The Subbotniki:

Secret Jews of Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, California

by Rabbi William M. Kramer PhD, historian, past-publisher and editor
Western States Jewish History, Vol. XXXV, No. 2. Winter, 2003/5763, pp. 144-150

Annotatation  [in brackets in 2013] by Andrew John Conovaloff

 


KramerLooking Around at the morning minyan [sobranie, meeting of at least 10] some days ago I realized that we were a strange collectivity. The only thing we had in common is that we were all Jewish by some standard or other. Though our backgrounds were different we reached out to each other for companionship in prayer. Sometimes we don't have a full minyan. That reminds us how precious every Jew is.

As I thought over who had attended during recent weeks, I noted that we were both Jewish-born and not Jewish-born. Some of us were American-born. Israeli-born, and foreign-born. In pigmentation we were black and white and various shades in between. In Jewish background we were Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and some totally indifferent, except when Kaddish [funeral prayers] called them to the minyan.

There was at least one kind of Jew unrepresented in the minyan. My studies as a historian made me aware of the fact that in Los Angeles early in the last century in the Boyle Heights 'heartland' there were Jews known as Subbotniki.

Some forty years ago, while walking on the grounds of the Home of Peace Cemetery on Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles, after having officiated there, I came across a series of unusual grave markers which bore Russian names, but not Russian Jewish names. Recently, with my friend Jason Weaver, I went to see them again.

Off and on over the years I have wondered about the people represented by these markers. Who were they? What was their Judaism like? Was it possible they were not Jewish? And if they were not Jewish, what were they doing there, lying dead in a Jewish cemetery?

On another visit that I made to those tombstones, I met a man by the name of Aronov. [This name is not on our cemetery list but given that author states below that his interview notes became "illegible over time", the name is most likely Androff, a family that was instrumental in arranging for Subbotniki to be accepted for burial at Home of Peace Cemetery.] That was the only identification he would give me. Though his name sounded Eastern European Jewish, his accent and appearance belied that. He identified himself as one of the Subbotniki.

We Jews have to look out for each other and stick together despite our differences or we are lost. In the Midrash Rabbah, 100 [investigation of the Hebrew Bible], there is an expression "A clan and a family resemble a heap of stones. Take one stone out and the whole heap tumbles." Chavurah oomishpachah do-meen lícheepaht avonim ó like a pile of stones."

There was a time when the dominant German Jewish community in the United States acted alone. Then the Eastern European Jewish community became dominant, and it tended to deny a significant role to other Jews when it could. Right here in Los Angeles the Jews of Boyle Heights did not acknowledge that there was another Jewish community in their very midst.

It was the Subbotniki. Boyle Heights Jewry did not reach out to these Subbotniki. They became a stone pulled out of the heap. Fortunately, the structure of Los Angeles Jewry did not collapse, but it is less today because there was no out-reach, or in Boyle Heights there was no in-reach.

Aronov told me a little. I took notes that have become illegible over time, but I had begun, in earnest, my search for the Subbotniki. There were very few resources to aid me. I checked the records of Wilshire Boulevard Temple from the period when it was known by its corporate name of Congregation B'nai B'rith. It owns the cemetery. Also, three decades or so ago, I inquired of the late Nathan Malinow, of the then Malinow and Simon Mortuary. Later I was to consult Morton Silverman who had been the funeral director at some of the Subbotniki interments.

Silverman indicated to me that in the early 1930s, the Subbotniki in Los Angeles had a core group of thirty or forty families. Their prayers were in Russian with an occasional Hebrew word, he remembered. He said that the men wore head covering. He felt that they were isolated pretty much by choice. "They knew", he said, "that the Eastern European Jews of Boyle Heights didn't think of them as Jews."(1)

Silverman told me that Rabbi Abe Maron of Congregation Mogen David, in West Los Angeles, had done funerals for them. I then spoke to the now late Rabbi Maron who told me that the group had no rabbi of its own, only lay leaders. He didn't remember having been called on to do weddings for them, only funerals. He had no doubts about their being Jewish, but in their own way. Neither Rabbi Maron nor anyone I spoke to over the years remembered any bar mitzvahs [confirmations] being performed for the group. Rabbi Maron also told me that the men were circumcised; he presumed by traditional mohelim [circumciser, see mohel]

From Silverman, I learned that at the Home of Peace funerals the Subbotniki would have hymn singing in Russian for up to two or three hours. The women principally did this. Cemetery attendants, whom I interviewed way back then, told me that the hymn singing "was beautiful but eerie." I learned the Subbotniki sometimes brought food to the cemetery grounds. Silverman told me that it was usually kosher lamb when meat was part of the fare.

In the 1911 Annual Report of Congregation B'nai B'rith, I found that Kaspare Cohn "brought up the question of a certain Russian sect who claim to be Jews, but about them there are doubts in the minds of many as to whether they are Jews or not. It was decided that the President [Dr. David Edelman] appoint a committee to investigate and report at the next monthly meeting of officers.(2) Kaspare Cohn was the leading philanthropist of the Jewish community and a distinguished banker who founded the Union Bank of Los Angeles.

Following investigation, the congregation concluded that the Subbotniki were sufficiently Jewish to qualify for Jewish burial. The tombstones are the best evidence. Certainly approval by the very Reform congregation was no proof of halachic [by Jewish law] Jewishness, however it should be noted that Rabbi Abe Maron was considered Orthodox.

Albert Parry, a journalist, visited some of the Subbotniki in Los Angeles during the 1920s. He indicated that they spoke to him "in the harmonious accents and inflections of the Central Russian moujik [muzhik: Russian peasant]."(3) Among the names of Subbotniki that he visited he recalled Pivovaroffs, Potapoffs, Yurins and Yurkoffs. Weaver observed that in their section of the cemetery Subbotniki names included Gregorief, Konnoff, Bagdanov, Urov and the name Pivovaroff which was also noted by Parry.(4)


Parry learned from the Subbotniki that they came from Transcaucasia, but that their ancestors were originally from the Tamboff [Tambov] and Voronezh provinces of Central Russia. They said that they had been exiled there because their ancestors refused to "eat bacon, worship icons, and accept the Greek Orthodox Priests."(5)

They told Parry that one of the first teachers was a Jew whose name they vaguely remember as "Skharia." Parry identified him as Zachary Skara from Kiev. An 1889 Jewish Newspaper account said that Zechariah was "a Jew prominent for his learning who publicly preached against the trinity and the divinity of Christ. As Jew and scholar, Zechariah appealed to the common sense and to the critical judgment and soon gathered many adherents." He was said to have compiled a catechism of sayings from the Talmud [discussion of Jewish law].(6)

Zechariah's followers were regarded as Subbotniki, Sabbath-Keepers or Sabbatarians who were "Genuine Russian Jews." This was true despite their lack of knowledge of the Hebrew language and literature.(7) They were likely antecedent to the Subbotniki of Boyle Heights, who also evidenced no knowledge of Hebrew. In Boyle Heights there were two Russian groups who evidenced Jewish practices. One was the  Molokans
[Dukh-i-zhizniki]who accepted the divinity of Jesus and the other was the Subbotniki.

They both kept Shabbat [day of rest] and some form of kashrut [kosher: ritually correct diet]. The Molokans were called "the milk people" because they favored dairy foods. They did not claim to be Jewish. They were Sabbatarians like the Seventh Day Adventists and Seventh Day Baptists. Interestingly, the Russian Government, in 1914, practiced "Anti-Semitism" against Seventh Day Adventists "because their faith is closely allied to that of the Jews!"(8) Aronov told me that the number of Subbotniki had decreased because of intermarriage with the Molokans
[Spiritual Christians] with whom they were so culturally similar.(9)

I believe it was in the 1950s that I remember a Molokan Church 
[Dukh-i-zhiznik prayer hall] in Los Angeles located in the downtown area off Olympic Blvd. In 1905, some of the Los Angeles  Molokans [Pryguny] moved across the Mexican border to the village of Guadalupe in Baja California. They were described as dressed "in the simple peasant costume of the their ancestors, the bearded men and shawled women."(10)

In my archival material, I found a 1913 newspaper article.(11) It described a community of "thirty families of Caucasian Jews" who were regarded as something of a "lost tribe." They were the Subbotniki of Boyle Heights. The reporter described them as, "A strange Jewish colony practicing queer customs and peculiar rites." He indicated that they knew no Hebrew because "their antecedents lived for a long time in Russia where the government forbids them being taught the language of their birth.

The Examiner asked Rabbi Rudolf Farber of Sinai Congregation in Los Angeles to comment. He indicated that the Subbotniki were "people adhering to the Russian style of dress and speaking the Russian language, [and] who have lived quietly on Gless and Utah Streets for the past several years." He said that they observed the Sabbath, the Holidays, and were "strict in the observance of the dietary laws. He noted that they married at an early age usually before twenty and that they only marry within their group and in marriage practice tarahat mishpacha.(12)

As I write this, it is the year 2002 and it has been more than a quarter of a century since I spoke to any of the Subbotniki. When I did I was told that they had a "little Jewish church" of their own. They called it the "Subbotniki Synagogue of Yiddish Jews." Silverman told me that he heard that they had mainly hymn singing there. [This contradicts the report by Alex Tolmas: In 1971 Subbotniki Dissolve ... ]

There is no indication that the Subbotniki reached out to the organized Jewish community except in matters of circumcision, death and interment. Over the years they intermarried, abandoned their unique traditions, or simply died out. Unfortunately, something of what the Jewish community might have been also died with them.

In 1993, responding to a column I had written on the Subbotniki for The Guardian, a publication of The Jewish Home for the Aging, I received a letter from Rose Gousman, a Los Angeles resident. She indicated that in 1928 she lived on Boyle Ave. near a section called "Russian Town" on Gless Street. She said that she attended Roosevelt High School as did some of the Subbotniki boys according to my informants.


They were very handsome, and the Jewish girls were not allowed to date them. Only on Saturdays did I see the Subbotniki women walking on the street, dressed in long white skirts and blouses with fancy aprons on top. They were the only people who dressed this way. I could never figure out who they were or what their religion was but I was told that they were Russians. Their looks and mannerisms were typically Russian, as opposed to looking like the Jewish people. They used to observe tile Jewish Holidays, but we didn't know why. My parents used to say that they had a synagogue of their own, but nobody ever saw it. (13)  [This describes most of the varieties of Spiritual Christians who immigrated from Old Russia.]


There is much in the Jewish and general press these days about crypto-Jews who are turning up after generations of secret identity. For example, among Mexican Americans in the Southwest, some are outwardly Catholic, but have learned at puberty that they had a silent Jewish heritage. I wonder if there are Subbotniki crypto-Jews among Russian gentiles in California who will come out of their Christian closet.

We Jews are a pile of stones. One Stone is labeled German Jew, another Russian, another Ethiopian, and so on. Today we are missing a stone called "Subbotniki" because there was no reaching out. We have to be careful because we can't afford to spare any more stones.

Endnotes

  1. Undated interview by the author, approximately 1960.
  2. Report of Annual Meeting of Congregation B'nai Bírith, October 27, 1911.
  3. Albert Parry 1930 The American Hebrew, "Subbotniki" a Strange Sect".
  4. Visit to Home of Peace Cemetery. April 11, 2002.
  5. Albert Parry 1930 The American Hebrew, "Subbotniki" a Strange Sect".
  6. Anon, "A Curious Russian Sect: Part IĒ, The Jewish Messenger, New York  Sept. 6, 1889.
  7. Ibid. Part 2, Sept. 13, 1889.
  8. B'nai B'rith Messenger, Los Angeles. March 27, 1914.
  9. My interview with him was on May 16,1978 (as best as I can decipher my faded notes).
  10. "Guadalupe Molokans," Baja California Yearbook of Las Californias Magazine 1963.
  11. News Item, Los Angeles Examiner, 1913.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Letter: Rose Gousman to the author Feb. 22, 1993.
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