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Tuesday
Feb282017

PRACTICING JUDAISM OPENLY IN THE SOVIET “PARADISE”

Both were child heroes who observed Yiddishkait under Soviet rule. They had to deal with hostile classmates, they learned Torah secretly, and had to hide in times of danger. * Beis Moshiach met with two Chazan brothers, R’ Chaim Meir and R’ Avrohom, who explained how their family kept strong despite all the threats, persecution, and surveillance in communist Russia.

Photos by Yisroel BlezovskyThe family of Rabbi and Mrs. Aaron Chazan has long since been a symbol of heroism. They had a large family but were alone as they faced off against the mighty Russian government which tried to break them but were unsuccessful.

The family eventually moved to Eretz Yisroel and over the years, the story of Rabbi Aaron and Mrs. Nechama Leah Chazan became well-known because of the book Deep in the Russian Night. It is fifty years since the Chazans left Russia and we spoke with two Chazan brothers, R’ Chaim Meir of Nachalat Har Chabad and R’ Avrohom, rav of the Academics neighborhood and director of the Chabad House “Shaarei Aliya” in Lud. They were both asked to respond to this question: How did the Chazan family stay strong in Soviet Russia? How were thirteen children, raised under communist oppression, able to maintain a life of Torah and mitzvos? How is it that their numerous offspring go in the path of Torah with some of them rabbanim and shluchim?

The meeting with these two brothers took place in Shaarei Aliya where Russian immigrants come to daven and learn. The little boy who fought for Shabbos observance now runs an empire of Judaism and Chassidus.

TRUTH VERSUS PRAVDA

Pravda (truth in Russian) is the name of the newspaper that was the official mouthpiece of the communist party in the Soviet Union. This paper, which was anything but truthful, was known for its incitement against anyone who opposed communist ideology, including shomrei mitzvos. Pravda wasn’t just one paper; it had many subsidiary local and district papers that had the same goal, but whose content reflected the local region it was published in.

When the district Pravda published a sharp article against the Chazan family whose children did not attend school on Shabbos, a public firestorm erupted. Despite this, the Chazan family did not cave in and Shabbos was not desecrated by its members. The brothers we interviewed told us about their uncompromising battle as well as the fear they experienced at that time.

R’ Avrohom Chazan: Our parents were truly G-d fearing and truth was a rock solid foundation from which they did not budge. All their spiritual battles were won because they were people of truth who did not compromise. They went all the way and never considered giving in. Raising such a large family with thirteen children under those miserable material and spiritual circumstances was done with the power of truth. It was a time when young men were afraid to grow a beard and my father had a beard. He was a genuine Chassid and did everything as it was supposed to be done.

R’ Chaim Meir Chazan: Our parents were raised that way themselves. My father would say that in the town he grew up in, when the Communist Revolution took place, there was hardly a family that had all their children remain frum. Communist ideology swept everyone away and only my father’s family remained totally religious. He said that many of the young people in town were leaders the revolution in the Ukraine. Despite this, my father, his brother and sister remained faithful to Torah and mitzvos.

How did this happen? Because in their home they received an uncompromising chinuch. My mother had a similar background. Her father, R’ Zushe Friedman, proudly fought for a Jewish chinuch for his children. He even said that to send children to a communist school was tantamount to “be killed and do not transgress this.”

R’ Avrohom: My father did things completely differently than his frum friends. While they hid everything, he did not. When he rode to work on public transportation he learned Gemara the entire time. I remember, as a young boy, that during summer vacation, my brother Sholom Yaakov and I would go to work with him. At work too we saw him opening and learning from a Gemara whenever he had free time. He wasn’t afraid of anyone and acted based on what he knew to be true. It was a miracle that he did not end up in prison or in exile.

Not long ago, my brother Sholom Yaakov reminded me how every Friday our father would take us to immerse in a mikva. We lived in a suburb of Moscow, about half an hour’s drive from the city and every Friday he would take us younger children (while the older ones went themselves, at a time convenient for them) to the mikva at the Archipova shul. Who immersed there every Friday? A few old men and R’ Aaron Chazan and his young children!

At a certain point, he built a secret mikva in our house so we could immerse on Shabbos and holidays too, when traveling is prohibited. In the kitchen there was a small opening in the floor and with a ladder we would climb down into the mikva. The water was freezing and was changed only once in a long while due to technical difficulties, but the main thing is that we immersed.

As my brother told me this, I was reminded that on one of those Fridays my father went with us to the office of the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Levin. R’ Levin was astounded by our knowledge of Gemara. At some point he walked over to a box nearby and took out two new volumes of Gemara and gave one to each of us. This was a complete surprise for us because we were used to thinking a Gemara is a large crumbling book, while the Gemaras he gave us were new and not large. When we went home on the train, our father told us, “Nu, open the new Gemara and start learning.”

In those insane times, when even Chassidim and G-d fearing people hid their Jewishness, our father wasn’t afraid to have his children learn Gemara even in a public place, because this was his truth. The inner soul powers that he operated with were Chassidic, because he grew up in a Chassidishe home and he attended Tomchei T’mimim in Zhvil by Rabbi Shaul Brook.

SUKKOS IN THE CHAZAN HOME

The Chazan home was like a Chabad House but it operated under the watchful eyes of the communist government. The Chazan brothers told of secret minyanim that took place in the house on Shabbos. After the davening on Shabbos, there were kiddushim where R’ Aaron Chazan farbrenged. Circumcisions, weddings, and many other events took place in this home that served as the headquarters for everything Jewish throughout that area.

The Chazans maintained an open home for many Chassidim who lived in Moscow and its environs. They would come to consult with R’ Chazan and attend farbrengens. When I asked the Chazan brothers which Chassidim went to their home, they began enumerating a long list. Some were: R’ Naftali Kravitzky a”h, R’ Yehuda Kulasher (Botrashvili) a”h, R’ Avrohom Rubashkin a”h, R’ Leib Charatznov a”h, R’ Henich Rapoport a”h, R’ Yisroel Konson a”h and his son-in-law, R’ Eliyahu Bisk, R’ Chaim Eliezer Gurewitz a”h and his son, R’ Sholom Dovber, R’ Nosson Kanelsky, R’ Berel Rickman a”h, and R’ Aharon Gruzman a”h (uncle of Rabbi Monke Gruzman a”h).

In very down to earth terms, the brothers described in living color their large and “famous” sukka:

R’ Chaim Meir: We lived in a private house and on the porch at the entrance of the house my father built a sunroof. Before Sukkos he would open the roof and put on s’chach. Whoever wanted to fulfill the mitzva of sitting in the sukka would come to us on Yom Tov and Chol HaMoed. There were a few other sukkos in the Bolshevo area, but guests preferred to come to us.

R’ Avrohom: Our sukka was large and famous. Word got around among the mitzva observant people who lived in the area and many visited our sukka.

R’ Chaim Meir: The four minim were a story onto themselves. We would usually get them from the rabbi of Moscow, R’ Levin. There was also a Jew in our area who had a pot with one small palm which grew a few lulavs a year. We would get a lulav from him.

R’ Avrohom: These four minim were the only set in the entire area. All the frum people in the area would come to us to say the bracha over them.

***

Before Pesach, the Chazan home would turn into a secret matza bakery. They baked a large quantity of matzos for Jews in the area.

R’ Chaim Meir: Long before Pesach is when the matza baking in our home began, which was run by my father. We had a machine that made the holes in the dough, a hand operated mechanical thing. At first we worked during the day but when the concerns about prying eyes became too much, the work hours were switched to late at night. My father meticulously covered the windows so no light would be seen.

As Pesach approached, we worked hard. We would bake many hand matzos for us to eat, and some more for local Chassidim. This is what we experienced at home but the work was far greater. Our father had to get special wheat that was brought from Ukraine and he supervised it until the grinding.

GRANDMOTHER’S COOKIES

Shabbos in the Chazan home was a taste of the World to Come. A secret minyan gathered in the morning and when the davening was over the farbrengen began. As the brothers began talking about the kiddush, R’ Chaim Meir smiled and exclaimed, “Ah, my grandmother’s cookies.”

He was referring to Baba Rochel, Grandmother Rochel Friedman, Mrs. Nechama Leah Chazan’s mother. She lived to a ripe old age and after her husband passed away, and some of her children left Russia, she moved in with the Chazan family and was a second mother to the children. Her special cookies regularly graced the kiddush on Shabbos.

They made kiddush on wine made out of raisins by R’ Aaron Chazan. At the family meal there were always challos, which was not a given in those days, and of course there were divrei Torah and Shabbos niggunim.

A CHILD’S JEWISH PRIDE

The Chazan family’s battle against going to school in general and against school on Shabbos in particular was publicized a number of times, but the two brothers add some life and color to the legend, from their personal recollections.

R’ Chaim Meir: For three years, my father hid me. According to law, we had to attend school from the age of seven but I didn’t step foot in school until age ten. For a while, there were melamdim who came to the house to teach me and my brothers. I remember R’ Yisroel Olidort a”h. At another time my father sent me to live with our relative, R’ Yisroel Friedman, so people would not notice a child around who wasn’t going to school.

When I turned ten, it was no longer possible to hide me. Although I knew how to read Russian, my father made it clear to me that it wasn’t worth insisting on putting me in the class appropriate for my age. Rather, I should go to first grade where I wouldn’t have to do that much work. Emotionally, it wasn’t easy to be ten in the first grade. I began going to school but was absent on Shabbos. At a certain point, the authorities caught on and began pressuring and threatening but my father did not want us to go on Shabbos.

Due to pressure and persecution, the secret minyan in our house sometimes moved to other locations. One Shabbos, when we returned from one of the secret minyanim, we saw a police car near our house. The tension was tremendous. We entered the house and there were three policemen there, speaking to my grandmother. When my father walked in, they told him that he must send his children to school on Shabbos. After intense pressure, my father had no choice and he sent one child to represent the family, but without a briefcase or writing implements.

R’ Avrohom: At first only the girls went on Shabbos, because the boys had to go to minyan. Due to my relatively young age, I started going to school only in the last few years before we moved to Eretz Yisroel. My teacher, being a Christian, respected our being religious and ignored my weekly absences on Shabbos, but it wasn’t enough.

The large number of students in the school compelled the principal to split the class into two shifts. On Fridays, my class would start learning at one in the afternoon and finish in the evening. During the winter, it was already Shabbos when school was over for the day. When it was candle lighting time, I had to stop writing. At first the teacher and students wondered about my strange behavior, but as time went on they picked up on the step that I would take before I would stop writing.

In those years, students did not have watches and I had to ask permission to use the bathroom. That is when I would go and look at the wall clock near the principal’s office and then go back to class and stop writing after a while. When I left the classroom on Friday afternoons, some kids would snicker. I never tried to hide it, but always proudly told the truth, “The Sabbath began and I am a Jew and cannot write on the Sabbath.”

There were other problems too. During gym, there were times you had to take off your shirt and then everyone saw my tzitzis and would tease me. I remember they were woolen tzitzis that we got through the Israeli consulate. A few Chassidim were able to leave Russia in those years and in order to get a visa they had to arrange it at the Israeli consulate in Moscow. People at the consulate would do a lot to help religious Jews living in Russia and so, the Chassidim who went to the consulate left with various religious items. Before these Chassidim left Russia, they would leave these things with Jews in Moscow and that is how we got various religious items, including woolen tzitzis.

THE FAMILY’S GEULA

This complicated life of Jewish pride on the one hand, and secretly observing mitzvos on the other, ended in the summer of 1966, when the Chazan family was given permission to immigrate to Eretz Yisroel.

R’ Avrohom: We got a postcard with an invitation to appear at a certain office which everyone knew was where you got your visa. When that postcard arrived we were so excited, but my parents warned us immediately that it was forbidden to tell anyone anything. They were afraid the government would change their minds. It was a tremendous simcha, a real Geula.

R’ Chaim Meir: This past 27 Elul was exactly fifty years since we arrived in Eretz Yisroel. When we arrived, our father sent us to learn in Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim. He sent me to learn in the yeshiva g’dola in Kfar Chabad and my younger brothers, Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, to the yeshiva k’tana in Lud.

***

The two brothers looked at one another with a smile. They described a way of life that they had to live day in and day out for years. That was their childhood and it is engraved deep in their souls.

A LETTER TO THE REBBE BETWEEN THE PAGES OF A TANYA

R’ Aaron Chazan grew up in a Chassidic home and slowly became involved with Lubavitch. When he lived in Russia, he had an open miracle from the Rebbe, as he later recounted:

In my place of work there was a drunk who wanted my job, whether because he thought it was easy work or because he was sure the salary was better. He started to cause me problems in order to get me to leave. At first I paid him no attention, but as time went on his provocations became harder to bear and really got to me.

One day, I told my son-in-law R’ Moshe Greenberg who said I should write a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe and ask for his bracha.

In Russia of those days, nobody endangered themselves by sending letters to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The connection with “Schneersohn” was reason enough to be arrested and exiled to Siberia. My son-in-law had a solution. He said to write the letter and then place it among the pages of a Tanya. Chabad Chassidim in Russia believed that when you put a letter into a Tanya, the fundamental work of Chabad Chassidus, that the Rebbe “received” it with his prophetic spirit.

I did as he said. I asked for the Rebbe’s bracha to get rid of the goy and put it among the pages of a Tanya. A few days later I saw the fulfillment of the Rebbe’s bracha. A fire broke out in a building near our workplace and after a brief investigation, that goy was found guilty of starting the fire and was sent to jail for many years.

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