The Jew­ish Under­ground of Samarkand: How Faith Defied Sovi­et Rule

  • Review
By – October 16, 2023

The Jew­ish Under­ground of Samarkand fol­lows Chabad-Lubav­itch activ­i­ties in Sovi­et Rus­sia, focus­ing on their clan­des­tine activ­i­ties in Samarkand, Uzbek­istan, between 1946 and ear­ly 1971, when the author final­ly received per­mis­sion to emigrate.

Author Rab­bi Hil­lel Zaltz­man begins by describ­ing the evo­lu­tion of the gen­er­al gov­ern­men­tal poli­cies of Rus­sia, and its intense hos­til­i­ty to Jew­ish inter­ests, which it deemed counter-rev­o­lu­tion­ary,” along with all oth­er reli­gions. The read­er then encoun­ters one anec­dote after anoth­er con­cern­ing the expe­ri­ences of numer­ous mem­bers of the Chabad move­ment as they attempt­ed to ful­fill mitzvoth and study Torah.

Being gift­ed with a ster­ling mem­o­ry and pos­sess­ing out­stand­ing research tech­niques, the author dis­cuss­es the lives of sev­er­al rab­bis at length, includ­ing an ele­men­tary school teacher, R. Ben­zion Maroz; the author’s father, R. Avro­hom Zaltz­man; a mater­nal uncle, R. Avro­hom Boruch Pevzn­er; a pro­found role mod­el, R. Berke Chain; a Jew who was no stranger to sac­ri­fice, R. Sim­cha Gorodet­zky; the dis­tin­guished Bukhar­i­an bene­fac­tor, R. Refael Chu­daida­tov; and the devot­ed activist, R. Mendel Futerfas.

Many pages describe the chal­lenges that the author and oth­ers had to over­come in order to observe Shab­bat, kashrut, orga­nize a yeshi­va for young men, and live in accor­dance with Chas­sidic val­ues, parts of life many may take for grant­ed today. 

Some were able to sur­vive the unend­ing per­se­cu­tion harass­ment, but many Jews were killed, impris­oned, or exiled by Stal­in­ist poli­cies. Read­ing how indi­vid­u­als did their utmost to avoid arrest, with­stand tor­ture dur­ing inter­ro­ga­tion, sur­vive exile to the fur­thest reach­es of Siberia for decades, and fab­ri­cate sto­ries to cov­er-up reli­gious activ­i­ties, is inspiring. 

The book is writ­ten from a Chas­sidic per­spec­tive, and the role of women dur­ing this time is not explored and non-Jews are gen­er­al­ly depict­ed as being against Jews. The author tells the sto­ry with a men­tal­i­ty of Lubav­itch­ers against the world. The author makes a poignant remark over the course of a par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult rec­ol­lec­tion that indi­cates that for him Jew­ish life in Samarkand held good times and bad:

After leav­ing Rus­sia, it was dif­fi­cult to grow accus­tomed to the type of con­duct we observed else­where. Dur­ing my first Rosh Hashana in Israel, I still cried as I prayed, but to be hon­est, those tears were less from the atmos­phere of Rosh Hashana itself, than for my long­ing for Rosh Hashana in Samarkand.

Yaakov (Jack) Biel­er was the found­ing Rab­bi of the Kemp Mill Syn­a­gogue in Sil­ver Spring, MD until his retire­ment in 2015. He has been asso­ci­at­ed with Jew­ish day school edu­ca­tion for over thir­ty years. R. Biel­er served as a men­tor for the Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty Look­stein Cen­ter Prin­ci­pals’ Sem­i­nar and he has pub­lished and lec­tured exten­sive­ly on the phi­los­o­phy of Mod­ern Ortho­dox education.

Discussion Questions