Y.L. Peretz on the Ukrainian Steppes

The best source for proving Jewishness is still official Soviet registries in the places of residence, the party, the factories.

On a freezing Ukrainian winter morning over a year ago, S.H. knocked on the door of a house in a remote town in eastern Ukraine. A bedridden woman of 90 called to him to come in. He sat down and began to ask questions; to be more precise, to interrogate. Names, places, relatives, World War II, the Stalin era.

She replied, occasionally pulling out crumbling old documents. Toward the end of the meeting the man took a book out of his bag and asked her to read. Without hesitation the old woman read aloud several lines by author Y.L. Peretz, in Yiddish. "I haven't spoken Yiddish for 80 years," she said, weeping.

Shimon Har-Shalom is not a member of the KGB or a Mossad agent on a secret mission. He is an emissary of the Shorashim (Roots) organization, who visits countries of the former Soviet Union on a different kind of mission: He comes to find proof of the Jewishness of new immigrants who came as Jews, and whose Jewishness was suddenly placed in doubt. This usually happens when they come to the rabbinate to get married.

Arye Wahnovetsky, in the past one of the founders of the Arutz 7 Russian-language radio programs and at present an adviser to Shorashim, said 700,000 people in the State of Israel could have their Jewishness placed in doubt, hastening to offer an explanation for this fantastical figure: "It's simple. Out of the one million who came, 300,000 new immigrants are declared goyim who are designated for conversion. The rest can at any moment encounter doubt regarding their Jewishness."

This hallucinatory situation, he explains, is a result of the upheavals of the previous century in the Soviet Union: from World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution up to World War II, during which the registries of the Jewish communities were destroyed. That is also the case in the family of the girl on whose behalf Har-Shalom set out from Israel for a meeting with the grandmother, who almost took with her to the grave the final proof of her Judaism - herself.

When they wanted to immigrate, the olim had no trouble getting visas for Israel on the basis of copies of documents whose originals had been lost; after all, Israel was interested in them. They came here as Jews, and only when they come to the rabbinate are they told that their Jewish status is not at all certain, and that they need clear proof. They find themselves illegal residents within Judaism, until proven otherwise.

Shorashim, the elite commando unit of Judaism, was founded two years ago for precisely this purpose. Shorashim is part of the Tzohar rabbis organization; there is no question that this is one of its stranger divisions: a little detective work, a little criminology, a great deal of psychology and a lot of discomfort which the search for racial purity for members of the strange tribe in whose name they operate raises.

However, in the fraught situation created by the insoluble tension between the Zionist ethos, which invites the olim to come, and the spirit of the halakha (religious law) which rejects them when they arrive, Tzohar offers a practical solution for couples who have already reserved a hall and a band, and at the last moment are subject to an unexpected blow.

Sometimes the investigation ends in Israel, sometimes it requires a trip to remote places: finding relatives with whom relations were severed years ago, going through old letters, perusing documents whose existence nobody remembered, discovering the soldier ID of an uncle who fought in the Red Army under his Jewish name, recording interviews with the grandmothers.

When it succeeds, Har-Shalom returns as a liberator. Only recently he succeeded in accomplishing his mission five days before the upcoming wedding. In that case too, he found a grandmother in Ukraine who had wandered all over the countries of the Soviet Union until the connection with her was lost. Even during the meeting with Har-Shalom she had no documents. "Because I myself immigrated from Ukraine 28 years ago as a boy of 13, I know how to identify Jewish overtones in Russian."

During these encounters he also hears all the family problems, which are also the story of the fate of the Jewish people: persecution, wandering. From this grandmother he heard a clear Jewish dialect, and the wedding took place on time. These two cases had a happy end, in other words, with clear proof that the petitioner is Jewish. That is the case in the vast majority of about 400 files that have been investigated, out of about 2,000 requests that have reached Shorashim since its founding.

But the reservoir of living witnesses is gradually shrinking, while the problem remains. Therefore Shorashim is now about to acquire special instruments to examine the authenticity of documents, devices of the type used by departments for criminal identification. In any case, the best source for proving Jewishness is still official Soviet registries in the places of residence, the party, the factories. The Soviets made sure to register as Jews even those who wanted to conceal their identity. The authorities there are glad to cooperate.

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