“…These Days a Chassid is a Baal Teshuvah…”
by Rabbi Shlomo Galperin
This memory of my uncle goes back to my school days in Tashkent, Russia in the 1960’s. It’s about a conversation we had before dinner one school night after gym class.
During some of those years there wasn’t enough classroom space, so children were assigned morning or afternoon shifts. One year, I was assigned to the later shift, which began in early afternoon and went into the evening. That year I went each morning to study Torah secretly with my teacher, Reb Zalman Buber (Pewsner), the Rov of Tashkent, until just after noon, then I went home to eat lunch and get ready for school.
Twice a week we had gym class, and on those days I did one more thing at home before going to school and that was to remove my Tzitzit. Gym class entailed changing at school into a gym clothes uniform. Once my Tzitzit strings stuck out during a uniform change, and a Russian kid, a ruffian, he was a class bully, grabbed hold of my strings and began to call out what type of slob is this with torn underwear strings! He was carrying on, making a fuss, ridiculing and humiliating me in front of my classmates. Good thing he and they didn’t realize the religious implications, but it was enough of a scare. So on gym days I made sure to take off my Tzitzit before going to school to avoid being caught again in such a predicament.
One day after school, on a gym day, I came home to find my uncle, (my mother’s brother) Reb Mendel Moskalik, in our home for a visit. I was happy to see him and eager to talk to him. My mother urged me to wash for dinner right away, but my uncle Mendel asked if I was wearing Tzitzit. I said I wasn’t, and explained the whole gym business. He said I should go get them quickly and put them on before dinner.
I tried to excuse myself with a saying that I heard from Reb Mottel Kolziner (a teacher & mentor of mine) that my grandfather, Reb Yankel Moskalik Zuravitzer (this uncle Mendel’s father) used to say that “Chassidim aren’t Baal Mitzvotshnikes” i.e. we don’t grab Mitzvot like hot-cakes. When it is time for the Mitzvah we do so with love, with care, with enthusiasm, with scrupulous diligence, but we don’t make a fuss, or a big deal of it, we’re not seeking praise or applause or recognition. A Mitzvah isn’t an epaulette or another badge on a uniform.
That’s when my uncle Mendel told me: “Hantike Tzayten a Chassid iz a Baal Teshuvah.” During these trying times, a Chassid is a Baal Teshuvah.
At first I thought that was odd. In those days, back under the communists, Baalei Teshuvah (returnees to Jewish observance) were few and far in between, I only knew a handful of such people in my hometown. What did he mean that a Chassid is a Baal Teshuvah?
He wasn’t referring to Baalei Teshuvah in the sense of those who make major lifestyle changes to return to Jewish life and observance. He explained that these (those) days (under religious persecution of the Communists who sought to destroy any attempt to lead a traditional Torah lifestyle) it can often be difficult or challenging to observe Mitzvot at certain times. If that’s the case one must observe the Mitzvah at the next available opportunity. A Chassid is a Baal Teshuva meant to my uncle Mendel: if it can’t be done in the morning, it should be done in the afternoon; if the afternoon doesn’t work, then in the evening; if nighttime isn’t possible, then as soon there is an opportunity the next day. We should be sure to do the Mitzvah at the next possible opportunity!
Thats why during these trying times, he said, a Chassid is constantly a Baal Teshuvah.
Some Background on Rabbi Mendel Moskalik
The celebrated Chassid R’ Yankel Maskalik (aka Yankel Zuravitzer) had three children who survived WWII: Bluma (Galperin), Frieda (Raskin) and a son Mendel. His daughters eventually emigrated (twenty years apart) to Israel with their families, but Mendel remained in Russia. He married Tzipa Panteleev, a daughter of Reb Yankel Panteleev (Oryeler), the Shochet in the city Oryel, who was a pious Chassid who sought out religious sons-in-law for his daughters in the bitter times of Stalin’s Russia. Another son-in-law was the legendary Reb Getche Vilensky, who was a respected leader of the Russian Jewish underground in Moscow until the years when communism fell.
Mendel was drafted into the Russian army in WWII, and his unit was captured in early days of combat against the Nazis. How he survived those harsh days as a German POW in horrible inhuman conditions especially as a Jew, that is a story of its own. And it wasn’t much easier after the war, since Stalin considered all returning POW’s to be weaklings and traitors.
He found work in the bottle recycling business (long before it became trendy). He had a kiosk in a busy market where glass bottles would be returned and reused. The advantage of this industry was that it was one of those businesses where you could take one day off each week, and he made his day off on Shabbos. But he had other “business” enterprises on the side, some of which only became evident after his untimely passing.
It was the first of May, in the early 1980’s, a national holiday celebration for workers in Communist Russia. There was a pompous military parade and workers were obligated to march with red flags with screaming slogans praising the Communist Party leadership. Parades aside, this holiday was an “approved” drinking binge to allow workers to let out their steam, anger and frustration with the endless lines and shortages of food, clothing and all things necessary for normal living.
That fateful May 1st, on this national holiday, Mendel was on his way to a family get-together (as it was a day when everyone had off) when ruffians beat him up and threw him down into an escarpment of train tracks where he died a horrible death. It was known to Chassidim that the secret police would sometimes hire goons or hoodlums as hit men to beat up or kill religious Jews, especially around the state holidays under the guise of festivity and drunkenness.
His funeral was packed. Hundreds of attendees, many of whom had never met each other, including some who never met Mendel Maskalik in person. Why were they there? What brought them out?
As it turns out Mendel, like his father R’ Yankel before him, was in touch with people from all walks of life, helping them observe aspects of Judaism each in their own way. One man preferred to eat Kosher meat but he wasn’t aware where and when to get it when it was clandestinely offered, so Mendel got it for him and delivered it to him. Another man needed mezuzahs for his elderly parents, but being a communist was afraid to go to the synagogue, so Mendel made the arrangements. One person needed a Jewish calendar and got that from Mendel. Another Jew was a high government official who could not jeopardize his position but was eager to get new Tzitzit for his worn-out Tallis as he prayed daily at home. Mendel is the one who got him new Tzitzit. He was instrumental in organizing Chupas for weddings and Bris for newborns and so on…
Through countless friendships and associations, one Jew at a time, Reb Mendel Moskalik had a tremendous personal impact on the clandestine Jewish life in Soviet Russia, the same efforts for which his father paid for with his life.