European women marry, give hope to Samaritans

By Dalia Nammari

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, March 17 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013 photo, Ukrainian Alla Evdokimova, 26, who now goes by name Alaa Altif, displays her wedding album at her home at Mount Gerizim, near the West Bank town of Nablus. Alia emigrated to the West Bank and married Samaritan, Azzam Altif. The Samaritans, a rapidly dwindling sect dating to biblical times, have opened their insular community to brides imported from eastern Europe in a desperate quest to preserve their ancient culture.

Nasser Ishtayeh, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

MOUNT GERIZIM, West Bank — The Samaritans, a rapidly dwindling sect dating to biblical times, have opened their insular community to brides imported from eastern Europe in a desperate quest to preserve their ancient culture.

Five young women from Russia and Ukraine have moved to this hilltop village in recent years to marry local men, breathing new life into the community that has been plagued by genetic diseases caused by generations of intermarriage.

Husni Cohen, a 69-year-old village elder, said the marriages are not ideal, since there is always a risk that the newcomers may decide to leave. But in a community whose population has fallen to roughly 360 people, he saw little choice.

"If this is the only solution to our problem, we must take this road. We Samaritans don't have enough women to marry, so I can't tell our young men not to marry and not to start a family," he said. He warned, however, that if the families don't adhere to the Samaritan religion and traditions, "then our future is in danger."

For Alla Evdokimova, so far, so good. She left Ukraine, married and joined the community two years ago. "I came here and found a big family," said Evdokimova, 26.

The Samaritans have lived in the Holy Land for thousands of years. They are probably best known for the parable of the Good Samaritan in the New Testament Book of Luke. Samaritans believe themselves to be the remnants of Israelites exiled by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. They practice a religion closely linked to Judaism and venerate a version of the Old Testament, but they are not Jews.

In the fourth and fifth centuries, the Samaritan population is thought to have topped 1.5 million, but religious persecution and economic hardship had nearly erased it by the early 20th century. Today, there are 750 Samaritans — split between communities in the Israeli city of Holon, near Tel Aviv, and near the West Bank city of Nablus on Mount Gerizim, the group's holiest place and site of its yearly Passover sacrifice. The Samaritans, who hold both Israeli and Palestinian residency rights, try to steer clear of politics.

Their numbers have been further reduced by the decision by 10 women in recent years to marry outside the community, resulting in excommunication. Today, males outnumber females roughly three to one.

With a limited pool of potential partners, it is common for Samaritans to marry within their extended families, even first cousins. As a result, Samaritan babies have suffered from birth defects and genetic diseases at a much higher rate than the general population.

Bringing in outsiders, along with advanced genetic testing in Israeli hospitals, have helped reduce what used to be a 15 percent rate of birth defects. Since 1996, only four of 97 Samaritan newborns have had disabilities, community members say.

Samaritans started marrying outside the sect about 40 years ago. In most cases, members of the Holon community found Jewish Israeli partners.

Only recently have the residents of Mount Gerizim looked to Europe. The Samaritans have used a mixture of old and new techniques, turning to matchmakers to find partners, also enlisting Internet services like Skype to get to know them ahead of time.

The women must make a huge commitment. They must accept the community's special dietary rules, such as eating meat slaughtered only by a Samaritan priest, and tough restrictions during their menstrual periods. For seven days, women cannot touch anything in the house, and if a mother comes into contact with her children, she must wash them before their father can touch them. After childbirth, a woman cannot have contact with her husband for 40 days if a boy is born, 80 days for a daughter. On Saturdays, the day of rest, women stay at home while men pray in their synagogues.

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