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Tuesday
Oct152019

Succos in the ussr

I sat with Rabbi Abba Dovid Gurevitch for a fascinating talk about the different Succos holidays he celebrated at various stages in his life. R’ Gurevitch is in his late eighties and is brimming with riveting accounts interwoven with Chassidic history as well as kiruvim from the Rebbe. Talking with him took me back twenty-five years to when I was a young bachur when I sat in a spacious succa in the backyard of the Gurevitch family in Tashkent and heard fascinating stories from him about the harsh conditions under communist oppression.

The conversation that began then seems to have continued from the point where we left off. On the table were piled pictures that documented Succos with R’ Gurevitch as a shliach in Tashkent and Central Asia.

THE EARLY YEARS IN SAMARKAND

“The first succa that I remember was built in the yard of our house in Samarkand. Many Chassidim had made their way to Samarkand after fleeing the front line terrors of World War II. They came as guests to the city, these special ushpizin…

“The succos of those days were built relatively freely as the Chassidim were living in an area where the houses were one-story (I tried using the word ‘villa’ but R’ Gurevitch smiled and whispered: No! They were very simple homes.) and each house had a yard where a succa was built. I was a child and I remember that for a while we lived in a yard that was shared by three families, those of: Rabbi Zalman Shimon Dworkin, R’ Avrohom Shmuel Lebenharz, and our family.”

LVOV – A SUCCA THANKS TO CHAZANUS

During the time that Chassidim tried to leave Russia with false passports, the Gurevitch family traveled from Samarkand to the border city of Lvov. From there it was easier to get across the border. The family arrived in Lvov on Rosh Chodesh Elul 5707/1947 where they lived for several months in fear of being caught. At the same time, they made every effort to get across the border along with hundreds of other Chassidim who were to leave Russia with false Polish papers.

At a certain point, the secret police became aware of the mass smuggling and put a stop to it in the winter of 5707. As a result, a wave of arrests were made among the Chassidim who wanted to leave illegally. Among those arrested were R’ Refael Dovber Gurevitch, the father of R’ Abba Dovid.

After a period of interrogation and torture, he was sent to exile in frozen Siberia. Thank G-d, he returned home after a few years.

R’ Abba Dovid married his wife Malka and they continued living in Lvov despite there being hardly any Chassidim living there anymore.

“Government oppression was at a peak. It was not possible to build a succa in yards and so we ate the meals on Succos in the shul’s succa.

“I remember an interesting episode about one of the meals on the first days (apparently in 5720). I was sitting in the succa with my friend, R’ Dovid Leib Chein, when someone walked in who had just that day appeared for the first time in shul. He was a chazan by profession and he was even honored with leading the services. We welcomed him joyously, ate together, sang Chassidishe niggunim and said divrei Torah.

“After the chazan left, R’ Dovid Leib said: That you came to the succa, do you deserve thanks for that? No! You are of Anash. But this man, to whom G-d gave a pleasant voice, which is why he wanted to come to shul, so he would be honored with the davening, this is how he merited an additional mitzva, the mitzva of sitting in a succa.”

One year, the communists decided to close the shul along with the succa next to it (this was after I had already moved from the city). They made sure to stage a drunken quarrel in the shul’s yard and with the excuse of activities by criminal elements they closed the shul area.

“My father worked hard to get the shul opened again but to no avail. A new place was needed for a succa. My father found a house owned by gentiles on the edge of the city and upon paying them well, the owners agreed to allow him to build a succa in their yard. It was far away and my father knew that he would not be able to eat in the succa on the first days of Yom Tov, but he planned on going there on every day of Chol Ha’Moed to fulfill the mitzva.

“Unfortunately, shortly after the succa was built, the authorities discovered it, it’s not clear how, and they dismantled it. My father remained without a succa the entire Succos,” R’ Abba concluded sadly.

How did you get the dalet minim during those years?

“It really wasn’t simple. It was especially difficult to obtain esrogim; they do not grow at all in the Soviet Union. Despite the challenges and difficulties, we always got the dalet minim, thank G-d. Some years, we got them thanks to a delivery of esrogim that came by diplomatic mail from Eretz Yisrael to the Israeli embassy in Moscow. From there, they were distributed to Jewish communities.

“We cut the lulavim ourselves. There were palms that grew in the area of the airport of Lvov. One of the Chassidim worked there and one of the nights before Succos, when the airport was closed, this Chassid would sneak a few Chassidim into the airport and together, they cut the lulavim from the palm trees growing there. We bought haddassim and aravos at the botanic gardens of Lvov.”

FORCED TO FLEE

R’ Abba Dovid lived in Lvov for fifteen years, at first as a child and then as the married father of little children. This period of his life came to an end due to a complicated series of events. The manager of a factory where he and his brothers worked was arrested by the authorities for financial crimes. The man, being a smart Jew, deposited large sums of money that he had with the Gurevitch brothers.

Due to his arrest, R’ Abba Dovid was also arrested. The KGB threatened that if he did not tell them everything and hand over the money in his possession, they would also arrest his father and brother.

“As I said, my father had already been arrested for wanting to leave Russia. He had been interrogated, tortured and exiled. Naturally, I was very apprehensive about their arresting him again. I was afraid the police would conduct a search of my father’s and brother’s houses where they would find more money and I would ensnare my family. As for the manager to whom the money belonged, he was already in jail.

“Therefore, after much thought, I handed over the money in my possession. The interrogators who released me instructed me not to leave the city. They wanted me to testify against the others. Despite their warnings, I left the city so I would not have to testify against others. I took my family and we moved off to distant Tashkent where a large Chabad community operated clandestinely.”

SUCCA BREAK AT WORK

It was easier to live a Jewish life in Tashkent than in Russia proper. R’ Abba Dovid built a succa in his yard every year. Not only that but he also hosted a group of Chassidim who worked in a small factory run by R’ Sholom Ber Garelik.

“This factory, which was located near my house, was founded so that Chassidim would have a place to work without having to desecrate Shabbos. Every day of Chol Ha’Moed Succos, during the afternoon break, Chassidim came to my succa to eat. Among them, I remember: R’ Sholom Ber Garelik, R’ Mottel Kozliner, R’ Elimelech Lebenharz, R’ Moshe Laine and my brother Shmuel.

“During those years, the sixties, we would get the dalet minim from a different place each time. Once, someone traveled to Georgia and once we got it from Moscow. Every year, we had dramatic stories but there was always a happy ending: dalet minim that came to Tashkent. Obviously, not every person had his own set but the secret minyan had a set that everyone used.”

THE REBBE’S GUESTS ON SUCCOS

R’ Gurevitch points to the verse in Tehillim, “Make us rejoice like the days you afflicted us,” to express the great joy he experienced that equaled the affliction of the difficult years. This is why R’ Gurevitch wanted to tell me about the Succos he spent with the Rebbe, once he left Soviet Russia.

“I can’t just tell you about Succos in exile and not about Succos with the Rebbe,” he said with a smile.

He arrived in Eretz Yisrael on 9 Iyar 5731/1971 with his family. A few months later, he was invited to spend Tishrei with the Rebbe together with some other Chassidim who left Russia at that time.

That Tishrei 5732, R’ Gurevitch merited many kiruvim (displays of affection) from the Rebbe. Here is one anecdote which he wrote in his diary:

“On Succos after Kabbolas Shabbos and maariv, the Rebbe went upstairs to his room. Since we were guests of the Rebbe, Chassidim asked us to get the Rebbe to agree to farbreng in the succa. When the Rebbe began to go up the steps, we approached and said, ‘Perhaps a farbrengen would be possible?’ The Rebbe smiled broadly and said, ‘You are not aware of the situation because they asked you [i.e. put you up to this]. As is known, farbrenging in the succa is dangerous!’

“The succa, as big as it is, is not large enough for 10,000 [sic] people to farbreng, may they increase. Last year, someone fell and broke his leg, may Hashem have mercy. As for farbrenging outside the succa, without being able to say l’chaim, it doesn’t work …

“When the Rebbe had already gone up and was about to enter gan eden ha’tachton, as we continued to escort the Nasi, R’ Yaakov Notik [also one of the Chassidim who had recently left Russia] tried his luck. ‘Perhaps to say a maamar in the morning?’ The Rebbe said, ‘I will not remain in debt to you …’

“Five minutes later, R’ Chadakov came down and announced to the crowd that had not yet left for home: Tomorrow, at nine o’clock, before the davening – a maamar!”

SUCCA ON A MILITARY TRUCK

After nearly twenty years in which he lived in Eretz Yisrael and Crown Heights, the communist regime ended and the Iron Curtain came down. R’ Gurevitch was one of the first shluchim to go back to Russia to breathe life into the Jews of Tashkent.

“We arrived in Tashkent, my wife and I, on erev Rosh Chodesh Menachem Av 5750.”

About a year later, Uzbekistan announced its independence and secession from the Soviet Union. When an attempt at staging a coup took place in Moscow at the end of 5751, an order came from the Rebbe not to leave the shlichus and not to change plans.

R’ Gurevitch was appointed as chief rabbi of Tashkent and Central Asia. He worked on the Rebbe’s shlichus for many years and accomplished a tremendous amount in spreading Judaism and Chassidus among the Jews of those countries.

An entire book can be written about his activities but since this article is about Succos, I asked R’ Gurevitch to tell me about that:

“For years, we arranged for succos to be built in the Bucharian shuls, the Ashkenazi shul, as well as private homes, the Chabad school, any possible place, to enable as many Jews as possible the opportunity to do the mitzva.

“As for the dalet minim, there were years that we got them from Chabad organizations, Ezras Achim and Ohr Avner, and there were times that the Israeli ambassador in Uzbekistan, Mr. Noach Gal, made sure to import many sets of dalet minim from Eretz Yisrael via diplomatic mail.

“After I received the sets, I sent them to all the Jewish communities throughout Central Asia. The main problem was in obtaining esrogim, lulavim and haddassim. We could get aravos in Tashkent.

“Every day of Succos, we did mivtza lulav in the Chabad school, since the school was open on Chol Ha’Moed. We thus accomplished mivtza lulav and succa on a large scale in the school where about 350 students learned, at its peak.”

I brought along to this interview a picture from when I was on shlichus in Tashkent in 5753, where I am standing next to a mobile succa on a military truck. It had a big sign: “Moshiach Is On His Way.” R’ Gurevitch smiled when he looked at it. “We had good connections with everyone so I got the military truck that we used for Mivtza Succa… It was a special mivtza…” (see sidebar).

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