Russim – On Russian Culture and Immigration in Israel
What follows is not an academic report, but rather a kind of story based on my journalist work covering a very specific niche of Russian-Israeli cultural producers, as well as my experience within a particular ex-Soviet Jewish community. So before I speak in general about Russian-Jewish immigrants to Israel, I’d like to explain my own family connection to this demographic. My parents were married and lived in Moscow, though each of them had a different origin – my father came from Tbilisi, Georgia, and my mother from Kishinev, Moldavia. They immigrated to Israel in 1979 with my older sister, and a year later I was born in the port town of Ashdod. My first languages were Russian and Hebrew, though after my immigration to America at the age of nine, English overtook them both, and in order to recover them I had to exert a conscious effort. So while I identify as a Russian-speaking Jew, in actuality I was born in Israel and raised in the United States – an in-between position allowing me to remain on the borderline from which I’m speaking to you today.
As some of you may know, applying for an exit visa in the USSR was risky. First, it involved an invitation from a relative in Israel – an open admission of having family abroad. Once it was submitted, people usually had to quit their jobs, and often so did their families. If one was refused exit – usually for having worked in an industry that the Soviet authorities considered “secret,” though their real motives could be more varied – then the person was stuck in the Soviet Union without a proper job, a potential “social parasite” left to reapply for exit time after time. Nonetheless, some 250,000 people applied and received exit visas in the 1970’s. Among those, 100,000 – less than half – ended up in Israel. Like many generations of Jewish immigrants to Israel, they were called olim, the plural of oleh – terms which come from the word aliyah or, in English, ascension, a word which itself is related to the trip into Jerusalem’s mountain tops that Jews all over Eretz Israel made three times each year during the time of the first and second Temple. This word usage underlines the ideological and even spiritual significance of moving to Israel. You don’t immigrate to the Holy Land. You ascend. Though in practice some people ascended, and others simply immigrated.
The transit point for this ascension between the Soviet Union and Israel was Vienna. People were met at the airport by representatives of a number of organizations involved in the liberation of the Soviet Jews, and anyone who wanted to try their luck in America or another Western country could do so simply by registering with an organization other than the Jewish Agency for Israel, and traveling to one of several Italian towns near Rome, where dormitories had been established by the Joint Distribution Committee, and waiting around until they were issued entry visas. About 150,000 people did this, and made up the core of ex-Soviet Jewish refugees in the West.
Life in Italy, from what I’ve been told, was lively but stressful. The JDC helped, but people with families also had to work odd jobs to make ends meet – particularly if the wait for a visa lasted not weeks but months. I was once in a car with Victor Raduztky, best known for being Amos Oz’s translator into Russian, and he told me how the Jewish Agency had sent him to Italy. He insisted that he was not there to convince people to move to Israel, but simply to tell them about it as a person who lives in the country and believes in it. At the same time, weeklong trips to Israel were established for people stuck in Italy. The thinking was, as he explained, you have all these Jews going to America who know nothing about Israel and have a lot of free time on their hands. Obviously, they’re not interested in moving to Israel, so the least we can do is show them the country for a few days. Radutzky recounted that once, as he was giving a talk about Israel in the dining hall, a virtuoso violinist walked in and called him a liar in front of the entire audience. “I’ve just come back from Israel,” said the violinist, “and I can personally attest to you that everything this man says is a lie. The country is more beautiful and wonderful than he could ever describe to you.” The violinist, said Radutzky, had actually wanted to immigrate to Israel, but apparently his wife, who was thinking about the virtuoso’s career, insisted on America. As did most others.
Radutzky, however, was one of the other 100,000 who actually went to Israel. Beside other things, the trip to Israel was paid for by the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the whole trip took about a week – and just like that, the Soviet subject was a free Israeli Jew. At least on paper. Last year, I interviewed Masha Buman, a Russian literature professor who also translates from Hebrew to Russian. She explained that when she first arrived in 1976 and sent to work on a kibbutz, she loved it – until she started to understand what Israelis were saying and how miserable they were. She moved to Jerusalem and, instead of attending Hebrew classes, spent her time at the only bookstore in town that had books in Russian. She read everything in the store, so that the owner eventually gave Masha the key to her apartment, where Masha sat and read the rest of her Russian library. After a failed attempt at studying economics, Masha eventually got a BA in French, and an MA in Russian literature. After her MA, she moved to Los Angeles to begin her PhD studies at UCLA. She explained that it was in Los Angeles that she began to understand that she was a foreigner no matter where she was – America or Israel. As she put it: “I didn’t feel any ‘culture shock’ when I got to Israel. But after my time in America, I began to understand that the fact that I didn’t go to ulpan and sat in a bookstore reading Russian books meant I was going through culture shock.”
Culture shock or not, no one moved to Israel in the 1970’s without at least a small kernel of Zionist sentiment – even if they didn’t know how they would adapt to a Zionist or Israeli environment. When it came to the intelligentsia, however, the situation upon arrival felt nonetheless dire – compared to cities like Moscow and Leningrad, even Jerusalem felt like a cultural desert. Not only that, but there were very few of them – of the already relatively small number of immigrants from the USSR, a very small percentage were literary or artistic people, and those who were quickly sought out each other. Along with Masha, they included the poets Mikhail Gendelev, Vladimir Glozman, and Henri Volokhonsky, writers and journalists Lev Melamid and Maya Kaganskaya, Russian literature professors Dmitri Segal, Yelena Tolstaya, and Mikhail Weisskopf, translator Peter Kriksunov, as well as most of the Russian department of Israel Radio at the time. Many of them congregated in a then-newly built outlying neighborhood of Jerusalem called Neve Yaakov. As Weisskopf recalled, they lived a bohemian lifestyle and called their little neighborhood the “Quarter of Poets.” Those who were part of this period speak continuously of the poverty in which everyone lived. Masha once told me that when she wanted to buy a car, she called Misha Gendelev while he was still in Beersheva. “Compared to us,” she explained, “he was rich – just because he had a salary.”
Gendelev went on to be perhaps the most prominent member of a group that doesn’t lack for academic and literary success. As Weisskopf explained, “Having come from a country steeped in ideology, we didn’t accept kibbutz culture, where they were still singing songs that in the USSR people had stopped singing in the 1950s. But from the beginning, Gendelev tried to find some alternative form of spiritual life. He instituted a different Israel.” While living in Beersheva he had job as an anesthesiologist, but upon moving with the rest of the literati to Jerusalem, Gendelev joined the general poverty. With a grant from the Israel Writers’ Union, though, Gendelev published his first book, Entry to Jerusalem (1979), which consisted of poems he’d written in Leningrad. Apparently, he was both upset and amused by the publication, in which he counted 127 typos. Nonetheless, everyone who surrounded Gendelev recognized him from the start as a “great poet.” In 1982, he served as a military doctor in the First Lebanon War. It was his last experience working as a doctor and resulted in a cycle of poems called “War in the Garden,” which put him on the literary map. Because he wrote in Russian, Gendelev constantly struggled with the Israeli literary establishment, which was cut off from his poems because of the language barrier. Still, he called himself Gendelev Hermonsky (Gendelev of Mount Hermon); and though he participated in the tradition of Russian literature, he considered himself an Israeli poet.
The literati were also connected with a number artists who had already begun to mold into a semi-formal group back in Leningrad. Especially notable was the ALEPH Group established by Eugene Abeshaus which included Tanya Kornfeld, Anatoly Basin, Aleksandr Gurevich, and Sasha Okun. The group was formed after a group exhibit in 1974 at the Palace of Arts, which was the first show of non-conformist works in Leningrad. People stood in line for up to five hours in frosts reaching -20º Celsius, and groups visitors would be allowed in for a maximum of 30 minutes. They began to organize kvartirnie (apartment-exhibits), and it wasn’t long before people started losing their jobs. Since the authorities would only continue to put pressure until the group stopped its activities, they began to plan their emigration.
When I spoke to Okun about the group, he said he joined because, as he put it, he didn’t want others to think he was afraid to be openly Jewish. Okun is a fitting example of how a more or less normally proud person can be sucked into a “historical” struggle. After the group started holding their kvartirnie, Okun lost his position at the art school where he taught, and was put for a time under a type of house arrest. He remembered at some point being arrested and a police colonel telling him, “If I have to spend another day off at work” – that is, following Okun around – “I promise you three years.” Eventually, on top of the authorities and the KGB, the army started looking to enlist him. He decided to hide out in Central Asia, and took the trip with a friend named Viktor Gliner. Before leaving, he went to visit another friend, Aba Taratuta, an activist in the Jewish struggle to leave the USSR who had a lot of American pocket-sized paperbacks. Okun picked one out at random.
The book turned out to be Elie Wiesel’s Souls on Fire, Portraits and Legends of Hassidic Masters. Okun first opened it over a bonfire in the Karakum Desert. Okun and Gliner returned to Leningrad after two and a half months of travelling, and decided to translate the book into Russian, literally splitting it in half. At the same time, Okun applied for permission to emigrate. He received Gliner’s half and started editing the entire translation while waiting for permission to leave the USSR. It came on the day he put the final touches on the manuscript. As he explained, “It was Wiesel’s first book in Russian. We typed out six copies, and then gave these out and each person also typed out six copies. This way the book spread. Many people I meet say it brought them [to Israel].” Okun himself arrived to Israel in 1979, and in 1986 was asked to participate in a group show. Six months later he got a call from Yoram Rosov, who taught drawing at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and was going on a sabbatical. Having seen Okun’s work at the group show, Rosov wanted to know whether Okun would be interested in teaching in his place at Bezalel. And Okun is proud to be teaching there to this day. You can call Okun’s case a modest but solid success story – he does what he wants, and it’s enough for him that there are some people interested in this.
I have a soft spot for Okun. First, I’m one of the only people I know who doesn’t dislike his work. Everyone agrees he’s a masterful painter, but when it comes to his subjects – “have you seen the kinds of grotesque forms he draws?” I’m not sure why, but I don’t mind it so much. And he is, after all, a very good painter. But there’s a funny personal story that made me especially partial to him. When I told my mother that I was about to interview Sasha Okun for the Jerusalem Post, she told me, “Really, Okun? I just saw him on TV the other day giving an interview. You know, your father once had a meeting with him in the early 80’s. Yes, he traveled all the way out to Okun’s studio in Gilo” – the southernmost neighborhood in Jerusalem. When I later spoke to my father on the phone, I asked him whether he remembered such a meeting, and he said, “David, it was twenty-five years ago, you think I remember one meeting?” After my interview with Okun at his studio in the Givat Shaul industrial neighborhood of Jerusalem, I asked him whether he remembered such a meeting, and he said, “Well, it was twenty-five years ago.” But when I asked him whether he ever had a studio in Gilo, he answered that he did. And so it seemed that, with a break of over twenty-five years, both my father and I had had occasion to meet with Sasha Okun. And even if we put all personal issues aside, he’s an example of a Jewish oleh, or immigrant, who, while retaining the mark of the place from which he came, has carved a niche for himself in Israeli society.
As I hinted above, it’s hard to talk about Soviet Jews who arrived to Israel throughout the 1970’s without speaking of this irrational but steadfast desire to live in one’s homeland. Gendelev, Buman, Okun, and many many others, came to a place with a different culture, language, and climate, but the magical thing is that they adapted to this place which became for them a more natural home even than their own country of birth.
The usual narrative when speaking of the difference between the relatively small Russian aliyah of the 1970’s and the massive Russian aliyah of the 1990’s is that the former were Zionists and the latter economic refugees. In fact, this delineation isn’t so clear-cut – there were those in the 1990’s who went to Israel because that was the place they wanted to be, just as there were those in the 1970’s who came to Israel out of the belief that they would be helped by the government. And those who came in the 1970’s did receive help – including apartments in new outlying neighborhoods – that those who came in the 1990’s didn’t.
But the major difference between the earlier and later immigrations is that in the 1970’s people had some choice about where to go, and in the 1990’s most could choose only Israel: in the late 1980’s, America, purportedly under pressure from Israel, began to close its doors to immigrants from what is now known as the Former Soviet Union. Many of those who went to Israel hoped they would be helped the way they predecessors had been, and that their quality of life would improve. And a person living below poverty level in Israel does live relatively better than a person below poverty level in the FSU. But you can be assured that with 30,000 new immigrants every month, Israel was hardly able to make sure everyone was fed, let alone offer them a decent standard of living.
These circumstances led to all kinds of horror stories – one of which I’ll share today. Unlike my previous examples, it doesn’t come from my professional experience. Once, I was at my mother’s place and a friend of hers named Bella had come over. Bella had come alone from the Ukraine with her two children and parents. Her husband had abused her for years, to the point that he once broke both her arms. When she went to the police to complain, they suspended him from work for a month. “You see,” he told her, “that’s what you get for going to the police – now we don’t have money. Next time you’ll keep your mouth shut.” She not only kept her mouth shut, she gathered herself, her parents, and the kids, and got out of there.
At the time, Poland, unlike Hungary, had allowed the flow of Soviet Jews passing through its territory on their way to Israel – but Bella tells of having to give half of her valuable belongings as a bribe to the border guard in order to get the other half through. And that’s not the end: the days of organized flights from Moscow to Vienna to Tel Aviv were long gone, and Bella had to arrange her own immigration. She tells of scenes in which she arrived in Jerusalem without anyone to meet her, and she was stuck without help, with two children and her parents, at night without a place to stay, sitting on the curb and crying. Her toddler needed milk and she didn’t even know what the word was in Hebrew. At some point a passing religious woman took pity on her and brought them to her home, and from there Bella started, like everyone, the real immigrant struggle.
Bella, like my mother, lived in Neve Yaakov. The neighborhood formerly known as the Quarter of Poets had, after an influx of poor immigrants in the 1990’s, picked up a new nickname: The Neighborhood of Golden Teeth – for all the Russian and Bukharan immigrants whose only valuable asset was the gold in their mouth. My mother and I once visited Bella at her home, a small cluttered apartment where her now-teenage children loafed around. In Russia Bella had always wanted to be a hairstylist, but the profession was considered humiliating and she was sent instead to study engineering. When that profession didn’t pay enough, she took to stealing. Now, in Israel, she was finally able to “realize her dream” and became a hairstylist and cosmetologist, setting up a chair and mirror in the kitchen for her few clients.
So was the thing that made Bella’s and many other women’s experience so difficult simply the fact that they weren’t Zionists? Not quite. We have to remember that, in Israel, the difference between the end of the 1980’s and the beginning of the 1990’s was like a flash-forward of at least two decades. This I know from personal experience: when I left in 1989, there was still only one government television channel, which worked from around 8 AM till midnight; when I came to visit in 1991, there was cable television with tens and tens of channels. The change was instant and all-encompassing, including the industrial, agricultural, economic, cultural, medical, and technological sectors. It was as if Israel had upgraded its infrastructure to match the rest of the world at the same time that it increased its population by nearly a million people who didn’t even speak the local language.
When 100,000 Russian-speakers were scattered among less than 4 million Israelis, the Russians learned to speak Hebrew and were proud of it. For one thing, they had the time: six months in an absorption center with Hebrew lessons every morning. Not so with the massive aliyah of the 1990’s. As Buman explained it to me, there was no orientation – nothing was done in the way that Russians were used to it being done, neither learning Hebrew, nor looking for work or registering kids for school. With this mass of immigrants arriving without knowing where they were going to sleep or how they were going to eat, not only was there little time for going to Hebrew class, but there was less need: there were suddenly a lot of other people around who spoke Russian. I remember the Hebrew-language poet Roman Baembaev, who had immigrated from Cernowicz as a teenager in the early 1970’s (and served in the army with Tzipi Livni), telling me that until the Russians arrived, he had almost never spoken Russian. Since their arrival, not only had his Russian returned, but the native Hebrew accent in which he’d spoken since teen-hood made way for a typically Russian accent.
The linguistic issue was not only a cultural one, it was also the entryway to an economic market. Anyone who could establish either a product or a way of selling a product in Russian could immediately win a share of the market. This meant that the demographic had purchasing power, and it also meant the creation of jobs that hadn’t previously been available. Gendelev, for example, could barely earn a living until the Russian press appeared in 1990, when he started publishing weekly recipes under the title “Society of Clean Plates.” Buman and her friend, Sonia Solomonick, who in the early ’90s had just returned from completing their PhDs in Los Angeles, started an NGO called “SAMA” – in Russian, “myself” in the feminine – through which they held workshops for Israeli social workers on all kinds of subjects related to working with Russian olim. Russian-speaking community centers were established in cities all over Israel to provide for the new immigrants. Another well-known example is the Gesher Theater established by Yevgeny Arye in Jaffa. A lesser-known but no less significant example is Jerusalem’s Russian Library established by Clara Elbert – purportedly the largest library of Russian-language Jewish-related books in the world. And, of course, Russian language food stores with Russian (mostly non-kosher) products opened up everywhere, as well as Russian bookstores, tourist agencies, and even a Russian Israeli television channel – Izrail Plyus. Russian doctors were even known to arrive with their Russian patients. And this way, one step after another, an entire Russian Israeli sub-society – built partly on the experience of the veterans but animated by the new arrivals – appeared throughout Israel.
The unique experience of any sub-society is reflected in its culture, and the raw reality that many people faced upon arriving in Israel hardened into a tougher attitude. Julia Lerner, a Russian-Israeli anthropologist once pointed out to me that, unlike the aliyah of the 1970’s which consisted mostly of various literary and scientific intelligentsia, the aliyah of the 1990’s brought in all kinds of Rusisan immigrants that had never before been in Israel – an entire slice of Russian society, from top to bottom, varied in both age and social status. These included teenagers in or just out of high school, whose parents either didn’t want or were not yet ready to leave their home countries, would go to Israel on a special program called Naaleh – meaning “we will make aliyah” – with the hope that after grounding themselves with an education, job, or family, their parents will follow suit. Many parents did this, but some did not. A kind of lost generation developed that included both Russian and Israeli youth, some of which gathered at an abandoned Arab village just outside of Jerusalem called Lifta. It was a literary and artistic group that led an edgier lifestyle and included hard drinking and drugs. One of its more prominent members was the poet Anna Karpa, whose pen name was Anna Gorenko – Akhmatova’s real name – and who died of an overdose in 1999 at the age of 27. The Lifta group established connections with older generation poets like Gendelev, Baembaev, and Vladimir Tarasov, but their harder edge also set them apart.
Thankfully, not all of the artistic people of this generation shared Karpa’s tragic fate. Poets Peter Ptah and Sivan Beskin, writer and translator Roy Chen, theater director Yulia Ginis, visual artist Masha Zusman, along with many others who were connected to Lifta to varying degrees, went on to develop themselves artistically and to this day continue to present their works to the public. Alongside these artists there was also the development of a new generation of academics, including Julia Lerner, Olga Gershenson, Sveta Roberman, and Denis Sobolev, who are establishing an area of interest of their own. As the 1990’s gave way to the 2000’s, many people had settled either into the Russian sub-society or the general Israeli society or a combination of both, and with the rise of the Second Intifada new Israeli realities pulled people into a different state of existence. In Russia, Putin had taken power and mounted a campaign to return some of the Jews that had left, eventually opening a Russian Cultural Center in Tel Aviv which was purported to encourage and even help people of Russian origin to find jobs in Russia. A renewed sense of opportunity in Russia and a mounting difficult reality in Israel led many to make Russia a second home – including Mikhail Gendelev, who finally achieved there the fame and recognition that his friends in Israel had always known he deserved.
Still, twenty years out, the Russian population still hovers at 20%, and to a greater or lesser degree, the old and new guards became integrated. Like any major societal change, the massive Russians’ struggle for survival in Israel has plateaued to a certain extent. People moved here to live, and that’s what they’re doing. Many Israelis now know a few words in Russian, or have friends who came from the FSU, and new immigrants that now arrive from Russian-speaking countries can fairly easily find and join established social and professional groups. One the one hand, Russians have entered every major technological, scientific, and cultural industry in the country, and on the other there are Russian ghettos in many cities where lower-class people of Russian origin aggregate – the wide social cross-section has in many senses been preserved. Special social services have been established for helping Russian speakers. At the same time, the Jewish Agency has launched a seminar program targeting Israeli children of Russian-speaking immigrants who want to reconnect with their heritage, using the Russian language as a means of developing their Jewish identity. At the Van Leer Institute, a Russian Forum has been added to their various academic and cultural research interests. The Avi Chai foundation has a separate Russian cultural program. As do many other institutions throughout Israel. And someone like myself, a writer and journalist who is a hybrid product of all these different streams of which I’ve spoken, can enter and explore an entire sociocultural universe.
The following lecture was presented in the Fall of 2009 during a book tour for the release of David Stromberg’s fourth cartoon collection, BADDIES (Melville House) – including at the Library of Congress on October 14, 2009. It presents a combination of personal stories and reportage collected after Stromberg spent a year and a half in Jerusalem covering various aspects of Russian-speaking life and culture. While the lecture was written over a decade ago, and much has changed in Israel both culturally and politically, the overall facts and sentiments expressed in this piece are still largely relevant. The text has been slightly edited for clarity.