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.

It was not only the ideology of socialism prevailing in Israel that the new immigrants despised. They also rejected its esthetic code, which had had a significant impact on Israeli arts. In the eyes of the Russian-speaking intellectuals who came to Israel, anything reminiscent of Soviet culture was not worthy of being taken seriously. The only cultural debate in which they participated that related in any way to the Soviet Union pitted anti-Soviet culture and what we may call a non-Soviet, Russian culture, which simply paid no heed to the Soviet experience. In this contest, the second view eventually gained the upper hand.
For Russian intellectuals, no value was higher than freedom of expression and the independent application of the individual’s creative powers. They reacted to Israeli intellectuals—whom they saw as employing art in the service of left-wing ideology—in much the same way as they had reacted to their old enemies in the Soviet establishment. Thus it should be no surprise that in the 1970s, the encounter between the Israeli cultural elite and the new immigrant intellectuals quickly foundered. A wedge was driven between the immigrants and the native Israelis, and the first walls of the Russian enclave were erected.
Even today, the Israeli cultural establishment is still influenced to a great degree by the esthetics of politicized art. Yet this by itself cannot explain why the cultural divide between Russian- and Hebrew-speakers in Israel has widened over the past generation, especially as Israeli popular culture has become less socialist, to the point that today it can be characterized as post-modern, even nihilist in nature. Rather, the alienation persists because, in the eyes of the immigrants, mainstream Israeli culture is actively resistant to influence from other traditions, including Jewish tradition. “Hebrew culture” is seen by the immigrants as obsessively doctrinaire: First it tried to create the new, socialist Jew, devoid of any connection to his recent past; and now it relates to cultural myths only in order to shatter them. The immigrants have discovered that not only does Hebrew culture mean a rejection of the rich Russian heritage—which some are willing to accept as the price of absorption—but it also means a rejection of the Jewish heritage. And they cannot fathom the demand to unload their Jewish cultural baggage, after they have fought all their lives for the right to carry it.
For its part, the Hebrew-language cultural establishment has taken little notice of the immigrants since the initial disappointment. Russian Jews in Israel live, work, fight in wars and vote in elections as Israelis, yet the products of their creative spirit remain unknown to the general public. Over the past decade, the constant growth in demand for Russian-language culture has produced many new outlets for cultural expression in the immigrants’ native language. Thus, if in the 1970s the new immigrants made some effort to remove the barriers to entry into Israeli society, in the 1990s they feel little need to do so. The Russian bubble has become a permanent fixture of the Israeli landscape.
From the beginning, there have been two cultural streams within the Russian-speaking community in Israel. On the one hand, many artists and intellectuals have focused their efforts principally on developing Jewish themes; on the other, many have made a name for themselves within an international Russian diaspora, which has been a natural extension of their dissident activities prior to immigration.
In Israel, the term “Silent Jewry” (yahadut hadmama) was commonly used to describe the Soviet Jews, referring to Jewish voices silenced by the Communist regime; Jewish identity, it was widely believed, had been virtually erased during the years of Soviet rule. Today this expression is frequently recalled among former-Soviet immigrants, few of whom accept it as a reasonable depiction of what took place during the long decades of Communist oppression. Most Soviet Jews preserved important aspects of their Jewish identity over the years: They kept family trees, knew the origin of their names and, to a lesser degree, were aware of the great and ancient Jewish culture that had preceded Hitler and Stalin. The Russian-Jewish culture that had developed in remote areas beyond Leningrad and Moscow, to say nothing of the areas of dense Jewish population in the time of the Czars, was wiped out after World War II; yet it enjoyed a revival during the 1960s, when the writings of Sholom Aleichem, Y.L. Peretz and other Jewish writers were translated and published in Russian. At the same time, after years of effort by the Soviet government to downplay the Holocaust, Soviet Jews began finding ways to express the memories they had retained of their Jewish heritage. It is true that their compositions were limited to samizdat, the underground press, but this medium quickly filled with poetry and prose on Jewish themes. As a result, only the most isolated Jews were completely cut off from their national roots.
Of course, this does not mean that Soviet Jews received anything that could be called a comprehensive Jewish education. Jewish history was not taught in schools, and few families celebrated Jewish holidays. There were some who managed to live a traditional lifestyle, but these were the exception. Those who came to Israel in the 1970s had, for a generation, been almost completely unexposed to Jewish living. Their grandparents had been well-versed in Jewish tradition, their parents had chosen assimilation as the safest option, while they, the children, chose to initiate a return to the fold, building on memories of their grandparents.
The immigrants of the 1990s are somewhat different in this regard. For many of them, not one but two generations have passed since the Soviets made it impossible to live as a Jew. Moreover, most of the leading figures of the Jewish revival of the 1960s left the Soviet Union in the 1970s, leaving the Jewish community behind to initiate a revival of its own. Over the years, the flow of information from Israel grew through private communications, Jewish groups such as Habad became active in the Soviet Union, refuseniks studied and taught Hebrew and disseminated original and translated materials sent back by the immigrants of the 1970s. Thus when Russian-Jewish intellectuals arrived in Israel in the 1990s, they possessed a greater base of Jewish knowledge, if not identity, than had those who immigrated two decades earlier.
Today, Jewish culture within the Russian bubble is broad and varied. One of its major creative achievements is the publication of a Russian-language Jewish encyclopedia. Combining translated articles with numerous original entries, the project continues to be an important focus of Jewish intellectual activity within the Russian community, spawning a variety of discussion groups and lectures, and focusing interest and debate on Jewish themes. Another important outlet has been the Russian-language quarterly Twenty-Two, published in Jerusalem since 1978. Twenty-Two carries academic articles and original literary works by Russians in Israel, translations from Hebrew and other languages, and reviews of new works from the former Soviet Union and the Russian diaspora. Though its importance has waned in recent years, this journal has placed Judaism and Zionism at center stage since it first appeared. By the 1990s, numerous periodicals had sprung up on Jewish topics, and the literary supplements of the daily papers are likewise rich in Jewish content. Interest in Judaism is expressed in the popularity of books such as The Seventh Hunger by Elli Luxemburg, and of works by Yaakov Tzigelman and many others. In poetry, Michael Gendelev wrote the popular “Ode to the Conquest of Tyre” (in the context of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon), as well as similar works. In the plastic arts, the group Alef and the painter Michael Grobman have made names for themselves through artwork that focuses on Jewish themes. The recent rise to prominence of Vestnik, a journal of the Jewish University in Moscow that publishes academic research on Jewish themes, marks a revival of the Jewish spirit in Russia as well. Russian-speaking Jewry has quietly become one of the most active centers of Jewish and Zionist creativity in the world.

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