Retracing the Journey of Russian Jewish Converts to Israel

Descendants of a group of Russian Christians who converted to Judaism and immigrated to Israel 110 years ago remember their ancestors' path.

Eli Ashkenazi
Eli Ashkenazi
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Eli Ashkenazi
Eli Ashkenazi

At the entrance to the residential area of the Shmueli family in the moshava (agricultural community ) Ilaniya, the daughter of the family Esther Stepman-Shmueli put a wooden cask on which she wrote the family name "Shmueli," but made sure to add the name "Protopopov" as well. Over a century after her great-grandfather Hebraized his name and that of his family, she decided to note his original name, which incidentally signified a low rank of clergy in the church.

Stepman-Shmueli's symbolic gesture came in the midst of a journey to the past that she and others are conducting; a journey to the fascinating story of a community of converts - or "Subbotniks" (Sabbath observers ) as they were called - who came from Russia to the moshavot of the Galilee over a century ago.

In September Stepman-Shmueli organized a meeting of about 100 descendants of Subbotniks from the Russian village of Solodniki. Since then they have begun to plan a journey to the village from which the "Kurakin convoy" set out for Israel, leaving behind its Christian past, devoutly adopting Judaism and moving to a new country. Now, after many years "which were characterized mainly by silence about the past," according to Stepman-Shmueli and her partner in the project Eitan Kurakin, "a strong longing has awakened to return to the village and to see where it all began."

The journey in the wake of the "Karakin convoy" that she and others are organizing is planned to follow the history of the families that left the village around 1876. According to the legend that was told in their place of residence in Israel, the Sejera farm in the Lower Galilee, the father of the Kurakin family, Abraham, used to ring the church bell in the Russian village. His descendants say that when he went up on Christmas eve to ring the bell, he suddenly became upset and sat down on the steps.

The priest, who meanwhile was waiting for the signal for prayer, sent people to find out what had happened in the church, where Kurakin explained to them that he had received a divine message telling him to adopt the Jewish faith. Over time, more and more families from the village gathered around him and the authorities began to persecute them, until one day 37 families, numbering 163 people, left their icons and crosses at the entrance and decided to convert and immigrate to the Land of Israel.

Four of those families arrived in Sejera in 1902 and, like other families who came to the Lower Galilee, made their mark there and became a model for the other farmers. They say that the Madveyev family, for example, were the best farmers in Sejera. They had the fattest and strongest mules; their harnesses were rubbed with fish oil and a special woven net protected their eyes from the flies in the summer. At the end of the summer, when the farmers took the wheat to Haifa, the Madveyev's wagon that led the convoy was the best - the wheels were painted gray, the driver's seat was made of genuine thick wood and the whip was held in a special device.

Harmona Simon, the daughter of the man who was in charge of the moshavot in the Lower Galilee, Haim Kalvarisky, is quoted as saying that "the most successful farmers were the converts. On their farms everything grew beautifully, the hens laid load of eggs, the ducks were fat, even the horses gleamed. On the farms of the Jewish farmers, on the other hand, the animals would sometimes die, the cows didn't give milk and the vegetables were pathetic."

Many myths and quite a bit of mystery surround the concept "Subbotniks." According to Yoav Regev, author of the Hebrew book "Subbotniks in the Galilee," the expression is "a popular nickname for the Russian converts who immigrated to the Land of Israel out of a profound religious feeling, and with the enthusiastic support of the Hovevei Zion ('Lovers of Zion' ) they took root on the Israeli frontier."

According to Regev, "The Russian converts originated from several Christian sects that were annexed to the Jewish people of their own free will. During the course of the 19th century they adopted Jewish principles and in the end they converted," wrote Regev.

With the encouragement of Zionist activists, mainly Meir Dizengoff, Hillel Yaffe, Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi and Haim Margaliot-Kalvarisky, most of the "Subotniks" came to the eastern Galilee. Korkin says that "Kalvarisky believed in the quality of this group and supported bringing them to Palestine. The idea at the time was that if they came from villages they were probably good farmers."

Walls of silence

Stepman-Shmueli says, "They didn't change the map of Zionism, but their role in settling the eastern part of the Lower Galilee was tremendous. The attitude toward them was complex: On the one hand the leadership of the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community ) saw in them the new Jew - they were tall, strong and farmers. On the other hand, they were considered different, were envied and were called derogatory names."

Their transition from Christianity to Judaism, of which no official documentation remains, their external difference, their excellence at manual labor and their courage did in fact cause the Subbotniks to be treated differently. But for their part, they decided to erase the past and seal it behind walls of silence.

Kurakin says that in his childhood his uncle went through his grandfather's desk and found a collection of documents. When he asked his grandfather about their meaning, he saw his grandfather get angry for the first time in his life, and his grandfather even slapped him, after which he went out to the yard, dug a pit and burned the papers inside it. Kurakin believes that "this story illustrates the desire to burn the past. It was embedded in their DNA."

Stepman-Shmueli says that "they were totally silent. It's a trait that they adopted and apparently there was a reason for it."

Her great-grandfather, Eliyahu Protopopov, is described as "a tall and erect man. Although he hadn't been raised as a Jew he was fluent in Yiddish and also knew Arabic. But his favorite language was silence. His wife and son were also silent and mysterious types."

Even now, over 100 years since they arrived in Israel, some of them think they should continue to remain silent. Stepman-Shmueli says that a relative asked her to wait with the journey project. "He said to me: 'You're opening it up too soon, wait another two or three generations.' There's a fear that people will start looking into their conversion again."

For her part, she has been talking about her heritage for a long time, and at the farm in Sejera, where her family arrived 110 years ago, she hung pictures from the past and conducts tours in the wake of her family and the other Subbotnik families.

But now, after many years, the walls of silence are crumbling and the journey to the small village, Solodniki, is becoming a reality.

"It's become real," says Stepman-Shmueli. "We're curious to see whether the dramatic departure of 163 of the villagers was etched in the memory of the small village, or if everything has already been erased."

Kurakin says that "the parents deliberately wanted to cut off the past. There are no family stories and there is no sequence of generations. We're trying to find the past and our roots. I want to sail on the Volga, to ring the bells that Kurakin rang, to eat Astrakhan watermelon."

Says Stepman-Shmuel: "If the situation offers us more than that, if we discover things we didn't know or find distant relatives and the graves of forgotten families, that will be a bonus."



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