Shneur Zalman Berger, Beis Moshiach
Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Gottlieb was born on 16 Iyar 5695 in Yerushalayim. In his youth, he began learning in Yeshivas Toras Emes where he first encountered Chabad Chassidus. He davened in the Chabad shul in Meah Shearim where he davened with R’ Aharon Mordechai Zilberstrom who ran the school in the Malcha and Ir Ganim neighborhoods in Yerushalayim.
“One day he asked me to work with him in the school,” recalled R’ Gottlieb years later. R’ Gottlieb, knowing of his greatness in Torah, happily agreed and started working as secretary in the school in Malcha.
R’ Gottlieb was greatly devoted to his job and faithfully did all the work assigned to him. When necessary, he joined the team who registered children in the neighborhood.
“Once, we walked to homes in Malcha and ten dogs attacked us. It was terrifying! I’ll never forget how scary that was. In those days there was no public transportation from the center of town to the Malcha neighborhood. Every morning, I had to travel to Bayit Vegan and from there I would walk a half hour or more to school. This was in open areas where you didn’t see a human being. I took some maamarim or sichos of the Rebbe with me and reviewed them by heart as I went.”
After he married his wife Gittel Shprintze in 5719 they settled in Yerushalayim and he continued working as secretary. In 5732 he was appointed secretary of Kollel Chabad in Eretz Yisrael in which position he basically ran the organization and its budget. He did this professionally with strict rules and accountability.
R’ Naftali Tzvi’s writing ability became apparent already in his youth. It was when he was a talmid in Toras Emes that when the talmidim wanted to send a duch to the Rebbe about “spreading the wellsprings,” which would be well-written, they asked him to write it.
When he was 17, he heard an account from Chassidim who returned from Tishrei in 770. Not many went in those days and so those who didn’t go were eager to hear every crumb of a story or practice from Beis Chayeinu. R’ Gottlieb was captivated by the atmosphere and took pen and paper and wrote what he heard. This was his first article that was publicized and the enthusiastic feedback made it clear that this bachur was a talented writer.
As a married man, he began editing a monthly publication for children called Shalhevet. The purpose of it was to influence children to behave according to Torah. In those days, there were hardly any publications for children al taharas ha’kodesh and he began publishing books. The first one was about the Holocaust among Hungarian Jews. The following books focused on sippurei tzaddikim and the history of his father. He wrote a series of books Sippurei HaChag (five volumes) which has stories of tzaddikim relating to Yomim Tovim. He wrote Yahadus HaDemama which became an instant classic in religious literature, Pninei HaKesser, Amudei Chessed, Amudei Torah and the memoirs of Rabbi Eliezer Nannes and Rabbi Shmaryahu Sossonkin and many others.
TOLDOS LEVI YITZCHOK
The crowning glory of R’ Gottlieb’s writing is the Toldos Levi Yitzchok about the Rebbe’s father. The idea to write the sefer was conceived in the 60s. R’ Gottlieb wondered how it was that nobody knew anything about the Rebbe’s illustrious forbears:
“They knew that the Rebbe is the son-in-law of the Rebbe Rayatz and that he is a direct descendant of the Tzemach Tzedek (ben-achar-ben), but nothing more. I tried asking older Chassidim but they didn’t know either and this bothered me a lot. How was it possible that people didn’t know who the Rebbe’s father was? It was clear to me that the Rebbe’s father wasn’t just another rav in the Soviet Union.” He considered writing about the Rebbe’s father and wrote to the Rebbe about this but received no response. Some time later, R’ Tuvia Blau went to the Rebbe and R’ Gottlieb asked him to ask the Rebbe about the idea. R’ Blau asked and the Rebbe said, “There is still time; we’ll see …” so R’ Gottlieb gave up on the idea.
“Over nine years passed and in Tishrei 5735 I went to the Rebbe for the first time in my life. When I passed by the Rebbe for kos shel bracha on motzoei Simchas Torah, the Rebbe said to me, ‘You promised me a book about my father; where’s the book?’ I didn’t know what the Rebbe was referring to since years had passed since I had written about it. I suddenly recalled and immediately said that since I hadn’t received his consent, I hadn’t done anything about it.
“The Rebbe smiled broadly. ‘What do you mean? Do you need consent for something like this? The Ribono shel olam needs to give His consent.’ Then and there, the Rebbe said, ‘Now that you are here, work on collecting material for the book.’
“The truth is I was in shock. First, how did the Rebbe know who I was when this was first time the Rebbe was seeing me? Second, I was very surprised that this had come up out of the blue. When I had calmed down a bit, I began looking in Crown Heights for Chassidim who knew the Rebbe’s father. I soon realized that very few knew him. One Chassid, who heard about the idea, gave me Rebbetzin Chana’s diary which she wrote when she was with her husband in exile. Her diary had many stories about her great husband. Based on the diary and on testimonies that I heard from Anash that knew him, I began collecting information with which I started to put together the book with the help of R’ Tuvia Blau.”
In a conversation with Beis Moshiach after the passing of R’ Gottlieb, R’ Blau said, “R’ Gottlieb and I were friends since we were bachurim. When the idea came up to write a book about R’ Levi Yitzchok, he told me about it and I knew that he had written to the Rebbe and had not received an answer. When I went to the Rebbe I had yechidus in the course of which the Rebbe asked me whether I thought R’ Gottlieb could write a book and how was his writing. I said that I know him personally and based on his writing abilities I thought he could do it. The Rebbe asked that R’ Gottlieb send some samplings of his writing which was done.
“After this inquiry, the Rebbe gave him the job of preparing the book. I had the zechus of helping him in various ways whether in locating information, editing, additions and corrections. I also did a lot to encourage and push the project because the work was very challenging and complicated. It was really hard finding information. Our efforts paid off in the end and my friend was successful.”
One of the first sources they found was the poet, Zelda Mishkovsky, whose father was Rabbi Sholom Shlomo Schneerson, R’ Levi Yitzchok’s brother. She gave him correspondence that her family had with the Rebbe’s parents and from these letters some details were added to the book. Efforts were made to find Chassidim and those who knew R’ Levi Yitzchok. This is how one chapter after another were constructed. R’ Gottlieb would send them to the Rebbe and each time he would receive a phone call from Rabbi Chodakov with edits.
“I had no doubt that these were edits from the Rebbe. This assumption proved to be true after I saw a photocopy in later years of the Rebbe’s handwritten notes with the edits that R’ Chodakov read to me.
“I must say, “ said R’ Gottlieb, “that I felt how the Rebbe was with me every step of the way. At the starting point I had nothing, not even one story and you can’t make a book out of nothing. But I saw how every day more and more material was accumulating and I felt a push to do it.”
From that point on, the Rebbe continued to encourage and push R’ Gottlieb to put time into the sefer and publish it. In Shevat 5736, about a year and a few months after he began working on it, the Rebbe sent him a handwritten note, “It is a great shame that the general notes about my father are dragging on so long etc., and ad mosai? And it appears that it will not even be published for Yud-Aleph Nissan?!”
This pushed R’ Gottlieb to work hard and about a year later, in 5737, the first edition was published. This book was on the Rebbe’s desk for several months. The Rebbe said it gave him much nachas.
In 5742, when R’ Gottlieb visited 770, he was called by R’ Chodakov and given a list of people to interview to add to the book. This material was also submitted to the Rebbe for editing and some time later, the Rebbe said to print the second, expanded edition of the book. The Rebbe asked, “Do not delay at all … [The book] was received [for editing] and many thanks. Publish it, soonest, obviously. And many thanks from within the depths of the heart in advance. Azkir al ha’tziyun.”
The second edition was published for Chof Av 5744, the yahrtzeit of R’ Levi Yitzchok.
Over the years, more and more testimonies about R’ Levi Yitzchok came to light which were added to new editions of the book. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, R’ Gottlieb decided to travel to the places where the tzaddik lived and left his mark. These were the cities of his rabbanus: Nikolayev and Yekaterinoslav (Dnepropetrovsk today) and his places of exile: Chili and Almaty. When the time was right, he received part of R’ Levi Yitzchok’s interrogation file from the heads of the KGB in Dnepropetrovsk. These files shed light on the wondrous period of his incarceration.
How special it was that in 5756, his son, Rabbi Sholom Gottlieb, became shliach and rav in Nikolayev where R’ Levi Yitzchok lived and the Rebbe was born.
In connection with the writing of the sefer, R’ Gottlieb told an interesting anecdote:
“I don’t know why I merited to write this book about the Rebbe’s father but boruch Hashem I did. I was not feeling well and was hospitalized for two weeks, over Chof Av. I wrote a p’n to the Rebbe and asked for a bracha for a refuah shleima. I wrote, ‘especially as it seems to me that I merited to provide nachas ruach for the Rebbe by writing the book about his father.’ The Rebbe wrote on this letter a blessing for a refuah shleima and after the words ‘nachas ruach’ added the words, ‘rav ‘b’yoser’ (exceedingly much).”
BOOKS THAT OPENED A WINDOW TO JEWRY BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN
R’ Gottlieb’s dozens of books have been very popular. Some of them have been printed in numerous editions and even translated into other languages, allowing hundreds of thousands of readers around the world to enjoy them. The two volumes of Yahadus HaDemama (In the Shadow of the Kremlin) which were published in 5744, years before the fall of the Iron Curtain, has authentic testimony from Chassidim who told how they kept Torah and mitzvos in Soviet Russia at great personal danger and about their travails under the communists, may their names be erased. These books opened a window for the religious readers about what was going on behind the Iron Curtain and about the daily mesirus nefesh of Jews in Russia.
R’ Gottlieb also wrote the first part of the series Rabboseinu Nesi’einu for children a book that has sold tens of thousands of copies since it was published almost three decades ago. The publisher, R’ Yosef Yitzchok Kaminetsky recalls the novelty of the release which served as a breakthrough of sorts:
“Publishing a book about the Rebbe was unprecedented, especially a vowelized book for children, with miracles … We were nervous about people’s reaction but R’ Naftali Tzvi worked on collecting miracle stories that would be suitable for children, even as he carefully checked the reliability of every single story. Since it was a book about the Rebbe, the book underwent a lot of editing and improvements by the skilled hand of R’ Gottlieb. I can say that his boldness to write about the Rebbe spurred me on to continue the project and write about all the Rebbeim.
“Our collaborative efforts expanded when he contacted my brother Shmuel (shliach and rav in Dnepropetrovsk) for information and descriptions of the Jewish community in Dnepropetrovsk. In my work with him I got to know him well and he was a genuine Chassid, charming and pleasant, who did everything with real ahavas Yisrael and with the desire to give the Rebbe nachas.”
R’ Gottlieb wrote and edited sixty books, quite a prodigious number for one man, especially back then when publishing a book entailed a lengthy and exhausting process. When they asked him how he did it, he said, “The Rebbe once gave me two dollars for two sefarim. After I left, he called me back and gave me two more dollars and said, ‘These are for future seferim.’ To me, this was both a blessing as well as an obligation. With every book I publish I clearly feel that it is being published thanks to the Rebbe’s holy blessing.”
All his life, R’ Gottlieb was one of the leading lights of the Chabad community in the holy city. In certain years he was gabbai of the Chabad shul in Meah Shearim. In his final decade he lived in Beitar Ilit. He continued his writing until his final month.
The talented pen that he wielded with such talent and skill was silenced when he passed away on 16 Tamuz 5777. He was survived by his wife (who passed away a month later) and sons Rabbi Chaim Gottlieb (shliach in Talpiot, Yerushalayim), Rabbi Sholom Gottlieb (Nikolayev, Ukraine), Rabbi Moshe Gottlieb (Crown Heights), Rabbi Shimon Gottlieb (Crown Heights), Meir Gottlieb (Flatbush, NY), Velvel Gottlieb (Yerushalayim), Mrs. Chanie Dunin (Migdal Ha’emek, Israel), Mrs. Leah Rabinowitz (Beitar Illit, Israel), Mrs. Esther Sheiner (Beitar Illit, Israel), and Mrs. Liba Shteise (Ashdod, Israel), as well as many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
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