By Dovid Zaklikowski, Mishpacha Magazine
When Montreal resident Naomi Segal wrote down her memories in a diary in the 1940’s, she didn’t dream that seventy years later it would be of interest to people outside the family and a new generation of frum Yidden.
Mrs. Segal heard the story of Yosef Levi Shano‘s experiences from his daughter, Mrs. Rivkah Chaiton.
The two women met after Mrs. Segal had given birth and she was looking for someone to assist her. The person she found was Rivkah Chaiton: “Who comes from a home of ten children, the oldest of six girls and four boys. She told me her biography.”
Mrs. Segal wrote down in detail what she heard from Rivkah Chaiton and gave the narrative a title: A Story with Mesiras Nefesh. In the process she created an heirloom for the Shanos family as well.
“When my mother would remove the curtains to clean, it was a sign for the neighbors that a Yom Tov was coming.” — Rivkah Chaiton
When Reb Yosef Levi Shano moved to Montreal in the early 1900s, it was with the blessing of the Sfas Emes – and he needed all the blessings he could get. He came to Montreal with his wife, Rochel Leah, and their two young children.
And while he maintained the chassidic garb of the alte heim – the spodik that crowned his head and the spotless long black bekeshe – it wasn’t easy to hold on to one’s principles. As happened in the neighboring United States, many Jews threw off most of their Yiddishkeit after they arrived in Canada. The only way some of the Shano’s neighbors knew a Yom Tov was around the corner was when Rochel Leah Shano would clean her house from top to bottom, including washing the curtains.
Yet despite the difficulties, when it came to Yiddishkeit Yosef Levi Shano refused to budge.
“To find a job without working on Shabbos was like krias Yam Suf. My father ran from one factory to the next, pleading for mercy that they should give him a job.” – Rivkah Chaiton
At one point, when he didn’t find work in Montreal Yosef Levi traveled to Blair, Ohio, where his brother-in-law had a scrap metal business. If things worked out, he intended to bring the rest of his growing family to Ohio. They didn’t. It once happened that his employer questioned him about some missing money, implying that Yosef Levi had pocketed it. The chassid was able to satisfactorily explain the discrepancy, but he decided he couldn’t remain in a place where his honesty was in question.
Honesty was so important to Yosef Levi that later he would tell a grandson, Mottel Chaiton, he shouldn’t cheat a person of even “less than a penny.”
Yosef Levi moved back to Montreal, where he once again tried to make ends meet. At first he taught at the local Talmud Torah, where Jewish children who attended public schools would come after school to learn the basics of Yiddishkeit. It was a job, but it didn’t cover the bills.
To earn more money – and enable him and his family to eat chicken and meat – he decided to learn the laws of ritual slaughtering and become a shochet. As always, he insisted on performing the work with the utmost perfection and hiddur.
In those days, a person didn’t buy their already shechted and kashered chicken in the supermarket or butcher shop. Instead, they would first purchase a live chicken and bring it to the booth of the schochetwho was employed by the market. Once, business was slow and Yosef Levi fell asleep in his booth. When a customer walked in, he woke up. But while he shechted the customer’s chicken, his yarmulke slipped off his head for a moment. Was this a sign he lacked yiras shamayim? Should he stop doing shechita?
Shortly afterward he received an answer to his questions, but it wasn’t what he expected. He found out that after he left work on Friday afternoon, before Shabbos, the market continued to take chickens from customers and kill them, as if Yosef Levi had slaughtered them according to halacha. On the spot, Yosef Levi made a promise to only shecht for himself.
Merit vs. Money
“My father worked industriously, but how much could one man bring in to support such a large family? So we lived with little, but there was always what to eat, baruch Hashem,” – Rivkah Chaiton
Yosef Levi needed to find a new job quickly to make ends meet. He found a job as a presser for the Lehman Brothers Clothing Company. To make up for the hours he didn’t work on Shabbos, he had to work two extra hours the other days of the week.
His schedule was grueling. He would wake up at 4 am and go to shul to learn Gemara and daven. Then he would go to work and begin his 12-hour shift. Yet he considered himself blessed to have such a job, because he didn’t have to work on Shabbos.
“As a child, it made perfect sense to me that my Zeide was a presser,” says Rebbetzin Kviat. “He was a perfectionist and his clothing was never even slightly out of place.”
However, a wrinkle appeared when Sukkos came around. His Jewish boss said that he knew about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but Sukkos “he didn’t want to know about.”
In her diary, Naomi Segal recorded Rivkah Chaiton’s memories of the conversation that ensued between the Jewish boss and Reb Yosef Levi: “What do you think, I will close down the factory for two more days and lose so much money?”
“I came from the alte heim in Europe. You also came from there. Do you not recall eating with your father in the Succah and having simchas Yom Tov?”
“Yeah, yeah, that is what was once. Here is Canada and everything is different. Here we are busy making money.”
At the end, after much begging and tears, Yosef Levi convinced his boss to let him take off for Yom Tov.
“But, remember, first thing on chol hamoed morning, you should return back to work.”
It was a joyous Yom Tov in the Shano home. They built the Sukkah and all their neighbors, once again, came to see how they built the Sukkah.
“Where is Mr. Shano?”
At 11 am on the first day of chol hamoed, with Yosef Levi still davening at shul, his boss called (to the phone of a wealthier neighbor who agreed that people could call their home in times of emergencies).
When he was told him that he was still at shul and would be home shortly, he began to holler: “Tell him that he has nothing to return for. He should not think of crossing the doorstep. He is fired!”
Rivkah told Naomi Segal that when her father came home, he told everyone there was nothing to worry about.
“I will not desecrate the holiness of chol hamoed. Surely, Hashem will send me another job in the merit of keeping chol hamoed.”
After Yom Tov ended, Yosef Levi again made the rounds from one factory to the next, looking for work. No one wanted to hire him, because he refused to work on Shabbos. His savings depleted, he had no money to pay the grocer – and the grocer refused to give the family any more credit. With the harsh Canadian winter approaching and no relief in sight, the Shano children began to look for ways to earn some money. One found work delivering newspapers, while another delivered groceries.
“The hunger was great and for supper there was little that was served. Once I left my portion for one minute to get something. By the time I came back, there was already nothing left on the plate. The next time I needed something I got smart and ate my portion first.” – Rivkah Chaiton
Chanukah arrived. Yosef Levi lit the menorah. While the family was eating latkes and playing dreidel – “without pennies, for there was no money to use” – the doorbell rang. The family was surprised to see their father’s old boss from the Lehman Brothers Clothing Company at the door. Naomi Segal once again recorded the conversation:
“Mr. Shano, I am sorry, I am so sorry. Since I fired you, do you know how much trouble I am having? Every day there is something else.”
The boss told Yosef Levi that one day it was water dripping from a pipe, another day one of the machines broke and yet another day the electricity wasn’t working.
“I see that this is a punishment from Heaven for what I did to you. I am asking you to come back to work. You can keep Shabbos, Yom Tov and even chol hamoed. I will also give you a raise. Just please come back.”
Yosef Levi accepted the offer and continued working there for many years.
Rebbetzin Kviat listens attentively while her son Noach reads from the diary. Among the many memories the diary has aroused is remembrance of a time when people cherished face-to-face conversations.
Still, she admits, “We live in different times. Things are much easier, but at times we get stuck thinking it is difficult. You see from the diary that today things are doable with much less sacrifice. In my time, I had a select few friends that I could see on Shabbos, friends who had the same feelings for Yiddishkeit as us. This generation should be grateful to have friends you can see on Shabbos.”
Rebbetzin Kviat then adds her own memory to the Shano saga, recalling the time her mother got a brachah from the Lubavitcher Rebbe that her children and grandchildren should be better than their parents. The family’s connection to Lubavitch went back to World War II, when a group of bochurim arrived in Montreal, via Shanghai. Yosef Levi was finally able to fulfill his dream to spend time with chassidim in Montreal. After they opened the first full-time yeshivah, Yosef Levi sent his youngest grandson, Aaron Chaiton, to learn in the Lubavitch Yeshivah.
“And what was the reward for my father’s mesiras nefesh? All my children, in-laws, grandchildren, were not only shomer Shabbos, they also have large families; the wives wear sheitels, the men have beards and have chassidishe Lubavitcher children.”—Rivkah Chaiton