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"What Holiday Do We Have Today?"
By Menachem Ziegelboim

Rabbi Betzalel Schiff, a public servant and accomplished activist, who has done much on behalf of his people, relates:

While still a young boy in second grade my father passed away. My mother also died at a young age as a result of a tragic incident. This happened a week before my wedding.

Those days were fraught with persecution and much suffering. The fear in keeping mitzvos was tremendous. Any action taken on behalf of Torah and Yiddishkeit involved actual danger. Since I no longer had parents and I lived alone, I took on various missions on behalf of Anash, including many which were fraught with danger.

One of my jobs was to procure a set of arba minim for Anash of Samarkand. Each year, for seven years, I traveled to Georgia in order to pick lulavim and hadasim for Sukkos. We got the esrogim from abroad and we were able to get aravos from nearby Tashkent, but the lulavim and hadasim were harder to acquire. That is why each year I left right after Rosh HaShana so that I could return in time for Yom Kippur.

One year I arrived in Tbilisi in Georgia where the usual policeman awaited me. He knew me, and he brought me to the place where palm trees grew in an area alongside the sea. Since I paid him handsomely, the policeman waited respectfully and even made sure I had a ladder and a saw. I cut down ten lulavim, which was enough for all the members of the congregation. Then I went on to Kutaisi where I cut down hadasim, which grew plentifully in the courtyard of the shul. That is what I did each year.

One year, when I finished my job and wanted to return home to Samarkand before Yom Kippur, I discovered that no tickets were available. I offered large amounts of money, double and triple the usual price, but not a single ticket was available.

I knew a Jew who had a pharmacy. I figured he might be able to help me out. I went to his home and asked him to try and help me. "If there is no ticket to Samarkand, then at least get me to Moscow where my brother is," I begged him. I hoped that I would be able to spend Yom Kippur there with him.

The man tried his best but he too failed. In the end he arranged accommodations for me at a special motel near the airport (the motel was for those awaiting a flight who needed to be near the airport), hoping that perhaps the next morning, Erev Yom Kippur, I would be able to get on a flight to Samarkand or at least to Moscow.

The way this motel worked was that a guest could pay for a bed in a room designated for two people. The second bed in the room was given to the next paying customer, without permission being asked of the first occupant.

When I entered the room I saw a young man asleep on his bed. I also got into bed and fell asleep. The next morning I got up early and ran over to the airport to see whether there were any flights. I saw that I had time until the flights would be leaving, so I returned to the room. The other man had awoken and was sitting up in bed. I wanted to take out my t’fillin and daven, but his presence bothered me. I asked him whether he was leaving soon or would be staying on in the room.

"I’m in no rush and I will be staying here," he said with a shrug. "Why, do you need something?" he asked.

"Yes, you’re disturbing me," I said honestly and bravely. "Tonight we have a great holiday and now I want to pray."

"So pray," said he dryly, "I’m not bothering you."

I had no choice and so I turned to the wall, put on my t’fillin and began davening. Afterwards I turned around and saw that the young man had gotten dressed in the meantime. He was wearing the uniform of an officer in the Red Army. When I saw his medals and rank I realized I was in deep trouble. I thought to myself, "Well, that’s that. I put myself in danger and now I’m in for it."

I didn’t know what to do for I had been caught red-handed putting on t’fillin. I was still in shock and wondering what to say when he quietly said to me, "What holiday do we have today?"

For a moment there I didn’t realize what he had meant, and I said, "Tonight is Yom Kippur." I looked up and saw him sitting on the bed. His head was down and he was deep in thought. Then I heard him sigh and say to himself, "Ah, Maishe Maishe, what’s with you? Even things like this you don’t remember?" and he burst into tears.

After he calmed down he turned to me and said, "What do you want now?"

"I want to return home before the holiday," I said.

"Where do you want to go?"

"To Tashkent," I answered.

"So come with me," he said abruptly, and he got up and left the room.

We went outside where I saw a military vehicle and driver. He told the driver to take us to the airport. When we arrived there he inquired as to where the planes to Tashkent were (which is near Samarkand). We went out to the runway and nobody dared to stop him or say a word. His high rank aroused the respect of all the employees there. When he found the plane to Tashkent he went over to the pilot and said, "Where are you going?"

"To Tashkent."

"Then he’s going to Tashkent. Take him," he ordered.

The pilot didn’t have much of a choice in the matter and he motioned towards the door of the plane. I boarded the plane and managed to reach home before Yom Kippur.

Before we parted the officer asked me, "If I want to find you in Tashkent, how will I do that?" I told him to come to the shul and ask for Tzalik. A few months later he actually came to Tashkent and looked me up.


I didn’t know what to do for I had been caught red-handed putting on t’fillin.


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