Bad Times for Good Samaritans

The Samaritans who are looking for new brides

Dispatches Faith
Meet the Cohens: Natasha (right), a 23-year-old Ukrainian with her Samaritan father-in-law, Yousef Cohen (left), at his West Bank home

The descendants of the Good Samaritan are not only alive and well in the Holy Land, but are also on a quest for love. Finding a partner is difficult in a community of fewer than 800 members, all of whom are blood relations. With genetic diseases threatening their future, Samaritans are, for the first time in their long history, marrying outside the community. Which is how Natasha, 23, from Nikolaevskaya Oblast in Ukraine found herself perched on a holy mountain in the West Bank and following the religious laws of one of the smallest ethnic communities in the world.

“Talk of family and old descent!” exclaimed Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad after his first encounter with the Samaritans in the Holy Land back in the 19th century. “Princes and nobles pride themselves upon lineages they can trace back some hundreds of years.” All this, wrote Twain, was a mere “trifle” compared to the Samaritans “who can name their fathers straight back without a flaw” for thousands of years, while others “grow dazed and bewildered when they try to comprehend it!”

Twain was not exaggerating. Sitting in a large stone house in Kfar Luza, on Mount Gerizim in the West Bank, the community elders tell me without a blink that they can trace their family trees directly back to Moses himself. According to them, Moses’s brother Aaron was the first Samaritan high priest.

Academic scholars are at a loss to determine the exact origins of the community. Abraham Tal, an expert in Samaritan Aramaic language at Tel Aviv University, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that many scholars believe the Samaritans to be “a sect that diverged from Judaism around the time of the Second Temple”. Tal added: “What is sure is that they are mentioned by the historian Flavius Josephus” who wrote during the 1st century AD.

Today the 133rd high priest leads the faithful on Mount Gerizim, a hilltop deemed by the Samaritans to be their holiest site. But with ancient status come centuries-old tensions with other faiths. The dispute with Judaism dates back to the Old Testament. The Samaritans claim that the “legitimate” blood line of high priests stayed on Mount Gerizim while the “false” line ended up in Jerusalem.

The dispute is also mentioned in the New Testament. When Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, just a few kilometres away from Mount Gerizim, she does not hesitate to take the bull by the horns: “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain,” she tells Jesus, “but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” (John 4: 5-20.)

In the end Jesus succeeds in converting the Samaritan woman. On the ground, a cold war of ideologies continued.

To rival the Jewish Holy Temple, the Samaritans built their own on Mount Gerizim. Both were eventually destroyed. One of the reasons why the Samaritans hold Gerizim as sacred is because they say Moses ordered them to protect it. This decree is not mere hearsay, they say, but is enshrined in the Samaritan Ten Commandments, markedly different to the Jewish and Christian version. The Samaritans also believe it was on Mount Gerizim that Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son, dismissing the Temple Mount, where Christians, Jews and Muslims say it happened. When Samaritans pray, they always face Gerizim.

To this day, the Samaritans stick to the letter of the Old Testament, following ancient biblical rituals. While Jews celebrate Passover  with the traditional rituals of Seder night, the Samaritans gather chanting in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic atop their holy mountain and proceed to slaughter dozens of lambs. While Jews dip their fingers in a glass of red wine, the Samaritans dip theirs in the blood of the lamb, place a dot of it on their faces and then barbecue the meat on a giant bonfire by the light of the full moon.

But for all their exoticism, the Samaritans have serious problems in terms of survival. During the Roman era, their numbers topped a million, with Samaritan communities spread as far afield as Egypt and Syria. But violent rebellions, bloody persecutions and subsequent forced conversions to Christianity and Islam over the centuries meant that their numbers dwindled to such an extent that by the early 20th century there were fewer than 150 Samaritans left.

The population recovered somewhat during the British mandate of Palestine and the subsequent establishment of Israel. The second President of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, encouraged the Samaritans to marry Jewish women, and at the same time tried to persuade the Samaritans to integrate themselves into Israeli society. Together with the then leader of the Samaritan community Yefet Tsedaka, Ben-Zvi established a new Samaritan settlement in Holon, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.

But this did not make the problems go away. Today the community suffers from a wide range of genetic illnesses and birth defects, ranging from muteness and blindness to mental handicaps, because of intermarriage over the centuries.
Today’s Samaritans are looking for fresh outside intervention — but few could have predicted that this would come from quite so far away.

While the ailing traveller met the Good Samaritan on a dusty and perilous road between Jerusalem and Jericho more than 2,000 years ago, Natasha met her Samaritan husband in cyberspace.

“I met my husband online through a mutual friend,” she tells me, sitting shyly next to her father-in-law, whom — after more than a year of living in the West Bank — she now calls “Papa”.

Visually, this “father and daughter” duo could not be more different. Natasha is dressed in casual leggings and a T-shirt, fanning herself in the midday Middle Eastern heat, while her father-in-law, Yousef Cohen, wears a golden pinstriped tunic covering him from neck to foot, his head crowned with a white turban. He looks as if he has walked straight out of a biblical illustration, the embodiment of a priest on his way to the holy temple.

There was nothing mystical, however, about the courtship between Natasha and Yousef’s son. “My friend showed my future husband photographs of me, we started exchanging messages and then fell in love,” Natasha says, smiling.

The couple married in a civil ceremony in Ukraine, and about a year later had a festive Samaritan-style marriage in the West Bank, attended by her mother and some of her friends from home.

Natasha’s story is a typical illustration of what is a wider trend in the Samaritan community. But why bring brides from so far away?

On this Yousef is emphatic: “If we’re already going to marry outside the Samaritan community, then let’s bring beauty into the community!” he exclaims, throwing his hands up and gesturing to his good-looking daughter-in-law.

On hearing this, a Spanish tourist visiting the community for the first time looks mildly offended. “But what about Spanish women? They’re beautiful too,” he argues.

“Yes, but they’re rich,” replies Yousef. The Samaritan brides “come from places like Ukraine, where a lot of people don’t even have toilets. And when they come here, they discover America!”

Natasha listens to this commentary silently, appearing unruffled. Asked about her previous life, she reveals little nostalgia for her homeland. She says she worked as a policewoman in a small town and lived with her mother as an only child. She tells me that she loves her new life despite initial difficulties.

“At first, I didn’t understand anything, neither Hebrew nor Arabic. So I just sat quietly, listening. Then I started to remember some words and asked what does this and that mean, writing it down and learning.”

Today Natasha has a job working at a nearby factory packaging desserts. “It’s important for me to work, not to just sit around. I try to send a bit of money back home to my mother when I can,” she says. Later, she plans on becoming a policewoman once again.

Natasha is one of ten women who have been welcomed into the Samaritan community in recent years, from Ukraine, Russia and Turkey. The community pays their travel expenses and sorts out visa issues. The would-be brides then undergo a trial period of a year to sample the traditions of life with the Samaritans — which can prove a substantial culture shock.

Alongside a strictly observed sabbath and a kosher diet, as observed by religious Jews, the Samaritans apply other ancient customs to the letter, with few exceptions. Whenever a woman menstruates, for example, she is required to undergo a period of isolation, which even involves having to sit on a special chair whenever she is in the house, explains Rajai Altif, a member of the community. A longer period of isolation — up to 80 days — applies when a woman has just given birth. Natasha says such customs do not really bother her. “The laws don’t apply when I go to work — only at home. So I can still continue with more or less the same routine.”

A few other women — both potential brides and natives — have not been quite so accepting and have chosen to leave the community. This is something the Samaritans do not like to discuss in detail, and so the exact numbers are unknown.

At the mention of this issue, Yousef looks downcast. “If they leave, they are outcasts from the community, no one talks to them,” he says. “If we could kill them, we would.”

Politically and geographically, the West Bank community faces complications too. The Samaritans’ holiest site is located right in the middle of hotly disputed territory. Under the 1993 Oslo accords and subsequent protocols, Mount Gerizim is in Area C, under Israeli control, while the village Kfar Luza where the Samaritans live is in Area B, under mixed Israeli and Palestinian control, and the main road at the foot of the village connecting the residents to Nablus is in Area A, controlled by the Palestinian Authority. The Samaritan children often play with their closest neighbours, children from a community of Israeli settlers, while attending Palestinian schools in Nablus and speaking both Arabic and Hebrew.

While members of the Holon community in Israel voluntarily serve in the Israeli Defence Forces, the community in the West Bank hold both Israeli and Palestinian identity cards, enabling them to travel throughout Israel and Palestine and enjoy the unique protection of both authorities. This allows, for example, a Samaritan woman access to Israeli healthcare, while working for the Palestinian Authority’s Nablus municipal council.

Students from London who are spending the year learning Arabic in Nablus tell me the Samaritans are known locally as “border entrepreneurs”, often providing the best deals in the local alcohol trade, alongside selling delicious home-made tahina sauce and other goods.

This means the Samaritans walk a daily political tightrope. Despite this, Rajai says  the relations with both communities are “very warm”. It is clear that the Samaritans of Mount Gerizim are keen to keep it that way, as the newly integrated brides nursing newborn babies ensure the future of the community — for the next few generations at least.