Missiles crashing on Tel Aviv seem a distant concern in Il'inka on
southeast Russia, miles from the nearest train station or
telephone. And yet
these missiles are very much on the minds of two families
abandon this peasant village, 350 miles south of Moscow, for Israel. [See maps.] They leave behind
mostly elderly Jewish residents; within a decade, only the
remain of this unusual Jewish community.
graves will remain in this Soviet village of Jewish
Jews trace their
roots to the 19th century "Subotniks," or Sabbath observers.
originally Eastern Orthodox Christians who adopted Judaism out
dissatisfaction with what they considered to be the corrupt Russian
The Jewish peasants of Il'inka
striven against enormous odds to
of biblical purity. They lay aside enough hay for their cows on Fridays
in order not to violate the prohibition against work on the
observe kosher laws, practice circumcision when possible, and
elderly still worship in a wood-hut synagogue. They bury
behind a crude cemetery gate adorned with the Star of David.
the Soviets collectivized private farms, and when Stalin tried to root
observance, Il'inka Jews made every effort to rest on Saturday
make up the lost time by working on Sunday.
work I have put into this land..." reflects Hanna
Konchakova, an 87-year-old Il'inka widow who still goes out every day
milk her cow.
"But my children and grandchildren are already in Israel and I want to
die in the Holy Land.
"We have been dreaming about Israel all our lives. On Passover my
always say: Here
today, next year in Jerusalem. We shall walk across the sea, the
drown, but the virtuous shall reach Jerusalem.' "We were really
afraid to sin, that's how badly
we wanted to reach Israel," says Konchakova,
who will leave behind the graves of
her husband, parents and grandparents when she packs her
In 1823, thousands of able-bodied Subotnik men were forcefully
conscripted into the Czarist army and 20,000 were exiled to Siberia.
Sixty years later, hundreds of
families who still observed Jewish rituals were permitted to
return to Russia and to follow their religion openly. Many
sent their children to
and formally adopted Judaism. After the October Revolution,
emigrated to Palestine.
Il'inka from the Russian
the prophet Elijah dates back to the
early 1900s, when the ancestors of many of today's residents were
settle on the site.
during the early stages of the struggle for the emigration of Soviet
Jewry, descendants of the Subotniks in Israel began to send letters of
to their Il'inka relatives. Many
villagers joined the ranks of
At the same time, big-city Jews learned about Il'inka
for the first
Natan Sharansky recalls: "In 1976, an old man, a typical Russian
peasant, walked into the Moscow Synagogue claiming he was a Jew from a
the Voronezh Steppes. We didn't believe him, so he started
Psalms in Hebrew." Sharansky was arrested about 3 miles from
village when he tried to visit it that year. Later, at his
prosecution claimed that Sharansky "attempted to infiltrate Il'inka at the orders of Western
As late as Februray 1988, the regional Communist newspaper wrote: "By
using the initial steps of democratization in our society to
filthy advantage, Zionist messengers visit Il'inka
among its residents about the power and prospects of
however, most of Il'inka's residents, some 500 in all, were already
move to Israel. "We have been regular Jews," says
Konchakova. "I haven't touched a sausage in my life and I light candles
"Today they allow us circumcision in the district hospital, but there
no one to circumcise and no one left to sanctify it according
to the law.
When I was younger, old Yankel used to come secretly to
1954 he circumcised my grandson, but someone saw it through
and squealed to the authorities. Yankel got arrested, my son
expelled from the party and couldn't find work for years."
Of the 18 elementary school students in Il'inka,
half are newcomers.
The town is now being resettled by non-Jewish refugees from the Soviet
Union's Asian republics
who are fleeing ethnic strife.
Svetlana Kozhokina, the only schoolteacher in Il'inka, says that in the
past, village residents maintained good relations with the
neighboring Russian villages. "But the new arrivals are different. Just
heard, Why do we have to buy houses from those Yids?' I don't
Svetlana's mother, Rivka, wants her daughter to move to Israel.
"I taught her to make the
to light them on Friday night," she says of her daughter.
"We always kept separate dishes for milk and meat. I tell her that in
Israel she will have two sinks."
But Svetlana, one of the handful of young Jews who still remain in Il'inka, is hesitant. "I have been
Soviet teacher for 15 years.
hard for me to start from scratch. What will I do there?" And
adds: "Today, religion is beginning to flourish in the USSR, Christmas
has been made an official holiday, and we
should be able
to find some comfort for ourselves too."
But Jewish Il'inka is certain to
No young people worship at the
Izak Kozhokin, Svetlana's great uncle, is the only one left who can
read the Torah. "Everyone is leaving, either for Israel or for the
cities, " he sighs.
"In a few years
there will be no one left."