Subbotniki in Israel

'Abandoned' in the Jordan Valley

by Ari Ben Goldberg — The Jerusalem Report, Jewish World — November 19, 2001 — Page 74

FOUR years ago, the Subbotnik community in Yitav, a moshav in the Jordan Rift Valley, was embroiled in a bitter dispute with the Interior Ministry over accusations that it was a "Christian sect." The ministry wanted to revoke the Israeli citizenship of the descendants of Russian peasants who adopted Jewish practices centuries ago.

"The claim that we weren't a normal Jewish community was ridiculous," says Uri Carmiel, Yitav's communal leader, who came to Israel from the Northern Caucasus, near the Black Sea, in 1978. "The Interior Ministry was acting on a tip by a disgruntled woman who was locked in a messy divorce with a Yitav resident. In the end, there was no problem," he says.

Today, Yitav's 30 families, about 120 souls, are recognized as full Jews. Most arrived in the early 1990s, as part of the mass immigration from the former Soviet Union; at Yitav they have been joined by Subbotniks who were already living in Israel.

Many Subbotniks have been living in Israel for generations, and have become fully integrated and indistinguishable from the Jewish population. These include the family of Rafael (Raful) Eitan, the former chief of staff and cabinet minister whose parents settled in the Jezreel Valley.

Though the questions of their religious identity have been answered, Yitav residents today have a new complaint against the government. Together with the other residents of the Jordan Rift, they say their community and other Jewish towns in the Jordan valley are being "abandoned" by Israel during the current round of violence with the Palestinians. At least a dozen Yitav residents have been wounded by Palestinian gunmen during the past year.

The Subbotniks were, in fact, reluctant to settle in the Jordan Rift Valley in the first place but were convinced to do so by the office of late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, which emphasized the importance of a civilian presence in the Rift.

More recently, the Yitav residents have been in touch with the current prime minister, Ariel Sharon. "Sharon has made us many, many promises about security," says Carmeli. "But we have yet to see any financial investment or increased protection of our community since the intifada broke out."

Joyce Bivin, a Molokan-Armenian who lives in Israel adds: “Some time ago there were reports in the paper about a group of Subbotnkim in Yitav and the possibility of being deported. They are not considered Jewish even though they observe the Sabbath. Haven't heard anything about them lately. Their settlement is right in the West Bank in the area of hostile Arab villages...on land that may be returned to Palestine.


by Yossi Klein Halevi — The Jerusalem Report, Israel — August 21, 1997 — Page 12

The descendants of a remarkable group of Russian peasants
have created a thriving Jewish life in the Jordan Valley. 

But now, Israel has decided it doesn't want them anymore.

WHEN URI CARMIEL was a boy, living in the northern Caucasus near the Black Sea, his parents taught him a song written by his uncle Yoel, who'd been sent to a psychiatric hospital by the government for waving a "Zionist" flag in front of the Israeli Embassy in Moscow on Israel's Independence Day. "If only we could settle on the banks of the river," the song went, referring to the Jordan River, "to protect the borders of our homeland."

Uri's family were "Subbotniks" (the name comes from the Russian word for Sabbath), descendants of Russian Christian peasants who defied Czarist persecution and adopted Judaism, probably in the 18th century. One Subbotnik stream combined Christian doctrine with Jewish observance, but Uri's family and friends belonged to the movement that committed itself fully to Judaism [Gers/Geri].

Uri never heard his parents talking about faith in Jesus, only about Shabbat and kashrut and, most of all, the Land of Israel. Uri wasn't quite sure how or when his family had joined the Jewish people. His mother's grandparents had already been Jews; his great-grandfather was close to Chabad hasidim. Like the other Subbotnik children, he simply considered himself a Jew, not a member of a separate sect; if he thought about it at all, he felt a vague pride at being the descendant of converts, like King David, great-grandson of Ruth.

In the early 60s, Uri's parents, with other Subbotniks, formed a kind of commune — they imagined it a kibbutz — living in shacks in the forest. There, they could follow the Torah without being spied on by hostile neighbors; working as a wood-cutting collective, they set their own schedule, avoiding labor on Shabbat, a mandatory work-day in the Soviet Union. Uri's father provided the group with kosher meat: He had secretly spent three years studying ritual slaughter and other laws in one of the few remaining Russian synagogues. These Subbotniks had achieved the impossible: creating what may have been the only Jewish religious settlement in Soviet history.

The creased and torn photographs Uri still possesses from that time show young people with pale, wide, serious faces, chopping wood and sitting around long tables in a forest clearing. The women wear kerchiefs, the men peddler's caps or big black yarmulkes. In one family photograph, Uri's parents defiantly wear Israeli flag pins, a punishable crime.

In the anti-Semitic atmosphere following the 1967 Six-Day War, the authorities disbanded the Subbotnik commune. Six years later, when Uri was 9, his family applied to emigrate to Israel, and became refuseniks. Uri's teacher announced to the class that Uri's family had betrayed the motherland and that he needed "re-education." "So every day my classmates would drag me into the bathroom and reeducate me," he recalls. His arms were broken at least four times; the word "Zhid," kike, became his substitute name.

In 1978, Uri's family was finally allowed to move to Israel. Uri studied in a yeshivah high school in Jerusalem, spent time squatting in the Sinai town of Yamit to protest the Israeli withdrawal, served as a senior technician in the air force, attended too many funerals of friends who'd died in Lebanon and became politically left of center. When the massive Soviet aliya [move to Israel] began in 1989, he traveled the country, seeking out descendants of his old Subbotnik commune. He urged them to form a group that would fulfill their parents' dream of creating a kibbutz in Israel. The United Kibbutz Movement offered Uri's group an abandoned kibbutz called Yitav in the Jordan Rift, near Jericho. They hesitated: They didn't want to settle in the territories. Only after prime minister Rabin's office wrote to Uri, emphasizing the importance of settlement in the Jordan Rift, did they relent.

The initial hardships would have broken lesser people. They lived in mobile homes without air-conditioning in the desert heat. Palestinians would steal their produce and equipment, and once stole 200 meters of their security fence. Worst of all was the isolation: Yitav is located deep in the white hills overlooking the Arab village of Uja, at the end of a long narrow road that seems to lead nowhere.

But group members — who number over a hundred, including children — recalled their parents' struggles and persevered. Today, Yitav is no longer a kibbutz but a "communal moshav," whose members share profits but otherwise lead private lives. And it is thriving: Almost all the produce from its date and banana fields, and the roses in its high-tech hothouses, are exported. Members now live in small stucco houses and are about to build more substantial homes. They've just completed a swimming pool. Several Israeli-born families have joined the original group, and more are on the way. Hebrew is heard at least as much as Russian; in the moshav's office, where Uri presides as general manager, every sign is in Hebrew. At the Jordan Valley regional council, Yitav's members are lauded as hard-working idealists, worthy additions to the neighborhood.

AND THERE THE REMARKABLE story might have ended — from the forests of the Caucasus to the desert near the Jordan River, literally fulfilling the song Uri sang as a boy. Except that now the Jewish legitimacy of Yitav's members has suddenly been publicly undermined.

The Interior Ministry — apparently acting on a "tip" from a disgruntled woman in the midst of a bitter divorce with a Yitav member — has accused the moshav's residents of belonging to a "Christian sect" and of lying about their Jewish origins to win Israeli citizenship, which ministry officials want to revoke. Though officials didn't bother visiting the moshav or meeting with members, they issued a statement to the press stating their suspicions about Yitav as fact, accusing the Subbotniks of having "disguised themselves as Jews."

The day after the statement was released, Ilana Konon, a 12-year-old girl from Yitav, entered her classroom in a neighboring moshav and was greeted by stares. "Why did you lie about being a Jew?" one girl demanded. "Christian!" taunted another. For a week no one would speak to her. "My mother suffered in school in Russia for being a Jew," says Ilana. "Why is this happening to us here?"

In Yitav's tiny synagogue located in a bomb shelter, the prayer books are Hebrew-Russian versions of the ultra-Orthodox "Artscroll" editions; on the velvet covering of the synagogue's single, small Torah scroll are stitched the words, "In memory of those who died to protect the holiness of Israel in the Soviet Union." When Uri Carmiel mentions the charges of Christian belief leveled against the community, he quickly adds "God forbid," perhaps a lingering reflex from his high school days as an activist with the anti-missionary Yad L'achim group.

While officially designated a religious moshav, the atmosphere is noncoercive. Some men, like Carmiel, wear knitted yarmulkes; others cover their heads only on Shabbat. Children attend the local secular elementary school, but many go on afterwards to religious boarding schools. The only religious regulation enforced here is observance of Shabbat: Everyone, including the Thai field hands, must observe the day of rest, at least publicly.

Contrary to the Interior Ministry's claim, no "Subbotnik sect" exists at Yitav. Members don't practice any distinctive rituals. In fact, one can hardly speak of Subbotniks anymore, only descendants of Subbotniks. "In my three years here, I've never seen or heard anything to make me suspect that Yitav's members are anything but good Jews," says Yaffa Leibovitch, the moshav's Israeli-born kindergarten teacher who has no familial connection to Subbotniks.

Interior Ministry officials say that, even if moshav members observe Jewish law, they still shouldn't retain Israeli citizenship because their gentile ancestors may not have formally converted to Judaism. Yitav residents readily admit they don't know when or how their ancestors joined the Jewish people. The Encyclopedia Judaica notes that at least some Subbotniks formally converted to Judaism; and it seems almost certain that those included the ancestors of Yitav's founders. Perhaps the most compelling proof is the fact that they were integrated into Soviet Jewish communities. "We prayed in the synagogue in our town in Georgia and no one considered us anything but Jews," says Pnina Balokon, Yitav's accountant.

Carmiel has been inundated with solidarity calls, especially from veteran Israeli descendants of those Subbotniks who'd settled in the early 1900s in Galilee villages like Tel Adashim and Yesod Hama'alah (and who'd included the one-armed champion of Jewish self-defense, Joseph Trumpeldor, who fell defending the Galilee village of Tel Hai in 1920 and inspired the emergence of militant Revisionist Zionism).

ONE MAN WHO DIDN'T CALL WAS Israel's most famous descendant of Subbotniks, former chief of staff and current Agriculture Minister Rafael (Raful) Eitan. In a recent newspaper interview, Eitan caused a minor scandal when he was quoted as saying: "My mother was a descendant of bodyguards of the Czar, like the Subbotniks, Christian Cossacks who observe Shabbat. Her motive for coming to the Land of Israel was Christian." Eitan later insisted he'd been misquoted. "Raful always jokes that his bravery comes from being the descendant of Tartars," says a spokesman. "There's absolutely no truth to the matter."

Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry is set to begin hearings to determine whether its charges against Yitav are true. Uri Carmiel says he may summon the testimony of Ruth the Moabite, who said to Naomi, "Your people will be my people, your God my God." Perhaps that will help ministry officials appreciate the irony of challenging the Jewishness of the one group which, almost alone among assimilating Soviet Jews, kept faith with the God of Israel.
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