The Last Jews of Il'inka

by Dimitri Radyshevsky — The Jerusalem Report — February 14, 1991 — Page. 32
[NOTE: The published headline mispelled the village Ильинка as: "Iliyanka"]
Missiles crashing on Tel Aviv seem a distant concern in Il'inka on thesnow-covered steppes of southeast Russia, miles from the nearest train station or telephone. And yet these missiles are very much on the minds of two families about to abandon this peasant village, 350 miles south of Moscow, for Israel. [See maps.] They leave behind about 100 mostly elderly Jewish residents; within a decade, only the graves will remain of this unusual Jewish community.

Soon only the graves will remain in this Soviet village of Jewish peasants

Il'inka Jews trace their roots to the 19th century "Subotniks," or Sabbath observers. These were originally Eastern Orthodox Christians who adopted Judaism out of dissatisfaction with what they considered to be the corrupt Russian Church.

The Jewish peasants of Il'inka have striven against enormous odds to lead lives of biblical purity. They lay aside enough hay for their cows on Fridays in order not to violate the prohibition against work on the Sabbath. They observe kosher laws, practice circumcision when possible, and the elderly still worship in a wood-hut synagogue. They bury their dead behind a crude cemetery gate adorned with the Star of David.

Even when the Soviets collectivized private farms, and when Stalin tried to root out all religious observance, Il'inka Jews made every effort to rest on Saturday and to make up the lost time by working on Sunday.

"All the work I have put into this land..." reflects Hanna Konchakova, an 87-year-old Il'inka widow who still goes out every day to 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 mother would always say: Here today, next year in Jerusalem. We shall walk across the sea, the sinners will 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 suitcase next month.

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 Subotnik families who still observed Jewish rituals were permitted to return to Russia and to follow their religion openly. Many sent their children to yeshivahs and formally adopted Judaism. After the October Revolution, many emigrated to Palestine.

Il'inka from the Russian name for the prophet Elijah dates back to the early 1900s, when the ancestors of many of today's residents were permitted to settle on the site.

In 1972, during the early stages of the struggle for the emigration of Soviet Jewry, descendants of the Subotniks in Israel began to send letters of invitation to their Il'inka relatives. Many of the villagers joined the ranks of refuseniks. At the same time, big-city Jews learned about Il'inka for the first time.

Natan Sharansky recalls: "In 1976, an old man, a typical Russian peasant, walked into the Moscow Synagogue claiming he was a Jew from a village in the Voronezh Steppes. We didn't believe him, so he started singing the Psalms in Hebrew." Sharansky was arrested about 3 miles from the village when he tried to visit it that year. Later, at his trial, the prosecution claimed that Sharansky "attempted to infiltrate Il'inka at the orders of Western secret services."

As late as Februray 1988, the regional Communist newspaper wrote: "By using the initial steps of democratization in our society to their filthy advantage, Zionist messengers visit Il'inka to sow skepticism among its residents about the power and prospects of socialism."

By then, however, most of Il'inka's residents, some 500 in all, were already planning to move to Israel. "We have been regular Jews," says Konchakova. "I haven't touched a sausage in my life and I light candles every Friday night.

"Today they allow us circumcision in the district hospital, but there is 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 circumcise. In 1954 he circumcised my grandson, but someone saw it through the window and squealed to the authorities. Yankel got arrested, my son was 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 the other day I heard, Why do we have to buy houses from those Yids?' I don't feel comfortable anymore."

 Svetlana's mother, Rivka, wants her daughter to move to Israel. "I taught her to make the candles and 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 a Soviet teacher for 15 years. It will be hard for me to start from scratch. What will I do there?" And she 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 vanish. No young people worship at the synagogue. Izak Kozhokin, Svetlana's great uncle, is the only one left who can still 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."

See: Save the Subbotniks!
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