In my childhood home in Rome, Italy, it was not uncommon to hear tales of our heroic ancestors, the hardships they endured and the obstacles that they had to overcome in their quest to observe Judaism to the fullest.

My father, Rabbi Yitzchak Hazan, was raised in a religious family in the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, my grandparents and their children were hounded by the authorities for daring to stand out and observe Shabbat and holidays. They lost their jobs, were under near constant surveillance and had to sacrifice so much to observe the mitzvot that many of us take for granted today.

One story that stands out is a true tale of bravery displayed by my Aunt Batya Cohen.

A year older than my father, sixth out of 14 children, Batya was a good-natured woman who enjoyed regaling us, her extended family, with her memories of Russia—from the sweet rozhinkes (raisins) they ate, to a quirky individual who showed up for illegal minyan in their humble home.

My dear Aunt Batya tragically passed away, recently, on the eighth of Kislev. My siblings and I paid a Zoom shiva call to our father in Rome, who then traveled to Israel to sit shiva with his siblings.

A photo of Batya not long before her passing. Credit: Avraham Rothstein
A photo of Batya not long before her passing. Credit: Avraham Rothstein

Foremost on everyone’s mind was the following story in which Batya stood up to the Soviets in her determination to properly keep Shabbat without violating any of its laws.

The story begins a few years earlier, when my grandparents realized that they had no choice but to send their children to the local Soviet public school in their town of Bolshevo, to keep the authorities off their backs. The children thus attended on weekdays, working diligently to maintain good grades and helping any of their peers who fell behind. At home, they were tutored in Judaic studies by their parents and a learned family friend whose help my grandfather enlisted.

There was a problem, though, which eventually reached a boiling point. The town functionaries and school administrators had noticed that the Chazan children were not attending school on Shabbat. My grandparents were called to meetings and interrogations, where they endured severe intimidation and attempts at humiliation. How could their children grow up to be good Soviet citizens when they were missing so many days of schooling?

The mayor threatened to take my grandfather to court, where they would have been at a great disadvantage. The danger was very real; it was understood that the children would be removed from their loving home and placed with non-Jewish families.

My grandfather gathered his children and explained the gravity of the situation. It was decided that the school-age children would take turns going to school on Shabbat. They would, of course, sit in class without writing or drawing—actions that are forbidden on this holy day.

Batya's father, during the years in Russia
Batya's father, during the years in Russia

The following Shabbat coincided with Rosh Hashanah. The boys were needed for the minyan, which was usually held in their home, although this time it would be in the home of another religious Jew. The girls stared at each other until Batya, then aged 11 or 12, stood up and volunteered to be the first to attend school on Shabbat.

Batya’s school bag was placed in her classroom on Friday, and thus she departed her home empty-handed that Shabbat day, avoiding the need to carry. Before leaving, she asked her father to wait for her return before making Kiddush for the festive Rosh Hashanah meal.

Throughout the morning, my grandparents waited apprehensively, praying, with Batya heavily on their minds.

Finally, Batya returned from school, and the family swarmed around her, asking for a minute-by-minute recounting of her day.

“Our first class was math,” she began. “The teacher asked me to come to the front and solve a problem on the blackboard. I told her I am not permitted to use chalk on my Sabbath. The teacher grew angrier and angrier as she tried to force the chalk into my hand. She yelled so loudly that the principal and vice principal came in to check on the commotion.

“Both of them tried to force me to hold the chalk and solve the problem, but I stood my ground. I was surrounded by angry adults as my classmates looked on, dumbfounded. Before I knew it, the mayor of the town, who was visiting the school, walked in. The teacher told him I was refusing to write. The mayor berated me, but I responded that today is a holy day and that I could not write.

The school the Chazan children attended in Bolshevo.
The school the Chazan children attended in Bolshevo.

“The mayor then asked to see my math notebook. He leafed through it and noted that my grades were impressive. Inspired, he grabbed the chalk and asked me to solve the problem verbally. I concentrated and called out the numbers, which the mayor wrote on the board.

“He then asked the teacher if I had solved the problem correctly, and she nodded in assent. The mayor took my notebook and wrote down the highest mark. He then told the teacher not to bother me anymore—to just let me sit and listen in class.”

A similar scenario repeated itself in the remaining classes throughout the day until Batya was finally able to go home and breathe a sigh of relief.

Though this reprieve didn’t end the persecution of the Chazan children or their parents, with her bravery Batya set an example for the rest of her siblings, including my father, who always held their heads high and remained steadfast in their beliefs until they were finally able to leave Russia in the summer of 1966.

Batya, front row, center, with some of her siblings.
Batya, front row, center, with some of her siblings.