The year was 1927. The place was Simferopol, southern Ukraine, then part of the USSR. Rabbi Peretz Mochkin was a marked man. As a devoted follower of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, active in the Chabad’s underground network of Jewish institutions, he lived his days in constant fear of the secret police and their proxies.
Just before the joyous holiday of Sukkot, Rabbi Peretz fell ill with typhus and felt that his days were numbered. Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. His old friend, Yankel, a rabbi from the town of Zhuravitz, had made the 1,200-kilometer journey to visit and bring the Mochkin family some much-needed holiday cheer. Rabbi Peretz’s daughter, Guta Schapiro, later would recall to her grandchildren that “The sukkah was very small and very poorly built – we did not want the KGB to know about it – and Rabbi Yankel was a large man, so when he sat in the sukkah with my father, there was no room for anyone else.”
Rabbi Yaakov Zecharia (Yankel) Maskalik. This photo was taken between his final arrest and subsequent execution by the Soviets.
The men began singing “A Sukaleh a Kleinier,” a Yiddish folk song about a Jewish family in a rickety sukkah. As winds howl outside, the father in the song reassures his family that the holiday candles will not blow out and the sukkah will remain standing. As the two men sat and sang, and the makeshift sukkah swayed back and forth with their every movement, the children knew in their hearts that no one – not even Stalin – would extinguish the flame of Judaism.
Rabbi Peretz eventually recovered and escaped the Soviet Union in 1947. Rabbi Yankel had been arrested in 1937 by the KGB and shot for his “counterrevolutionary” activities.
By a twist of Divine humor, Rabbi Yankel’s great-granddaughter, Chanie Galperin, married Rabbi Peretz’s great-grandson, Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff. The Russian communists are long gone, but the rabbis’ lineage is going strong.
Nearly 90 years later, Rabbi Chaim and Chanie Lazaroff, co-directors of Chabad of Uptown have made it a tradition to host 100 people in their gargantuan sukkah every year on the first night of Sukkot as a tribute to their forebears and the triumph of the Jewish spirit.
“It’s a beautiful evening of singing, lots of delicious food, and a heartwarming celebration of unity, with so many Jews packed into one sukkah together,” said Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff.