Midnight wedding1

I recall the following episode of my husband’s life, which happened in 1935. Once, at 11:00 o’clock at night, a woman visited us. After looking around to make sure no stranger was present, she addressed my husband in hushed tones:

“Rabbi, I have come to you from a distant city—its name I won’t tell you. In about an hour, at midnight, my daughter will be coming with a young man. They both hold such important positions that their coming here places them in true danger. After my entreaties and tears, they promised me to agree to a Jewish wedding ceremony, but only if you will officiate; under no circumstances will they do it with anyone else.”

At 12:00 o’clock, the two arrived, the daughter having covered her face so she would not be visible. I immediately led them both into my husband’s office so that no one should notice them.

It was at this point that my husband began his preparations. First, he insisted on having a minyan, without which he would not perform the wedding. Besides my husband and the groom, we needed eight more men who “would see but not be seen,” and trusted, one hundred percent, that they would not later inform on anyone.

Within half an hour, this was accomplished, except for a tenth man, who, as usual, was missing. My husband sent for the building supervisor, who was Jewish and belonged to the young generation.2 His official duties required him to watch our home to observe whether we had many visitors and whether the Rav was performing religious ceremonies!

As soon as he walked in, my husband said to him, “You need to be the tenth man; otherwise I can’t perform the wedding ceremony.”3

Startled, the supervisor gave my husband an astonished look. “Me?!” he asked incredulously. But he immediately went to the window and closed the shutters firmly, locked the door and took a seat.

The final preparations began. I brought out a dark-colored plush tablecloth that was similar to the cover of a chuppah [wedding canopy]. The four tallest men in the minyan acted as poles to hold it up.

After my husband wrote out the ketubah, the groom and bride were called out of their darkened room. They were still fearful of being seen by others, so they didn’t allow candles4 to be lit.

The bride entered with her face covered, just as when she had first come, and no one saw her face. She was led seven times around the groom. The latter, a tall young man in a leather coat, who looked like a Russian commissar—and perhaps he was of that ilk—did everything he was told, and recited the words “Harei at mekudeshet…” [“You are hereby consecrated…”].

At 1:30 a.m. the groom and bride hurried out of our home.

Among the wedding “guests”—the minyan—were two men who carried Communist party membership cards. They sat down and threw them down on the table. With unusually warm feeling they declared, “Now, Rabbi, we’re Jews together with you. We feel that we don’t want to leave you.” Pointing to their membership cards they said, “When we’re in your presence, these are worthless…!”

I observed such reactions to my husband’s presence from many people.

A Communist arranges a bris

That same week, a Communist, the chief manager of shipping at the Petrovsky metal factory, arranged a circumcision for his son. He sent a message to my husband that he was leaving that evening on a business trip, and requested that the bris be held in his absence.

Everything, of course, was taken care of. The day after the bris, he returned from his trip. He was very wary of some of his neighbors, and upon arriving immediately yelled and berated his wife for allowing such a thing. He shouted at his mother too—making sure his neighbors could hear—that he would bring charges against her, too, in court!

There was a sequel to this: Later, when my husband was exiled, he needed a set of pots, but I couldn’t obtain them for any price. This Communist ordered them to be cast at his factory, saying they were needed for the factory’s director. When he gave them to me, he told me that when I send them off to my husband, the Rav, I should write that he will never forget my husband, especially the fact that he had rendered his son fully Jewish.

Refusal to abandon his post

It was because of such episodes that when the topic of possibly emigrating from the Soviet Union came up, my husband always declared that he had no right to do so.5 If he would leave, he argued, there would be no more kosher meat in his region, no taharat hamishpachah6 or Jewish religious observance in general. Since he couldn’t see anyone else taking responsibility for all this, how could he possibly forsake it all?

Regarding immigration to the land of Israel,7 his opinion was that he wasn’t at a great enough [spiritual] level to live there. “A Jew shouldn’t immigrate to the land of Israel only for the sake of his livelihood,” he would say.

Show trial

Two months after the wedding ceremony, it was announced that we were to appear for trial, on a certain date concerning our apartment. As it was a “show trial,” this meant that it would be open to the public, and anyone could attend.

The charge against us was that we were in violation of the new law stating that clergymen should pay up to 55 rubles a month rent for every sozheni8 of their living space. By then, our apartment was very small, but according to this law, we would have had to pay more than 500 rubles a month—which was absolutely impossible for us. Our situation became critical.

The purpose of this law was to pressure clergymen to give up their positions, and for a long time my husband hadn’t wanted to satisfy this desire of the government. Many rabbis placed announcements in the newspapers stating that they no longer held the title of Rabbi. But he didn’t do that.

At the time, good relations existed between the Soviet Union and France. This was helpful when we received a document from our son9, then studying in Paris10, that his father was a senior—according to the age on his passport11—and was therefore entitled not to work and to be supported by the assistance his children sent him.

That document stated that our son, a student, was sending us a monthly allowance. Based on this, we now had to pay, instead of 55 rubles for every sozheni, only 2 rubles, because being supported by others, placed us in the same category as members of the proletariat. Accordingly, we became much more highly regarded in many respects.

But use of this document meant that my husband was no longer allowed to perform any rabbinic functions. No longer did he sit on any rabbinic court cases or rule on Jewish legal questions concerning financial issues. With regard to religious issues, however, he clandestinely continued to ensure that everything be taken care of—as much as possible under the circumstances, although it involved great difficulty and personal endangerment.

This, then, was the subject of our trial. What a difficult and uncomfortable experience it was! Someone must have reported that many people would visit us and that my husband was probably continuing to act as a rabbi. Consequently, he shouldn’t be allowed to pay the low 20-ruble rent of someone supported by his son but 500 rubles!

The management of our building—who usually treated us with great respect and did us many favors—felt compelled to charge us in court in order to protect themselves against any suspicion of treating Schneerson too well.

The judges were three Communists and two female activists belonging to the local party division. The chief justice was a gentile. One of the female judges later told me that the chief justice remarked about my husband, “This elderly man’s face attests to the fact that he wouldn’t do anything dishonest.”

It was very uncomfortable for us. The courtroom was full of people, including a number of non-Jews. A lawyer acquaintance of ours was present as well, intending to speak in our defense, pro bono. But, as he later told us, he realized soon enough that his assistance wouldn’t be needed.

As witness, the court called our building manager—who had been present at the marriage ceremony, as mentioned—since it was his duty to observe all the goings on in our home. Surely he would tell the truth about everything.

He testified that he never saw anyone visiting us except two old men who, he was told, were our relatives. He stated that he had never seen any young people or any individuals from whom we could gain financially or through whom we could be involved in other matters of communal interest. He signed his name to his testimony, affirming that he took full responsibility for his words.

Another witness was the mother of the baby who had been circumcised, as described above. She testified that she lived not far from our residence, and, realizing it was the home of a one-time Jewish leader, she often watched to see who came to us and how the Jewish populace related to such people. She said that she never noticed any activity around our home or anyone ever approaching the old man for any purpose.

Coming from the wife of a veteran Communist worker who held a high position, her testimony was especially well regarded.

The defendant, my husband, felt extremely bad and uncomfortable. He was terribly pale. His true desire was to declare aloud, so that everyone would hear, “I myself live 100% religiously, and, as much as I can, I want to influence whomever I can and wherever I can, to do the same.” But he had to speak very differently.

After listening to all the testimony, and seeing how upsetting this was to my husband, the judges asked him very few questions. But it was an enormous strain on him, leaving very unpleasant feelings.

Declared innocent

He was declared innocent of all charges against him. Normally, the judges’ decision would be publicized five days after the trial. In our case, however, just one hour after the close of the trial, we were unofficially informed that everything was all right.

One of the female “people’s judges,”12 who had participated in the trial, was consulted as to what verdict should be issued, and in general as to how this case should be handled. Some had wanted it to focus not on an individual but to serve as a public display of the conduct of a highly regarded religious leader. This judge, who was not Jewish, asked a Jewish female friend of hers to let Schneerson know their verdict so that he shouldn’t have to suffer for five days before being officially informed.

This was one of the difficult ordeals we experienced quite often. My husband always emerged with honor and was treated in the finest manner. Yet it didn’t add any peace of mind, and we always needed to “go to war” for something or other.