayus (‘life’), and he loved it.”

Said Teldon: “He told me that it was his favorite part of the year.”

Tzvi Hersh Tzatskis is survived by his wife, Eda, and their children, Izzy Tsatskis and Tania Weissman.