Sex and skullduggery down the rabbit hole

I was looking something up online the other day when I fell down a research rabbit hole and happened on an incredible story. It ought to be a film.

Perhaps that should be “rabbi hole”, because this was the almost unbelievable story of a kidnapped child and the role played in his kidnapping by a Catholic-born Frenchwoman who became the rebbetzin of the anti-Zionist group Neturei Karta.

You see? This was certainly a rabbit hole worth falling into, as we will discover.

The kidnapped child element of the story is fascinating enough on its own. This was 10-year-old Yossele Schumacher, born in the Soviet Union – Uman, in Ukraine, as it happens – and brought to Israel, with his sister, in 1958.

Yossele’s mother, Ida, had rejected the strictly Orthodox background of her own parents, Nachman and Miriam Shtrakes, who were members of the Breslov Chasidic sect. Ida and her husband Alter settled on a secular kibbutz with their children, but things went badly for them financially to the point where the Schumachers asked Yossele’s grandparents to look after him in Jerusalem.

When it came to returning Yossele to his parents, however, Nachman Shtrakes put his foot down. He believed that Ida and Alter were planning to return to a secular life in the Soviet Union. They weren’t, but thus began a scarcely credible story of hide-and-seek as the strictly Orthodox community joined forces internationally to keep Yossele away from his parents. 

The Schumachers went to court for the return of their son and Mossad became involved. The search went worldwide, from Switzerland to New Jersey and even, at one point, to Golders Green.

Meanwhile, one of those involved in expediting the kidnap was Ruth Blau, born in Calais in 1920 to a Catholic family and then known as Madeleine Ferraille. 

She had a fascinating life even before getting involved in the Yossele Schumacher affair, having served in the French Resistance and even having posed as a double agent between France and the Nazis. 

Post-war, Madeleine converted to Judaism and became known as Ruth Ben-David. She had a son, Claude. When she was approached by Charedi leaders in Israel to help in taking Yossele out of the country, she devised a bizarre plan in which first her son Claude was disguised as a girl, and then Yossele’s passport picture – also showing him as a girl  – was swapped for Claude’s.

For nearly two years, Ruth Ben-David outwitted Mossad in the search for Yossele Schumacher. He was eventually found in America and returned to his parents in September 1962, going on to live a blameless and happily anonymous life in Israel.

Ruth, despite being admired so much by Mossad chief Isser Harel that it is rumoured he offered her a job as a Mossad agent, had yet another chapter in her. 

In 1965, to the horror of his acolytes, she married the leader of the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta sect in Jerusalem, Rabbi Amram Blau. Blau was 26 years older than Ruth, and after his death in 1974 she took on a singular role in the strictly Orthodox world, travelling and negotiating with Arab leaders – including Yasir Arafat – for the return of Israeli captives. 

These two extraordinary stories are showcased in new books by Israeli academics, Professor Motti Inbari and Professor Kimmy Caplan. I can’t think when I’ve enjoyed falling down a rabbit hole more, and I hope readers will agree there is a fantastic film to be made.

Sex, lies and skullduggery: what more could we want?

About the Author
Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist.