The Russian Jewish Painter Who Became a Benedictine Monk in France

Before being expelled from the monastery and moving to Israel to take care of an elderly man

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The Benedictine monastery in Abu Gosh.
The Benedictine monastery in Abu Gosh.Credit: Michal Fattal
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky

We’ve arranged to meet at the train station in Beit Shemesh, located west of Jerusalem. Though I recognize him from his Facebook photo, I’m a bit surprised. I’d expected someone more dramatic in appearance – after all, until a year ago, Sergei Lefert was a Benedictine monk. He lived in a monastery in France’s Champagne region, wore a white tunic and spent his time writing books on theology. But now Lefert, 46, is wearing a shirt stuffed into blue jeans, and looks like a typical Russian Israeli.

This is Lefert’s third life-restart. The first time was in 1990, when he was 19 and left his hometown of Yekaterinburg (then called Sverdlosk), in the Ural Mountains, shortly after completing his studies at a local fine arts college. His destination: Israel. He and thousands of other young Russian Jews had been bitten by the Zionism bug.

“When I came to Israel, I realized that I didn’t know how to turn on a faucet,” Lefert tells me in the one-room, ground-floor apartment he’s renting in Beit Shemesh. A thin mattress is spread out on a sofa that’s too short to lie on comfortably, and boxes of books, some of which have the word “Talmud” written on them in Russian, are stacked up. The apartment evokes a monk’s cell, but Lefert says his monastery accommodations were roomier.

“I immediately broke the faucet in the hotel room where I was housed,” he says, recalling his first days in Israel. “In fact, I broke everything. Instead of juice, I bought undrinkable syrup. I didn’t know how to use a bus.” He adds, not without irony, “Usually in cases like that, you fall victim to propaganda of some sort.”

After a short stay at a residence near Jerusalem that was set up to house new immigrants by the ultra-Orthodox Shas movement (it soon closed down, because only six newcomers registered for it), Lefert rented an apartment in Jerusalem with a friend, like himself, a painter. The two earned some money from their art, in jobs that included painting Purim noisemakers and spinning tops. To supplement their income, they washed dishes at a nightclub.

Lefert in his days as a monk.
Lefert in his days as a monk.Credit: Courtesy

A series of encounters led Lefert to Catholicism. The first was with a young man of his age from Moscow who’d converted to Christianity before immigrating to Israel. “Many Jews who took an interest in Christianity in Moscow opted for Catholicism,” he observes, because “the anti-Semitism of the Russian Orthodox Church was too pronounced.”

Lefert offers me slices of rye bread from a Russian deli, two excellent, soft French cheeses and Port wine, as he launches into an in-depth explanation of the transformations undergone by the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Notably, the decisions to change the text of the liturgy from Latin to the vernacular of churchgoers, and to remove anti-Semitic passages from it. Both changes, he observes, are to the credit of the Catholic Church, as compared to the far more conservative Russian Orthodoxy. In the next stage, he went from making frequent visits to the Benedictine abbey in the Arab village of Abu Ghosh, outside Jerusalem, where he was learning ceramics, to immersing himself in full-time monastic life there.

Sergei Lefert’s parents divorced while his mother was pregnant with him; he never met his father. But father figures have cropped up constantly in his life. The first was Brother Alain, a monk at the St. Mary of the Resurrection Abbey in Abu Ghosh.

“I always had plenty of ideas,” he says, “but it wasn’t philosophical hairsplitting that brought me to Christianity. It was seeing someone and being magnetized by him: ‘What a fine person,’ you think. ‘What is his inner motivation?’”

Lefert recalls his conversations with Father Alain, who was the one who taught Lefert how to use a potter’s wheel. The monk was then 46 and dying of cancer.

How does a person in his early twenties decide to give up all the world’s pleasures and become a monk?

“Knowing him made a powerful impression on me,” Lefert recalls. “He had two or three months to live, all his hair had fallen out, but at the same time, he was the most alive person of all those around him. If this ‘method’ creates people like this, I thought – generates these results – then that’s great.”

But how does a person in his early twenties decide to give up all the world’s pleasures and become a monk? “You don’t make a choice like that totally consciously, he replies. “Just as it’s impossible to get married with full consciousness of how you came to the decision, and say, ‘I am doing it for these particular reasons.’ For the rest of your life you try to understand why you did it. Well, this choice [monasticism] was made in exactly the same way. A person is drawn to a different life that is revealed to him.”

So it was a case of falling in love?

“Yes, falling in love. At some point I thought I had to come to a decision. I was visiting the abbey too frequently; I couldn’t go on that way without ‘proposing marriage.’ Father Alain died in November 1993, a few months after I moved to Abu Ghosh. His death shook me profoundly. But even afterward, when I saw something I didn’t like, I told myself, this man, Alain, lived this life, and if you don’t like it, maybe it’s your problem.”

The Benedictine monastery in Abu Gosh.
The Benedictine monastery in Abu Gosh.Credit: Michal Fattal

‘The soldiers’ pope’

Benedictine monks divide their time between manual labor, intellectual pursuits, prayer and sleep, explains Lefert, who found a calling in the abbey’s kitchen, where he devoted himself to culinary creativity. The abbot at the time, Father Jean-Baptiste Gourion, who had grown up in a wealthy and highly educated Algerian Jewish family, introduced Lefert to French cuisine.

“His mother had separate kitchens for Pesach and for the rest of the year,” Lefert says of Gourion, another father figure in his life who later became the first – and, as of now, the last – bishop of Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel died in 2005.

French cuisine was for him “a revelation. Later, when I was a student in Brussels, I also cooked,” Lefert notes, referring to his studies in a Jesuit institution where he obtained a master’s degree in theology. “There I could buy items that weren’t available here – frogs, kangaroo meat, ostrich meat – everything I wasn’t familiar with. I was able to satisfy my curiosity completely.”

Sergei Lefert's artwork.
Sergei Lefert's artwork.Credit:
Sergei Lefert's artwork.
Sergei Lefert's artwork.Credit: Courtesy

Along with his artwork – oils, pictures of wall paintings in the Champagne monastery, ceramics, decorations on the organ of the Abu Ghosh abbey – Lefert proudly shows off photographs of dishes he has prepared. The most magnificent of them is a charlotte cake dripping with berry juice and mascarpone.

One feature of the Abu Ghosh period that he recalls vividly is the rifles that would be stacked in pyramids in the abbey’s courtyard. Hundreds and thousands of Israel Defense Forces soldiers would leave them outside during their obligatory visits as part of their educational instruction, Lefert recalls, and Brother Olivier, the abbey’s unofficial spokesperson, would receive them even after 8 P.M., “when everyone had already gone to sleep and the place was totally quiet. It was quite a surrealistic period.” The project suffered a blow in 1998, when the tabloid daily Maariv published an article about Olivier, titled “The soldiers’ pope,” which quoted senior officers as expressing “concern at the essence of the bizarre connection” between the monk and the soldiers. They added, “Even if his intention is benign and innocent, he knows too much [about the army].” In the wake of the article, MKs from Shas to Meretz condemned the practice of bringing soldiers to the monastery for visits.

“They continue to come even now, but it’s always the same circus: Half of them refuse even to enter the abbey’s garden,” Lefert says. He attributes the downturn in visits and the soldiers’ reluctance, to what he sees as the evolution undergone by the Israeli army in the past few decades. “The mentality has changed,” he observes. “In the 1990s, it was perfectly natural for the army to send soldiers to mosques or monasteries.”

Of course, the soldiers, despite their high visibility and large numbers, never constituted the bulk of the abbey’s visitors. “Our circle of acquaintances included diplomats – French, but not only – and the Palestinian elite,” Lefert relates. For example, a close friendship developed between the monks in Abu Ghosh, particularly Abbot Gourion, and the families of the Christian Palestinian aristocracy in Bethlehem. “The Sephardic world from which Gourion came is very similar to that Palestinian world,” Lefert says.

Yet what struck him was that these families – who lacked for nothing – lived in fear and frustration that was no different, in his perception, from the anxieties of the rest of the Palestinian people in the West Bank. “It’s a life that’s filled with insecurity and wretchedness: ‘Are we leaving here? Are we staying?’ When the son flies abroad, will he be arrested at the airport on his return? A checkpoint for them is simply a cosmic reality.”

In Lefert’s view, Palestinians are caught today between a rock and a hard place: “They can’t identify with Israeli society, of course, but at the same time the Islamic bulldozer is threatening to crush them.”

'I broke everything. Instead of juice, I bought undrinkable syrup. I didn’t know how to use a bus. Usually in cases like that, you fall victim to propaganda of some sort.'

He adds that even a decade ago, when he left the country and his ties with the Palestinian families he had known were cut off, Christians constituted only 20 percent of the population of Bethlehem: “Some of them were doctors, and they said that Hamas was pushing them out of the profession by offering free medical care, leaving the Christian physicians without clients.”

He recalls that his friends from Bethlehem came to the ceremony, in the early 1990s, in which he took his vows, and tried to offer some words of praise about him to his mother, who by then had also immigrated to Israel, in Hebrew: “‘Good boy, good boy!’ One woman cried during the whole ceremony, and when I asked her afterward why, she said, ‘I was thinking what would have happened if my son had converted to Islam.’ She was very sympathetic toward my mother.”

Icons in the closet

That expression of compassion for Lefert’s mother was actually very fitting. She had no sentimental connection to Judaism, her son says, but with time she became anxious about the path he had chosen.

“She was in Israel by the time I entered the abbey,” he says. “She didn’t know that there was a problem between Christians and Jews. Actually, it all looked quite interesting to her. But after she told two or three acquaintances about it, and they responded by saying that I had ‘sold out the homeland,’ she understood that she would be better off being silent about that subject.

“ ... She started to make a scene if I showed up in the neighborhood wearing a tunic – I could only visit her in street clothes,” he recalls. “She has severed my ties with the whole extended family. It’s difficult, because in Russian-Jewish society, you’re always being offered brides; they can’t lead a relaxed life without marrying off someone. She always hid the fact that I was a Catholic and that I was a monk. If I were to tell her that I’m talking to a journalist, she would get into a panic – she would think that I’d have to move, because the neighbors would attack me.”

Sergei Lefert outside his home in Beit Shemesh.
Sergei Lefert outside his home in Beit Shemesh.Credit: Michal Fattal

In 2003, Abbot Gourion was appointed by Pope John Paul II to be the liaison to Hebrew-speaking Catholics on behalf of Michel Sabbah, at the time the Latin Patriarch, the top Roman Catholic official in the Holy Land. According to an article published in Haaretz at the time, his primary target audience was to be “the hundreds of thousands of Christian immigrants from the [former Soviet Union],” and his main task would be to help them “shape a new religious identity.” However, according to Lefert, no more than 20 Russian-speaking Catholics visited Gourion during his period in the abbey, most of whom came through Lefert.

“The pressure exerted by Israeli society is immense,” he says, noting that as the few immigrants who arrived in Israel as Catholics became integrated, they distanced themselves from Christianity and stopped visiting the abbey. “Even if the Vatican or Father Gourion wanted to strengthen the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community in Israel by way of immigrants from the Soviet Union, that did not come to pass, and the community remained very small and esoteric.”

Generally speaking, Lefert describes the difference in Israel between the period after his initial arrival, in 1990, and the country he encountered when he returned a year ago, after a hiatus of 10 years, as the difference between a Technicolor movie (then) and a black-and-white movie (now), or between a chromatic scale and a regular scale – without nuance.

“In the 1990s, you could walk more freely on the streets,” he says, adding that despite the cancellation of the “strictly kosher” bus lines in Beit Shemesh – which has a large ultra-Orthodox population – he sees that women and men try not to sit next to each other on city buses.

“Maybe I’m acting improperly, but I sit next to women systematically, and you can see clearly that it’s not pleasant for them,” he says. “They don’t get up, but I feel that I’m bothering them. Maybe I came with European concepts, but for me it’s sexism and segregation, and for them it’s something else. There’s a patriarchal approach by both men and women. So why make them uncomfortable?” he wonders, before answering his own question: “On the other hand, if there is no discomfort, things will never change.”

After completing his studies in Brussels, Lefert moved on to the the Menil St. Loup monastery, in the Champagne region of France. He remained nearly a decade – studying, writing articles and books, and traveling to deliver lectures, in Moscow, among other places.

'In Brussels, I could buy items that weren’t available here – frogs, kangaroo meat, ostrich meat – everything I wasn’t familiar with. I was able to satisfy my curiosity completely.'

When Lefert returned to Israel a year ago from the monastery in France to visit his mother, he felt that he had been hurled back in time 25 years. The monastic fraternity, the way of life he had grown accustomed to, the books, the studies, even his name, Jerome, which was conferred on him when he first donned the white robe of the Benedictines – all were snatched from him in an instant. He never went back to Champagne, remaining instead in Beit Shemesh; instead of completing a work on the Book of Proverbs, he is making a living by looking after an elderly man, while trying to seel the art he creates by way of his website.

What caused the rift between the erudite monk and the French monastery? Lefert has many answers, though he admits that he himself may not know the true reason. “I always liked what [the kabbala scholar] Gershom Scholem said: that the only system that deserves attention is religious anarchism. Possibly deep down I too could sign off on that. But I needed some sort of system, a structure. A young person who arrives from Russia without knowing anything needs a structure, and I found one. I can’t say that I would want to continue [in the monastery] today, although I would continue if they agreed,” he says.

After his return to Israel, on what he thought was a visit, says Lefert, “I received a letter containing a type of ultimatum, in which they [the monastery in France] listed everything I didn’t do or didn’t do right. They said I was marginal, that I wasn’t devoting my soul to the work in the crafts workshop, that I tried to complete my work as quickly as possible and would go on to occupy myself with other things, that I would sit in my room and read books.”

Indeed, his collection of thousands of books were a source of puzzlement in the monastery, he says, despite the Benedictine order’s high regard for intellectual work. “It was perceived as a ‘Russian style,’ because, after all, the Russians always have books,” he explains.

Sergei Lefert at his home in Beit Shemesh.
Sergei Lefert at his home in Beit Shemesh.Credit: Michal Fattal

So it was the sin of pride?

“No, it was ownership of property. There has to be a distance between you and things. If you need a book, go to the library and take it out ... but without hoarding. And I had this Russian habit of hoarding.” The monastery also looked askance at other elements of Lefert’s behavior. “I didn’t go to the 5 A.M. prayers. And I was sick a lot, I had constant headaches, which stopped when I came to Israel. I wrote to the abbot that an Israeli miracle occurred and my headaches went away.

“Everything there is conducted in understatement, in half-tones and nuances, and then it all blows up,” Lefert says about the atmosphere in the monasteries he lived in, and the process that led to his suspension. He says he felt that the system was too constrained for him, although he didn’t exactly plan to leave. He then goes on to talk about the ideological differences that cropped up during his period as a monk, particularly with regard to the LGTB community.

“The Catholic milieu in general took part in a wave of protests in France against the legalization of same-sex marriage,” he says. “I asked myself what I had in common with people who want other people to be alone and miserable. That too was a factor; it was impossible to say aloud what you think. That’s not an intolerable trauma, but you understand that you are a stranger to this environment, and there is nothing strange in the fact that sooner or later it will reject you.”

Best left unsaid

The subject of faith continues to trouble me in our conversations. Can a young, post-Soviet Jew believe in the power of the sacraments? Beyond being enchanted by the people around him and taking pleasure in interpreting the New Testament through the teachings of ancient Jewish sages, and from comparing the theories of the postmodernist philosopher Jacques Derrida to the writings of St. Paul and St. Augustine – did Lefert still have anything in common with the path he chose at such a young age and from which he has been expelled? And can an educated person who does not reject science even take religion seriously?

“There is no way to reconcile science with the belief that the world was created 5,000 years ago,” Lefert says. “But those claims come from fundamentalist religion. That doesn’t rule out what [philosopher Ludwig] Wittgenstein said: that if we solve all the problems of science, we still won’t even approach the principal questions facing humanity. We live in a world that is saturated with a secret. Most of what we think and believe relies on someone’s words. Someone told us, we heard it in childhood, we never checked it. Everything we say and think is saturated with small acts of faith, like paper saturated with a liquid – you can’t separate the two.”

Still, science is amenable to theoretical testing, whereas faith cannot be tested, by definition.

“There is a banal example of psychoanalytic therapy: When a person expresses something, it ceases to be germane, and then something else, unexpressed, is born. One can never express the inexpressible. A person lives from silence as he lives from the word. He must possess a certain depth, which cannot be expressed in principle [in words].

“Some things can be formulated, some can be divided into subjects and you can even set rules for them – which are effectively boundaries – but there must be an unexpressed dimension in feeling the world. A word is not heard if it was not preceded by silence. The dimension of secrecy in the world can never be expressed.”