A Deal With God

When she was 14 in Kiev, Ukraine, Dana Dunitz made a deal with God: within 30 days she would learn all the mitzvoth (commandments); in return, in that same amount of time, He will make her more beautiful. On the surface, God's part of the deal was easier. She was not ugly to start with, but there are 613 mitzvoth.

Nevertheless, when she emerged after a month from the room where she had shut herself up - not even leaving to attend school - Dana was wearing a dress with long sleeves and stockings, like a full-fledged ultra-Orthodox young woman. There was, however, no significant change in her beauty rating. In response to a comment that Faust made a similar deal with Satan, Dana answers with a big laugh that perhaps she erred in the partner, perhaps with Satan she would have come out ahead. Still she remained with God.

This deal and what followed it was preceded by a meeting with Chabad people looking for a place to build a synagogue in Kiev. Her parents offered their home. This was during the days of perestroika (restructuring), when such a move was no longer considered dangerous, and the authorities made do with wiretapping the home phone. Dana listened to the lessons given by the Chabad emissaries, understood that it is prohibited to make Chicken Kiev with butter, and even experienced "a sensation of being angelic." After returning to school in her new persona, she felt totally foreign. Six months later she immigrated to Israel with her parents.

The secular Israel expected to find in the immigrants a reinforcement for secularism. Dana, meanwhile, was surprised to see that not everyone here is really religious.

On the religious kibbutz Lavi where she lived for four years, it was hard for her to see women who were not careful about covering their hair - in the Orthodox girls' high school in Kfar Pines, she was considered stringent above and beyond the call of duty.

Our conversation last week took place at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Mount Scopus, where Dana (Dunitz) Pulver, 32, a mother of two, is completing a master's degree, and gives a class on biblical figures as part of the summer program for overseas students. She spent the weekend teaching midrashim to Russian-speaking youths who came to Israel on the Taglit/birthright program.

Much of this young woman's time is spent in such activities, devoid of any missionary bent, and intellectually challenging. Her biblical characters for the most part sound complex, as if they are straddling a line, like her. For example, last year she eased up on her intense studies at the Midrasha after losing the "sense of being angelic" that was present during her first year there, and looked into other possibilities. For example, she decided to go out into the desert alone, without water; and to travel to Eilat by hitchhiking in the middle of the night in search of something undefined.

When the time came to choose a course of university study, given her abilities she could have chosen anything. She considered law, looked into medicine, but there was one overriding consideration: choosing a profession that would also be needed after the Messiah comes.

Lawyers, she knew, would be out of work; there would be no need for doctors because everyone will be healthy. Language and philosophy, on the other hand, seemed to her professions that would be needed then, too.

"It is true that for now doctors and lawyers have more work, but he who laughs last laughs best," she says, sounding not entirely as if she is joking.

Until the Messiah makes her profession into something in greater demand, Pulver is taking the first steps to hasten his coming. She teaches in Modi'in, where she lives, and set up an egalitarian synagogue group. In Ashdod, she recently gave lectures to a community of some 200 Russian speakers who are showing great interest in Jewish texts. At the Bible Festival in the south of the country, she taught Russian speakers taking part in a Jewish Agency-sponsored project to learn Judaism.

Contrary to the secular image of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, there is an interesting phenomenon developing here: churches and synagogues fill up with Russian speakers. Alongside the community where Pulver teaches in Ashdod, churches are popping up in houses there. No one likes to talk about them, but there are also Jews to be found there. The encounter with the Holy Land does something to those who come there and leads them in different directions.

"The Russians sought for some sort of faith-based framework that would accept them, and Judaism rejected them outright," Pulver says. "So the churches started developing in Ashdod, and even in Jerusalem I have seen Jews going into churches, even though in Russia of all places, they never did so. It saddens me that they were not allowed to find their place among Judaism's texts, which are actually a very open space."

Pulver's complex identity as a Russian-speaking, ultra-Orthodox/religious (depending on the time) immigrant makes it hard for her to find her place in Israeli society. For years she tried to see herself as a sabra (native Israeli), but something did not work.

"I felt that the friendships I made then were like an immigrant absorption assignment - I didn't like feeling as if I'm a charity project. I discovered that I have more in common with Russian speakers, even when they're not religious. I started to give credit to the mother tongue. I acquired Hebrew as a mother tongue, but I realized that I did not acquire with it the sense of a mother tongue. Among religious Russians I didn't find people with sufficient religious flexibility; with the secular ones I don't have a common language. When all this is happening in two languages, the difficulty increases."

But she is here, dreaming of a state with a Jewish identity of her own unique sort. This state, naturally, has no connection to a state of halakha (ruled by Jewish law), but more to a kind of collection of rebellious prophets or at least to those who are versed in Jewish texts that challenge them. Their inclusion in a broad education, an important value among immigrants from the FSU, she says, could be Russian speakers' great contribution to the shaping of the state.