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The Forsaken Converts of Russia

Ma'ariv (Sof-shavua Weekend Supplement)
November 28, 2008
By Eli Bardenstein

They observe the Sabbath, practice ritual circumcision, and refrain from eating pork. They survived the oppression of the czars, suffered persecution by the communists and were murdered by the Nazis. Alexander Zaid and Rafael Eitan were two of them.  But none of this is enough for the State of Israel, which decided to prevent the descendants of Subbotniks - Russians who converted to Judaism hundreds of years ago – from making aliya to Israel. According to the Ministry of the Interior: They are not Jews..

The villages in this part of the world are similar to one another, containing small stone houses with an aluminum roof and a small entrance way. They all have a brown wooden beamed floor, a freezing outhouse in the courtyard, and a shed nicknamed “The Kitzi Kitchen” that was used for storing food during the winter.  The fronts of the houses are lined with green cherry trees. In the spacious courtyards, meticulously cared for grapevines carry clusters of small red grapes which produce sweet grape juice. The leaves falling from the white birch and poplar trees paint the muddy dirt paths with an intense orange color, providing vitality to the otherwise colorlessness of the village.

The people also resemble each other. Many of them are unemployed or earn less than is necessary to support a family. After their workday they set out to their small plots of land behind their homes, in order to work the fields, hoping to earn a few thousand rubles from selling potatoes, onions and cabbage in the local market at the end of the season. In the evening, the Muzhiks (Russian peasants) will finish off vats of Samogan – homemade vodka. Many of them look much older than their actual age and most of them are religious. Their faith in Jesus lies deep in their hearts, despite the fact that Stalin tried to destroy it. And many of them share a hatred of Jews.

In the heart of the ignorance and desperation of this rural area, 700 kilometers south of Moscow, stands a village with the name Vysoki. In order to reach it, one must travel 12 hours by train, and then spend three and a half hours on a fidgety bus, until reaching the small town of Talobia, where Lenin's large head continues to decorate its main plaza. A small minibus that costs 10 rubles (about one-and-half shekels) will bring you to the only bus stop in Vysoki. This is the Russian version of “When you reach the end of the world, turn left”.

Lubov Yakovlevna (the daughter of Yaakov) Grindeeva was born in Vysoki in 1943. “It was winter at the time and my mother stepped onto the board that was on top of the oven in order to warm herself up when she started having strong contractions”, reminisces Grindeeva. "She started screaming in pain and asked to be brought down to her bed, but the men in the other room asked her to wait ‘until we finish praying the afternoon Mincha prayers’". Lubov’s mother did not wait and gave birth on top of the oven to a baby girl, the last of 12 brothers and sisters.

“My mother told me that she kissed me, bundled me up, climbed down from the oven and immediately began to wash the floor. That is how it was then. There was no time to be pampered”, Grindeeva says. The Germans had already arrived at the nearby city of Voronezh, less than 200 kilometers away from Vysoki. They knew the Jews lived there, or in the language of the historians: the Subbotniks, those who belonged to the Judaizing sect. This nickname was given to those Christian Russians who, centuries ago – the circumstances and the exact point in time are still a mystery –   took upon themselves the Sabbath as a day of rest and lived a Jewish lifestyle.

Despite the fact that in later years a minority of non-Jewish Russians also came to live there, Vysoki was not like other villages. On a wooden gate at the end of the village, a light blue Star of David was emblazoned. Behind it were buried Jewish villagers. On a portion of the gravestones, some of them very old, a Star of David was engraved, and in some cases there were even Hebrew letters. On every Sabbath and Jewish holiday and sometimes on Mondays and Thursdays as well – the days on which the Torah is read – small minyans (quorums of ten required for group prayer) still take place with old people wrapped in prayer shawls. The only Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) that remains in the village was at the center of the last Simchat Torah holiday celebration. On the doorposts of some of the homes Mezuzahs are affixed, containing ancient pieces of parchment. On the “Tenth Day”, as Yom Kippur is known in the village, most of the older residents still fast. Several years ago, they would bake matzah for Passover and no bread would come into the village during the holiday. Pigs did not run around in the courtyards. Today, there are already pigs in the village, but most of the men, even the young ones, are ritually circumcised. When a bus stops at the Vysoky station, everyone knows that whoever gets off there is not a "real Russian", and many insist on reminding them of that fact.

Israel recognized the Jewishness of Vysoki's residents many years ago, even if various bureaucrats now refuse to admit it. Over the years, hundreds of them made aliya, with many of them settling outside Jerusalem in the city of Bet Shemesh, which became known as “Little Vysoki”. A few hundred Jews remained in Vysoki; many of whom assimilated and married non-Jewish Russians from the adjacent towns and villages, but there were also many adults that insisted on marrying Jews. Israel now refuses to allow those that intermarried to make aliya. This decision tore apart dozens of families, because in many cases the state allowed the parents to make aliya, but rejected the request of the children who had married non-Jews.

This Thursday, Israel's Supreme Court will be asked to address this issue and determine if the state has acted lawfully. Among the cases which were brought before the Supreme Court, that of Lubov Gonchareva and her husband Valentine figures prominently. Lubov's grandfather, Moisei (Moshe), was the last Mohel (ritual circumciser) in Vysoky. In 2005, Lubov’s parents, Rosa and Vasili Shishilianikov, made aliya under Israel's Law of Return. They were recognized as Jews by the Rabbinate and registered as Jews in the state's Population Registry. However, the Israeli consulate in Moscow refused to allow Lubov and her husband to make aliya. Lubov came to Israel as a tourist and tried to receive the standing of a new immigrant, but she was refused. The explanation that she received was that by marrying a non-Jew she had lost the right to make aliya.

From the State's response to the Supreme Court it is apparent that they were talking about a comprehensive decision that applies to all Subbotnik Jews. In February 2008, Interior Minister Meir Shitreet decided that the Subbotniks are not Jews and therefore their aliya will not be permitted, except in cases that are considered to be of a humanitarian nature. Shitreet based his decision on the opinion that was presented to Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar by a delegation of rabbis that visited Vysoki and determined that the residents of the village were not Jews. In addition, Shitreet based his opinion on a decision made by “Nativ", an arm of the Prime Minister’s Office that is responsible for determining the eligibility for aliya of Jews in the former Soviet Union.  In an affidavit submitted by “Nativ’ it was explained that over the course of several years, the practice came into being that Subbotniks who preserved the communal framework (i.e. they had married other Subbotniks) received permission to make aliya under the Law of Return, even though their Jewishness had never been definitively established.

Until the Supreme Court rules otherwise, Lubov and her husband live in Israel with no legal status, no social benefits, nor a work permit. “Over the course of the years, we preserved our Jewishness despite extreme difficulties, and we thought we were Jewish. Now they are calling us Subbotniks and the State of Israel does not recognize our Judaism," laments Lubov, who is represented by her attorney, Prof. Michael Corinaldi. “How is it possible that my late mother and father are registered in the official documents of the State of Israel as Jews, and I am not recognized as a Jew? I see myself as much more of a Jew than many of those “supposed” Jews that the state is bringing over from Russia. Who has the right to cast doubt on my Jewishness?"

Lubov Yakovlevna Grindeeva, whose children and grandchildren reside in Israel, has difficulty understanding why the state does not recognize the Jewishness of Vysoky's inhabitants.  “Our problem is that Israel sees us a sect; they call us Subbotniks instead of seeing us as Jews and do not allow us to make aliya”, she says, insulted by the very fact that she is being referred to as a Subbotnik.

"Israel brings thousands of new immigrants to Israel from Russia, who just happen to have a Jewish grandfather, and they have absolutely no connection to Judaism at all. But we, who for years have lived here as a closed community and have sacrificed so much in order to preserve our Jewishness, are being rejected," she says.

"While it is true that some of our grandchildren have assimilated, in their hearts they still have a deep connection to Judaism. If the state will not allow our grandchildren to make aliya, and will not allow them to return to their historical homeland and to live as Jews, they will simply disappear and become completely assimilated," Lubov says.

Proceed to Part 2:
Pioneers and Fighters

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