To Observe the Sabbath Or Not: At Trial, Questions Of Religious Devotion

March 7, 2009

Author: Ann Barnard

Source: The New York Times

Religion has been a quiet presence in a Queens courtroom during the five-week murder trial of Mazoltuv Borukhova and Mikhail Mallayev, but only rarely has their Jewish faith been the subject of contention. Until last week.

On Thursday, Dr. Borukhova was forced to admit that she had violated the Sabbath to inquire about buying a spy camera camouflaged inside a button. But the real trouble started shortly afterward, when the defendants’ insistence on observing the Jewish day of rest conflicted with another inviolate period of repose — namely, the judge’s vacation.

The Talmudic details of the dispute will be explained shortly. But to understand its power — why, for instance, it produced the first public disagreement between two defendants who have so far resisted any temptation to blame each other for the killing of Dr. Borukhova’s husband in October 2007 — it is necessary to grasp how religious and ethnic identity have pervaded the case.

The allegations — that Dr. Borukhova hired Mr. Mallayev, her cousin by marriage, to kill her husband, Daniel Malakov, during a bitter custody dispute over their daughter — have scandalized the small community of Bukharian Jews. All three families belong to the ethnic group, which immigrated, almost in its entirety, to the United States from Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Bukharian Jews preserved their religion for nearly 3,000 years under the Persian Empire, Muslim khanates and Communist rule. They have settled mainly in the Forest Hills section of Queens, clustered around synagogues that are traditional if not ultra-Orthodox — and now find themselves riven by the family feud.

Both Dr. Borukhova and Mr. Mallayev told the police that they would never be involved in anything illegal because of their religious beliefs.

Dr. Borukhova’s relatives sit every day in the second row of State Supreme Court, murmuring prayers from books printed in Russian and Hebrew. Dr. Malakov’s relatives occasionally hiss at them across the aisle.

Covering their hair in accordance with religious rules for married women, Dr. Borukhova’s sisters wear bouffant wigs that became an issue when prosecutors claimed that an eyewitness saw one sister at the murder scene.

Their mother, who, depending on which side is to be believed, either threatened Dr. Malakov that he would soon “go to God” or merely said the almighty would punish him, opts for a fuzzy cloche hat.

Mr. Mallayev wore a black leather skullcap and matching jacket early in the trial, but switched to a more staid look: a suit and a velvet yarmulke bearing the Star of David. Earlier, he refused on religious grounds to shave his beard to appear in a lineup, finally agreeing to a shave with an electric razor.

Until last week, the court had been taking Fridays off. The defendants avoid driving, making phone calls or using electricity on the Jewish Sabbath, which begins at sundown on Friday. To make it back to Rikers Island by then, they would have to leave court so early that Justice Robert J. Hanophy declared at the outset that Friday sessions were not worth the trouble.

But with the approach of the judge’s vacation — immutably planned for later this month — he has grown less patient. Stemwinding by one of the defense or prosecution prompts him to look heavenward as if begging for help.