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Tuesday
Jan032017

TRAVELING SALESMAN OF CHABAD S’FARIM

R’ Azriel Schanowitz a”h, a Chabad Chassid in Crown Heights, passed away on 11 Cheshvan. His children gave Beis Moshiach his memoirs along with fascinating anecdotes from their father’s life. He was a modest Chassid who sold Chabad books published by Kehot all over New York. * He went from underground Tomchei T’mimim yeshivos to kiruvim from our Rebbeim, to devoting his life to spreading Chassidus throughout the metropolitan area.

R’ Azriel did not talk much about his past. Nevertheless, we were able to weave together a small glimpse into his life from the few snippets that he wrote, along with stories that he told his family. The little bit of information that we have can offer us some insight into his fascinating life story.

His was a familiar face in Crown Heights, standing and selling Chassidic s’farim. He would travel to other Jewish neighborhoods too to sell Chabad s’farim. That was how he was involved on a daily basis in spreading the wellsprings, as a Chassid who was truly mekushar to the Rebbe.

SACRIFICE FOR TORAH STUDY

R’ Azriel Schanowitz a”h was born in 5688/1928 in Odessa, Ukraine. His father was the mashpia, R’ Chaim Yitzchok, may Hashem avenge his blood, and his mother was Hinda Gittel Alte Chaya (see sidebar). He lost his mother when he was a young boy and his father remarried.

Despite the danger, the Schanowitz boys learned with G-d fearing melamdim at home. Then, his parents decided to send the two older boys to the Tomchei T’mimim yeshiva in Georgia, as R’ Azriel wrote:

“We heard that in Georgia the persecution was less and there were bachurim there who learned Torah. My brother Sholom Ber was bar mitzva already and I was under twelve. My father wanted to travel with us to Georgia to check out the situation, but then the bachur Mordechai Zalman [perhaps this was R’ Zalman Levin, later of Nachalat Har Chabad, who was an older bachur at the time] came to Odessa and said he was going to Georgia. ‘If so,’ said my father ‘the bachur going to Odessa will take you with him.’ This was in Shvat 5700/1940.”

The brothers, Azriel and Sholom Ber, said goodbye to their father, stepmother and three brothers, without an inkling that they would never see each other again.

The brothers and their escort sailed on a boat that left the port of Odessa and traveled through the Black Sea. Three days later it arrived on the shores of Georgia. The boys were soon learning in the Tomchei T’mimim yeshiva in Sukhumi. It was at this time that the brothers acquired their sobriquets: Sholom Ber was known as Sholom Ber Odesser, for his city of origin, and Azriel was called Isaac, for some unknown reason. With intermittent surveillance and persecution, the T’mimim moved from one place to another now and then.

Years later, R’ Azriel described this period:

“We learned for a few months in Sukhumi by R’ Yaakov Notik. Then we traveled to Sinoka where we learned in a local branch of Tomchei T’mimim. That is where I had my bar mitzva. Among the talmidim who learned there were Sholom Mendel Kalmanson, Sholom Morosow, and Sholom Levertov.”

The summer of 1941 is when war ensued between Germany and Russia, which changed everything throughout greater Russia. At the beginning of the war, the brothers still received letters from home. In one of them, their father said the situation was terrible. The last letter the brothers received was written Erev Sukkos 5702. They later found out that their father, his wife and three children were killed al kiddush Hashem.

“We traveled to Kutais to learn Torah there. In the middle of the war R’ Shmuel Notik joined us in Kutais. He was a great scholar in Nigleh and Chassidus. He gave shiurim nearly every day. In the morning he gave a shiur in Chassidus for the older bachurim and then he gave a shiur in Nigleh for my brother and me, Sholom Ber Pevsner, Leib Henich and others. He would say over many chiddushim from Rabbi Akiva Eiger. He also farbrenged often with us.

“There were a few days when I did not feel well and I rested in the house where the T’mimim stayed. R’ Shmuel Notik himself brought me fruit to give me strength, an item that was hard to obtain in those days due to the severe shortages in the Soviet Union because of the war.”

Material circumstances at that time were very difficult. One day, Azriel put on a garment that consisted completely of patches. Mrs. Idy Menkin, the wife of R’ Sender Menkin, noticed this and said in astonishment, “How can you go about like that?” She immediately took care of getting him something else to wear.

“My shoes were also ripped and the rain got in. I think R’ Moshe Lemberger gave me new shoes. On the spiritual side of things we learned Gemara and mefarshim, Shulchan Aruch, and reviewed maamarim.”

IMPENDING DANGER

At the end of the war, R’ Azriel and his brothers went from Kutais to Samarkand where many Chassidim had gone during the war. They had formed a beautiful community. The trip was extremely difficult and was made partly by boat and partly by train. They passed through Tbilisi in Georgia and Baku in Azerbaijan. In Samarkand, R’ Azriel began to learn and absorb much from the mashpia, R’ Nissan Nemanov.

When it became possible to leave Russia with forged Polish passports, many of Anash went to the border city of Lvov to see if they could leave from there to Poland. Among them were R’ Azriel and his brother who waited in Lvov for a period of time, which entailed great danger, as R’ Azriel recounted:

“Once, on Shabbos, I went for a walk. Two policemen asked me for my documents. I told them I have my papers in my apartment. I went in with them and immediately went to a different room where the window was open and I fled. I did not have any papers because they were all given to R’ Leibel Mochkin and R’ Mosher Lemberger, who organized Anash’s escape; it was a miracle I wasn’t caught.”

The brothers ended up leaving Russia and after some difficulties they arrived in Brunoy in France. They remained there in 5708-5709. A period of uncertainty ensued for they did not know where to go from there, whether to the United States or to Eretz Yisroel. “I planned on going to Eretz Yisroel and asked the Rebbe Rayatz but did not receive a response.”

Not long afterward, a letter came from the Rebbe Rayatz to R’ Nissan Nemanov who was the menahel and mashpia of the yeshiva, with a list of T’mimim who should leave Europe for the US. R’ Azriel was one of them.

UNUSUAL WELCOME FROM RAMASH

The first bachurim to go to the US were: R’ Dovid Raskin, R’ Berel Junik, R’ Yitzchok Shlomo Pevsner, R’ Gedalya Korf, and R’ Sholom Morosov. They left immediately and arrived in New York before the passing of the Rebbe Rayatz. R’ Azriel, to his great sorrow, received his visa after a protracted delay and before he left France he heard about the histalkus.

R’ Azriel remembered that day, Sunday, 11 Shvat, well. “When we heard the news about the passing, we sat shiva. R’ Nemanov saw me and asked whether there was news from New York and I said, ‘there was probably news.’ It was first on Wednesday that he came to Chassidus in the morning and in the middle of learning he began to sob. I was frightened and I went to R’ Nachum Labkovsky and asked whether something could be done to calm R’ Nemanov. He said to me, ‘He was like a child to the Rebbe and nothing can be done.’”

Shortly after the histalkus, R’ Azriel boarded a ship for New York. “I arrived in New York on 17 Adar 5710. The Sharfstein brothers, Zelig and Mottel, were there to welcome me. I think the Rebbe told them to meet me.”

They brought R’ Azriel from the port to 770. He saw the Rebbe for the first time at Mincha and an astonishing thing happened. When the Rebbe left the davening, the Sharfstein brothers approached Ramash (referring to the Rebbe, who had not formally accepted the nesius yet) and introduced Azriel. “This is the new bachur who came from Paris.”

The Rebbe asked him directly, “Will you join the mitvoch sha’ah (the once a week Released Time program in which bachurim taught public school children)?” Of course, Azriel said yes. The very next Wednesday, a few days after arriving in the US, he went with the others to teach about Judaism. He tried to help them despite not knowing any English. R’ Azriel later said that with the Rebbe’s direct question, he gave him the feeling that there was no time for welcomes, because work on behalf of other Jews needed to begin immediately.

His son, R’ Yosef, relates, “My father immediately felt that the Rebbe is his Rebbe, and in Tammuz 5710, he had yechidus as a Chassid with his Rebbe.”

PROMOTER OF THE WRITTEN WORD

A few years later, R’ Azriel married Shifra (nee From) and settled in Crown Heights. The Rebbe officiated at his wedding.

For many years he worked in diamond polishing. There was another Jewish man at work who gave him a very hard time about Chabad’s position on Zionism. During the Six Day War, the other person intensified his attacks. R’ Azriel could not take it any longer and wrote to the Rebbe that he wanted to leave his job, but the Rebbe told him to stay. Just a few months later, R’ Azriel discovered the man who persecuted him attending one of the Rebbe’s farbrengens.

In 1970 he began working as a salesman for Merkos L’Inyanei Chinuch and Kehot, selling s’farim in Jewish neighborhoods in New York. He worked under Rabbi Chadakov and would give him detailed reports about book sales among the different Jewish groups in greater New York.

His son Yosef relates, “My father would travel by bus with the s’farim and would go to stores, shuls, and yeshivos, including Satmar. Although there were groups that did not like Lubavitch, he somehow got permission to sell the books in all these places. During the shiva for our father, we heard feedback about the selling of s’farim that he did in various places.

“In addition to selling books in Jewish neighborhoods, he would sell Chabad books from a stand that he set up in the doorway of 770 during the Rebbe’s weekday farbrengens.”

T’FILLA AND CHESED

R’ Azriel had a special “koch” in learning maamarei Chassidus. Every day he got up at five in the morning and learned maamarim. Sometimes he learned from handwritten manuscripts from the time he learned in yeshivos in Europe. When he left his job, he would get up and go to shul, answer Borchu, K’dusha and amen, and go home to daven at length.

For many years he arranged and encouraged young men to review maamarei Chassidus by heart in shuls in Crown Heights. He wasn’t pleased when he saw a family member review a maamer in public from the book.

As it was in his parents’ home, he also hosted many guests who came to the neighborhood. The Rebbe knew about this and one time, when R’ Azriel had yechidus, the Rebbe asked him about an older bachur who was one of his regular guests, “Can’t you find him a shidduch?”

MEMORIES OF HIS FATHER

R’ Azriel’s father, R’ Chaim Yitzchok, was born and raised in Podobaranka and learned in yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim, which had to move underground after the revolution.

R’ Chaim Yitzchok married and in 5783 began serving as a mashpia in the Chabad community in Odessa, as the Rebbe Rayatz instructed.

During this period of time there was nonstop persecution by the Yevsektzia. There were about eighty shuls in Odessa before the Communist Revolution and a few years later only two remained. Despite the oppression, R’ Chaim Yitzchok did not waver and he arranged shiurim in the local Chabad shul in Gemara, Shulchan Aruch, Ein Yaakov and Chassidus, along with farbrengens that took place on special dates.

“My father would wear Shabbos clothes on 19 Kislev,” said his son, R’ Azriel. “One year, there was such fear that only three or four people showed up to the farbrengen. The farbrengen was very short.”

We can learn about his activities from a letter that the Rebbe Rayatz wrote to him, “In response to your letter, I was happy to hear about the set times for Torah study of Gemara and Shulchan Aruch, Ein Yaakov and Chassidus, and please give my regards and convey my blessings to them, that Hashem should endow them with an abundance of life and blessings, materially and spiritually, and for your involvement, may Hashem help you with a good livelihood in expansiveness and serenity, materially and spiritually, and may Hashem strengthen the health of your children and may you raise them to Torah, chuppa, and good deeds.”

Over the years, he received many letters from the Rebbe Rayatz and after he read them, he quickly hid them lest they be discovered if a search of the house was conducted.

We know very little about his activities but the Rebbe Rayatz called him, “My general in Odessa.” From this description we understand how important his work was in Odessa.

He raised his children in the ways of Torah and Chassidus despite the communist winds blowing in the street. He hired melamdim for this purpose. His son Azriel, remembered his last melamed who taught him in Odessa, R’ Meir Stambler. Many years later, they met in Beis Chayeinu and R’ Meir reminded his talmid what the last thing they learned was.

“There were days that my father was afraid to sleep at home because of the secret police who were looking for him, and he would go to sleep somewhere else. Even when he slept at home, there was an escape route for him. In the back of the house was a window which would be opened in times of trouble so he could escape that way.”

The Schanowitz home was open to guests despite their terrible financial situation:

“There was a poor man (I think his name was Nachum) whose clothes were torn and very worn out and nobody wanted him in their house. So he slept by us for a while.

“When we were children and there was nothing to eat in the house, they said, ‘Moshiach will come, there will be a lot of money, and then we will be able to buy bread.’

“This was my father’s daily schedule: In the morning he would put on t’fillin and recite the Shma (I think he had another pair of t’fillin to daven with) [meaning he had one pair for the morning Shma and the other for t’filla]. Then he would drink three cups of strong tea and would not eat mezonos even on Shabbos. Then he learned Chassidus for a few hours and would daven at length. His learning of Nigleh included Gemara and Yoreh Deia and he learned until late at night.

“Friday night, before Kabbalas Shabbos, he would learn Chassidus for a few hours and daven at length, and on Shabbos morning too, and at Mincha he would review a maamer [apparently by heart, in shul].

“He went to the sea a few times a week to immerse (Odessa is on the Black Sea) and they had to exert themselves to find a private place to immerse.

“Erev Shabbos, before candle lighting, he would check his pockets, turning them out like before Pesach, so as not to move muktza [and maybe also so as not to carry in a public domain].

“When he had yahrtzait he would fast but he brought mashke for the other congregants. I remember that it was hard for him to daven at the amud because he davened so slowly.

“Although the neighbors were not religious, when they would do a bris mila they would honor my father with sandakaus. From what I recall, they were not as afraid to perform a bris in Odessa as they were in other cities in the Soviet Union.”

 

R’ Azriel Schanowitz passed away on 11 Cheshvan at the age of 88. He is survived by his wife and many descendants who go in the path of Torah and Chassidus: Rabbi Yosef Schanowitz – Highland Park, IL; Rabbi Mayer Schanowitz – Chicago, IL; Mrs. Leah Engel – Denver, CO; Mrs. Shterna Edelman – Brunoy, France; Mrs. Rivka Vogel – San Jose, CA; R’ Levi Schanowitz – Crown Heights; Mrs. Rochel Polter – Oak Park, MI; Rabbi Shmuel Schanowitz – Buffalo, NY; Rabbi Yisroel Schanowitz – Las Vegas, NV; Rabbi Chaim Schanowitz – San Diego, CA; and Mrs. Nechama Dina Gansburg – Aubervilliers, France, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His daughter, Mrs. Hindy Scheiman, shlucha in Chicago, passed away in 2013.

 

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