Caught with Tzitzis

Jewish children leaving public school in Samarkand. Notice the red Pioneers tie worn by the boy in the center.

Remaining observant while attending a communist school demanded much creativity on my part. When I would go to school on Monday, after my two-day absence, I was afraid that the other kids would openly laugh at me when they would see me again. I tried to arrive earlier and to walk around near the school so my classmates would see me around and become accustomed to my presence.

Apart from being noticed for my irregular attendacnce, there was also the issue of my dress; namely my head covering, and the tzitzis– the fringed garment – I wore underneath my shirt.

I did not remove the Uzbeki style cap that I wore when I entered the classroom. However, sometimes the teacher would tell me to remove it. I did not try to defy her and to cause any trouble, but I would place my hand on my head to appear as though I was scratching my head, so as not to remain bareheaded. I would keep my hand in this position until I was seated on my chair.

Occasionally we would receive medical exams or vaccinations at school, organized by the government. Once, our teacher announced that a nurse would soon enter our classroom to inject us with a vaccine, on our backs. Generally, the shots were given to the arm or shoulder, and I became terrified, wondering how I would hide the tzitzis. If I took them off, the entire class would see it and who knows what would happen.

At the last minute, instead of waiting for the nurse, I decided to lift my own shirt for the injection, and tried to hide the tzitzis underneath. It didn’t quite work. The nurse, who was a Bucharian Jewess, noticed the strings of the tzitzis protruding from under my shirt and whispered to me in Russian, “You are a good boy, a chachamtchik (little rabbi).”

After that incident I was afraid to wear tzitzis to school. From then on I would wear them until I arrived at school and before I entered the classroom I would go to the bathroom, take it off, and hide it in my briefcase. At the end of the day, before I left school, I went to the bathroom again and put the tzitzis back on.

Another disguise I put on in the bathroom before I entered the classroom was a red tie, or as we referred to it, “the red rag.” In those days, every child had to register for the Pioneers, the Communist youth group. Every Pioneer received a red tie that he would wear to school. Since the registration was done automatically, I too was registered for the Pioneers, and received my tie. Every morning I went into the bathroom, removed my tzitzis and put on the red tie. In the afternoon I took off the tie and put on the tzitzis.