I stand in shul, shifting my weight from one foot to the other, trying to ignore the groans of my unhappy stomach. I flip through the machzor to see how many pages remain until the end of the service. My mind begins to wander; I am transported back to another Yom Kippur, years ago.
In my daydream I am a child again, and my grandparents have come to spend the High Holidays with my family. My grandfather is in his early seventies, although with his long white beard and bushy black eyebrows, to me he looks at least a hundred years old. That Yom Kippur I tried hard to stay in shul instead of running outside to play with my friends. I sit in my seat listening intently and trying to follow along. Suddenly, my ears perk up to the sound of a familiar voice ringing out—it is an old voice, but powerful and steady. It is my zaidy (grandfather); he is saying the mourner's kaddish for his father, whose yahrtzeit (date of passing) is on Yom Kippur.
My thoughts shift to another Yom Kippur in Communist Russia. Rabbi Aryeh Leib Kaplan has just arranged a minyan in a private house in Ch'ili, after being exiled there for the illegal activities of spreading Jewish teaching and observance in his hometown of Kiev.
It is an old voice, but powerful and steady . . .
The ever-watchful KGB, infuriated at Aryeh Leib's persistence in his "crimes" even in his place of exile, send a goon squad to beat him up on his way home from the clandestine Yom Kippur prayer group. Aryeh Leib's friend is beaten to unconsciousness, and Aryeh Leib just manages to drag himself to the nearest Jewish family to tell them about his injured friend before he collapses and dies. He leaves a young widow and four orphans. One of them is Zaidy.
Yet another Yom Kippur flashes through my mind. There's a picture of Zaidy, but he's young and strong. He is surrounded by ruthless criminals in a dingy prison cell, locked up like his father for the heinous crime of practicing Judaism in Communist Russia. In prison, each inmate receives one piece of daily bread. Zaidy knows that he must save that bread for after the fast, or he will die of starvation. However, if the bread isn't stuffed into his mouth the moment it is handed to him, it will be grabbed by one of many greedy hands. Zaidy approaches "The Chief" of the cell—a hardened criminal whom all of the other inmates fear and respect. Zaidy presents his dilemma, and miraculously The Chief decides to help. The Chief puts the bread on a high ledge, and warns the inmates that he'll kill anyone who touches it. Many hungry eyes stare at the bread, but no one touches it.
Later, Zaidy needs to know when the fast is over, but there is only one small window high up on the wall of the cell, and there is no way to tell the time. Zaidy approaches The Chief again and explains his dilemma: he needs to know when it is completely dark in order to break his fast. The Chief gives orders, and a human pyramid is formed—one criminal on the shoulders of another, until they reach the window. The inmates repeat this pyramid every couple of minutes, reporting on what they see, until Zaidy confirms that the fast is over.
The voice of the cantor breaks through my reverie and brings me back to my open machzor. As I resume my prayer, I once more think of Zaidy and my great-grandfather. I feel them smiling down on me.
Zaidy, Moshe Binyamin Kaplan, of blessed memory, passed away on the 13th of Tammuz 5765 (2005), at the age of 87. The story of his Yom Kippur in prison is just one of many of his heroic acts in order to keep Judaism in Communist Russia.
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