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A crotchety old academic reflects on the great Russian ‘wave’

Israel owes a lot to the aliyah from the former Soviet Union, but it took time - the new immigrants struggled with poverty, displacement, and the humbling of talented people
Israel's airport terminal filled to capacity with new immigrants, 1990. (Simionski Israel). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel.
Israel's airport terminal filled to capacity with new immigrants, 1990. (Simionski Israel). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Thirty years ago, a huge wave of immigration transformed Israel.

Over a million Russians arrived, turning their adopted country into a more prosperous, dynamic, and culturally rich (in a European sense) version of itself. I was there too, a grad student in Jerusalem, observing the changes as they happened. What I recall now, on the 30th anniversary of the “Russian flood,” is a little less triumphant than what journalists in Israel and the United States are now recalling.

Celebrating Igor Goldfarb, Israel’s 200,000th immigrant of 1990. (L-R) Ariel Sharon, Igor Goldfarb and Yitzhak Peretz at the welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion airport, December 31, 1990. (Shaul Rachamim). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel.

My short memoir tells two intersecting stories. One recounts the general context of which I was an observer. The other is the story of Russian Studies in Israel that I, an American, experienced first-hand with the new immigrants.

It was a peculiar time in Israel, the end of the First Intifada. Peculiar, too, was the situation in Jerusalem, where my neighbors were all new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The place was as motley as a Central Asian bazaar: some came from Moscow and with pretentions, some from Rostov, others from Uzbekistan. Some drank vodka every night with friends, bought new clothing, had style. They burned through their “aliyah money” quickly.

Bank Idud was opened specially for the new immigrants from the Soviet Union in Tel Aviv, April 19, 1990. (Shaul Rachamim). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Others were more fastidious. There was a real poet, too, who bought a washing machine and put it in his suite. He and his wife argued a lot. I remember one of her complaints: how an Israeli had propositioned her, and she, offended, told him that she was married. “We won’t tell your husband,” he replied.

Because I often spoke Russian, I was scoffed at by Moroccans who told me to go back to Russia. Little did they know, I grew up on Long Island.

Thousands of Jews were arriving daily. In Hebrew they were known as “olim hadashim,” while in Russian, they called themselves “repatriaty” (those repatriating). Although the Russian term underscored the Zionist vision, to some Israelis, the immigrants were people who could have come earlier, but did not, preferring to let others create the state. Now they had come because no one else would take them.

Then-finance minister Itzhak Mudai, welcoming a young Russian immigrant at the airport, January 17, 1990. (Danny Lev). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel.

With few exceptions, the “Russians” knew little about Zionism. It wasn’t their fault; they had come of age in a party dictatorship in which emphasizing one’s Jewishness could get you in trouble. In the Soviet Union, getting ahead was best achieved by repressing national and religious difference and quietly working for oneself in tandem with service to the state.

Life in Israel was no piece of cake.

Just as you’d expect, the new immigrants struggled: poverty, displacement, and confusion accompanied their journey. Movies such as “Yana’s Friends” romanticize the experience, but it was painful to see the humbling of talented people. Street musicians looked more like pitiful beggars than concert masters brought down by circumstance.

An accordion-playing immigrant waits to audition at the Beit Lesin Theatre in Tel Aviv, April 24, 1990. (Vered Peer). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Prostitutes appeared. And let’s not forget discrimination in employment and education. Russians were often treated coarsely, put through the ringer. Meanwhile, sexism was also present; women had a difficult time building their careers and complained about ubiquitous sexual harassment.

Everywhere one went, one overheard confessions: outlandish dreams, impossible hopes.

Money — and anxiety about money anxiety — was on everyone’s minds, as they shared cheap deals on apartments, clothing, and groceries, as well as practical tips about finding work. Along with anxiety, one sensed disappointment.

Several hundred immigrant doctors demonstrate opposite the Knesset over the fact that they have to take an examination before being allowed to practice in Israel, April 22, 1991. (David Mizrachi). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel .

It feels churlish to say this, but many recent Russian immigrants barely considered themselves Jewish, and wanted to be elsewhere. They were lost in their new country, unfamiliar with Hebraic culture — the Hebrew language and its rich heritage from biblical times to the present. To them, culture meant Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. Many “Russians” considered Israel a cultural desert; how could they survive so far from Moscow, Paris, and New York?

The most painful part of their experience was the Jewish question. For some Russian émigrés, the question was existential: how will I, an atheist, fit into Israel? Having come from a culture that mocked religion, the “opium of the people,” they viewed Judaism with some embarrassment. For other Russians, the problem was practical: 30 percent of them were not considered Jewish by halachic law; could they have a place in the state? Furthermore, many immigrant men were uncircumcised, and had to endure painful surgery as adults. If that weren’t difficult enough, one still had to wait on the Rabbinate’s approval.

Brides at a special ceremony organized by Chabad in Kiryat Malakhi, for 28 Russian immigrant couples who wanted to be remarried according to Jewish tradition, March 11, 1991. (Vered Peer). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel.

And in addition to everything else, there were the Palestinians. Terror created a common cause and forged an Israeli identity for the newcomers. But fear was compounded because the immigrants largely rode buses; they couldn’t afford private cars.

While the “Russians” are now sometimes criticized for their rightist and anti-Arab politics, it is difficult to discount the impact of those early years on the “Russian” experience in Israel.

My personal story focuses on the Hebrew University.

The influx of Russians brought a wave of scholars and would-be scholars. These were human encyclopedias — especially on Russian history and culture — yet with little knowledge of Judaism and Jewish history. The Hebrew University had a large army of professors in Russian Studies, and, although there were never many students, during the Cold War, its function had been to research issues on Soviet-Jewish persecution, as well as Jewish history in Russia: the Bund and Jewish radicalism, and, of course, the history of Zionism in Eastern Europe. The professors were like Yekes, yet nonetheless warmly greeted the Ostjuden; they often drank coffee with us at Beit Belgia or another campus café.

Dashevsky, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, overlooking the Old City, 1990. From the Institute of Jewish Studies St. Petersburg; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection.

The academic successes that emerged from this injection of new blood surpassed expectations. It was an auspicious moment: rare archives in Russia suddenly opened, and thanks to the internet, collaboration across continents and disciplines started in earnest. Within a few years, a dozen fine dissertations had been written.

What was life really like for us Russianists? This was not the stuff of musty rooms and dusty books. Russian Studies in Israel was punching out of real life. The city of Jerusalem fueled our feverish efforts with its hastily erected Russian bookstores and cheap Russian restaurants. It was easy to find a bowl of borsch, 50 grams of vodka, black bread, and kapusta (sauerkraut) for merely a few shekels.

Famous Russian author Yevgeny Yevtuschenko signs a book for then-Israeli president Chaim Herzog at the Jerusalem International Book Fair, 1993 (Zeev Ackerman). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Inspiration came from people, from the energy of the moment.

I have to admit, however, that studying liberal arts was risky then (as it is now). We tried to ignore how difficult it would be to find jobs, but our parents, husbands, and wives never ceased to worry about us and themselves. We accepted our fate, while others made different choices and started to make real money. The next generation would seek well-paying jobs in business and computers, but we embodied a different set of values; books, ideas, and esoteric knowledge gave us a powerful feeling of self.

At the time, there was still enormous respect for learning, as quaint as that sounds today.

Then a few years passed. The bookstores disappeared, as did the hundreds of Russian food joints. Russian was heard less and less often. The number of professors in Russian Studies at the Hebrew University dwindled. With the Cold War over, Israel shed her Russia experts. Within a decade, the things we cherished had all but vanished.

Although some commentators are claiming that the “Russians” are the first immigrant group in Israel to retain their original culture, I disagree. In fact, they have assimilated as did immigrants before them. Their children speak Hebrew, fulfill army service, vote, and work. Most important of all, they marry other Israelis, creating families in which Hebraic culture overwhelms the Russian.

About me? I am now old and crotchety, as are my colleagues, the generation that studied at the Hebrew University and sat from morning to evening at the National Library. Some have already retired. The great luminaries have passed to the other world (may their memories be a blessing). There will soon be a new national library built next to the Knesset in Givat Ram and it will have a stop on the light rail.

Simulated image of the reading room in the new National Library of Israel, set to open adjacent to the Knesset in 2022. © Herzog & de Meuron; Mann-Shinar Architects, Executive Architect.

Although that sounds trivial, it is part of the success story that is today’s Israel — superpower of the Middle East — that in large part came about thanks to the “Russians.” However, those who lived through that earlier time have memories of a genuine (uncomfortable, painful, vibrant, dynamic, and full) experience that changed our lives forever and, despite everything, for the better.

This article first appeared on “The Librariansthe official online publication of the National Library of Israel. Check it out for more Jewish, Israeli, and Middle Eastern history, heritage and culture.

About the Author
Brian Horowitz is the author of six books, including Vladimir Jabotinsky's Russian Years (2020), Russian Idea-Jewish Presence (2013), Empire Jews (2009), and a study fo the Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment among the Jews of Russia (Jewish Philanthropy and Enlightenment in Late-Tsarist Russia [2009]). His first book was on the historian and philosopher, Mikhail Gershenzon. He holds the Sizeler Family Chair and teaches at Tulane University in New Orleans. He has received numerous grants and awards. In an earlier life, he was a Slavicist and wrote about Alexander Pushkin, among others.
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