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Jewish Journal

UCLA Football Player Keeps Kosher

by Tom Tugend

May 17, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Eyoseph Esi Efseaff is a rising star as offensive lineman on the UCLA football team, but when he arrived at the campus on his initial recruiting trip, he startled the coaches with an unexpected request.

He was hungry, said the 6-foot-3-inch, 282-pound athlete, but, he insisted, the food had to be strictly kosher.

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.

Efseaff, an 18-year-old freshman, is not Jewish. He 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 follow the Bible literally -- including the dietary laws detailed in Leviticus.

Molokan in Russian means "milk-drinker," an appellation derived from the group's defiance of the prescribed Orthodox fast days by drinking milk.

An outstanding football and track star in his high school in Portervile, near Fresno, Efseaff was courted by most Pac-10 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 bring along his own paper plates and plastic utensils when he travels.

Bruin offensive line coach Mark Webber is high on his freshman 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."

The freshman's great-grandparents on both sides immigrated from Russia to California, where most of the estimated 20,000 ethnic Molokans in the United States live.

Efseaff grew up on a farm with two brothers and five sisters. His father, Esi, is somewhat worried about his son's departure to the big city.

"We don't want him to just go off where he never comes home again," said the 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."

Young Efseaff is not only muscular but smart, graduating from his high school with a 3.9 grade point average. He is planning on a career in sports medicine but has already ruled out a future with an NFL team.

Most NFL games are on Sundays, and he will not play on his religion's prescribed day of rest.

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