What do followers of Rabbi Nachman do upon discovery that some of his progeny are assimilated and are married to gentiles across former Soviet Union? They launch a worldwide campaign and bribe clerks and priests – all in order to return lost daughters to Judaism.
Operation Breslov: Tracing rebbe's descendants
What do followers of Rabbi Nachman do upon discovery that some of his progeny are assimilated, married to gentiles across former Soviet Union? Launch a worldwide campaign, bribe clerks, priests – all in order to return lost daughters to Judaism
Akiva Novick • Ynet
Nearly every Hasidic movement has its own folklore. Stories being passed on from father to son, the details of which are known only to explorers of mysticism. As in the tales of the Brothers Grimm, stories of rebbes often contain dark forests, frozen lands, spooky encounters with questionable figures and the invariable happy ending. One such story, which in years to come will probably be numbered among the Hasidic folklore is taking place as we speak.
The first and only rabbi of the Breslov Hasidic movement bore only girls, leaving the movement without a leader these past 200 years. In recent years Nachman of Breslov's followers have been engaged in a worldwide campaign to trace his lost descendants. One such operation is causing a stir among the movement.
It is a thriller with all the elements needed to become the talk of the day among Hasidic disciples: Battle against foreign rulers, hefty bribes and the assimilating descendants of the great rebbe. Many details still remain confidential for legal reasons which only add to the story's mystique.
The affair began to unfold six months ago. Rabbi Yisrael Pinto, head of the Breslov Source of Wisdom and Life yeshiva, traveled to Uzbekistan to give Torah lessons and inspire the Jewish community of the capital Tashkent.
During his visit, Pinto was told of an assimilated family named Zerikovsky, by a local Jew. He immediately phoned his friend Rabbi Yisrael Natan Barzel, who resides near the tomb of Nachman of Breslov in Uman, Ukraine. "We may have traced the last descendants of our master," he declared.
It is rumored that during WWII a Jew named Zvi Herschel fled the Ukraine to Uzbekistan where he bore two baby girls. It turned out that Rabbi Barzel had also heard the rumors that two old women, the rebbe's direct descendants, reside in Tashkent.
The rumor sparked an old Hasidic pledge among the two. Nachman of Breslov, who died 200 years ago, noted in his books to followers: "Be careful with my offspring, make sure they stay within the Hasidic movement." The rebbe stressed the matter over and over again in his writings, rendering the request no less important than annual the pilgrimage to his grave. His followers consider this a matter of supreme importance.
Rabbi Barzel immediately boarded the first flight to Tashkent and together with Pinto looked through the records of the Uzbekistani Ministry of the Interior. The two managed to trace Sarah Leah and Raizel Zerikovsky through their maiden names. "We reached Raizel's address," Rabbi Pinto relates. "We knocked on the door, which was crumbling down and entered a particularly shabby wooden house. A one and half bedroom apartment with primitive toilets and a shower in the kitchen. Something truly awful, like one would imagine a house from 300 years ago."
The two rabbis took Raizel to a local hotel to get away from the house. The following day they reached her sister Leah and found a great treasure in her house. "As we were talking we found a dusty old library," Pinto relates. "And after snooping around found loads of ancient Breslov books that their father had brought with him when he fled the Ukraine. They have not been touched since. First editions, unbelievable materials! They are worth tens of thousands of dollars."
The rabbis then launched a series of meetings to persuade the sisters, who had virtually no knowledge of Judaism, to leave everything and move to Israel. Hitting a note with their childhood memories, they managed to convince the women to make aliyah, but only on the condition that their daughters came too.
Ira, 25, Leah's daughter, is married to a local gentile called Sasha and the couple are parents to a boy and a girl. Raizel has two girls: Ella, a 28-year-old in the process of a divorce from Andrei, a 50-year-old gentile and native of Armenia; and Paina, 20, whom the rabbis convinced to cancel her engagement to a local man (helped by the fact they arranged the groom with a respected job and some funds).
Paina was flown to visit Nachman of Breslov's grave in Uman and eventually decided to move to Israel after considerable persuasion. She now attends a school for the newly religious in Jerusalem. "I'm happy I found my true place and true life," she says. One mission accomplished.
A Jewish crusade
Things did not go so smoothly with the other daughters and the fight for their children, and their husbands' hearts continues. Sasha has been loaded with money and presents, and having realized that an entire Jewish community is watching him decided to allow his wife to observe the Sabbath and raise their children as Jews, so long as he was being funded by the Breslov followers. The rabbis maintain that Shasha refuses to grant Ira a divorce and allow her and her children to make aliyah.
Matters are more complicated when it comes to Raizel's son-in-law, Andrei. The couple has been in the process of a divorce for the past five years. Rabbi Pinto claims that when Abdrei learned of the Jewish aspect he kidnapped his children, put them in a catholic monastery and hid their passports. He later told the rabbis he would never agree to his children practicing Judaism. A nation-wide search was then launched to trace the children which involved Jewish oligarchs who pulled strings with authorities and bribes being handed to clerks and monastery heads.
Just last week, the Breslovs paid a monastery owner $5,000 only to learn later that the kids he showed them were not Andrei's. In a country where the average monthly salary is $30, money is the key to everything and the rabbis continue to try and pay their way to the children. Meanwhile, the kids have yet to be found.
The four women (Sarahj Leah, Raizel, Ella and Ira) and their children are the latest Rabbi Nachman descendants to be traced by the Breslovs. In the past few decades followers have located dozens of descendants, some of whom were not aware of their ancestry. Location efforts continue all the while.
The rabbis claim that the affair is now in the hands of Uzbekistan's legal system which is very slow. They believe great amounts of funds will be required in order to win the case. "When locals see that a foreign body is involved it increases their appetite," Rabbi Barzel says. "Thus far we have spent more than $50,000 with a large part of the sum coming from the pockets of followers and some from wealthy Jews.
"To us it's horrible that our rebbe's descendants study in a Catholic school. We will do everything in our power to get them to Israel."