Samarkand: Then and Now–by Mendel

Rabbi Shlomo Lev Eliezerov come to Samarkand from Ottoman Palestine in the 1870s. It was during that period that the slaughtering crisis started. The controversy was initiated by him, shortly after he arrived. He came to central to fundraise for his community in Israel. He also engaged in multiple religious affairs. One of the issues he got involved was ritual slaughtering (shechita). He didn’t follow the customs of his host community rather he kept his own more stringent customs which is where the controversy started as his customs were being enforced.

I find it interesting that Shlomo Lev Eliezerov was a Chabad Rabbi, being that my family has been Chabad since before the 1870s. Chabad rabbis travel or live all over the world nowadays. In the 1870s Chabad was much more concentrated in the region of the pale of settlement. And fundraising may have been common among Chabad but at that time to fundraise as far east as Samarkand was something new to me.

My grandfather Chaim and his family lived in Charkov, in the Russian Empire. Though they ran to Samarkand and lived there during the 1940s in order to get away from the war.

When still living in Charkov, sometimes Chaim would go to the market place with his grandmother when she would buy a chicken. They would take it to a shed behind the shul (synagogue) and pay the shochet (slaughterer). He was usually there on Wednesdays or Thursdays. He would shecht (slaughter) chickens for the thirty Lubavitch families (and maybe a few others) who lived in Charkov and kept kosher. Chaim did not taste meat till he was fourteen years old in Samarkand.

In order to escape the approaching Germans, before Rosh Hashona (Jewish New Year) of 1941, Chaim left by train to the interior of the country. The army arranged for families of soldiers to leave. He escaped with his grandmother, mother, brother and sister.

More family followed later. It was a freight train and several families squeezed into each compartment. They traveled to Saratov. Due to the frequent bombing, the two day trip took eighteen days. Although food was short, Chaim found a way to get some. He discovered that one non-Jewish family had hundreds of eggs. He bartered and took one hundred eggs that sustained them for the rest of the trip.

From Saratov, Chaim traveled with his family to Tashkent, where they stayed with his uncle. His sister became sick and stayed there. Chaim, his brother and their mother continued travelling to Samarkand. Shortly after arriving in Samarkand, Chaim became sick with pneumonia that infected both lungs, and he was taken to the hospital. He saw people around him dying like flies. There were so many dead that the hospital staff had no time to bury them. The stench and energy of the dead bodies was in the air and Chaim realized that if he wanted to live he had to get out of the hospital. However his

temperature was very high and the doctors would not allow him to leave. What did Chaim do? When the nurses came to take his temperature, he put the thermometer under the blanket where he shook it down, and then gave it back to the nurse. After a few times of returning the thermometer to them with reasonable temperatures, the doctors were happy release him. He happily returned home where his family cared for him until he miraculously recovered. A family friend used her connections and obtained medications for him from America.

Meanwhile Chaim’s father had arrived in Saratov to look for his family and met his aunt who was there shopping. She told him where the family was. He first went to Tashkent where his daughter was recovering. Once she had fully recovered he took her with him to Samarkand.

Chaim’s mother tied shoelaces around her feet to walk as she could not afford shoes. A cousin would cook a big pot of water and put in whatever he could find in order to feed as many people as possible. Chaim’s father’s father, Menachem Mendel ben Eliyohu passed away the 8th of Elul 5702/September 1941 and is buried in Samarkand. His grandfather died of starvation. Chaim remembers that he gave him the little food he had. He always saw his grandfather constantly studying Torah or saying Tehillim (psalms) by heart. For his bar-mitzvah they had a loaf of black bread, a piece of dried herring and samargon- home brewed alcohol.In Samarkand Chaim learned like in Lubavitch. The best years were when he was 15, 16 and 17.

Even after Chaim and his family left Samarkand a Lubavitch community still remained. “In Samarkand Chabad-Lubavitch continued to have a strong presence from the turn of the last century (with the arrival of Shlomo Lev Eliezerov) through the Soviet era, and its influence was strengthened further after the dissolution of the Soviet Union” says Alanna Cooper. Over the last century it seems that Chabad had a lot of influence in Samarkand, particularly during the the turn of the last century and in the 1990s. The Judaism and religiosity of a number Jews from Samarkand were definitely affected with the presence of Chabad. The Bukharan Jews also had an impact on the Russian Chabad Jews that come to Samarkand. I’d like to believe that it gave them a better understanding of how diverse Jews can be with different traditions and views on how to the Torah can be interpreted.

The tombstone in Samarkand

The tombstone in Samarkand

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In Mendel’s grandfather’s yard

Reference

Bukharan Jews and the Dynamics of Global Judaism, Alanna E. Cooper Chapters 6 and 9

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