Weekly Chasidic Story #719 (s5771-53 / 6 Elul 5771)

Translating the Translator

“I want to go to the town of Lubavitch,” insisted Robin Dixon of the Los Angeles Times; “the seven-hour drive from Moscow is not a deterrent.”


Connection: Seasonal – 9/11


“Yes,” insisted Robin Dixon of the Los Angeles Times, “I want to go to the town of Lubavitch. And no, the seven-hour drive from Moscow is not a deterrent.”

Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz was impressed by Ms. Dixon’s determination. As executive director of the local Federation of Jewish Communities, and shaliach (emissary) of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Moscow, with his wife Leah, he was the right person for this journalist to have contacted. She had called saying that her paper, whose stories are often syndicated, was interested in doing a feature piece on the revival of Jewish life in Russia.

“My preliminary research led me to Chabad,” she had said. “It seems that yours is the most dominant group in Jewish life in Russia today. Its dedication and success intrigued me, and after I discovered that all of it began in the small town of Lubavitch, on the border of Belarus, hundred of years ago, I decided that a visit to the town could provide the backdrop for my story.”

Rabbi Berkowitz didn’t want to dampen her interest, but he had his doubts. What was there to see in that tiny, backward village, whose roads aren’t even paved? The only Jewish presence in the town these days are people who come to pray at the gravesites of the Lubavitch Rebbes buried there. What could he show this journalist, other than the small museum adjacent to the graves?

As he pondered the matter, Rabbi Berkowitz had an idea. It was the summer of 2001. In the spring of that year, some of the hundreds of Lubavitch yeshiva students who come to Russia to arrange Pesach Seders had made contact with Jewish children in the area. The students were stationed in Smolensk, close to Lubavitch, and in the summer they set up camp in a Lubavitch public school. That camp would be an ideal place for Ms. Dixon to witness the rejuvenation of Jewish life.

The trip was planned. When the car came to pick up Rabbi Berkowitz, he joined the photographer and a local Russian who worked for the Los Angeles Times as a translator and researcher. Rabbi Berkowitz inquired, in the course of the conversation, about their religious ties; both said they were gentile. The translator introduced himself as Yasha Ryzhak, a member of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Aware of the story’s potentially wide audience and of the long drive ahead, Rabbi Berkowitz began explaining the history, philosophy and activity of Chabad. He expounded on the origin of the movement in the town of Lubavitch, whose very name means “the city of brotherly love.” As he spoke, Ms. Dixon took notes and Yasha asked many questions. Something about his inquiries seemed to be beyond normal curiosity.

At one point, Yasha suddenly declared, “I really should call my grandmother. We’ll soon be approaching Smolensk; my family originates there. I’ve never traveled to this region before, and I’d like to see the place.”

After spending fifteen minutes on the phone with his grandmother, he turned to Rabbi Berkowitz with an expression of wonder mixed with confusion.

“Rabbi,” he said slowly, “my grandmother just told me something I had never known. When she heard I was traveling to Lubavitch, she became very excited and told me that, during the war, her family members had forged their identity papers and changed their names. They were of Chassidic origin; the men had studied at the yeshiva in Lubavitch. Her great-grandfather’s name was Zalman, after the rabbi who founded the movement, and his family name was Rivkin.”

Rabbi Berkowitz was amazed.

“Is this your maternal or paternal grandmother?” he asked deliberately.

“She’s my mother’s mother.”

“Then, Yasha, according to Jewish law, you are a Jew.” Rabbi Berkowitz declared. This information caught Yasha totally unprepared. An extended conversation ensued over the remainder of the drive. Yasha listened intently but found it difficult to relate to his newly found identity.

Later, the visitors encountered the camp children and were moved by the ease with which these youngsters, who had no previous Jewish education, absorbed the concepts they were learning, and by the pride they took in their religion.

In the small museum, Rabbi Berkowitz pointed to a striking wall hanging depicting the chassidim who had studied in the town, one of whom was wearing tefilin.

“This is probably what your grandfather looked like, Yasha. Every day, he put on his own pair of tefilin, just as you see portrayed here.”

“I hear what you are saying,” Yasha responded, “but I am not Jewish.”

“According to Jewish law, you are,” Rabbi Berkowitz reminded him. “Would you like to put on tefilin, if only to honor the memory of your grandfather?”

Yasha became thoughtful for a moment and then he agreed.

“How strange,” he murmured as he unwound the straps, “Suddenly, I feel I am a Jew!”

Inspired by the visit and by the extensive interviews she had conducted, Ms. Dixon wrote an impressive feature story, which was set to run on September 12, 2001. The terrible events of Tuesday, September 11, however, pushed aside all other news for weeks thereafter. Ms. Dixon regretfully informed Rabbi Berkowitz that, since it was a time-sensitive story, with the summer camp as one of its highlights, the paper had filed it for a later appropriate date. She apologized for having taken so much of his time for an article that would remain temporarily unpublished.

But Rabbi Berkowitz wasn’t disappointed. As far as he was concerned, it was a higher authority that had ordained the long trip to Lubavitch, and its effects were becoming clear even without the publicity of the influential newspaper. Yasha (now Yaakov) Ryzhak delved into his newly-discovered Judaism with zeal and today is a proud member of the Chabad community of Moscow.

[Source: Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” (Emet Publications) by Malka Touger].

Connection: Seasonal – 9/11



Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.

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