By R’ Nison Gordon, z’l
Translated by P. Samuels
To sit and listen to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s mother reflect on the years that she was rebbetzin in Yekaterinaslav, where she raised, in her home, a child that she merited to see become the leader of Chabad, is an experience that affects you for more than one reason.
First of all, it quenches your thirst to know anything about the Rebbe’s childhood and youth. Not everything can be told, and not all questions could be asked, especially when together with the nachas there’s a past filled with plenty of pain and suffering. But the short, fragmented words and scenarios that you pick up are enough to give you an idea that her great son was different than others even at a young age. Even as a young child, he was favored with talent and aptitude that foresaw a future of greatness, though the talented one himself thought otherwise and avoided being looked upon.
Secondly, you become acquainted a bit with the personality of a queen who still wears with much pride and majesty the crown of a rebbetzin, the crown of a daughter of royalty, who was raised in a Chassidic and rabbinic home, and who was a helpmate as the wife of a great Torah scholar. He was extremely knowledgeable in all facets of Torah scholarship and he sacrificed his life on the altar of Torah.
The husband and, ybl’c, the son—the more she speaks about them, the more you are eager to hear. She speaks about both of them in the same breath and with the same awe. She sees in her son the greatness of her husband. At some moments, the breaking of her voice reaches a point where you rush to change the subject in order to change the mood.
In her reflections, different scenes of her husband and her son follow one another. Here she’s still a newly married young woman at her father’s home in Nikaliev, where she lived with her husband until they got to Yekaterinaslav in 1907. Now she is in a village in Kazakhstan, in a farmer’s hut, surrounded outside by gentile youths and pigs. She went there from Yekaterinaslav to help soothe the galut (exile) pains of her husband.
In the village of Chilli, in Kazakhstan, where her husband was exiled, there were no Jews to be seen. Once, it was 2 Nissan; her husband exclaimed, “Today is 2 Nissan, the yahrzeit of the Rebbe, N’E . . . I have no one with whom to discuss Chassidic thoughts . . . I don’t have with what to write . . . so I have to think . . . and for many long hours he was sitting with closed eyes and thinking, and I was sitting in a corner.” [Translator’s note: Most factions of Judaism use some form of the abbreviation z’l to denote that the personality written about is no longer alive. Chabad Lubavitch follows a different custom: they use the designation nishmaso Eden (N’E), May his soul rest in Eden.]
While speaking of that day, the Rebbetzin’s eyes began showing signs of tears. Perhaps these tears are leftovers from that evening when she sat in a corner of the farmer’s hut and with a broken heart watched her husband, deep in thought, whose mind took him high and far away.
She closed her eyes for a moment, and sat in a pose, deep in thought, as if to illustrate what her husband looked like that 2 Nissan. But at the same moment, she herself was transported back to those tragic yet heroic years. And now, she seems to fly away from Kazakhstan, back to Yekaterinaslav to the visit of her son, when he came to say farewell before leaving for Riga, where his lifelong “companion” was waiting for him, who would accompany him on his significant life mission, which now rests on his shoulders.
“The Rebbe (Reb Yosef Yitzchok, N’E) left Leningrad right after Simchas Torah, and the son came home to spend the last Simchas Torah with his father and mother. No one, except my husband and me, knew that he is preparing for a journey to a distant place.
“That Simchas Torah we spent a lot of time together, and they danced a lot. As if to hide our true feelings, we made a special effort that yom tov to be cheerful and in good spirits, more than at any other time. There was a Kotzker chassid in town, who danced in a lively manner, while singing a song which for the three of us had an effect as if he was pouring salt on our wounds. We tried to hide these feelings from one another.”
The Rebbetzin even remembers the words to that song:
Yankel is going away
On a long journey
On a long journey
Without a drop of money
Yankel comes back
From his distant journey
With a lot of money.
Her son danced a lot that Simchas Torah, with the Kotzker chassid, and each time he passed where I was standing, he looked at me with eyes that told me how it hurts him to leave us, but his eyes also said “Don’t worry, Mother.”
The Rebbetzin remembers her son’s bar mitzvah well. She recalls the large crowd that had assembled for the simcha, and the strong voice of the bar mitzvah boy when he delivered his speech.
She especially remembers the mazal tov wishes from one of the richest Jews in town. He was a more modern Jew, yet occasionally he remembered that as a youth he had studied under Reb Hillel Partisher. His Jewish name was Shmerl Feitls. His official name was Sergei Feitelowitz (Note: In Russia surnames were based on one’s father’s first name. He was the son of Feitel so he was called Feitelowitz.) At the time when Reb Levi Yitzchok, the Rebbe’s father was about to become the rabbi in Yekaterinaslav, he, Shmerl Feitls, was the leader of all the Zionists in the Ukraine. He was an engineer by profession, and his word was reckoned with in the city.
Here’s how the Rebbetzin tells what happened:
“Just when my husband was a candidate for the rabbinical post in Yekaterinaslav, the Rebbe Rashab, N’E, proclaimed a sharp opposition to Zionism. You can imagine that the Zionists put a lot of pressure on their representative, who had a major say in all communal affairs, not to allow the Rashab’s chassid to be hired for that post.
“However, you can never underestimate the value of a Yidddishe neshamah. Perhaps he was reminded of his Rebbe Reb Hillel Paritcher? Who knows? Shmerl did not listen to anyone. He said that he wants to see for himself what the Nikolaiever Rav’s son-in-law is all about, and he wants to become acquainted with him.
“From 10 in the evening until 4 in the morning, Shmerl Feitls sat with my husband, with no one else present, in the home of a townsman—his name was Yaffe—and they discussed Kabbalah (hidden esoteric Torah topics), Chassidism, and cosmopolitan issues. In the morning, Shmerl notified the Zionists that he is resigning his position as head of the Ukrainian Zionists, and that he is in favor of my husband coming to Yekaterinaslav.
“This Shmerl was at my son’s bar mitzvah, and after the bar mitzvah speech, he came over to wish me mazal tov, adding a few words that he is gratified that he had a part in having such a rav and such a son in his town.
“On the occasion of the Rebbe’s wedding in 5689 in Warsaw, his father sent him a telegram of 105 words, and the tablecloth on which he composed it was wet with his tears.
“My husband was once summoned to Karkov, where he was ordered to sign a declaration that the government does not persecute religion. He categorically refused to sign and from then on, the troubles and persecutions became worse, until they actually arrested him in 1939.”
In the same sentence, the Rebbetzin goes back to talking about her son, drawing a parallel between the integrity and piety of both of them.
When the Rebbetzin talks about meeting her son in Paris, where he came for her in 1947, she speaks in a completely different tone of voice than that which she used when speaking about the earlier years.
The meeting with her son brought her the first bit of nachas after so many difficult years. She relates, with obvious mother-pride how, then, in Paris, “The Russian Jews recognized him and did not leave him alone. Then I told them for the first time that his birthday is 11 Nissan.”
On the pasuk “And she saw that he is good,” our rabbis, including Rashi, say that “the entire house was filled with a light” when Moshe Rabbeinu was born.
Yet, even though the light filled the whole house, his mother, Yocheved, was the first to realize and recognize the greatness of her son. It was a house of Levis, a home where the great members of the tribe of Levi gathered. His father Amram was a grandchild of Yaakov Avinu, and he had brothers with whom he founded the tribe of Levi, who later did the Avodah in the Beis HaMikdash.
And yet, when Moshe was born, the Torah states that his mother was the first to recognize what a light descended onto the world with his birth.