An “inexhaustible fountain”

Our home faced the street, with no gate, so whoever came to visit us was clearly visible from the street. Most of the visitors were bearded, making them particularly conspicuous.

Often we would close the shutters to shield our visitors from passersby in the street. This could be done only at night when it became somewhat cooler, but not by day when the heat was stifling.

After dark, we often moved outdoors into the yard, our visitors sitting on whatever they could find since there weren’t enough chairs for everyone. Some, especially the younger ones, would stretch out on the bare grass.

I have no words to describe the special pleasure they experienced from spending time with my husband.

By then his face was very gaunt and pale. As it turned out, he was already critically ill. Nevertheless, when he spent time in discussion with our guests, he became an “inexhaustible fountain.” His face took on a healthy appearance and his voice became so strong that it seemed that all was forgotten.

Under the repressive conditions of that time, both the listeners and the speaker could have paid dearly for his religious influence. The visitors would leave our home full of fear, and we remained at home full of fear, wondering about every rustling sound, “Who may that be?”

Yet our visitors didn’t stop coming, and they returned again and again, either the following day, or a few days later.

And so the time passed. Every day, new acquaintances joined our community. Many Jews arrived who had lived in Ukraine, White Russia, Moscow and Leningrad.

We lived outside Alma-Ata proper. Inside the city, a number of shuls had been established. They all sent delegations inviting my husband to pray with them, or at least to deliver an occasional Torah lecture or sermon to the congregation.

Some of our friends there provided for our material needs in a most honorable manner, with uncommon dignity.

I had not previously realized to what degree people esteemed my husband and appreciated his greatness.

Concurrently with the improvement in our general conditions, however, his illness progressed. It was his inner spirit that kept him going, but nothing else. He was examined by doctors, but his health got steadily worse, and he didn’t have the physical strength to walk.

Consequently, he couldn’t accept those invitations. In fact, he never made it into the city itself.

Two-hour speech at a circumcision celebration

When a boy was born to close friends of ours, the parents invited many guests, from a variety of backgrounds, to the circumcision celebration, and told everyone that my husband would be their special guest. More people attended than the number of invitations issued. They were from all walks of life: Torah learned Jews (as many as lived there then), worldly Jews, intellectuals who had some connection with Judaism, businessmen and employees of government institutions—as most people were in the Soviet Union.

Although my husband was very weak by then, he spoke for more than two hours without a break. The listeners couldn’t fathom how a Rabbi, with his strictly religious background, was so knowledgeable in such a wide range of subjects. Two mathematicians who were present approached him and posed several mathematical problems, later declaring that they were “stunned” by his solutions.

Naturally, my husband’s talk consisted primarily of Chasidus. Several Chabad Chasidim were present, and one asked my husband to concentrate more on concepts of avodah and less on concepts of haskalah.1

Early challenges to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s approach

In the past,2 my husband had sometimes encountered opposition to his style of Chasidic discourses. Some complained that there was too much Kabbalah, while others felt there was too much haskalah. This is not my field, but I would notice individuals approaching him “armed” with various demands. Most didn’t have the audacity to challenge his Torah scholarship. But a small number felt that, for reasons based on Chasidic principles—as I understood it—and because of the authority my husband enjoyed in the community, they were obligated to voice their opinion.

They would begin with well-prepared arguments—or so they thought. But after a minute or so of hearing my husband’s response, they would become utterly subdued and speechless, and would leave our home with their attitudes reversed. When they returned, they were humbled and showed him great deference.

There were always new questions. But when my husband responded, the questioners didn’t simply listen; they “devoured” his explanations with excitement, almost always exclaiming, “Aha, aha!”

The same happened at the above-mentioned circumcision. About 200 people were present, from various backgrounds. Even the wealthiest businessmen were astonished at how anyone could have the audacity to make comments while such a great personage was delivering his “sermon.”

Success in communal work

In my husband’s communal work,3 he usually had an independent approach. At first he had opponents. Over time, however, they joined forces with him and did what he asked of them, with great respect.

During the later years in the Soviet Union, when the “Jewish street” (as Jewry was called there) featured absolutely no Jewish life and religious activities were strictly prohibited, my husband was nevertheless able to achieve many accomplishments, some surreptitiously and some openly. He would achieve this by employing a “proletarian”4 approach, which is why those whose task it was to curb his activities turned a blind eye.

Chasidim and non-Chasidim

In Alma-Ata, close to where we now lived, a large community of Jews had formed. In a house rented from a Kazakh, they held a minyan for prayer. On Shabbat and during the week, only older Jews usually attended. On Festivals and any Shabbat that coincided with some Soviet national holiday—such as the anniversary of the October Revolution, May 1 or similar new holidays—young people, too, stole into shul to pray.

The congregants included both non-Chasidim and Lubavitcher Chasidim. Unfortunately, disagreements arose between them like those between the Alter Rebbe5 and the Vilna Gaon.6

On the Shabbat before7 the 2nd of Nissan,8 the gabbai announced that only Lubavitcher Chasidim would be called to the Torah that day. Naturally, this announcement aroused opposition. In general, relations between the two camps were very hostile, and the disagreement grew ever sharper.

Before our arrival, those working on my husband’s coming tried hard to ensure that it remain a secret to the other camp. But on his first Shabbat there, the non-Chasidic congregants saw him in shul and made his acquaintance. Some of them held Torah-scholars in great esteem. They complained, “We’ve heard about Schneerson and are interested in knowing him. Why is this group [the Chasidim] monopolizing him and preventing others from approaching him?”