It was in Paris in the 1930s. Hitler had already risen to power in Germany. I was a student in the “City of Light,” and I was not having an easy time. As a foreigner, I didn’t have a work permit, or a penny to my name, and I was ready to take on any work I could get. At the time, many foreign Jewish students found themselves in the same predicament.It was Paris in the 1930s We worked as waiters, we washed dishes, we gave lessons, and we even wrote addresses on envelopes…

I was strict about observing Torah and mitzvahs at the time, though I’m not sure why. Here I was, in Paris, a young student, free as a bird, with no one criticizing my behavior. I could easily have chosen not to stick to the Torah path. Whom was I trying to please? I think I was showing myself that even the most difficult conditions wouldn't make me lose my mind or my faith.

Then the month of Tishrei arrived, and I wanted to keep the mitzvah of eating in a sukkah. As the days passed, I understood that finding a sukkah in Paris wouldn’t be as simple as I thought. I didn’t have enough money to eat at the local restaurant’s sukkah, so I looked around for a public one. Not far from the hotel where I lived, in the Latin Quarter, there was a synagogue for Jews from Eastern Europe, with an adjacent sukkah.

I was happy with the meal I brought to the sukkah. The menu was bread, cheese and radishes. The poor selection of food didn’t bother me at all. But something else did! I always loved the beauty of the sukkah, but this sukkah was far from being beautiful. Its walls were bare of decorations. Instead of beauty, there was dirt! The tablecloth was stained with colors and smells that testified to what had been eaten on it, and there were remains of food all over the floor. Dreadful!

All I wanted to do was run away from there as soon as I could. I couldn’t imagine continuing to observe the mitzvah of Sukkot like that. I was ready to leave it all and free myself from misery, recalling that the holiday of Sukkot was called the Holiday of Joy. But then I realized that there was something else that was upsetting me as well.

As much as the mitzvahs were important to me, even dearer were the customs I grew up with. One of these customs was eating in the sukkah on the holiday of “Shemini Atzeret.” Some people use the sukkah for seven days, as instructed by the Torah, and on Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day, they no longer sit in the sukkah. In keeping with the my chassidic custom, I do sit in the sukkah on Shemini Atzeret. However, this sukkah in Paris was closed on Shemini Atzeret, even though I begged to be able to use it. Even the restaurant didn’t have a sukkah for me to use as a paying guest.

As the possibility of sitting in a sukkah on Shemini Atzeret seemed more and more remote, my desire became more and more intense. As Shemini Atzeret drew closer and no solution came up, I began to feel very dejected, and walked around in a gloomy and sad mood. That’s when I suddenly met Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who would later become the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe. And ever since that day, I believe in divine providence.

Rabbi Schneerson was also a student in Paris. He was unique and quite extraordinary. I doubt if there was ever, in any university in Paris or anywhere else, a student such as he. He was the son-in-law of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Rabbi Schneerson had a strong personality. He didn’t abandon his principles, even while studying in such an unfamiliar environment. His thirst for knowledge didn’t come from a lack of faith. He was a pious erudite Jew, an expert in the Talmud, the Zohar, the Tanya, etc., and his whole life was dedicated to fulfilling G‑d’s will. Just like the Rambam (Maimonides), Rabbi Schneerson believed that secular studies would deepen his connection to G‑d. It took time, and he passed through several cities on the way, but he was persistent and eventually made it to Paris, where he studied engineering and physics. I’m sure this choice was somehow motivated by religious considerations too.

Paris, with all it had to offer, didn’t appeal to Rabbi Schneerson. He was there for his studies. He never entered a theater, cinema or club. None of them interested him. He studied Torah day and night, even though he was busy with his secular studies. I remember him being handsome and distinguished. His face was delicate and pale and his beard had never been touched by a pair of scissors.

He never entered a theater, cinema or club

At the time, I used to say (and I have repeated this over and over again since then) that the life of Rabbi Schneerson was a life of kiddush Hashem (sanctifying G‑d’s name). When living in the presence of a rebbe, a son or son-in-law of the rebbe would be doing what's expected of him in living a holy life, and he wouldn't even consider acting out of line. However, a rebbe's son-in-law, a married student living the life of a tzadik, a righteous person,in the Latin quarter of Paris, awakens respect, admiration and sheer wonder. A person like that is a ”light to the Jewish nation.” That’s how I see it. He’s a symbol and a model, tangible proof that living a full, elevated Jewish life has nothing to do with one's environment; it can be done even in Paris.

I first met Rabbi Schneerson at my friends’ house, and after that we often met there or stopped to chat on the street. We never became friends. There was an aura of holiness and nobility about him that prevented familiarity, though he always acted simply and modestly.

When I met him on that day during Sukkot, he asked me how I was doing. He was astonished at how depressed I was when I told him about my worries. He pondered for a while and said, "I've built a small sukkah, I'll be glad to have you as my guest on Shemini Atzeret."

I thanked him for the warm invitation, but wasn't sure I should accept, knowing that he and his wife had modest means and that a guest could be a problem. But Rabbi Schneerson wouldn't take no for an answer. In his polite and kind way, he made the invitation sound like he was commanding me to accept it, so I did, and I've never regretted it since.

I arrived at Rabbi Schneerson’s hotel room in high spirits. I spotted his sukkah easily in the courtyard right outside his window. It was tiny, just big enough to seat two people. I realized that by inviting me to join him, he would be having lunch with me instead of with his wife. I felt embarrassed and didn't try to hide it, but he managed to dispel my discomfort using words that made me feel loved, and speaking words of Torah, which reminded me of my dear family back home.

I was instantly joyful again. I can see Rabbi Schneerson standing there as though it were yesterday. He was dressed in a knee-length silk tail-coat, the kind that was fashionable in the early 1900s. He once explained that on Shabbat and on Jewish holidays one should wear silk but that the style of the garment is not important.

We sat in the sukkah, his eyes shining with a special light that filled the small, spotless sukkah. I was sure I could see the walls expanding, turning the sukkah into a beautiful palace. Rabbi Schneerson was sitting opposite me, speaking pearls of wisdom, and above his head floated the seven holy guests, the ushpizinwho visit every sukkahI was sure I could see the walls expanding during Sukkot—one tzadik a day. On this day, the eighth day, it seemed as if they had all gathered together to visit Rabbi Schneerson’s sukkah and enjoy his holy presence.

We both sat there for a long time. I can't remember all that was said, but I will never forget the uplifting atmosphere, the deep pleasure, the joy that accompanied us on that Shemini Atzeret in Rabbi Schneerson’s sukkah in the Latin quarter of Paris.