23 Feb A Universal Jew
In villages across the expanses of Southern Russia live many Jews, the descendents of Subbotnik converts. Alexander Zaid, Alexander Penn, Raful and perhaps, even Trumpeldor are their descendents.
Vysoki, Southern Russia
Various sources testify about the transition of the original Subbotniks, limited to Sabbath observance, to a fully observant Judaism. “These converts are actually Russian people,” wrote Joseph Klausner, “who accepted the Jewish faith at first only by a quarter, then by a third followed by a half and in the end, in full.
From the research of Dr. Zev Chanin and Velvel Charnin, we learn that across Russia there are between 10,000 to 12,000 Subbotniks spread out in over a dozen communities. Some of them live in their traditional centers, in the Veronezh area, the Volga area, eastern and central Siberia and in the Caucasus region.
In their homes they observe the laws of Kashrut and are even stringent to fulfill the ‘Positive commandment’ of drinking four cups of vodka at the end of each meal (even after breakfast). The local vodka, Smogon in their language, is pure and clear. Its alcohol content reaches up to 80 percent.
At one time, they prayed every day but the generations have declined and they only gather for prayer on Mondays and Thursdays. At one time they would listen to the reading of the Torah from the mouth of ‘Grandpa Pinchas’ who learned in a Lithuanian Yeshiva. However, since he went on Aliya to Israel, the community has been left “orphaned.”
After a train journey of 12 hours from Moscow, we arrived in the city of Voronezh in Southern Russia. From there, after another journey of about three hours, we arrived at a small village called Vysoki. There I found one of the most astonishing phenomena of the Jewish world in the shape of the Subbotniks. There is no need for a full description of Vysoki village beyond saying that it truly reflects the shtetle from Shalom Aleichem’s or Shai Agnon’s stories. The Subbotniks’ story is also the story of the Jewish faith and its resilience throughout the generations, in all the conditions of place and time.
The source for the term Subbotnik derives from the Russian word Subbota – Sabbath observer, that is, the Sabbath sect, or Sabbath observers. This phenomenon began in the 18th century when a group of Christians began to adopt a Jewish way of life. At first they were ‘becoming Jewish’ – living like Jews. However, later on, some of them went through a conversion process and joined the Jewish people. The wave of mass conversion in Russia reached its height during the 19th century. Many villages, sometimes the residents of whole districts of various classes, merchants, craftsmen and farmers came and joined the Jewish people. Therefore, they were two distinct groups of Subbotniks. One of them is called the Moloccans – those who did not undergo conversion. They are actually Christians who observe some of Judaism’s laws but not all of them. Because of their common name, there is some confusion in the Jewish world. Many relate to the Subbotniks who belong to the major group of converts – whom we are discussing in this article – as gentiles while they are actually true proselytes in every manner. In my opinion, their name should be changed to converts or Subbotnik converts in order to note the difference between the two groups.
One can define the Subbotnik converts as the descendents of the 19th century conversion movement in Russia. The conversion movement was the natural outcome of Christian sects who observed the Sabbath. Various sources testify to the transition between the original Subbotniks, limited to Sabbath observance, to fully observant Judaism. The phenomenon caused great resistance from the Czar’s side and of course, from the Church. “These converts are actually Russian people,” wrote Joseph Klausner, “who accepted the Jewish faith at first only by a quarter, then by a third followed by a half and in the end, in full.
We do not have clear statements relating to the cause that brought the Subbotnik converts to abandon their Christian religion and adopt Judaism. Some sources note that they asked themselves, “If Christianity follows in the footsteps of Judaism should we not keep the source itself? The commandments given by Moses?” In the writings of the first Subbotniks who made Aliya to Israel, a dialogue is described about the transition to the Jewish faith. “Why should we believe in a religion that is false and trivial, a Holy mother and her son born of the Holy Spirit, which is against natural reality?” One thing is quite sure: It required a great deal of courage in order to stand against the anti-Semitism and dictatorial discrimination under the Russian Czar, to decide to openly adopt the Jewish religion.
Vysoki village was once a purely Subbotnik one. The Sabbath and holidays were observed; they said their morning, afternoon and evening prayers; a mohel and ritual slaughterer lived there – everything needed for a Jewish life. In 1970, the Russian authorities decided to try and shatter the place’s Jewish fabric and sent non-Jewish families to the village. Today, there are some 1200 people living there, 900 of them Subbotniks.
In the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in general, and in some of Russia’s God-forsaken places in particular, there exist vibrant living Subbotnik communities that see themselves as Jews, or in practical terms, as Russians of the Mosaic religion. Over the years, they maintained their Judaism under the Czarist regime and under the Communist one, more than many of the regular Jewish communities did. Over the years, some of them made Aliya to Israel. As is usual for such groups of this type, even the local residents perceive them as Jews and not only treat them disrespectfully, but also openly display anti-Semitism.
Descendents of the Khazars?
The ideological foundation of the conversion is expressed in the fact that the converts came from all the various classes. The incentive was not material or self-interest, as all the converts from all the classes were persecuted. They wandered from place to place and their lives worsened because of this move. Amongst them were simple farmers, as well as men of means, estate owners.
The renowned historian, Cecil Roth, attempted to prove that along the entire gamut of Jewish history there are records of many instances of conversion movements through which many converts joined the Jewish people en-mass. Among the various examples that he quotes to prove this phenomenon is that of the Subbotniks.
At the end of the 17th century, during the reign of Catherine II, there began to appear among the Russian peasants and craftsmen, a sect that strictly observed the Old Testament. Very slowly they began to take upon themselves commandments form the Torah. They observed the laws of Kashrut, rejected belief in the trinity and in some cases, circumcised their sons. But more than anything else, they took upon themselves observing the Sabbath while rejecting Sunday observance.
Under the Russian regime, they were persecuted to the bitter end. Large portions of them were exiled to the Caucasus Mountains or to Siberia. Many of them, until the 19th century, were put to death. However, this new sect grew and spread on the blood of its martyrs. Its followers continued to grow. The government placed all sorts of obstacles in its path but that gave the movement even more impetus.
These people did not change in their appearance or their life style from any of their Russian neighbors except that in the center of the village there was a synagogue rather than a church. A Russian or Polish Jew served as a spiritual teacher for the congregation (Ger Tzedek, Mahanayim 29, 5767).
There are those who think that the Subbotniks in Russia were once an integral part of the Jewish people; they are the descendents of the Khazars, because even after the fall off the Khazar kingdom, Khazarian Jews continued existing until the 14th century. One can note that already in the 7th century, Khazars living in the southern region of the Volga River drew closer to Judaism under the influence of Jews living in the Caucasus region. According to tradition, the Khazar king converted and over time, Judaism became the official religion of Khazar nobility. During the 10th century, the Khazars were destroyed by the Russian army. There are those who tie the kingdom’s sad end to the fear of its Judaism.
Alexander Zaid, Raful and Trumpeldor.
It is to be noted that among the Subbotniks were those who were called Karaite Subbotniks because even though they had converted, they based their religion on the Bible and did not accept the Oral Law. The Subbotnik converts who took upon themselves observing the entire Torah and commandments were called Talmudists or Spushniki, from the word ‘hat;’ from their custom to cover their heads during prayer.
The Subbotniks took a part in the Zionist awakening and began coming on Aliya to Israel in 1880 (in wake of Russian persecution). A further Aliya of members from this community took place in 1920. The earliest olim (immigrants) settled in the Galilee. Others were amongst the founders of Bet Shemesh. Most of the residents of Moshav Yitav, in the Jordan Rift Valley, are Subbotnik olim.
Thousands of Subbotniks have come on Aliya to Israel over the years and are an integral part of Israeli society. A large portion of the Subbotniks came from the village of Ilenka, of which almost all its residents came to Israel (during my last visit to Ilenka village, there were only two families left there). Some 500 people from Vysoki village came on Aliya to Israel but there are still some 900 left who also wish to come on Aliya.
Amongst the figures known to us in recent history, there are a number of sons and descendents of Subbotnik olim who emigrated from the plains of the former Soviet Union. Amongst them was the fabled watchman, Alexander Zaid; the writer, Alexander Penn; Rafael (Raful) Eitan and Inspector Alek Ron (ret.). There are those who claim that Joseph Trumpeldor also came from a Subbotnik family.
From the researches of Dr. Zev Chanin and Velvel Charnin, we learn that across Russia there are between 10,000 to 12,000 Subbotniks spread out in over a dozen communities. Some of them live in their traditional centers, in the Veronezh area, the Volga area, eastern and central Siberia and in the Caucasus region. There are also communities of Subbotnik converts in Armenia who form part of the Jewish community and are waiting for an opportune moment to come on Aliya to Israel.
A Congregation Without a Rabbi
The Subbotnik converts kept the Jewish commandments over the years. They chose to live together in small villages in order to distance themselves form the from the gentiles’ scrutinizing and hostile eyes and so that they could form a quorum undisturbed. In the Subbotnik congregation, they always kept the Sabbath and Kashrut, prayed three times daily and put on Tefillin (Phylacteries). They celebrated all the Jewish holidays, from the Day of Atonement through Lag B’Omer. They baked their own matzoth for the Passover and even sent their children to learn in the Lithuanian Yeshivas (from the 19th century). The Subbotnik converts were cautious in regards to mixed marriages, grew their beards, strictly observed [the laws of] cleanliness and uncleanliness. Also, they only ate meat that they themselves had slaughtered.
Even today, a visitor to the Subbotnik villages and communities across the Russian expanses is immediately impressed by their constancy in observing the commandments. Indeed, there is a difference between the older generation and the younger one as regards observing the commandments. However, this phenomenon is not limited only to Subbotnik converts… Over the years, there were rabbis and teachers in the Subbotnik communities who led the congregation and guided them in the ways of Torah and commandments. The community members also brought in teachers from the large Jewish communities in Lithuania and Russia. However, today they do not have a rabbi nor a teacher. This is noticeable in the level of observance of the commandments and the quality of Jewish education in the community. Their last spiritual leader was “Grandpa Pinchas,” who came on Aliya to Israel about two years ago, at 93 years of age.
In Vysoki village there is a Jewish cemetery that exists since the village was established about 80 years ago. A Star of David is placed high upon its entrance gate. On some of the tombstones, there is a Star of David in the form of a star. Other tombstones do not have any religious symbols at all. However, the unique thing about the cemetery in Vysoki is the strictness of separate burial for men and women as well as the direction of the burial – the deceased feet all point towards the Land of Israel. There is a tradition in the congregation that Lag B’Omer is the day that they go and pay a visit to the cemetery (I was unsuccessful in discovering the source for this). Since its establishment in 1921 and until today, there was no church or Christian cemetery in Vysoki, which is a most extraordinary thing in Russia in general.
The Vysoki villagers posses ancient rams horns (shofar), their parents’ marriage contracts, old prayer shawls (talit) of over 100 years, as well as special utensils for baking matzoth in their homes. What is interesting is that even to this day, the villagers and the Subbotniks in general are strict about baking matzoth in their homes. Many women showed us a special rolling pin for matzoth and also a handle with gear wheels to make holes in the matzoth before baking. And of course, there were candle sticks and Hanukkah menorahs in every home. Today, there is only one Torah scroll in the community. In the past, there were once five but they were transferred to other communities. Until a few years ago there was a ritual slaughterer in the village but today the villagers themselves slaughter near their house, each according to his knowledge, with whatever kitchen knife is available. But they will never purchase meat from outside the village.
The Subbotniks keep the Sabbath. They do not work in the fields and do not cook nor do their laundry. The Shabbat day is one of rest and prayer through out the years.
A Warm Prayer in The Russian Cold
During my visit to Vysoki, I stayed at Mrs. Lubov Gridenev (bat Jacob)’s home. She is the principal of the local elementary school and a descendent of one of the village’s veteran families. In their homes they observe the laws of Kashrut and are even stringent to fulfill the ‘Positive Commandment’ of drinking four cups of vodka at the end of each meal (even after breakfast). The local vodka, Smogon in their language, is pure and clear. Its alcohol content can reach up to 80 percent. Mrs. Lubov troubled herself to fill up my glass whenever its level went down slightly and even gave me a personal demonstration how to drink. One of the testimonies that I heard from Mrs. Lubov was concerning immersion in the mikva (ritual bath). She stated that she and her friends immersed themselves in the river, both summer and winter. They even went when the river was freezing and covered in ice. They broke the ice and immersed themselves in the freezing river water.
Pavel Kzanichev, an 81 year old Subbotnik who lives in Vysoki village can tell about his family’s celebration of Succoth (Tabernacles). He remembers that as a boy they prepared the Succahs even though in this season it already started to get cold but they would sit in the Succah during the entire holiday. Sometimes it was very cold or snow had fallen. They would then eat a little inside the Succah and immediately retreat to their heated house. Pavel adds that despite the fact that since childhood he more or less lived in a Russian culture – everybody around him was Russian, he never felt Russian. He felt Jewish.
Michael Bucharnikov, another of the village’s elders claims, “We are Jews in every way. The gentiles called us Subbotniks because we kept the Shabbat. But we not only kept the Shabbat but also kept all the commandments very devotedly.” Michael remembers well how they sang Had Gadya (Seder song) in Russian during the Passover holiday. He continues to sing the melody with family members year after year. Tatiana, a woman in her 50’s, proudly relates that even as a little girl, her grandmother taught her to keep the Shabbat and did not let her go to school on Shabbat. “Grandma would repeatedly say and stress, ‘Do not listen to anyone who says the God does not exist. He does exist.’”
From the middle of the 19th century, we are witness to the Subbotniks drawing closer to classical Judaism, in the Ashkenazi style and rite. There is evidence from this period that Subbotnik converts studied in the Yeshivas, purchased holy articles and hired school teachers and lecturers from among the Ashkenazi Jews as well as bringing cantors and ritual slaughterers to their communities.
It should be noted that the older generation of Subbotniks are circumcised, as well as, until about 40 years ago, only marrying amongst themselves. They had no mixed marriages at all. However, during the past few years, the influence of the Communist regime and modernism has been felt and reached the villages in the area, opening the door to the non-Jewish world. Despite parent’s the stubborn objections to the ‘not our own’ spouses, the younger generation is not always strict about keeping to their parents’ path.
One of the unique prayers that I was privileged to pray was on the second day, on Shabbat, at a quorum of Jewish Subbotniks in Vysoki village. The prayer was held in a house set aside for prayer. The Subbotniks did not build synagogues as they did not want to stand out in their prayers but chose to conceal their place of worship and prayer. Outside the house we prayed in, a heavy snow was falling and it was minus 20 degrees. However, inside the house it was warm: The heat from wood-oven and from the prayer.
The Subbotnik men, as was their generations-long custom, would gather for prayer every Monday and Thursday. At one time, they prayed every day but the generations have declined and they only gather for prayer on Mondays and Thursdays. At one time, they would listen to the reading of the Torah from the mouth of ‘Grandpa Pinchas’ who had studied in a Lithuanian Yeshiva. Until age 93 he was the ritual slaughterer, the Reader and the rabbi officiating at weddings. However, since he went on Aliya to Israel, the community has been left ‘orphaned,’ without a spiritual leader, without a shochet and without a Reader.
The synagogue’s sexton asked me if I could read. When I answered to the affirmative, his joy knew no bounds. He almost jumped for joy that now they could take out the Torah scroll, read in it and say the appropriate blessings over it. The prayer was according to the Ashkenazic rite with a Russian translation. Most of the prayers were recited in Russian but all the while carefully keeping to the ‘formula’ with the same melody accompanying the words of the prayers, giving them a savor and meaning. Even though I do not understand Russian, I definitely knew when the cantor was at Ashrei, when he reached the Shema Yisrael and when he called to the congregants to say Barchu and when he began the final Aleinu leshabeah prayer.
The ‘Universal Jew’ will continue to engage in the subject of the Subbotniks in the column coming out in another two weeks.
I extend my thanks to my friend Dr. Velvel Charnin of Bar-Ilan University (The Rappaport Center for Assimilation Studies) who researched the subject of the Subbotniks, and during joint trips to the Subbotniks’ villages, guided me in the many details mentioned in this article. firstname.lastname@example.org¿Quiénes son los sobotniks?