The Last of the Saturday People

by Frank Brown — The Jerusalem Report — Section: Jewish World — November 19, 2001 — Page 72

Photo from Sevan video segment of Jews in Armenia
SEVAN, ARMENIA — After 200 years, the Subbotniks are fading out of Armenia's history — ending another sorry chapter for a community that was often persecuted, rarely loved

A RUSTING FERRIS WHEEL stands sadly on the edge of Sevan, a Soviet-era city in the center of Armenia, an hour's drive from the capital, Yerevan. Not far away, on a parched knoll, is a small cemetery with a big gate decorated with a Star of David. A quick car ride away is Sevan's synagogue-turned-grocery store, which has seen far more shopping than praying as it was built in 1906.

There is no traffic to speak of as more than half of Sevan's one-time population of 30,000 has left in search of work. Lake Sevan, once a source of fish and tourist dollars, has receded three kilometers over the last 50 years; still the country's largest body of water, it has been shrinking steadily since an irrigation scheme went awry.

Among those remaining in Sevan are 23 elderly Subbotniks — the remnants of the mysterious "Saturday people" or "Sabbath people" who built the synagogue and the cemetery. But they, too, are not long for this place. "What kind of future do the Subbotniks have? The cemetery," says Mikhail Zharkov, who has already beaten the average Armenian male's life expectancy by 10 years. "I'm 72 years old. I'm glad to make it through the day."

When the last of this community dies off, it will mark the end of the Subbotniks' largely unhappy 200 years in Armenia — and another sorry chapter in the unfortunate saga of this unloved people, whose last 10,000 to 15,000 members are now dispersed, unlamented, in rural communities scattered elsewhere throughout the former Soviet Union.

The Subbotniks are the most prominent survivors of the "Judaizers," a collective term applied to Russians who, from the 15th century on, left the Russian Orthodox Church for Judaism, were persecuted and finally exiled to the far reaches of the Russian Empire. Because of their Slavic roots and rejection of the Talmud, the Subbotniks always remained outside mainstream, rabbinical Judaism with its intellectual traditions and institutions.

The Subbotniks' precise origins are obscure — even to members of the community themselves — partly because they never created their own yeshivahs or seminaries, and partly because the czarist authorities were eager to squelch and isolate a religious movement viewed as a threat to the state faith, Russian Orthodoxy. As for the Communist authorities, they were equally hostile to the very existence of independent religious movements of any kind, as to their study by ethnographers or historians.

ON A recent weekday in an apartment here, about 10 of Sevan's remaining Subbotniks gather to reminisce, polish off three bottles of vodka and sing long mournful hymns based on a narrative from Genesis. Asked about their faith and history, they have little to offer. "We are Subbotniks. We celebrate all the Jewish holidays in full," is the best that Alexander Andreyev, 70, a retired electrician and acting leader of the community, can muster.

The 20th-century narrative is somewhat fuller, though. They do know that the Communist authorities seized the synagogue in the 1920s and turned it into a grocery store, that circumcisions were banned a few years later, that the last man who could read Hebrew died in the 1960s and that the last ritual slaughterer died in the 1970s.

Unable to muster a minyan of 10 men, they gave away their Torah scroll in 1993 to the 1,000-strong Jewish community in Yerevan. Nowadays, the 18 women and five men, all elderly, take turns hosting weekly informal prayer services. Everyone pays dues of 100 drams (18 cents) a month. Anna Andreyeva, 71, a retired accountant, usually leads the singing from a child's exercise book in which the dirge-like Subbotnik hymns are recorded, written in Russian with a blue ballpoint pen.

Russia's leading Subbotnik expert cannot add much more. Valery Dymshits, an ethnographer and folklorist who teaches at the European University in St. Petersburg, has been traveling since 1997 to Azerbaijan and southern Russia conducting interviews and filming Subbotniks in farming communities. "We are trying to find their communities and contact them," he says. "It is difficult because they were — and are — everywhere: Siberia, the Caucasus, on the Volga, in Ukraine."

There has never been systematic research, Dymshits explains. Before the Revolution, people who left the Russian Orthodox Church for Judaism were the No. 1 enemies of anti-Semitic czars, who cast themselves as defenders of Orthodox Christianity. The rituals and practices of Subbotniks went undocumented by researchers from czarist universities. After the Revolution, those people who defined themselves by religion were ignored by academic researchers working for a Soviet government that promoted atheism.

It seems reasonable to posit that Sevan's Subbotniks were likely exiled tothe southern edge of what was then the Russian Empire after 1830, when Czar Nicholas I decreed that Slavs refusing Russian Orthodoxy must not be allowed to "infect" the faithful masses. In exile, the Subbotniks had plenty of Russian-speaking company, including the Molokans (milk drinkers) and Dukhobors (spirit wrestlers), both non-Orthodox Christian groups.

They did not always get along. In Sevan, the Molokans viewed the Subbotniks as having sold out their Slavic Christian heritage. In neighboring Azerbaijan, Molokan "whites" clashed with Subbotnik "reds" during the Civil War that followed the Revolution. [See: Early Molokan "Jumper" Prophets Criticize Teachings of Subbotniki, Steadfast Molokans and Russian Orthodox Church.]

NOW, with a still unresolved war between Armenia and Azerbaijan taking a huge toll on the Armenian economy, all of the working-age Subbotniks have resettled in Russia, as have an estimated 800,000 to 1.5 million other residents of Armenia, which had a population of 3.5 million people in 1989.

In Sevan, the elderly Subbotniks have average monthly pensions of about $8 and receive monthly food and medicine parcels from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. That makes them a good deal better off than their Armenian neighbors, who they say sometimes go door-to-door begging for bread.

Sevan's Subbotniks do not seem interested in — or even aware of — possible emigration to Israel, although it is an option, says Dymshits. "In principle, they have the right to go there under the Law of Return. But, in reality, the Israeli government puts up obstacles because they don't know what to do with them."

Armenia's sole rabbi, Gersh Meir Burshteyn, welcomes Subbotniks to his Yerevan synagogue and is grateful for the gift of their Torah, but says he does not count the men towards a minyan, mainly because they are uncircumcised and unschooled in rabbinical Judaism. The Yerevan-born rabbi notes that the Jewish population — most of whom arrived after the Subbotniks, in Soviet times, to escape anti-Semitism in Russia and Ukraine, and to work in Armenia's top-flight physics institute — is declining too, through attrition, aliyah and immigration to Russia.

Burshteyn, a Chabad (Lubavitcher) hasid, says he has made a point of searching out Subbotniks in his native Armenia. "I've even looked for them in a village near the Georgian border, but I only found Molokans." Sevan is the only place he's come upon Subbotniks, he says. Not long from now, there won't be any left there either.

In September 2006 only 13 of these 23 Subbotniki in Armenia remained in Sevan. From: JTA, Around the Jewish World: Small community in Armenia strives to preserve its heritage

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