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Reading Amos Oz in Vancouver

After growing up in the Russian-speaking immigrant bubble, how did I mend my broken bond with Israeli culture? I left
(Illustration by Avi Katz)
(Illustration by Avi Katz)

A few weeks ago I received a package from Toronto. Inside the parcel there were three books: an old secondhand copy of “My Michael” by Amos Oz, a collection of stories by Etgar Keret and David Grossman’s “Someone to Run With.” It’s hard to find books in Hebrew in British Columbia, so I had ordered from a small shop on the other side of Canada. The last time I read Hebrew literature was back in school for a mandatory class assignment. Now, holding these books in my hands, I felt a strange tingle. As if I had met someone important from my past, with whom I had unfinished business. Despite living two thirds of my life in Israel, my connection to Israeli culture runs remarkably thin. How does one grow up and live a quarter of a century in a country, without soaking up its literature, music, cinema? The question has plagued me ever since I left Israel three years ago.

I was nine when I came to Israel with my parents, our shuttle speeding on the Coastal Highway, a row of palm trees lining up along the sea. From that first memory and well into my adulthood, my life passed on the streets of Haifa. The Hadar neighborhood had been the center of city life in the 40s and 50s, but by the time the wave of Jewish immigrants from the USSR flooded the city in 1990, Hadar was already long in decay. More affluent residents had moved up the Carmel mountain to better neighborhoods, and Hadar was a shadow of its former self, with abandoned old cinemas, neglected Bauhaus buildings and the Talpiot market, boasting bargain prices and unsanitary conditions. Within this perimeter, the new immigrants carved out a space for themselves, attracted by cheap rentals and good bus connections to the rest of the city. Here, among the wig shops for ultra-Orthodox women and the falafel stands with their swift-handed Mizrahi owners, I met my Israel.

I learned Hebrew in ulpan class at Leo Baeck Еlementary. Immigrant kids of different ages banded together, here we would make our first friendships in the new country. Eager to move up in life, every other week we would bug the teacher with the same mantra: “Matay ani ole le kita?” When do I move to a regular class? The fourth grade class was evenly mixed between immigrant and native-born kids. We would still speak Russian during breaks, but some level of integration was underway. The Children’s Channel on the TV was a powerful conduit of Hebrew. And soon I read my first book in Hebrew, the translation of Jule Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”.

Then in middle school came Asimov and Heinlein. Our school library had a surprisingly good selection of Hebrew-translated science fiction, and together with a friend, I would stay after school foraging the dusty shelves in search of fantastic new worlds to discover. Soon science fiction would become more than just an escape. Reading Frank Herbert, Ursula Le Guin, Philip Dick, Roger Zelazny would become an important part of how I defined myself.

At the time, almost every immigrant family had a subscription at one of the many video rentals in the neighbourhood. Stacked from floor to ceiling with bootlegged VHS tapes of action movies with amateur Russian dubbing, a Friday errand list wouldn’t be complete without a stopover here. Sergey, a middle-aged guy permeated with tobacco smoke and strong opinions on cinema was our personal Rotten Tomatoes. Endorsing one choice, dismissing another, he would make sure you left the place with a high-quality selection of instant classics starring Sylvester Stallone and Jean Claude Van Damme.

* * *

Bosmat high school was the place to be if you were a child of Russian “olim.” It had science and technology tracks in electronics and computers, and it was historically linked with the prestigious Technion Institute. These magical keywords were enough to light up our parents’ imagination. Out of 40 kids in my class, only five were sabras (we also had only 4 girls). Coarse concrete buildings with bars on windows, asphalt schoolyard with hardly a patch of green, toilets defaced with obscenities in Russian, durak card games on breaks. It resembled a male penitentiary as much as a high-school. Pushed by aspirations for academic excellence instilled at home, eight kids from my class were admitted to the Technion straight out of school. But in those surroundings we had little exposure to more typically Israeli experiences.

The Moscow bookshop on the corner of Nordau Boulevard and Balfour Street. With its tongue-in-cheek communist memorabilia in its store window, and a large selection of titles in Russian, it was a refuge for the immigrant soul. Crammed with the other visitors in its narrow passages, I would pass the hours perusing its shelves of translated fiction, leaving without buying anything or with a fresh-smelling volume of Umberto Eco, Julio Cortazar, Bioy Casares, Kurt Vonnegut.

My first date with a girl. I met her in a city library on Pevzner Street. She had a cute ponytail and spoke Russian with a Hebrew accent. When she agreed to go out with me, I felt like I had just won the lottery. A few days later we met at Hof Dadu beach, in one of the generic bars dotting the promenade. She wore a skirt and a tight T-shirt which looked great on her. Excitedly, she was telling me how she and her friends recently spotted Aviv Geffen in one of his “usual hangouts.” One of the most popular Israeli musicians at the time, Geffen was an icon. But not only had I never hung out in places frequented by Israeli rockers, I knew nothing about the Israeli musical scene. By the end of that date, I felt like an abyss had opened between us. She was decidedly Israeli. I wasn’t.

At the time, my musical interests, sustained by a supply of tapes from my classmates, were leaning towards Russian rock instead. Gathered in someone’s apartment, sooner or later someone would pick-up a guitar and play Victor Tzoy, with everyone singing along.

Two cassettes of The Wall and a King Crimson album loaned from a friend were the beginning of my long-time infatuation with Progressive Rock of the 70’s. Another building block of the identity project. Another way to escape the here and now, with its suffocating days of khamsin and lingering feelings of inadequacy. Spending nights rummaging in online forums, Napster and Audiogalaxy in search of arcane British bands, I would find comfort in the instrumentals of Camel, the existential poetry of Peter Hammill, the cosmic landscapes of Tangerine Dream. The little of the Israeli rock I did get to know offered little shade, like the endless summer, scorching with the prosaic truths of daily life.

* * *

In American movies, college is the place where inhibitions are overcome, and sex and drinking take central stage. Known for its stringent academic attitude, the Technion provided little opportunity for any of this. The fact that we were “atudaim,” the youngest of all the students – those that were allowed to postpone their army service – didn’t help. The “grown-ups” around us were serious people, they were not here to fool around. Sabras who had served in the army and traveled in South America, they knew how to prepare chilli, had serious girlfriends and were eager to start adult life. We were still the same immigrant school kids.

Dana Berger, Berry Sakharof, Dag Nahash. Each semester, the biggest names in Israeli music were brought to campus for the student day party. Large crowds would gather on the central lawn, clapping, singing along. Trying to get excited, we would meander around aimlessly. Our “parties” looked different. Gathering in some remote corner of the campus or someone’s cramped dorm room, we would drink cheap vodka from plastic cups, chasing it down with soda and pastrami, yelling Chizh, Vysotsky, Leningrad songs largely to the same four guitar chords.

We also had Rodeo. Ask any Russian-speaking Haifa resident in his 30’s or 40’s about a staple Friday night in the city, and he’ll smile and say just one word. Established in 1977, long before Haifa spoke Russian, the pub’s written history begins in the 90s with Rick and his then-wife Ira. Keeping the cowboy decor, adding home-cooked comfort food, live concerts and Rick’s signature “I don’t give a fuck and neither should you” barman presence, they turned the place into an institution. Whether gathering with friends to kick back over a couple of beers, bringing a date or just coming to see a rock musician from Russia play acoustic concert, here your troubles would soon recede into the background. Frequented by students, former rockers, bikers and just about anyone else living in the Russian-language bubble, Rodeo would become the living center of the neighborhood on evenings and weekends.

It’s hard to pinpoint the source of my internal dissociation from the Israeli culture, but it probably had as much to do with the Middle East realities as with my immigrant experience or teenage angst. I started my undergraduate studies in Technion in October 2000. In September, the Second Intifada began. To get to the Technion from Hadar, you would take the number 19 bus from the bus station near the main synagogue. But soon, a wave of terror attacks shook the country. Suicide bombings made appearing in public spaces downright scary. Haifa, with its mixed Jewish and Arab population coexisting peacefully, was unused to terror attacks. But a string of explosions around the city – two buses and two restaurants full of people obliterated by suicide attacks, made the situation horribly clear. Ditching buses, I would start taking shared taxis instead. Less people in a vehicle – less motivation to blow it up. These kinds of calculations were on everyone’s mind.

Summer of 2003, Bremen. After taking a German course at the Technion, I got an invitation to a summer school in Germany. With friendly hosts and students from all over the world, we basked in an atmosphere of multicultural camaraderie. More than German, we were learning about ourselves, about each other, and how big and diverse was the world around us. During that month I had a fling with a girl. I fell in love with another. A world away from the bloody conflicts of the Middle East, I savored the sweet taste of self-liberation. A few days before the school ended, morning news from home came rushing in. Another bus explosion in Jerusalem, twenty people dead, dozens more critically injured. Standing in a tram station with its state-of-the-art electronic display announcing its belonging to this new, peaceful and united Europe, the sudden realization dawned on me. What awaited me back home, besides the hourly newscasts and the daily blood calculus were six years in the army. Still drunk from my immersion in the European student life, it felt like an impending prison sentence. The despair would consume me for months.

In the army I would discover that this is normal. In fact, there is nothing more Israeli than starting the day carefree on Alexanderplatz, and finishing it disoriented in some god-forsaken military base in the Negev.

Three years of mandatory service, officer training, three more years of contract service followed. The army knows how to churn out patriots. I had never spoken so much Hebrew before. There were now sabras I could call friends, and I finally felt I was an Israeli, even though I still spoke with a Russian accent and regarded Noviy God, rather than Rosh Hashanah as the real New Year celebration.

* * *

Truth be told, I never really tried to blend in. I also didn’t particularly have to. An “immigrant ghetto,” despite all the negative connotations, is a safe space. A place where you don’t need to work hard to be accepted. Let me rephrase that. You still have all the usual growing pains, you still have to find your place under the sun. You just don’t have the additional weight of your funny accent, your strange-sounding name and your “uncool” parents bringing you down.

While I was comfortable in a “separatist” Russian sub-culture, many children of my generation, who grew up outside of pockets of immigrant concentration, did what they could to hide their Russian identity and instead create an Israeli-Sabra one. Not only the desired acceptance wasn’t always granted, these attempts often led to internal conflicts between the “home self” and the “street/school self”. A friend of mine, who followed that path, confessed to me: “From a very young age I did everything I could to blur my “Russian” identity and repress its existence. I started developing affection and interest in my Russian roots only in the second half of my 20s”.

Having heard enough stories of kids whose adaptation was traumatic, I suspect that getting stuck in an immigrant cocoon was worth it, if it meant growing up relatively unscathed. But still I feel I missed something important.

In a country where news is consumed incessantly, and personal life, like butter on bread, exists only as an extension of the national one, I was following politics as much as anyone else. In high-school I remember participating passionately in a discussion panel on Golan Heights arguing against giving up the land. In the elections following the Second Lebanon War, I volunteered in a local Likud branch to hand out leaflets. Six years later I was writing articles for a left-leaning Internet publication. But this engagement in politics never translated into cultural interest. If anything, the non-Hebrew culture I consumed was an antidote to the Israeli reality. Translated literature, British music, European cinema, American talk shows were my window to the world of “normality.” The only way I found to reconcile with life in the Middle East, was to internally distance myself from it.

* * *

Months, years passed by with little notice. Hungry for a change of scenery, now married and with a toddler, we moved abroad. A year later, discovering Spotify (that was still unavailable in Israel), I started streaming Israeli music. And I couldn’t stop. I caught up on Arik Einstein, HaMachshefot and Dag Nahash, discovered Hatikva 6, fell in love with HaBiluim and Hahazer Ha’ahorit.

As with an ex-partner from whom you had overblown expectations and whose faults and imperfections you couldn’t accept fully, it’s when you finally break up that your flawed relationship can develop into a friendship.

A few days ago I finished reading Amos Oz’s “My Michael.” A novel set in Jerusalem in the 50s, describing the life and marriage of a young Israeli woman, it’s exactly the kind of reading I would have previously avoided: raw, claustrophobic and set in a city that symbolizes all that is messed up in this part of the world – fanaticism, intolerance and divisiveness. But I loved the book.

I don’t think my sudden interest is about nostalgia or sentimentality – I don’t have much of that. It’s about being emotionally available for exploring the trauma and the fleeting hope of Israeli existence.

As it turns out, sometimes you have to take a step back, to get closer.

About the Author
Mike was born in USSR, grew up in Haifa, and graduated from The Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. He served in the army and worked in startups. Since 2016 he has slowly been exploring the Americas with his wife and their son. A technologist, traveler and blogger, Mike writes about politics, the immigrant experience, and the cultural discoveries that await once you leave familiar turf.
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