You know the cliché from high-school English class, “In literature as in life…”?
It turns out to be by the French writer Andre Malraux, my good friend Google tells me, and isn’t relevant here. What is relevant is how in literature, people’s lives often form narrative arcs, with the end of a story coming back to echo, reflect on, and grow from the beginning.
Real life generally is messier. In literature, there might be a narrative arc in a character’s life. In life, not so much.
But Kenneth Prager of Englewood just saw a story from his young adulthood come to a satisfactory and surprising denouement.
That resolution started to fall into place on the afternoon of Shabbat Nachamu this year. That’s the Shabbat after Tisha b’Av; this year, it was July 29. That warm afternoon, “Somebody comes across the street to me, and says, ‘Are you Dr. Prager?’ And I say ‘yah.’ And he says, ‘The chief rabbi of Ukraine spoke about someone, and I think it’s you.’”
“Why would the chief rabbi of Ukraine talk about me?” Dr. Prager remembered thinking. But then, “I was on my way to shul at Ahavat Torah, walking to Mincha, and a different guy runs across the street and says, ‘You have to see the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine,’ and then he points up the street.
“And then I see this guy with a long beard walking down the street.”
Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, the chief rabbi of Ukraine, was in the United States raising awareness and funds for the support of Ukraine — a cause about which he is resolute. He’d spent Shabbat the week before in New Rochelle, he’d spoken at Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, and this Shabbat he had decided to stay in Englewood and speak at the East Hill Synagogue there.
His side of the story is that “it’s a miracle. A real miracle,” he said in a phone call from Kyiv on Monday.
There was something about Englewood that caught in his memory. To his surprise, it sounded familiar. “When I was in Englewood, I remembered the name, because it was Shabbat Nachamu,” he said. “It connected two things in my head. I learned the haftarah for Shabbat Nachamu from this guy. It was in Leningrad, during the Soviet time. I was 19 years old, and I wasn’t married yet. I lived with my mother in a studio apartment. I remember that I met this doctor through Chabad.
“I remember that he came to my apartment, and we sat in the very small kitchen, and he taught me the haftarah for Nachamu. I recorded him on a cassette tape.” He’s used that trope ever since then, he added.
“I remembered that he was a doctor, he was from Englewood, and that he was very tall. That’s it. That’s all I remembered. After this, I didn’t know anything else.”
This story started thirty-seven years ago.
That’s when Dr. Prager, then a tall young pulmonologist — he’s now also a medical ethicist, a professor of clinical medicine, the director of clinical ethics, and the chair of the medical ethics committee at Columbia University Medical Center, with a formidably full resume of accomplishments and honors, both as a doctor and as a member of the Jewish community — went to the Soviet Union. And he’s still tall. At 6 feet 4 inches, he says, as far as he knows he is one of the two tallest Jewish doctors in Englewood.
Dr. Prager has many stories from that trip to the Soviet Union in 1986. He visited refuseniks — the Soviet Jews who wanted to live as Jews but were refused visas to Israel — and held underground medical clinics for them.
He talks about how he smuggled in material aids to Jewish life that Lubavitch chasidim had asked him to bring to the community there. Among those objects — books, mainly, matzah, tefillin, and other smaller things — was “a huge knife, with which to slaughter large animals so they could have kosher meat,” Dr. Prager said. “There was a rabbi, Rabbi Kogan, in Leningrad, who would meet with Russian peasants in the woods, who would bring a cow with them, and they would negotiate.” (That was the Chabad shaliach Rabbi Yitzchak Kogan, a heroic figure among Russian Lubavitch Jews.)
“I was supposed to give this knife to Rabbi Kogan. It was at least a foot and a half long. I put it in my suitcase, and when I got to the airport in Moscow, they opened my suitcase. The KGB” — the Russian secret police — “came at once. They saw this huge knife. They said I was a Zionist spy.”
But Dr. Prager had a plan. “My wife, Jeannie — who wasn’t with me on the trip — had worried about this, so she had bought a huge salami and a loaf of pumpernickel bread. She said I should tell the guy that I needed the knife to cut the salami. Which was ridiculous.
“But the KGB guy takes the knife out of the scabbard — it was so big that it was in a scabbard — and he holds it out and slashes with it, like Zorro — remember Zorro? — and then he said, ‘We will let you take the knife in, but you have to take it out when you go.’
“So I gave the knife to the guy I was supposed to give it to, and I simply replaced it with another knife. A much smaller knife.”
Dr. Prager’s trip was arranged by Chabad, which “was the leading supporter of Jewish life in the Soviet Union from the Russian revolution until glasnost.”
A great deal of good came from that trip. “I ended up getting the Soviet Union to release a woman so she could give her bone marrow to her brother in Israel, who had leukemia,” he said. Overall, the trip “was a life-changing experience.”
When he came back to Englewood, where he’d lived for about seven years, Dr. Prager’s head was full of what he’d seen, learned, and done in the Soviet Union. His experience in a young man’s cramped kitchen, and the cassette he’d recorded his melody for the Shabbat Nachamu remained somewhere in his brain, but it was in fairly deep storage, and stayed there for almost four decades.
Rabbi Azman, meanwhile, got married just a few months after he met Dr. Prager. His wife was from Kharkiv, in Ukraine, and the couple moved to Ukraine, and then, once aliyah was allowed, to Israel.
The Azmans have 13 children; most of them live in Israel now. But Rabbi Azman and his wife returned to Ukraine to work with children who had been harmed by the explosion of the nuclear plant at Chernobyl. (Although this is easy to forget, Chernobyl is not in Russia. It’s in Ukraine, and its dangers and problems are the Ukrainians’ dangers and problems.) Since 2005, Rabbi Azman has been the chief rabbi of Ukraine. Since the Russians invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Rabbi Azman has been vocal in support of Ukraine, rallying support for the country, staying strong despite physical risks, and raising money for all its people, Jews and non-Jews through the nonprofit group called Mitzvah for Ukraine.
He’s been traveling around the United States, accompanied by one of his sons-in-law, Chaim Klimovitsky, speaking with passion about how important it is for the world — including its Jews — to support Ukraine.
So we come to that muggy July Shabbat in Englewood.
“It was very symbolic to come to New Jersey on Shabbat Nachamu,” Rabbi Azman said. He put together all the pieces of information he’d retained, the community members who were hosting him provided more information, he and some friends walked to the Pragers’ house, and “we knocked at his door,” Rabbi Azman said. “He wasn’t home.” But eventually people told him that they’d spotted Dr. Prager.
“He came across the street to me, and I remembered him immediately. He didn’t, but after we started to talk, he did. He remembered me. He reminded me that we had met, on Shabbat, at Rabbi Kogan’s home.”
“He invited me to his house after Shabbat, and we sat and talked for hours. It was very warm, and very emotional. He is a very good guy.”
Oh, and that knife that Dr. Prager smuggled into Moscow? It went to Mr. Klimovitsky’s father, who was the shochet in Leningrad.
Meeting Americans was astonishing then, Rabbi Azman said. “Remember, I was born in Leningrad, in the Soviet Union, under the Iron Curtain, and we never went out from there. Every person we met from America was like somebody who fell from the sky. Who came from the moon.”
Meeting Dr. Prager again, Rabbi Azman repeated, “is a miracle.” And so has his return to Ukraine proven to be. He had not planned to stay, but the community he built held him. “I don’t know how God manages this world, and I don’t know why I am here, but maybe God made so many things happen so that we could survive,” he said.
And that brings us back to Shabbat Nachamu. It might be accidental that the haftarah that Dr. Prager taught Rabbi Azman, sung to a melody that Rabbi Azman never forgot, is the first haftarah of consolation, following the devastation of Tisha b’Av and its first words are “Nachamu, nachamu, ami.” “Comfort, comfort, my people.”
Learn more about Rabbi Azman and Mitzvah
for Ukraine at www.officeofchiefrabbi.org/mitzvah-for-ukraine.