LOS ANGELES, April 30 (JTA) When Eyoseph Esi Efseaff arrived at UCLA’s campus on a football recruiting visit, he startled the coaches with an unexpected request: His food had to be strictly kosher even though Efseaff isn’t Jewish.
Unfortunately it was a Friday evening, and the frantic coaches learned that all nearby kosher restaurants were closed for Shabbat. Finally, they tracked down some prepackaged kosher meals at the UCLA hospital.
The 6-foot-3-inch, 282-pound offensive lineman, now an 18-year-old freshman at UCLA, is a Russian Molokan, one of a group of Christian dissidents who broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century.
They refused to recognize the religious supremacy of the czar and they follow the Bible literally including its dietary laws, although most do not have their meat ritually slaughtered.
Because of their beliefs, they were persecuted and forced to resettle in other parts of the Russian Empire in southern Ukraine, the Caucasus, Central Asia and eastern Russia, where many still reside.
In Russian, Molokan means “milk drinker,” a moniker that began after Molokans defied the prescribed Orthodox fast days by drinking milk.
Efseaff’s great-grandparents immigrated from Russia to California, where most of the estimated 20,000 Molokans in the United States live.
An outstanding football and track star in his high school near Fresno, Calif., Efseaff was courted by several West Coast college football teams.
He picked UCLA, he said, because the presence of a small Molokan and large Jewish community in Los Angeles would assure a ready supply of kosher food.
On campus, he orders his weekly supply of kosher food on Mondays, stores it in a small refrigerator in his dormitory room and microwaves the meals as needed.
On the road, the team flies in kosher food if it’s not available locally, and Efseaff brings along his own paper plates and plastic utensils.
Bruin offensive line coach Mark Webber is high on his star, on and off the field.
“To have that kind of discipline that he has in his spiritual life and his diet and all that, it tells you something about the man,” Webber told The Los Angeles Times. “He’s a different young man. He’s all business, very intense, and that’s just the way he plays.”
Efseaff grew up on a farm with two brothers and five sisters. His father, Esi, is concerned about his son’s departure for the big city.
“We don’t want him to just go off where he never comes home again,” said his father. “Our religion, our people, we’re very tight. We want him to marry of his own faith. It’s very diverse there” at UCLA. “We’re being very cautious and taking each step cautiously with a lot of prayer.”
The younger Efseaff, who graduated from high school with a 3.9 grade point average, is planning on a career in sports medicine.
He has already ruled out a future in professional football: Most NFL games are on Sundays, and he will not play on his religion’s day of rest.