The Christians Who Left Russia to Join the Jews in the Holy Land

Notebooks over a century old tell the story of the Russians who took on a new religion and helped build what would become a new country

Bat-Ami Yanai, who died a few months ago at 84, was a special woman with an impressive track record. Her biography includes service in Bureau 06, the special police unit that interrogated Adolf Eichmann. She also worked as a store-window designer, raised falcons at home, and journeyed to exotic lands with her husband Shmuel Yanai, a deputy commander of the Israel Navy.

No less special is her family’s story. They were Christian Russians who in the 19th century were captivated by the charms of Judaism. So they left their villages, converted and immigrated to Ottoman Palestine.

Upon her death, Yanai left behind boxes of spectacular photographs and notebooks written in Hebrew and Russian, some penned by her. Along with this were holy books from the 19th century. The material carefully documents the history and lives of the members of her community, the Subbotniks – subbota meaning both Sabbath and Saturday in Russian.

Her son, photographer Ariel Yanai, is a fourth-generation Subbotnik who for his entire life heard stories from his mother about the community’s traditions. After her death he realized that she had left behind a treasure trove valuable not just to family members, but to historians.

The material, which Yanai keeps in his Jaffa home, provides a fascinating journey back to an era when Jews who were different could help build the land and enter its history books.

There’s an impressive list of famous Subbotniks, like the founder of the Hashomer defense organization, Alexander Zaid, former Tel Aviv police chief Elik Ron, and the Dubrovin and Kurakin families from Ilaniya in Israel’s north.

The notebooks that Bat-Ami Yanai left behind contain a draft of a book she hoped to complete. On one page is something that seems to be a foreword.

A photo of Subbotniks along with text in Hebrew and Russian.
Collection of Bat-Ami Yanai

“You ask, my sons, that I tell you the history of our family in bygone years. These things are worthy of being remembered and kept for safeguarding by you and your children after you,” she wrote. “Soon the moss of forgetfulness will cover the bubbling source, and future generations will believe that there were no fathers and forefathers who preceded them, working hard to bring us to this point.”

The stories she collected are based mainly on oral traditions that passed from generation to generation in the family and the wider community.

Her family, the Protopopovs (Shmueli was her Hebrew name), came from the village of Solodniki in the Astrakhan region on the banks of the Volga. Bat-Ami Yanai described the dramatic moment her forebears abandoned Christianity and became Jews, sometime in the second half of the 19th century.

“At the end of Christmas Day, the heads of 37 families, which included 163 members, went to the village priest in Solodniki and returned all the crosses and icons they had in their homes,” she wrote. “After a short while they were expelled from the village.”

Villages turning Jewish

This was preceded by a revelation by Abraham Kurakin, the bell-ringer in the village church. One day he heard a voice telling him to leave his home and religion and embark on a new path.

“I climbed the stairs, went to ring the bells, and all of a sudden my eyes went dark and I didn’t know where to go,” he described years later. “The heavens showed me that I had to abandon my Christian faith, since there was nothing to it. I had to return to the Israelite faith.”

Dina Shmueli, sitting first on the right, in a photo from the Sejera school at the turn of the 20th century.
Collection of Bat-Ami Yanai

The next stop of the believers he gathered around him was “one of the neighboring villages that were turning Jewish,” Ariel Yanai says. There they began studying Judaism and built a synagogue, even appointing a local ritual butcher. The group gradually increased to a few hundred members, who came from all social strata. “There were simple villagers as well as affluent notables,” Yanai says.

A different version to the story was provided by Dina Yanai. The core of her story, which is also preserved in the family archive, involves Dina’s great-grandfather. He was a priest in Solodniki in the 19th century who, according to her, “used to read the Old Testament a lot. After services every Sunday, he would read portions of it to people attending church.”

According to family lore, that priest didn’t look kindly on the custom of bowing to icons. And then, one Sunday, after the service, he told them that God objected to idol worship and forbade them to bow to idols. The reactions were fierce.

“Many churchgoers called him a traitor,” Dina wrote. “Things deteriorated from day to day. In the end, they didn’t allow him to lead the prayers and even threatened his life.”

Photo albums in the family archive document the result of this 19th century drama. The descendants of the family converted to Judaism, packed their bags and left their homeland for Ottoman Palestine.

Photos show Eliyahu (Alyosha) Protopopov ploughing, sowing and reaping the fields of Ilaniya, also known as Sejera, in the Lower Galilee. He settled there at the beginning of the 20th century when he was 24. Ariel Yanai, his great-grandson, relates an amusing anecdote from the family’s history.

“Every day before work, he would eat an omelette he made from 10 eggs and drink a glass of vodka. Despite this, he lived to 95,” Ariel says.

Eliyahu Protopopov works his land in Sejera in the Galilee at the beginning of the 20th century.
Collection of Bat-Ami Yanai

“Our father tilled the land almost with no help from Arab laborers,” wrote Dina, Eliyahu’s daughter, in her memoirs. At the time there was a big effort to secure work for Jewish newcomers in the land.

“We had the prettiest cows in the village,” added Dina, writing about other livestock they had as well: sheep, goats, geese, ducks, hens and pigeons. They also had “a marvelous garden that mother worked by herself.” It contained “wheat, barley, corn, oats, millet, clover, olive trees, grapevines and almond trees.”

Life in the village wasn’t easy. “There was a small spring that barely supplied enough drinking water. Working conditions were very hard. “We worked at least 14 hours a day. Guard duty was difficult and dangerous,” Dina wrote.

Love story

Her father left no written documentation. “Eliyahu didn’t talk much,” Ariel says.  “He barely knew Hebrew but had a good command of Arabic and Russian.” In the Hebrew-language book “Subbotniks in the Galilee,” author Yoav Regev says Eliyahu also spoke Yiddish.

The family archive also documents a family tree that reveals a sad story, though one typical of those days. Eliyahu and Miriam Protopopov had nine children. Only three made it to adulthood. Most died as early as infancy, as documented in Yanai’s handwriting: “Died in Russia in his infancy ... died at the age of 12 in Palestine ... died of scarlet fever ... died of scarlet fever ... died of malaria.”

The archive also reveals a painful love story. Miriam, Eliyahu’s wife, died in 1949 at the age of 68. Eliyahu lived on to 95. In the early ‘50s, after her death, he wrote a letter to the love of his youth, Liza, who remained in Russia. Her replies are in the family archive. Her letters indicate that he proposed to her.

“Something like a second chapter,” his great-grandson Ariel calls it. Liza’s response was tormented. “You’ve remembered too late! It would be outrageous to unite at our age and think of a family life, with one foot already in the grave,” she wrote. “I’ve been living alone for 40 years. I loved you when I was young . Because of you I am suffering now.”

It turned out that she also raised a family and had children, but became a widow at an early age and chose not to remarry. “And thus, dear Alyosha, I’ve suffered all my life while you lived and enjoyed a family life,” she wrote.

At the end, despite her anger, she asked him to send a photo. “I very much ask, Alyosha, if you haven’t forgotten me, send me a picture of yourself so I can enjoy looking at it.” She signed the letter “Love, Liza.”

The next letter shows that she was happy to receive his picture. “You look great and can get married again,” she wrote. “I’m already old and not pretty. I don’t even want to send my picture, so you don’t get a fright.”

She rejected his offer to meet: “You want to meet me. I also want to meet but I worry about traveling even to visit my son. I have a serious problem with my heart and it can’t be treated. We can only suffer without seeing each other.”

She ended her letter sorrowfully. “I don’t understand why you let me know you were alive. If we didn’t know about each other we could live in peace, and now it only makes for more suffering. Maybe you should remarry and forget about me .... You add sorrow to my soul, worry to my heart. You’ve taken my final peace away. What’s the point of writing?”

She ended the letter with an expression of love: “Until I die, Liza.”

In her letters Liza mentions other family members who remained in Russia. Five years ago another of Eliyahu Protopopov’s great-grandchildren, Esther Stepman-Shmueli, went to Russia in an attempt to trace them. She gathered 25 people from six Subbotnik families for an unusual journey in search of family roots.

In the village of Solodniki she found tombstones belonging to members of the Protopopov family who didn’t get to come to Israel. But she found no living relatives. Soon, she said this month, she will try again.