Is the Ancient Karaite Jewish Community About to Disappear?

A visit to the last two predominantly Karaite communities left in the world

A service at Moshav Matzliach’s Karaite synagogue, marking the start of the Hebrew month of Sivan, on May 24 – a day after the rest of the world’s Jews celebrated it. 
A service at Moshav Matzliach’s Karaite synagogue, marking the start of the Hebrew month of Sivan, on May 24 – a day after the rest of the world’s Jews celebrated it. Credit: Moti Milrod
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad

At first glance, Moshav Renan, near the town of Ofakim in the northwestern Negev, and Moshav Matzliach, in central Israel, look like typical cooperative farming villages: grocery store, warehouse converted into a gym, memorial site, farmers in faded caps. But these are the only two principally Karaite communities left in the world (there are also smaller communities in Ramle and Be’er Sheva, as well as Daly City, California) – remnants of an ancient and glorious stream of Judaism that for centuries competed for hegemony and, according to some, a millennium ago encompassed 40 percent of all Jews. Today Karaites (the name comes from “kara,” meaning “read” in Hebrew) constitute a fraction of a percent of world Jewry; between 20,000 and 40,000 of them live in Israel, the majority of Egyptian descent.

In Renan, when I tell Mordechai Lisha, a 62-year-old farmer, disappointedly, that there doesn’t seem to be anything special about his moshav, he replies, “What did you think, that we have horns?”

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Lisha takes us to the local synagogue, named for Moshe Marzuk, the Karaite physician who was hanged in Egypt in 1955 when an Israeli underground operation went awry. Formerly, Renan was 100 percent Karaite. Today, following its expansion and marriages of residents with “Rabbinic Jews” – as non-Karaite Jews are known here – about 80 percent of the 700 inhabitants are Karaites. Nearby the Marzuk synagogue is an Orthodox shul that is just as popular on Yom Kippur.

“There’s talk of more expansion of the moshav, but I don’t want that,” Lisha says.

So that no more Rabbinic Jews will come to live here?

Lisha: “Karaite or not, I welcome everyone who gets through the admissions committee. People who come here at least know and accept the Karaite mentality.”

What is the Karaite mentality?

“We are calm and also straightforward, unsubtle. What is written in the Torah we carry out to the letter. You will never hear, heaven forbid, about a Karaite man murdering his wife. We are not on the news and not on YouTube – though nothing is ever 100 percent.”

In contrast to Orthodox (and other) Jews, the Karaites follow the Hebrew Bible without the Oral Law. They have different, sometimes seemingly more reasonable, interpretations of many of the injunctions in the Torah. Over time, Rabbinic Judaism improvised a range of creative tricks that Karaites shun. They don’t have a “Shabbos goy” or a Shabbat clock, and they don’t sell their chametz (forbidden leavened foods) at Passover, which seems a shame. The Karaites also don’t have tefillin (phylacteries) or Shabbat candles, and they don’t celebrate post-biblical holidays like Hanukkah and Lag Ba’omer.

One pleasant Karaite custom is that the believer is allowed to have his or her own interpretation of things and not necessarily have to abide by the ruling of the community’s sages. Thus, while some in the community may view the injunction “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” as a ban on slaughtering a young goat that is still suckling – others will simply avoid eating a baby goat that was literally boiled in its mother’s milk.

Mordechai Lisha.
Mordechai Lisha.Credit: Moti Milrod

The Karaites are also slightly more egalitarian in regard to women: For example, women are not automatically disqualified as serving as religious witnesses or, technically, from serving as “hachama rashit” (roughly, “chief sage”) the highest title in the Karaite religious hierarchy. (Though in practice the latter is not possible, Lisha says, for modesty’s sake, as Karaite worship involves much low bending over.)

Many of the Karaites in Egypt were goldsmiths, Lisha’s parents, who came to Israel in the state’s early years, among them. “The family was rich and didn’t want to come to Israel,” he says. “My father was always on edge. ‘Too bad we didn’t stay in Egypt,’ he would say. ‘What was here? Nothing, actually.’”

These days, with the aid of Thai workers, Lisha grows cucumbers and tomatoes and raises chickens. When the markets shut down during the coronavirus epidemic he had to destroy tons of vegetables, after giving away as much as he could.

Asked about the state’s attitude toward his community, he cites the issue of agriculture first (“Farmers are considered enemies here [in Israel]”). He admits, however, that he has not encountered discrimination on the basis of his Karaite beliefs.

“I was the only Karaite in a whole artillery battalion,” he says. “I was the most popular guy and was picked as the outstanding soldier. We have a good reputation almost everywhere, except in the rabbinate. Someone who asked [former Sephardi Chief Rabbi] Rabbi Ovadia Yosef for permission to marry a Karaite woman said that the rabbi replied, ‘Fine, marry them and put an end to this story.’ He just wanted us to be assimilated into rabbinic Judaism and to disappear. And, unfortunately, we are slowly being assimilated.”

Indeed, even though Lisha is the head of the Karaite Committee in Renan, all three of his sons married non-Karaite women. “It looks as though they have left the Karaites. Well, can I tell them whom to marry?”

Leave it to God

Badia Elgazar, 81, lives in a lovely house on the moshav that he built with his own hands, surrounded by a fruit and vegetable garden that is his pride and joy. He arrived in Israel at the age of 17, from Cairo.

“I learned how to be a machinist and a metalworker,” he explains. “When I got here and they saw I was from Egypt and not from Romania, they paid no attention to my certificates. A disgrace, our country. They let me work filling up cans of seeds, for the Jewish National Fund. So I threw the diploma in the garbage. Then I worked in construction. I have seven professions: mechanical metalworker, builder, tiler, plasterer, electrician, roofer and plumber. I worked until my back gave out at 75.”

Despite his good memories of it, Elgazar did not visit Cairo after the peace treaty with Israel was signed, in 1979; in fact, he has never left the country. “My children tell me to go, but this is my home.”

He remembers being treated badly when he lived in Ofakim for a time. “The Moroccans treated me like an Arab, only because we pray shoeless in the synagogue. After all, it is written, ‘Take off your sandals from your feet.’ If you are dirty, the angel does not safeguard you. It’s not right to have that attitude. Tell me, where is the love?”

Badia Elgazar.
Badia Elgazar.Credit: Moti Milrod

Excellent question.

Elgazar: “You have to bring the love. I also think that there should be an Arab cabinet minister, so there will be love. I always treated everyone well, and that changes a person’s brain. In the end the Moroccans learned to love us. There are good people and bad people in the world. If you see bad people, keep your distance; God will settle accounts with them.”

The majority of people in the village think we are all Jews, and we have to end all this. Only the older people still go to the Karaite synagogue.

Faraj

Moon landing

It’s hard to think of Israeli Karaites who became known outside their local community. Armstrong “Armi” Faraj, 51, who was named for U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong, because he was born in an ambulance during the broadcast of the first moon landing, wants to change the situation. He is deputy head of Merhavim Regional Council, of which Renan is a part, and he is eying the Likud primary.

“I am not into religion, I am secular,” he tells me. “I married an Iraqi woman, and my children are no longer Karaites; they want to feel like Jews without some sort of stigma. You tell me, what is the whole argument between the different denominations about?”

What do you mean?

“It’s all about budgets. Today we need to unify everything.”

Are you going to be the first Karaite MK?

“That is absolutely not the platform I will run on. I barely feel like a Karaite. The majority of people in the village think we are all Jews, and we have to end all this. Only the older people still go to the Karaite synagogue. On Yom Kippur most of us go to the Orthodox synagogue.”

And you?

Armstrong “Armi” Faraj.
Armstrong “Armi” Faraj.Credit: Moti Milrod

“Me too. The Karaite stream will disappear.”

That’s sad.

“We need to unite. If the Karaites want to survive, they have to open their mind. For example, the Karaites forbid use of a Shabbat clock [to turn electrical devices on and off without violating the Sabbath], as if it’s like you’re trying to put one over on God. So on Yom Kippur there is no air conditioning in the Karaite synagogue, and the young people go to the regular one. The dates of the Jewish festivals are also not identical, and that hurts your livelihood. For example, Shavuot always falls on a Sunday, but if you tell your boss in high-tech that you’ll be off on Sunday because you have Shavuot again, he’ll think you’re crazy. Even the Karaite leadership favors unified dates, according to the regular [Hebrew] calendar.”

We are joined by Erez Sharon, 45, chairman of the Renan local council. He too is married to a non-Karaite woman and he too thinks it’s time to end the Karaite saga. “It’s over. Everyone’s mixed, only a few preserve the pedigree.”

Why shouldn’t the other side be flexible about marriage? [Generally, it’s the Karaite member who accommodates the traditions of the Rabbinic partner.]

“The kids go to regular schools, so they don’t want to be different.”

It’s sad to hear that in 50 years there won’t be any Karaites.

Sharon: “What do you mean, 50 years? It’ll take 10 years. Even my mother has accepted it. For years we read the community’s Haggadah at Passover, but now my mother is with us at Passover, so she has no choice. The only thing that will remain is the holiday foods.”

Grandma’s matchmaking

Moshav Matzliach is an hour’s drive from Renan. Only about 40 percent of its 1,400 residents are Karaites. Attorney Neria Haroeh, 37, the village’s representative in the Gezer Regional Council and the secretary of the Karaite religious court, sees a very different future for the community than Faraj and Sharon.

A service at Moshav Matzliach’s Karaite synagogue, marking the start of the Hebrew month of Sivan, on May 24 – a day after the rest of the world’s Jews celebrated it. 
A service at Moshav Matzliach’s Karaite synagogue, marking the start of the Hebrew month of Sivan, on May 24 – a day after the rest of the world’s Jews celebrated it. Credit: Moti Milrod

“I see marriage with Rabbinic Jews not as a weakness but as added strength,” he says. “My brothers have partners who were not born into Karaite families, and now they all behave like Karaites. People are joining.”

Terrific. I was told that it’s about to end.

Haroeh: “As long as there is the Bible, there will always be children of the Bible, Karaites. Maybe it won’t last in Renan, but what’s important is not the numbers but the path. Karaite Judaism will always be the right way. When redemption comes, the Jewish people will return to the straight path and all will be Karaite Jews, contrary to the stance of the false rabbinate.”

So Matzliach is more successful than Renan?

“Maybe. Maybe because there is more competition here, people here are trying to learn and understand. That’s not necessary in Renan, because their identity is secure, so the moshav is weaker religiously.” (Lisha agrees: “They’re more zealous in Matzliach.”)

Haroeh married a Karaite woman, in a match arranged by his grandmother. “She told me she had someone just right for me. We’ve been together 12 years now.”

You seem to be a modern person, yet you went for matchmaking.

“That’s the best way. For the relationship to succeed, you need suitability. Tinder? A momentary turn-on is not for the long term.”

Most people treat the Karaites – and him – “with esteem, even a little admiration,” he explains. “There’s some confusion of us with the Samaritans, but we are not like them at all. The Karaites have a pluralistic approach, in the skeptical sense of the term. You yourself interpret the Scriptures, and as long as you interpret the literal sense with faith and with an upright heart, that is fine.”

The Karaites are also more feminist.

Karaite prayer books
Karaite prayer booksCredit: Moti Milrod

“I view feminism as a negative term, because it’s linked to a struggle, but our interpretive tradition is more egalitarian in regard to women than the Rabbinic tradition. Our rabbi’s mother was a ritual slaughterer – that’s quite normal for us.”

As a lawyer, Haroeh is fighting in the High Court of Justice against the planned cable car to the Western Wall, which will pass over the Karaite cemetery in Jerusalem. The planners apparently had no choice but to have the car pass over one of the many cemeteries in the area, and chose the Karaite graveyard.

Haroeh knows why: “Simple – because it’s easiest to trample on us. The Christians have the Vatican. And who’s going to touch the rabbinic Judaism communities? No one thought of checking whether we have special sensibilities or different laws.”

And do you?

Karaite Judaism will always be the right way. When redemption comes, the Jewish people will return to the straight path and all will be Karaite Jews, contrary to the stance of the false rabbinate.

Haroeh

“Of course. We are very meticulous about defilement and purity. For kohanim [in Rabbinic Judaism, descendants of the biblical priestly class] to use the cable car, they need to build a covering over the cemetery. That will create what we call ahila – everyone who enters the cemetery will be defiled. We cannot allow that. It’s a 1,000-year-old cemetery, and that will prevent us from using it.”

My visit to Matzliach happened to coincide with the start of the month of Sivan in the Karaite calendar, this past Sunday evening – the evening after the day most Jewish people mark the beginning of Sivan – so I had the good fortune to take part in a festive prayer service in the village’s handsome synagogue and in the meal that followed (herring!). The Karaite service is very different from the ones using the traditional Siddur (prayerbook), and is based entirely on the Bible. But the big difference was in the accompanying rituals.

Bowing down

The day before my visit I received a WhatsApp link from Haroeh with precise instructions for entering the synagogue, including rules for dressing and directives about sexual relations, niddah (refraining from intercourse with a woman who is menstruating) and washing.

Just as all wars between other countries often look petty and dumb, all religious customs are peculiar when they don’t belong to your peculiar religion. There are no chairs in the synagogue, except for the elderly. The worshipper takes off his shoes, leaves his cellphone in one of them (not a commandment!), washes his hands well with soap and enters in his socks.

During the services the Karaites do a great deal of bowing of the sort that suggests comparison with Islam – indeed, that prompted many young Karaites to stop attending synagogue.

Esther Elisha and her mother, Gemila Ovadia.
Esther Elisha and her mother, Gemila Ovadia.Credit: Moti Milrod

Sitting outside the synagogue (though it does have a women’s section) are Esther Elisha, 51, and her mother, Gemila Ovadia, who is 87.

“In the 1950s the only thing here was mud, mud and more mud,” Ovadia recalls. “We had a small house with an outdoor latrine. We showered in a bucket in the kitchen.” She remembers Egypt fondly. “Things were good before 1948, we were like brothers, and then the Egyptians planted bombs against us, so we said, ‘Let’s go to Israel.”

Some of Elisha’s children are married to Karaites, others are not: “The children are their own masters. At first it was hard for me to accept that they were leaving the community. But I understood, either I accept the package or I lose my son.”

David Elisha, 76 and no relation to Esther and Gemila, a pensioner who worked in Tadiran, the former electronics and electrical appliances conglomerate, and the rabbi of the Matzliach congregation, also recalls those first days. “My father worked in an orchard near Rehovot. He went back and forth everyday.”

By bus?

Elisha: “What bus? He walked. It was really hard for him. I grew up with my aunt and uncle. Only families with children could get farmland, so the family donated me to them. Then the Moroccans came. They thought we were weird, but over the years we learned how to get along with them.”

Back when he worked at the appliance company, he says, "one Persian always teased us that we bow like Muslims. I told him, go ask your parents how things were in Persia, because they prayed the same way there. Since then, he's been putting his head to the floor."

Haroeh, for one, is stunned when I tell him that I understand that some Karaites have changed the dates of religious festivals so they will match those in the Israeli calendar.

“Anyone who does that is not a Karaite,” he says. “A Jew is someone who upholds the commandments. If you change the dates of the festivals, you can no longer be called a Karaite Jew.”

Elisha: “If that’s hard for you, be a Christian. That’s more convenient. A Christian can eat all the animals.”

Rabbi David Elisha.
Rabbi David Elisha.Credit: Moti Milrod

My mention of the community’s assimilation dampens the atmosphere. Elisha’s family has also felt this: “I have a boy who married a Rabbinic woman. And brothers who are married to Karaite women but celebrate according to the state’s holidays. My father, may he rest in peace, did not want to ruin things or quarrel.”

The rabbi is especially pained by the fact that one of his brothers, who was considered an expert on Karaite law, switched sides and became the head of an Orthodox yeshiva. It breaks his heart to talk about it.

Over the years, thanks mainly to court rulings, the Karaites achieved a certain degree of autonomy, despite attempts by the Chief Rabbinate to turn the clock back, an effort that peaked when it stopped dragging its feet on the bureaucracy required for Karaite-Rabbinic marriages. A longstanding problem is governmental budgetary discrimination as compared with funding received by the Orthodox. Thus, to make ends meet, the Karaites’ chief sage – a title equivalent to chief rabbi – Dr. Moshe ben Yosef Firrouz works as a computer engineer at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva.

“I am ashamed to say that I earned 3,000 shekels [per month, currently about $860] when I was a salaried rabbi in the moshav,” Elisha says.

Haroeh believes the discrimination is deliberate. “The Rabbinic Jews are pushing us out because they think we are a threat. If the budgeting were equal, new believers would join us. They have an interest in keeping us weak. As long as we are on the defensive, we don’t have resources to spread our beliefs.”

Still, they are optimistic. “The Karaites will only multiply,” predicts Neria Massuda, 60, who joins the conversation. “People will understand the rightness of the path and also that the rabbis are telling untrue stories.”

But the phenomenon called Rabbinic Judaism has a higher “rating.”

Haroeh: “So what? And Hinduism has even more believers. It is written, ‘Not because you are more numerous than all the peoples’ – quantity doesn’t matter.”

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