Russian Jews in Search of the Jewish State

By Anna Isakova

Having reached the Promised Land, Russian-speaking immigrants find themselves alone in their quest for Jewish civilization.

Over the past decade, approximately 800,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union have come to Israel, where they have joined nearly 200,000 Russian-speaking Jews who immigrated during the 1970s and early 1980s. All told, roughly one-sixth of Israel’s population speaks Russian today. For most of these immigrants, Russian remains their principal language of day-to-day life—their language of journalism, commerce and culture. An entire Russian-speaking world has been created in Israel, yet few people outside of that world have any idea what it contains.
Russian-speaking Israelis live, for the most part, in a cultural bubble that allows outside influences to enter, but does not enable these immigrants to participate meaningfully in the cultural life of the country in which they have settled. This Russian subculture contains two discernible streams, whose members view themselves as having been rejected by the Israeli mainstream, and are sufficiently occupied with their own affairs that they have little interest in breaking down the enclave’s walls. What may be called the “Jewish” stream consists of Russian-speaking Zionists, whose opposition to the Soviet Union reinforced their Jewish identities, and who now seek to plant Jewish cultural roots in the land of their forefathers. The members of the “Russian” stream, on the other hand, participate in—indeed, are at the forefront of—a worldwide Russian-language culture, and are perpetuating the dissident ethos that emerged during the Soviet era. For the second group, the future seems assured: With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian dissident exile has become a Russian diaspora, whose culture interacts and flourishes in concert with that of a free Russia. As for the first group, however, continued isolation could spell its demise: There is only so long that a Zionist culture can survive without having any real interaction with the mainstream intellectual and artistic life of the Jewish state.
For Zionists, the dismantling of the walls separating Russian- and Hebrew-speaking Jews should be of special interest. At a time when many of Israel’s leading cultural figures regularly show an indifference, if not antipathy, to Zionism, and when diaspora Jewry has downgraded the cause of Israel’s survival in order to tend to its own, the creative Jewish nationalism that thrives within the Russian community is especially significant. Indeed, it may be that the future of Zionism depends on today’s Russian-speaking Israelis. But for anything to come of this possibility, a concerted effort will have to be made, by intellectuals on both sides of the divide, to breach the hardened walls.
The most striking feature of Russian-language culture in Israel is its size. The Absorption Ministry lists no fewer than six hundred professional writers, a similar number of artists and sculptors, and an equally large contingent of journalists who have arrived in Israel from the former Soviet Union in the last decade alone. The number of professional musicians is even greater, and there are hundreds of movie actors, directors, producers and other film professionals, and even dozens of circus performers. Russian-language theater, too, is flourishing in Israel: In addition to the acclaimed Gesher theater group, there are many active Russian-language dramatic groups, many of which are of a high caliber. The choreographers and dancers who came to Israel could fill more than a few ballet troupes, while the vocalists could man several opera companies.
This wealth of talent has translated into a wide array of cultural events, such as an annual songwriting festival held on the shores of the Sea of Galilee near Tiberias, at which guitar-wielding songwriters perform their works as the audience sings along. This year, the festival’s organizers limited the number of participants to six thousand, in order to preserve the event’s intimate atmosphere. Russian rock performers were asked not to take part; no doubt they will soon get a festival of their own.
Literary activity is also flourishing. The Russian community in Israel supports six major publishing houses, as well as countless independent publishers of individual works. Tel Aviv and Jerusalem each boast about twenty Russian-language bookstores, and almost every city in Israel has at least one Russian bookstore, as well as several Russian-language lending libraries. The activities organized under the auspices of the Russian library in Jerusalem are comparable in scope to those of Beit Ariela, Tel Aviv’s main public library. Hundreds of volumes in Russian—even a Jewish encyclopedia—have been written since the first great wave of Soviet immigration in the 1970s. Dozens of academic textbooks, atlases and guidebooks, as well as translated and original literary works, have been published. In addition to music, theater and literature, there are also innumerable art exhibitions, cultural events, lectures and conferences that take place on a daily basis within the Russian enclave. Such events are well publicized by several daily national newspapers, and by numerous local papers and periodicals that serve the Russian-speaking community.
The volume of Russian-language cultural activity in Israel is far greater than most Israelis imagine; yet size alone does not begin to capture the Russian bubble’s unique cultural makeup—that of an immigrant people, caught between their Russian and Jewish heritages, and between these traditions and their Israeli surroundings. To understand the inner workings of the Russian bubble one must look at the community’s origins—what these immigrants were looking for, and what they found, when they arrived in Israel.
The Russian-speaking community in Israel came in two waves, corresponding to the two periods in which emigration from the Soviet Union was possible: First, in the 1970s, under Premier Leonid Brezhnev, when the Soviets allowed the rate of Jewish emigration to reach as high as 50,000 per year; and during the 1990s, in a far greater wave which began shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union and continues to this day. Despite the time lag between the two waves, these immigrants quickly became integrated on a cultural level: They now take part in the same cultural frameworks, professional organizations and political parties. Moreover, both groups maintain a link to current Russian culture. Integration has increased over time, as more of the immigrants from the 1970s who once avoided Russian-language activities have begun to take part, and as the newer immigrants have joined established institutions such as the Russian-language press, which was founded in the 1970s.
When Jews began to arrive from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, many Israelis expected them to play an active role in the Labor Zionist movement, whose social and intellectual roots went back to Russia, and which had drawn on the teachings of Marx, as well as of Russian Labor Zionists such as Ber Borochov and A.D. Gordon. The revolutionary romanticism on which many Israelis were raised had not yet faded, it was thought, despite the disastrous legacy of Communism.
These expectations were quickly dashed, to the disappointment of many kibbutznikim and socialists, and of the Israeli Left in general. No less disappointed was Israeli academia, grounded as it was in socialist ideas. Disappointed, too, were those Israeli cultural figures who advocated socialist Realism, and that portion of the Israeli public that grew up with the Soviet ethos, the songs of the Red Army Choir and literary works such as Alexander Bek’s Volokolamsk Highway. The Israelis quickly learned that not only was their own “Russian” culture alien to the new immigrants; it was an object of loathing: Marx was anything but a hero to the new immigrants, who had been the subject of attempts to put his teachings into practice. Bek, the Red Army Choir and other symbols were reviled for the artificial pathos that the official Soviet culture promoted. The immigrants read the works of anti-Soviet dissidents like Alexander Solzhenitzyn and Varlam Shalamov, writers such as Mikhail Bulgakov and Andrei Platonov, and the poet Joseph Brodsky, who rebelled against Soviet esthetics; and listened to singers such as Vladimir Wissotsky and Bulat Okudzhava, who disseminated their songs of freedom on homemade cassettes. Their heroes were the dissidents who dared oppose the “Evil Empire”—as they called their country of birth, years before Ronald Reagan’s famous speech.

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