My parents – Rabbi Gershon Mendel and Rebbetzin Bessie Garelik – were sent to Milan, Italy, by the Rebbe over sixty years ago, before I was even born. So, I am privileged to be one of the first children born to his emissaries. And I am also one of the first people to be named Levi Yitzchok after the Rebbe’s father.
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When my mother brought up the idea of giving me this name, my father agreed because, as a child, he had spent time in Almaty, Kazakhstan. That was where Rabbi Levi Yitzchok was exiled by the Soviets for the crime of teaching Torah and supporting Jewish religious practice. Although my father never met Rabbi Levi Yitzchok – since even being in the vicinity of a Schneerson back then was considered a crime – he felt a connection to him. Eventually, my father and his sisters grew very close to the Rebbe’s mother, Rebbetzin Chana, and they all escaped Russia together. But that is another story.
Later, when I was a toddler, my parents sent Rebbetzin Chana a framed picture of myself, and she wrote back expressing her gratitude. It apparently meant a lot to her that I was named after her husband because she put my picture on the breakfront of her dining room. And she even mentioned to others, “I have my Levi Yitzchok.”
But I never got to meet Rebbetzin Chana because the first time I visited New York she had already passed away. That visit took place in the winter of 1967 when I was seven, and my mother brought me along with my five siblings to meet the Rebbe. We timed our trip to coincide with Yud-Tet Kislev, the 19th of Kislev, when Chabad celebrates the “Rosh Hashanah of Chasidism” because on this date in 1798, the Alter Rebbe, the founder of the Chabad Movement, was freed from Czarist prison.
The day before we left Italy for America, the Italian translation of the Alter Rebbe’s seminal work, the Tanya, came off the press. This project was very important to the Rebbe, and he had appointed my father to make it happen. We would be bringing him the first copy, and it was decided that I should be the one to make the presentation. We would all wait outside 770 as the Rebbe left to go home in the evening, and that is when I would hand him the new Italian Tanya.