Sunday, February 14, 2021

Prison, Conversion and Reprimanded Rabbis!

My third great grandfather had a brother named Meir Leib Lefand.  I have Meir Leib's 1862 birth record and his 1883 marriage record.  But then he disappeared from records.  I couldn't find birth records for any children, I didn't see any death records for Meir Leib or his wife, and they didn't seem to have emigrated.  So what happened to them?

Marriage of Meir Leib & Sheina Freida Lefand; Nezhin, Russian Empire; July 5, 1883

A file I obtained from the Chernigov Archives explains a bit but also raises many (many, many) more questions.

The file was generated because of issues recording locating the marriage record of Meir Leib and his wife Sheina Freida.  (I found it on FamilySearch, but I supose that wasn't an option in the 1880s!)  

It started when Sheina Freida requested a divorce--and was sending the request from Kiev (now Kyiv).  She was also not requesting it as "Sheina Freida"--but rather as Olga.  A few sentences describe where Meir Leib and Sheina Freida were in 1886:

"On this marriage certificate, the cathedral Archpriest Lebedintsev made a note # 242 of June 11th, 1886 that Sheina Freida Lefand was baptized on June 10th, 1886 in the city of Kyiv in the St. Sophia Cathedral church under the name Olga, about which there is an entry #. 13 in the Orthodox metrical book of those baptized in June 1886.

According to the report of the Kyiv city police of February 6th, 1887 # 590 on correspondence concerning the petition of Olga Lefand for divorce from her husband, who now is in the Poltava prison castle, since she does not want to live with him anymore."

So Meir Leib was in the Poltava prison castle.  I guess I have to figure out what he did and how long he was there.  And Sheina Freida had converted to Russian Orthodoxy, less than three years after her marriage.

Explanation of the Meir Leib/Sheina Freida Lefand Situation

Besides her conversion likely setting off some major fireworks in the Lefand family specifically and the Jewish community in general, it also set off a series of events that got the town's Rabbi into a bit of trouble.  Here's what this file tells us:

  • Meir Leib Lefand had responded from prison that he never had officially married Sheina Freida, but had just cohabited with her.  (He was lying.)
  • Rabbi Yaakov Horshak of Nezhin had responded to a request about the Lefands' marriage in September 1886, saying that he found no record of their marriage.
  • After being asked to look again, he responded in October 1886, saying he still could not find record of their marriage.
  • In June 1887, Rabbi Horshak was ordered to be brought to justice.  He responded that he later did find record of Meir Leib & Sheina Freida's marriage (referencing the same record whose image appears above).  Rabbi Horshak says that in September 1886, a court officer came to him and demanded to immediately be shown a copy of the Lefands' marriage record.  The correspondence he was presented had Sheina Freida's name written illegibly and also did not state a date of the marriage.  The Rabbi and his assistant looked quickly through the metrical books but missed the actual record.  Something similar happened again in October.  He claims that the oversight was an unintentional mistake.  He explained how the marriage metrical books were kept, with no actual index, so without knowing an approximate date, he had to skim hundreds of pages very quickly.
  • In August 1887, the Chernigov Provincial Government found that "this is the only case of such an error in the work of the Nizhyn public Rabbi and that Yakov Horshak has been conscientiously treating his service for many years, not to hold him accountable in this case" and that he should receive a reprimand.
  • On September 1, the Rabbi signed the personal reprimand.
And that is what we know.  Now I need to figure out what happened to Meir Leib (did he ever get out of prison?) and Sheina Freida/Olga.  Has anyone seen records from the "Poltava prison castle"?

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  1. Lara, You find the most fascinating records about your family. I'll expect to see the prison records pop up soon. :) Miss seeing you in the Family History Library this year. Maybe in 2022.

    1. I'll miss you too! Hopefully all will be back to some semblance of normalcy by 2022. See then then!

    2. Surely we can put together a series for Masterpiece Mystery Theater. LOVE this stuff.

  2. What a tale! Hope you will find out what happened in prison and afterward. Stay well.

  3. What was the purpose of hiding the marriage? What did Meir Leib gain from this?

    1. I have no idea. I'm hoping I can find more documents to explain. Maybe he was trying to protect the Rabbi?

  4. I think they're a separate family. But if you know of a male Lefand from that family, I'd love if they could contact me about taking a Y DNA test to know for sure!

  5. Rabbi Horshak couldn't have divorced the pair since he wasn't an actual rabbi but a "Government rabbi", a Ministry of Interior employee tasked with recording Jewish vital acts performed by the actual rabbis. A divorce required not just a rabbi, but a beit din. Perhaps the beit din had some issues with this divorce, possibly because Olga was no longer in their jurisdiction and her husband wouldn't ask for a divorce? Anyway, Lara, if you ask in the Divorce thread on j-roots, then the experts in the period law might possibly clarify to you, how it was supposed to work out after a conversion?

    1. I'm not sure of the background; I do know that Rabbi Harshak did record divorces during this time period. But here I think they were looking for evidence of the marriage from Rabbi H so that a divorce could happen?

    2. Right, I got carried away with my thoughts here. The talk was about the divorce, but the Government Rabbi wasn't tasked with the divorce recording, he just needed to find the marriage record. Still my gut feeling is that there was resistance to allowing an (arguably) Jewish woman to have children from a different father without being properly divorced first...