Moshiach Chudaitov dodges jokes about his uncommon name while bringing money and services to Soviet Jewry.
He’s doing the Messiah’s work, and that’s no joke
Moshiach is here. He gets his mail in Crown Heights, and was blessed, years ago, by the rebbe of Chabad. OK, so he didn’t ride in on a donkey, he drives a Toyota. Such are the perks of modernity.
Moshiach Chudaitov was born in 1939, a haunted, apocalyptic year, to Bukharian Jews in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The Holocaust was coalescing to the west. In Samarkand, Stalin’s secret police ruled the streets; Judaism was essentially outlawed. Jewish parents had every reason to wonder how long would these dark ages last? What gift, what medicine ensuring memory, could a parent give a child that was beyond the power of even Stalin to sever?
That gift would be a name.
In a twist of the legend about the angel who taps a newborn’s lip, so the baby will forget all it learned in Heaven before birth, the Chudaitovs decided to “tap” each of their babies with holy names whose utterance alone would spark Jewish memory.
The Chudaitovs didn’t decide that all by themselves. Elijah, says Moshiach, named one sister.
“My father was arrested for his Jewish activities,” recalls Moshiach, “and in jail he had a dream. A man in the dream identified himself as Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet). Eliyahu told my father, ‘You will be go home from this prison; your wife, who is pregnant, will have a girl. Her name shall be Yishua (Redemption).’”
“My older brother,” says Moshiach, “is Baruch Yisroel Chai (‘Blessed is the Living Israel’). Another brother is Shem Tov (the ‘Good Name,’ referring to the godly). Two other sisters are Mazal (‘A Blessed Destiny’) and Malka (‘Queen,’ majestic).”
In 1945, at the war’s end, yet another sister was born, Ima Shalom (“Mother of Peace”).
“And I am Moshiach,” he says. The name means the “Anointed One,” or “Messiah.”
His father’s name was Raphael, named after the Angel of Healing, one of the angels who are guardians of the night. Chasidim teach that sometimes a baby comes into this world for no other reason than to do someone a favor. There was no shortage of favors being asked of Raphael and his family in the 1940s.
“My father helped hundreds of Jews during the war, there were so many refugees,” Moshiach remembers. “Before every yontif [holy day] he’d go the market and buy potatoes and other groceries, distributing them to the poor. Once we came to the home of an old, blind woman. You could see the sky through her roof. My father says, ‘Moshiach, you see this woman? If you won’t help her, who will?’”
In the early 1950s, the teenage Moshiach joined Chamah (“Warmth,” or “Sun”), an underground group in Samarkand formed in 1953 by Rabbi Moshe Nissilevitch “for the purpose of keeping Judaism alive,” says Moshiach. “In those days, if you made a bris, or a bar mitzvah, or baked matzah, you had to hide it.”
Before long, Chamah “was teaching 1,500 children in basements, in hiding, in different towns. In winter, we’d try to get coal to the Jewish places.”
In 1972, the Chudaitovs moved to New York.
If in Samarkand it was unusual to have the name “Moshiach,” it was not entirely unheard of either, among the Bahamians. It was like Spanish-speaking Catholics naming their sons “Jesus,” or Muslim children being named “Mohammed.”
In the United States, however, and all the more so in Crown Heights, where Moshiach settled with his wife (although they were not Lubavitch), being named Moshiach was akin to being “A Boy Named Sue.” Some people thought it was quite a joke, and it got a lot of laughs from a lot of folks.
“In America,” Moshiach laughs, “non-Jews didn’t think anything about my name, but Jews, they make many jokes.”
If he’s ever late, well, what did you expect? He’s not only late, he tarries.
“I called someone on a Friday. I tell the woman who answers, ‘I want to speak to
Mr. Nussbaum.’ She replies, ‘He’s not home. I’m very rushed, it’s almost Shabbos, who’s calling?’ I say, ‘Moshiach.’ She says, ‘Please, I’m busy. My child’s in the bath. Just tell me your name?’ I say, ‘Moshiach.’”
Some time later, at the Kotel in Jerusalem, “there’s Nussbaum. He brings me to his wife, ‘Come here, you have to meet him. This is the Moshiach who called our house!’
“Once my wife was outside, calling up to me on the second floor, ‘Moshiach! Moshiach!’ People in the street started gathering around.
“What can I tell you,” he says. “All of us are waiting for Moshiach. Some more actively than others.”
In the early 1970s, the Chudaitov family had yechidus, private audiences with the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. “The rebbe,” says Moshiach, “was very interested in what my father did to help Jews during the war,” as well as what Chamah did after the war.
The rebbe took a liking to the Chudaitovs. At fabrengens (chasidic gatherings with songs and teachings), the rebbe would ask Raphael to sing a Bukharian niggun, a soulful melody.
At one fabrengen in 1973, Moshiach’s father asked the rebbe for a blessing — for Moshiach.
“Where is Moshiach,” the rebbe called out, with a sly twinkle. You should have seen everyone’s face, recalls Moshiach.
“Moshiach ben-Raphael,” said the rebbe with a big smile, “and it’s also time for Moshiach ben-Dovid [the actual Messiah that Jews await]!
Moshiach Ben-Raphael had work to do — Chamah’s work, helping the Jews remaining in what was still the Soviet Union, while helping Soviet Jews now living in the United States and Israel. Along with two other Chamah veterans now living in New York, Hillel Zaltzman and Binyomin Malachovski, “We’d go from shul to shul, at five or six in the morning,” says Moshiach, “from Riverdale to the Five Towns to Borough Park, speaking to people, raising money.”
Several philanthropists opened their checkbooks. Major organizations gave money as well, including the Joint Distribution Committee. Before much longer, Chamah was an American organization, too, with an $8 million budget and some very American titles: an executive vice president (Moshiach), alongside a president (Zaltzman) and executive director (Malachovski).
In the former Soviet Union, Chamah — no longer underground — opened a kindergarten and a community center, as well as providing food and medical services to the elderly. In New York, there are after-school programs, a day camp for Russian immigrant children, and the publishing of Jewish literature in Russian. In Israel, aside from counseling new immigrants, Chamah has its own banquet hall to provide poor families with a place for subsidized weddings, and other life-cycle events. You’d expect Moshiach ben-Dovid to do something like that.
Chasidim teach that every Jew contains a “spark” of the Messiah’s soul. When that spark shines by bringing goodness and kindness into the world, the Messiah is that much closer. If Elijah and the Messiah are watching, they have to like this Moshiach’s spark. He wears the name well, nothing funny about it.