May 16, 2012
Rabbi Yehoshua Dubrawski a”h in #834, Memoirs

The founding of Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim in Samarkand * Why a famished R’ Michoel Teitelbaum forwent the Shabbos meal * R’ Yona Cohen influences R’ Zalman Shimon Dworkin to accept the appointment as rosh yeshiva * About R’ Yona Cohen * How R’ Nissan Nemanov, upon his return from imprisonment, was appointed as mashpia of Tomchei T’mimim.


Now I will go back to Samarkand and describe the founding of the Chabad yeshiva there and its brief, though rich, history.

This took place when the situation of Anash in Samarkand had begun to improve. They helped one another build tekatzke stanok (a primitive weaving apparatus like in the times of the Mishna) in their homes. They began earning a little money and it was possible to still one’s hunger with a piece of bread and even to buy something to eat along with the bread.

During the war, the population of Samarkand (and of course, not only of Samarkand) experienced a severe shortage and was “starving” for material and textiles. The stores had none for years. The idea of supporting themselves by weaving and providing fabric was very successful.

The truth is that they had to overcome a slew of problems, since in the Soviet Union this realm belonged to the cursed government. You had to shmear (bribe) left and right, give gifts to the knockers, the nachalnikes (senior officials), to the supervisors and the lowly policemen in the market. All of them needed “treats” in order to live. If the bribe was effective and all went more or less smoothly, the “manufacturer” of the clothes still retained a nice sum.

When the material circumstances of Anash in Samarkand improved, they turned their attention to improving their spiritual state. First on the agenda was education of the children to Torah and Chassidus with chadarim for the younger children and a yeshiva for the older ones. It’s worth mentioning that during the war the barbaric government diminished its persecution of religious Jews and institutions because of its ties with the free countries of the Allies, which included massive financial support by the United States.


The three main, distinguished, Chassidic founders and askanim of Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim Lubavitch in Samarkand were: the famous Chassid, R’ Mendel Futerfas, the profound and self-concealing Chassid, R’ Abba Pliskin (the two of them were bound with a deep, soul connection), and the Chassid known for his pleasant demeanor, R’ Michoel Teitelbaum, all of them of blessed memory.

My family still lived in the dark clay hut, and we still did not have weaving equipment. For the most part, I still lay swollen in bed, which was made of wooden slats that lay on bricks. When one of those askanim (R’ Michoel?) came to us in order to register me for yeshiva, my mother pointed at me, lying weakly on the makeshift bed and said: Can he learn in yeshiva now?

He replied: We will register your son for the yeshiva we are starting and, with Hashem’s help it will surely hasten his full recovery.

My mother happily registered me for the future yeshiva and our hut was actually the start of the yeshiva. A short while later, the twelve year old orphan, Zelig Katzman (his parents and sister had died during the terrible starvation years) came to our dwelling to learn with me. I remember how Zelig’l, shabby and tattered, sad and embittered, sat with me on what they called my bed and learned Gemara with me, as two of the talmidim registered in the yeshiva.

I don’t remember which Gemara we learned, but I remember the external appearance of the Gemara. It looked just like those learning in it, tattered and bleak. The first pages were entirely missing and those that remained were torn on the sides. But we learned when Zelig came (Zelig, my dear friend, later became my mechutan).


In the later years of the war, a young talmid came to Samarkand from Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim in Kutais (Georgia), by the name of Sholom Levertov. This was in the first days of the yeshiva in Samarkand. The main askanim of the yeshiva reveled in this yeshiva bachur. Was this a small thing – a real Tamim from Tomchei T’mimim?!

Some of the distinguished founders of the yeshiva repeatedly urged me to learn with Sholom Levertov. They told me what a great z’chus it would be, to be the chavrusa of a real talmid of Tomchei T’mimim. Of course, I willingly agreed.

Our learning began on Shabbos, when we learned in the home of R’ Michoel. I say this by way of introduction to a small incident that I was witness to, which is connected to the spiritual image of R’ Michoel.


It happened on a Shabbos after the meal. In other words, after we had eaten our Shabbos meal and Sholom and I went to learn in R’ Michoel’s house. It was many hours after noon, about three o’clock. We yeshiva students had eaten well, because the askanim made sure we were well fed, but in R’ Michoel’s house they were still holding by the end of the starvation period. Aside from that, he was still standing near the wall and davening at length. It was so geshmak and with a captivating Chassidishe niggun that I sat and did not learn, but just listened to him daven.

R’ Michoel eventually finished davening and on the small table was the Shabbos “meal” that his wife Esther had prepared which consisted of one course. Instead of fish, meat, chulent and side dishes, there was a bowl with grated raw beet with pieces of onion.

R’ Michoel washed his hands and made Kiddush on two pieces of Uzbeki bread. He was ready to eat his meal of beets when his wife removed a piece of onion peel from the bowl of beets. R’ Michoel noticed this since he immediately began rubbing his forehead and did not eat the beets. Apparently, he was concerned that she had done the forbidden act of borer (selecting), even though the peel was lying on the beets and wasn’t in it. I did not remove my eyes from R’ Michoel’s face which had a lopsided smile. When his wife saw he wasn’t eating the beets, she grumbled something and I only heard his response, “Nu, today you will eat by yourself.”

It is very hard for someone who is full to understand the terrible pain of someone who is starving. Starvation was a great test even for elevated Jews. R’ Michoel had the spiritual strength to withstand this test because of a particular concern that he had, and I can never forget this.


The yeshiva grew from day to day. There were already more than a hundred talmidim. I don’t remember the chronology, but I do remember that the time came when the hanhala decided the yeshiva should be recognized by the holy name of Tomchei T’mimim. This required the stamp of approval of the menahel of Tomchei T’mimim at the time, R’ Yona Cohen.

R’ Yona was one of the glorious figures among the Lubavitcher pioneering elite in Soviet Russia. He was a fervent Chassid, who fought valiantly for the smallest detail of Toras Chabad and its ways. He was an oveid and a fiery farbrenger. He was also a Yerei Shamayim and a big machmir. For example, he did not eat a crumb of bread that was not Pas Yisroel. Under the conditions prevalent in Soviet Russia in general, and the starvation years in particular, this was almost unbelievable.

R’ Yona never cut his peios even though the most ardent Lubavitchers were not particular about this. He did not curl his peios and did not make them stand out in any way, but tucked them under his hat. He did not do this in order to hide them from the prying eyes of the NKVD, as his big beard proclaimed his Chassidic identity, but as an expression of modesty.

A few years earlier, the menahel of Tomchei T’mimim was the great Chassid and oveid, R’ Nissan Nemanov. When he was arrested in the 1930’s, R’ Yona was appointed to the highest position in the yeshiva. R’ Yona was the menahel of Tomchei T’mimim when the yeshiva in Samarkand was ready to be called Tomchei T’mimim. He lived in Tashkent at the time. Askanim of the yeshiva brought him (I think it was for Sukkos, a Yom Tov that was one big farbrengen), and he farbrenged with Anash of Samarkand without interruption.


I remember something interesting R’ Yona did for the yeshiva. My uncle, R’ Zalman Shimon Dworkin, was working as a guard at a government factory in Samarkand. R’ Yona decided that R’ Dworkin’s place was not as a guard, but in Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim. At the beginning of the evening he started working on convincing my uncle who absolutely refused.

We lived in adjoining rooms to my uncle and when I went to sleep after midnight, R’ Yona was still far from his goal. He spoke excitedly, he demanded, but my uncle, in a quiet though determined voice, refused.

When I woke up in the morning, I heard otherwise. R’ Yona said one l’chaim after another and wished my uncle success, that the rosh yeshiva succeed in carrying out the Rebbe’s intention.

Yes, R’ Yona spent an entire night on this and was successful. My uncle became the rosh yeshiva of Tomchei T’mimim in Samarkand and a member of the hanhala of the yeshiva.


The yeshiva grew and some time later, R’ Nissan began asking that they restore him to his position as menahel and mashpia of the yeshiva as he was before his arrest. I don’t think this chapter was known among Anash and many years later, R’ Abba Pliskin told me about it:

Yes, the founders of the yeshiva had to decide who was in charge, choosing between two dear Chassidim. As much as R’ Nissan wanted the position, that is how much R’ Yona did not want to relinquish this holy shlichus of the Rebbe. It was an extremely difficult decision to make. They consulted with senior Chassidim in Samarkand and Tashkent, asking them to decide who should be the menahel, but their response was, that it was up to the vaad of the hanhala to decide.

We were in a quandary. Each of them, in his way, was incomparably precious to us, so how could we choose one over the other? At the same time, we knew that for the good of the yeshiva, we could not let the matter remain undecided. We decided to take a vote. The result was that R’ Nissan became the menahel-mashpia since most of the vaad was in favor of him. R’ Yona was brokenhearted about this for the rest of his life.


When I started asking R’ Abba who [had been in the majority], he realized what I wanted to ask him and he said: We were five people on the vaad and most were in favor of R’ Nissan. No doubt you want to know who was in favor of him and who was in favor of R’ Yona … I won’t tell you this. I can tell you, just to you, that I was in favor of … and I won’t publicize what he told me.


Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (
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