by Rabbi Shlomo Galperin
Getting an Etrog was a big deal in the Russian Jewish underground. The search started in the summertime. Often there were “tourists” from the West visiting various cities in the Soviet Union. As part of their official itinerary they would visit the official city synagogue and would “forget” and leave behind a prayerbook or Tallis, a pair of Tefillin or Mezuzot – seemingly forgotten but intended for the local Jews. If an Etrog would be left behind on a bench or on a synagogue shelf, the Shamash (synagogue beadle/caretaker) would spy it out and often charge very expensive prices for it, so the highest bidder would have that Etrog.
When we were teenagers in Tashkent Russia, we studied with the local Rabbi, Reb Zalman Buber (Pewnser). In his youth, while as a student at the original Lubavitch Yeshiva in the town of Lubavitch, he was a dynamic young man. It was said that he studied like a lion, with a roaring voice when he studied Talmud aloud. By the time we knew him he was arrested many times by the communists, he had served sentences in prison and labor camp under the Soviets so when we knew him he was a much weakened, older man, emaciated, with a raspy hoarse voice. We learned a lot from him, both book-smarts and people-smarts. He was witty and clever, sharp and understanding, he was a kind and wise Rabbi in the old style.
I was a friend and study-partner with his grandson Yoel Naimark (now residing in Lod, Israel) so in addition to our studies, I spent a lot of time in their household and was like a part of the family. Getting packages from abroad was a big deal. When he first got notification of a package from the USA waiting for him in the local post-office he was quite afraid, as there was constant and palpable fear of the KGB and even local police. Since we studied with him, and he was older and needed help, we sometimes went along with him to pick up these packages at the post office which he would receive from his distant relatives, the Pevnser family who lived in New York.
It usually went off without a hitch. There would be young girls working the windows at the post office, he’d show his passport, sign for his package and then we’d help him carry it home. Inside there would be a pretty tea-set with 5 or 6 compartments. There would be tea bags, something that was an American-style luxury in Tashkent in those days when we made tea by boiling tea leaves into a strong tea essence liquid concentrate that would be used to make tea. There was usually a small bottle of jam or jelly, small bars of chocolate, and sugar cubes. And in the middle of it, would sit an Etrog! It blended into the theme, you know, lemon with tea, but was a discreet way for them to send him a beautiful Yanover/Kalabria Etrog (as is the Chabad custom) for use on the Sukkot holiday. In fact, it wasn’t only for his own use, but since Etrogim were extremely difficult to get, people would visit Reb Zalman’s Sukkah every day of the holiday, discreetly visiting all day long for a chance to do this Sukkot Mitzvah. The tea-set was something he could sell on the black market and it was a clever way to get the Etrog to him and to the Tashkent community of “underground” Jews.
One year, it was late summer, we walked him to the post-office. When he came out of the building he was ashen, he was so upset, so distraught, but couldn’t say a word. He had the package with him, but something was very wrong. When we got home, he didn’t even want to open it. His hands were trembling, he had to lay down. He began to smoke to calm himself. In the labor camps he learned to smoke, as it helped stave off the hunger pangs. He described how they would smoke dried up cherry leaves, cut up and rolled, one after another. After a while, with a shaky quivering voice he told us what happened inside the post office.
He went up to the window to get his package, but this time there was a middle-aged woman there, an officer, with fancy insignia on her lapel. She seemed outwardly sweet and friendly, but said she had to open the package first to be sure. When she saw the lemon (i.e. the Etrog), she said that it was official policy to inspect fruit from abroad based on a new directive from the Soviet Ministry of Agriculture. So she took out a sharp knife, she was a ranking officer and knew exactly what she was doing, and to his great chagrin, and his silent outcry of deep pain, she sliced it open in half (thereby invalidating the Etrog). Then with barely a cursory inspection she said with a scoffing smile, wonderful – you can go ahead and enjoy. She retied the package and handed it over to him.
When his grandson tried to reassure him that G-d will help and eventually some other Etrog would be found, R’ Zalman Buber sighed in anguish, wondering where we would get another Etrog, especially one that is exacting and desirous, especially with the Chabad traditions.
Such was the sacrifice and anguish of Jews in the former Soviet Union to perform a Mitzvah, and to do so with the greatest possible level of observance and custom, despite the great communist oppression and persecution.