The “proletarian” shul

The following episodes happened in 1935 as well, if I remember correctly.

There were only two small synagogues left in Dnepropetrovsk, one at the edge of town and the other at the center. The latter had not been confiscated by the government because its founders and congregants were working-class craftsmen.

My husband, the Rav, attended this shul. The gabbai was a tailor, the treasurer was a shoemaker, and most of the congregants practiced similar trades. These officials presided over their small “kingdom,” which was then well within their capability.

When Schneerson began attending the shul, he attracted new congregants from a more diverse background, and the administration soon found it too difficult to continue managing the shul. They had to remain at their posts, however, to ensure that the shul retain its strictly “proletarian” character. Various amusing anecdotes could be told about how they operated the shul, but they aren’t important enough to record.

They declared their great deference and absolute respect for the Rav. He had not been well-known to them until then, but when they got to know him, they agreed that he seemed to be “a very fine Jew” who apparently wasn’t close with the “bourgeoisie,” and therefore could be fully trusted.

Cantors for the High Holidays

Virtually no practicing chazzanim [cantors] were left in the Soviet Union by then. Yet some Jews with a flair for Jewish music were familiar with the traditional nusach tunes of the holiday prayer services and served as chazzanim during the month of Tishrei. As employees of the government, they were entitled to one month’s vacation a year. Accordingly, they scheduled their vacation for the month of Tishrei. They generally wouldn’t remain in their home towns but travelled to other cities seeking an appointment to lead the holiday prayers in a shul.

Expressed in these chazzanim‘s prayers was their full year of pent-up, deep-seated feelings.

They were paid well for this but “under the table.” Officially they received only a minimal payment in order to avoid paying the legally required taxes.

Two such chazzanim came from Moscow to Yekatrinoslav for the High Holidays and Sukkot. One was an opera singer, one of the theater’s best performers. He dressed and looked like a typical stage performer.

Accompanying him was another man who was more like a traditional shliach tzibbur.1 A bookkeeper at a government concern, he was a talented singer, and was also Torah-literate. He descended from the Rav of Slavuta.2

The performer, if I remember correctly, was a descendant of Rabbi Avraham “the malach,”3 who is buried in Fastov, near Kiev. His surname was Lieber, which he said was also his grandfather’s surname.4

As a performer, his face was cosmetically made up and didn’t sport even a mustache. But he would tell stories he heard from his grandfather and Chasidic stories in general, with the “broken heart” of a veteran Chasid.

Both chazzanim related that they had wanted to spend this month, which is filled with prayers, and its attendant inspiring atmosphere, in a traditional Jewish environment. While in Moscow, they heard of Schneerson’s comportment in face of that era’s difficulties, and they decided to travel to Yekatrinoslav for that month.

Upon arriving, they visited my husband to seek his advice on how to secure paid positions as chazzanim while at the same time using their talents to arouse and reinforce Jewish feelings—which the regime was trying to extinguish. “That,” they explained, “is why we have come to you, the Rav.”

Indeed, they were hired to lead the prayers of the High Holidays and Sukkot in the shul where my husband prayed.

My writing abilities are far insufficient to describe our shul’s inspiring atmosphere and the outpouring of the soul expressed there on those holy days under the influence of the Rav and these two chazzanim.

Early morning minyan, and back for Ne’ilah

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fell on weekdays when the congregants were required to report for work. My husband arranged an early “first minyan” which completed its services by 8:00 a.m., after which its participants went straight to work.

On Yom Kippur, however, they didn’t go home after work but returned to shul in time for Ne’ilah.5 For this service the shul was overcrowded, with many forced to stand outside. Everyone was exhausted from the fast and from having walked long distances.6 The physical strain was in addition to the spiritual agony from their awareness of the exalted day on which they had had to work, besides the heartbreakingly emotional prayers of the chazzanim—all this was indescribable.

The congregants expressed heartfelt thanks to my husband for making it possible for them to participate in congregational prayers on the High Holidays, despite the early hour.

Copious tears poured down my husband’s face as they spoke to him about this. Deriving intense satisfaction from their spiritual inspiration, he would comment with joy, “Oh, how special Jews are!”

We were afraid to discuss such subjects very much. But my husband was pleased to have accomplished all this.

Ensuring that the fast shouldn’t conclude too early

Beginning after midday on Yom Kippur, my husband would diplomatically arrange the length of time the remaining services would take so that they should not end too early, for that would enable the congregants to leave for home and break their fast before it was over. Among the congregants were various types [from more observant to less so, and many wanted to break their fast as early as possible]. Other shuls in town finished much earlier, and to ensure that the same shouldn’t happen here, my husband arranged with the chazzan to stretch out the previous prayer services so that no time was left for singing during the Ne’ilah service.

One of the congregants, a craftsman who considered himself—and was so considered by others—a Torah scholar, became so incensed that my husband was keeping the congregation later than at other shuls, that he spoke out angrily against him. His audacity was somewhat mitigated by the fact that his outburst took place not at the front, eastern end of the shul [where the Rav sat and the chazzan led the prayers], but near the exit. He pointed out that the Rav was a descendant of a revolutionary7 against the government, who was imprisoned for sowing divisiveness, and now, like his ancestor, the Rav was doing the same!

All this was a great strain upon my husband. Even the finer congregants were unhappy with his extending the length of the prayers, although they kept it to themselves. The more common elements, however, expressed their dissatisfaction openly. Yet my husband was truly gratified by what he was doing, although it was something he had to enforce, because—as he always said—he had accomplished that Jews should not do what was forbidden [breaking their fast when it was still Yom Kippur].

Breaking the fast

When my husband would return home after Yom Kippur, he couldn’t easily settle back into the everyday mundane existence. After coming home quite late in the evening, he drank only a glass of tea. Then he remained sitting, still garbed in his kittel8 and the gartel9 of his great-great-grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek,10 to lead a farbrengen11 until two or three o’clock in the morning.

This was his regular custom on the evening after Yom Kippur, both when Jewish life had been less constricted and later when Judaism could be practiced almost solely within the confines of one’s own home.

Some of our friends were aware of my husband’s custom, and they would eat a quick evening meal with their families before coming to our home. My husband would deliver a Chasidic discourse on subjects connected with the Yom Kippur prayers. In later years he spoke about the great qualities of Jews, their self-sacrifice to observe Judaism, and how they expressed their love towards other Jews in that difficult era.

Ten or fifteen people always attended this farbrengen, which included dancing as enthusiastic as on Simchat Torah.

Simchat Torah

Our spacious apartment had been confiscated by the authorities in 1929.12 The small official community that still existed in our city at the time built us an apartment of three small rooms in a privately owned property, because we were not permitted to reside anywhere else.

Notwithstanding our small apartment, any Jew in the entire city who wished to rejoice on Yom Tov came to our home. After dark, young people would stealthily arrive as well. Due to the cramped conditions and the fact that none of our visitors wanted anyone else to know he was visiting the Rav, they all tried to hide from everyone else. They used to visit in small groups, and my husband spent time with each person separately so that, during the time they spent with him, they were able to forget which country they lived in and under whose regime.

The above-mentioned chazzanim were also present. As a result of the holiday prayers and the farbrengens, the performer’s attitude had changed from his original ulterior motive of earning money to a genuine heartfelt expression, which impacted and stirred all the congregants. He declared that his positive transformation was thanks solely to the Rav.