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My Father’s Handwritten Machzor

My Father’s Handwritten Machzor

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My Father’s Handwritten Machzor 
Rabbi Zushe Greenberg

My father’s heroic efforts in obtaining a High Holiday prayer book in a Siberian Labor Camp.

In 1951, my father, Rabbi Moshe Greenberg, didn’t recite Kol Nidre. Instead, he was a prisoner in a labor camp in Siberia. At age 20, my father’s crime was trying to escape from Russia.

He dreamed of making aliyah. But he was caught and sentenced to 25 years of hard labor, leaving behind his parents, two sisters and a brother (a prisoner in another camp for a similar "crime").

The job of 1,000 men at my father’s labor camp was creating an electric station. About 20 of the prisoners were Jewish.

At the end of the summer, the Jewish prisoners yearned to observe the upcoming High Holidays. They knew they would lack a shofar (ram’s horn), Torah scroll andTallitot (prayer shawls), but they hoped they could find a machzor (High Holiday prayer book).

My father spotted a man from the outside, an engineer who worked for the camp on certain projects. He believed the engineer might be a Jew.

"Kenstu meer efsher helfen" – perhaps you can help me" he asked the engineer in Yiddish.

At that time, most Russian Jews were fluent in Yiddish. He saw the flicker of understanding in the engineer’s eyes.

"Can you bring a machzor for me, for the Jews here?" he asked. The engineer hesitated. Such transaction would endanger both of their lives. Even so, the engineer agreed to try.

A few days passed.

"Any developments/" my father asked the engineer.

"Good news and bad news," he replied. He had located a machzor with difficulty, but it was the only machzor belonging to his girlfriend’s father, and the man was furious when his daughter asked him to give it up. Maybe she told him why she wanted it, maybe not.

My father would not relent, however. Perhaps, he suggested, the man would lend him the book and he could copy it and return it in time for Rosh Hashanah.

In secrecy, the engineer handed the machzor to my father.

To copy it, my father built a large wooden box and crawled into it for a few hours everyday. There, hidden from view, he copied the book, line for line into a notebook. After a month, he had copied the entire machzor, but there was one page missing – Kol Nidre- the very first prayer recited at Yom Kipper.

My father returned the book, and autumn arrived. The Jewish prisoners learned the dates of the impending holidays from letters from home and, on the holiday, they bribed the guards, probably with cigarettes, to let them gather in the barrack for services.

With his handwritten prayer book, my father served as hazzan (cantor) and recited each prayer, repeated by others in low solemn voices. Seven days later, they met for Kol Nidre services. But despite their efforts, none of the worshippers could recall all of the words of that prayer form memory.

After nearly seven years in jail, my father, along with all political prisoners, were released, owing to the death of Joseph Stalin. The only item my father took with him was his machzor.

He reunited with his family near Moscow and later married. I was an infant when, in 1967, 15 years after his release from prison, my family was allowed to immigrate to Israel. The machzor came with us.

My father, who still lives in Bnei Brak, Israel, doesn’t like to remember those painful years in Siberia. But on the rare occasions that I hear him tell a story, he tearfully states that he had never participated in services as meaningful as those in prison.

In 1973, he visited the Lubavitcher rebbe in New York City and presented the machzor to him as a gift.

A few months ago, I visited the rebbe’s library and found my father’s machzor. I looked at the worn book with its fragile pages and Hebrew letters written in haste and with such respect and determination. I copied it – on a copying machine.

This Yom Kippur, as I lead services at the Chabad Jewish Center of Solon, I will have with me the copy of my father’s machzor, with the Kol Nidre prayer still missing.

My father couldn’t recite Kol Nidre during his years in prison. This year I will ask my congregation, and all of us, to say it for him and anyone else who may not have the opportunity to do so.

 

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