Israel’s Russian Wave, Thirty Years Later

Three decades ago, a million emigres from Eastern Europe arrived in Israel, increasing its population by 20 percent almost overnight and changing its culture forever. What’s their story?

Russian immigrants in the Israeli city of Sderot on December 17, 2008. Anna Kaplan/Flash90.

Russian immigrants in the Israeli city of Sderot on December 17, 2008. Anna Kaplan/Flash90.

Essay
Nov. 2 2020
About the author

Matti Friedman is the author of a memoir about the Israeli war in Lebanon, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War (2016). His latest book is Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (2019).


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Great changes in Jewish history have manifested themselves in pillars of smoke, talking bushes, royal edicts, and divine scriptures, but probably never in TV crime dramas—at least not until a few weeks ago. I was about a minute into the first episode of Manayek, a new Israeli hit, watching the main character navigate a hospital ward. I was not expecting any great sociological insight, but insight came when I heard one of the characters speaking Russian. It was just a few Slavic syllables whispered in a woman’s voice.

It wasn’t that the sound of the language stood out. Like most Israelis, I hear Russian almost every day. It was the fact that it had no importance to the plot. The character had no ties to the Russian mafia, as you might expect in a crime series. There was no mention of immigration at all. Russian was there only because no authentic portrait of Israel in 2020 would be complete without it. It was a small detail that threw into relief a momentous change now celebrating its 30th anniversary—one that deserves far more attention than it has received. The character wasn’t speaking a foreign language, like English. She was speaking an Israeli language.

Thirty years ago, the final crumbling of the Soviet Union began a human wave that you remember if you were alive and paying even casual attention at the time. The prologue was the arrival in Israel of the gulag hero Natan Sharansky after his release by Gorbachev, blinking in the Middle Eastern light, a little man auguring a great exodus: hundreds of thousands of stunned arrivals descending from airliners in useless winter coats, landing here along with the Scuds of the first Gulf War. Within a decade more than 1 million people immigrated to a country whose population in 1990, at the beginning of the wave, wasn’t even five times that number. “To appreciate the scale of the accomplishment,” one observer wrote, “imagine the great United States absorbing in one decade roughly all of France and Holland.”

But few have thought much about it in recent years. If you’re looking for new statistics and research on the arrivals, for example, there isn’t much. Government funding, research hours, and media attention go to problems, and the absorption of a million Russians into Israel—astonishingly—no longer qualifies as a problem. A million Russians came, changed the country, and changed themselves, all within the lifespan of a young person, and it’s taken more or less for granted.

A third of the newcomers came from Russia proper, a third from Ukraine, and the rest from the smaller Soviet republics. Here in Israel all became known as “Russians.” Just 30 years ago, that Hebrew word, rusim, referred to a strange group of foreigners. An outsider might assume that still to be the case—the word does refer explicitly, after all, to people from a foreign country. But in today’s Israel, it actually means something very different: a kind of native. Israel can no longer be understood without its Russian component, and Israel’s “Russians” can only be understood as a type of Israeli.

Russian, or at least Russian-accented Hebrew, can be heard not only on my television but at every school and government office. Looking back at daily life just over the last week or two, I’ve spoken to a Russian orthopedic specialist who looked at my kid’s fractured wrist, a Russian construction engineer, and my Russian dental hygienist. (I’m using “Russian” here in the Israeli sense, because the immigrants themselves have embraced it, and because the more accurate “immigrants from the former Soviet Union” takes up too much space.)

Russian characters are staples of Israeli dramas like the Netflix hit Shtisel, and movies like Zero Motivation. In that 2014 masterpiece about young women soldiers at a godforsaken army base in the desert, the show was stolen by Irena, a Russian immigrant played by Diana Golbi, an actress who came to Israel from Moscow when she was five. “Lose your antiquated ways of thinking, you’re in the West now,” one of the Israeli girls patronizes Irena in response to some blunt Russian advice about how to lose one’s virginity. “Idiot, open an atlas,” Irena says. “I was in the West. Now I’m here.”

Irena is part of what’s known as Generation 1.5— people who were born in the Soviet Union, immigrated as children and are now grown up, a hybrid between old-country parents and the kids born Israeli. To understand the cultural transformation of the last three decades, members of Generation 1.5 are the ones to watch. With personalities forged both there and here and by the uprooting that happened in the middle, they’re shaping not only what it means to be Russian in Israel, but also what it means to be Israeli for the rest of us.

The move of 1,042,000 people from Eastern Europe to the Middle East in the space of a few years is one of the biggest demographic dramas of Jewish history. It’s also arguably the most important single development for Israel since its creation. There are essays to be written about how Russian nurses and doctors became the backbone of the health system, or how Russian engineers helped fuel the tech boom, or what the addition of a million productive citizens has meant for our economy and strategic position in the Middle East.

But I’d rather look at popular culture as a window into the broader spirit of what’s happened, using a few human stories to get at the whole. This isn’t, in other words, a broad survey or academic analysis. It’s an impressionistic account by a writer who isn’t himself Russian but who, having come to Israel in 1995, a lone Canadian teenager in the Soviet wave, has been on the margins of this population movement for many years, through the absorption bureaucracy and army courses for immigrant soldiers to ordinary life in the distinctly Russian country that emerged with the new century.

 

I. Alex

 

On the day Yevgeny came to kindergarten
the sun shone.
He was shorter than me,
whiter than me, and smelled
of fear.
It was I who could already explain to him,
in precise Hebrew words,
that sandals and socks are
how do we say? Ugly,
that herring sandwiches are
what’s the word? Smelly,
and that he should speak Hebrew.
This isn’t Russia!
On the day Yevgeny came to kindergarten,
I was happy.

Alex Rif, the author of those lines, remembers her first day at an Israeli kindergarten as a kind of crossroads. She was five. The year was 1991, when the immigrant planes were landing one after another. She’d just arrived from Chernivtsi, Ukraine, with her parents, big brother Max, and grandmother Clara. Her mother, who’d operated heavy machinery in a Soviet factory, found a job cleaning offices for minimum wage, and before work she walked Alex over to school to begin her new life as an Israeli. The other kindergarten kids were running around and shouting until she walked in. They fell quiet, and then they started laughing. They were laughing at her.

“What happened,” she remembered, “was that my mother dressed me in a white lace dress, thick tights and sandals, and a huge red hair ribbon.” This was standard for a Chernivtsi five-year-old, but outlandish in the city of Netanya, on the coast north of Tel Aviv. Alex started crying and begged to go home, but her mother had to work. After that, Alex tried to escape a few times. Once she even managed to get as far as the street, but didn’t know what to do next. She didn’t know her way home or where her mother worked. She couldn’t ask for directions because she didn’t know Hebrew. That’s when she understood, she said, “that the only way out was to go back, be one of the Israeli kids, and go forward.”

Being one of the Israeli kids didn’t just mean learning to speak accentless Hebrew. It also meant adopting a disdain for Russians and their Russianness.

Being one of the Israeli kids didn’t just mean learning to speak accentless Hebrew or to dress like everyone else, which she did quickly, as thousands of kids like her were doing in 1991. It also meant adopting a disdain for Russians and their Russianness. When more and more newcomers showed up in school as the decade progressed and the immigration wave unfolded, mispronouncing things and wearing the wrong jeans, Alex looked at them with scorn. At home, the newspapers and TV were all in Russian. Her parents’ furniture was (and still is) the same Soviet pieces that came in the lift from Ukraine. Her grandmother, who’d been a math teacher but didn’t know Hebrew and could no longer work, tutored her in Russian. But outside, Alex hung out only with native-born Israelis, listened to Hebrew music, and later on, avoided dating Russians. “I was interested in pilots and kibbutzniks,” she said, those being the ultimate sabra categories.

After high school, in the army, she served as a drill sergeant for basic trainees and became an officer. Then she excelled at university, completed an MA, and by the time she was in her mid-twenties she’d landed a prestigious job in one of the government’s economic offices in Jerusalem. She’d done it, she thought. She’d become Israeli.

But then she started to break down. She felt paralyzed. “I couldn’t understand why,” she said. “I’d succeeded at everything in my to-do list.” She went to see a psychologist, a rare move for a Russian, at least at the time. Then she started to write, and that’s when Alex began to realize what she’d been repressing.

I am Max

—she wrote, in mangled immigrant Hebrew, in a poem published in 2018; I’m doing my best to recreate the effect in English—

We are aliyah to Israel
I love Ukraine
But mother say good there.

Haifa very beautiful
Tomorrow I learn military academy
I to see teacher and classroom new
Maybe I am captain.

At school Alex and Yuri
We are good friends
They say we not circumscribed
I understand but so-so.

Today father says tomorrow I am operation
Small injection not sleep, big injection sleep
I little afraid.

Father camera me in hospital bed
In room Chabadniks song and dance
I want quiet.

Alex’s book of intimate and angry poetry, Silly Girl of the Regime, includes that meditation on one of the key male experiences of the immigration wave—undergoing circumcision at a late age. Jewish boys in Israel are circumcised at eight days according to Jewish law, with very few exceptions, whether the family is religious or not. But Jewish ritual had been supressed in the Soviet Union. Lacking what Leonard Cohen once called the “scar in the Jewish war” leaves you outside the tribe, and the newcomers wanted in.

The state rabbinate, a clerical bureaucracy dominated by the ultra-Orthodox, already had suspicions about the Judaism of these new arrivals: Israel’s Law of Return, which grants citizenship to anyone with one Jewish grandparent, had admitted many who didn’t meet the requirement of religious law, which is having a Jewish mother. (As of five years ago, almost exactly a third of the immigrants and their children did not meet that definition.) The upshot was that thousands of newcomers had the procedure done as boys, teenagers, or adults, as they struggled to fit in. The title of Alex’s poem, “Milah,” has two meanings in Hebrew, “circumcision” and also “word,” evoking the narrator’s disfigured language.

There’s another poem where Alex writes that her mother was forced by circumstances into sex work, becoming a woman “prepared to go down/ to scratch at the chance of ascending again.” The line’s key word is that potent Zionist euphemism for immigration to Israel, “ascent,” or aliyah. The poem ends, “My mother was a prostitute!” Alex’s mother wasn’t really a prostitute. She was, and still is, a cleaner. But she was torn up and brought low, as immigrants are anywhere, by her transformation from capable adult to helpless stranger. The state tried to help the newcomers, but there’s truth in the old adage that Israelis like immigration but not immigrants. “Prostitute” was a slur commonly thrown at Russian women, one third of the trinity of Russian stereotypes, the other two being “mafia” and “vodka.”

Alex Rif as a child newly arrived in Israel. Alex Rif.

The arc of Alex’s story, as she told it, was going from the Chernivtsi five-year-old in her tights and bow, to becoming that impeccably Israeli twenty-year-old army officer with no hint of an accent, to rediscovering her past—but doing so as someone who by then could barely remember Ukraine, and whose native language was Hebrew. This seems to be the archetype of the 1.5 story. Many of these Israelis, the scholars Anna Prashizky and Larissa Remennick wrote in a recent article based on a survey of 650 people, “recounted how they tried hard to shed their Russianness in the first years of migration: to distance themselves from their parents, learn Hebrew and lose their accent, dress and party like sabras, only to rediscover the value of their Russian heritage years later, when much of it had been lost.” In other words, Alex wasn’t going back to being Russian as much as she was coming up with a new kind of Israeli.

In Alex’s case, the return manifested itself not only in a poetry collection which won a Culture Ministry prize but also in a blitz of social entrepreneurism that has brought her a certain measure of celebrity. This fall she helped launch a political lobby for Russian-Israelis, and a few years ago was among the founders of a group called the Culture Brigade. The Brigade is behind enterprises like Project Veteran, an attempt to win recognition for Red Army veterans of World War II and to transform them from old foreigners with funny Soviet medals on their suit jackets into Israeli icons—the heroes who saved the world from Nazism. The 1.5ers, that is, are going to take a place at the Israeli table, and they’re bringing their grandparents with them.

 

II. Novy God

 

Much about the cultural trajectory of the Russian aliyah in Israel—from nowhere, to the margins, toward the center—is contained in a story about Santa hats and mayonnaise. This is the saga of Novy God, a New Year’s celebration beloved in the Russian-speaking world but unknown to the general public here until a few years ago. “We didn’t have the 17,000 holidays that Israelis have,” as Alex Rif put it. “We celebrated birthdays and Novy God.”

Under Communism, Novy God was special as the only festival not meant to glorify the Revolution and the Party, a rare occasion when it was fine just to hang out with your family and have too much to eat and drink. In Israel, it was a way of preserving a bit of the old country, with traditional dishes like olivye, a potato salad with mayonnaise, or the fish dish in beet sauce (and, yes, mayonnaise) known memorably as selyodka pod shuboy, “herring in a fur coat.”

For years, Novy God was celebrated behind closed doors. This was in part because it involves not only optional Santa hats but a mandatory evergreen which looks, to Jewish eyes, suspiciously like a Christmas tree. Like the proliferation of stores selling pork after the Russian influx, the tree wasn’t doing anything for relations with traditional Jews or the rabbinate, where the strains were becoming more apparent as the Russians integrated. Because Israel has no civil marriage, for example, people who aren’t deemed Jewish by the rabbinate can’t legally marry a Jew in the country where they’re citizens. They must use the old loophole of getting married abroad, usually in Cyprus.

Many of the immigrants have painful memories of undergoing a process called “clarification of Judaism,” a humiliating affair in which ultra-Orthodox clerks rummage through your family history, interviewing grandmothers about their knowledge of Yiddish and poring skeptically over photographs of old gravestones. Some people are recognized as Jews only to have that status revoked years later, which can upend your life and the lives of your children. All of this is inflicted by the state on people who serve in Israel’s army and can be found in significant numbers in its military cemeteries, while quite a few of the ultra-Orthodox bureaucrats of the rabbinate not only evade military service but generally reject Zionism altogether.

This absurd situation encouraged the newcomers to keep Novy God to themselves. Like most Israelis, I had never heard of it before 2016, when Alex Rif and a few comrades started a campaign to turn it into an Israeli holiday like Mimouna, the festival celebrated by North African Jews on the first night after Passover. Most people don’t celebrate Mimouna—it’s considered a Moroccan thing—but everyone knows about it and wants to be invited. So just as lots of Israelis learned to say tirbahu ve-tis’adu, the traditional Mimouna greeting, they could learn to say S novym godom! on New Year’s Eve. They’d also learn to love Ded Moroz, Grandpa Frost, who does have a white beard and presents but is not Santa Claus, as well as his pretty granddaughter Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden.

Since the wreckage of the Oslo peace process, Israel’s old guiding ideologies have been replaced by a vacuum. You want to wear a Moroccan robe to celebrate Mimouna? That’s Israeli. Put up a Novy God tree? That can be Israeli too.

Even for the vast majority of Israelis who still don’t celebrate December 31 with herring in a fur coat, the Novy God story suggests a few observations about our culture. One is that that the country is currently operating without an elite dictating what’s acceptable. That wasn’t true at the time of the aliyah in the 1990s, when the arbiters of what was Israeli were still affiliated with the paternalism of Labor Zionism and the kibbutz movement. The Russians, as it happened, were acculturated at the last moment when the country really had a firm sense of what Israeli means. Since the collapse of that Israel in the wreckage of the Oslo peace process in the year 2000, the old guiding ideologies have been replaced by a vacuum. You want to wear a Moroccan robe to celebrate Mimouna? That’s Israeli. Put up a Novy God tree? That can be Israeli too. No one’s at the wheel. Compared to the old days when the Labor Zionists called the shots, the country is both more free, with energy bubbling up from unexpected places, and more aimless. It’s a bad time to get masses of people behind dramatic national projects, like draining the swamps, or dealing with a pandemic. But it’s a good time for Novy God.

A second observation is that even with Israeli culture being crowdsourced, rather than run from the top, this society is confident enough to handle new additions, including a holiday that seems a lot like Christmas. For many members of the Jewish minority in North America, evergreens in December are the incarnation of the cultural threat posed by the Christian majority. But in Israel, Jews are the majority and lots of them are into Novy God. People here can afford to greet decorated trees if not with a smile, then at least with a shrug.

 

III. Who Disappointed Whom?

 

In Israel’s early years, immigrants were sometimes called “human dust,” people ground down by Diaspora helplessness and nearly reduced to ash by the final tragedy of the Nazi genocide. Once in Israel, they were expected to become new people. But as the Novy God story shows, that wasn’t going to work with this aliyah. Israel would not only have to accept the Russians, but it would also have to accept them as Russians. It helped to come in vast numbers—and also to hail from a culture that wasn’t necessarily impressed with the supposedly superior culture taking them in.

That dynamic was already in evidence in the early years of the immigration wave, when some of the first arrivals wanted to set up a Russian-language theater. But when they came forward with the idea, Natan Sharansky and the other proponents were informed that the government was against it. Israel had never supported foreign-language theaters, because the new Jew spoke Hebrew. Sharansky remembered cultural officials saying they’d rejected a Romanian theater and a Yiddish theater, and they didn’t see why this time was different.

But this time was different. Sharansky, for example, who was then just a few years out of camp Perm-35, didn’t like the idea of the “new Jew” who erased his roots. When we spoke recently, by which time he’d retired from a political career as a cabinet minister and head of the Jewish Agency, he called this a “rotten” idea. “When the KGB had me,” Sharansky recalled of the time after his arrest, “during the interrogations they tried to tell me I’d betrayed the Russian people and Russian culture. I said to them—what, you think Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are on your side? You think they’re KGB interrogators? Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are with me!” It only strengthened his will, he said. “And if I wasn’t prepared to give ground to the KGB, I certainly won’t give any of that culture up here in Israel.”

The new arrivals were not going to make do with asking the establishment for help. They grasped political power immediately after arriving, somehow understanding the system when they could still barely understand Hebrew.

The new arrivals were also not planning to make do with asking the establishment for help, in this matter or in others. They grasped political power immediately after arriving, somehow understanding the system when they could still barely understand Hebrew. By the mid-1990s there were deputy mayors in a few Israeli cities who knew only Russian. And when Sharansky changed Israeli politics in 1996 with his own Russian party, Yisrael b’Aliyah, two of its Knesset members weren’t even fluent in Hebrew. The Gesher Theater was soon not only performing in Russian but was so successful that everyone quickly forgot they’d opposed it.

Part of the idea of the theater was aimed not at local audiences, which didn’t really exist yet, but at the Russian-Jewish intelligentsia still back in the Soviet Union. These were people who took theater very seriously and weren’t sure about coming to a place like Israel. America and Germany seemed like better options. Indeed, something Israelis never quite understood was that if they looked down on the newcomers, the feeling was often mutual. “Even if secular Israeli culture reaches a serious level, it still has a hard time enchanting the educated arrivals from Russia, as this culture is young and usually imitative and provincial,” the journalist Dov Kontorer wrote at the time in the Russian-Israeli newspaper Vesty.

Julia Lerner, a Ben-Gurion University professor behind some of the most interesting research into the Russian aliyah, remembers her own arrival in Israel from St. Petersburg at eighteen. She was armed, she said, with two images in her head, both drawn from photographs in a Jewish Agency brochure: a blond girl riding a horse on a kibbutz, and the library at Hebrew University. Then she took a walk around Jerusalem and the Old City. There were no horses or blond girls in sight. It turned out, to her surprise, that she’d moved to the Orient. The Russians, wrote another scholar, Ilena Gomel, perhaps exaggerating a little to make the point, “arrived in the Jewish state and found to their disgust that they’d come to a tiny, Levantine country with mosques, camels, heat, and terrible theater.”

On the other hand, wrote Gomel, who’d herself come from Soviet Ukraine, the sabras who’d grown up on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky expected to meet characters from those books, people with a “mysterious Russian soul and emotional identification with the persecuted and the oppressed.” Instead, those Israelis, mostly members of the Ashkenazi left, found the newcomers “tough, cynical, and arrogant,” but that wasn’t all—it turned out that the Russians didn’t think much of the Israeli left, and were in fact going to vote for the right. This was too much, Gomel wrote, referring to characters from Crime and Punishment and War and Peace: “It was as if Raskolnikov had joined [tsarist Russia’s anti-Semitic, far-right] Black Hundreds, or Natasha Rostova had opened a brothel.”

 

IV. Are Russians Actually Mizraḥim?

 

Now that the dust has settled, the illusions on both sides are mostly behind us and it’s easier to see where everyone stands. Looking back from the vantage of 2020, none of the misplaced expectations compare to a famous article written by the journalist Amnon Dankner in 1989, on the eve of the immigration wave. Everything that’s wrong with the article helps explain not just how the Russians became Israeli, but the kind of Israelis they became, and also the unusual cultural electricity generated now by Israelis who are products of the collision of the early years.

“Now it seems like no joke,” Dankner wrote in the article. “Yasha, Vasily, Natalya, and Jenia are coming. Now let’s put things on the table: if all of this happens, it will be a demographic earthquake. No, I’m not talking about Arabs vs. Jews. I’m talking about Mizraḥim vs. Ashkenazim.”

Dankner, like other members of the Ashkenazi circles who ran most of what was important in Israel, was concerned about the fading European dreams of the country’s founders. He was disturbed by the changing face of a country where most of the Jewish population came not from Vienna or even Warsaw but from the Islamic world. Those Israelis are known by the generalization “Mizraḥim,” or “Easterners,” a term that makes about as much sense as calling Jews from Latvia “Russians,” or using the term “Ashkenazim” for both me and the Satmar rebbe. But those terms do represent real fault lines here.

The journalist saw the Mizraḥim as a threat to the Western country he dreamed of. But salvation was now on its way from Sheremetyevo Airport. “Will the great aliyah from Russia change all of this? You can bet on it,” he wrote. “A half-million or more Jews who love to study and learn, to frequent theater and concerts, people educated in engineering and medicine,” not to mention their children, “disciplined and polite, serious and studious.” These were the Israelis the country deserved. “Hurry, hurry brothers, we need you here terribly!”

Some Mizraḥi Israelis shared the same prediction, except it worried them. They thought the Russians were Ashkenazim who would push them out of jobs and even homes, and keep them permanently on the fringes. A few members of the Black Panthers, a militant movement for Mizraḥi rights inspired by the American group of that name, announced that they were going to the Kremlin to tell Gorbachev to keep his Jews. One political activist, Dina Mizraḥi, said she feared that when the immigrants came the country would be “like South Africa, blacks against whites, Mizraḥim against the elite.”

The Israeli identity the Russian kids encountered in school was often Middle Eastern. The music, for instance, they picked up, wasn’t the kibbutz classics, it was the Mediterranean sound of Mizraḥi pop.

That’s not quite what happened. Here, too, the poet Alex Rif’s experience is indicative. As part of her attempt to fit in as a teenager, as she mentioned earlier in this essay, she listened only to Israeli music. But what kind of music did she mean?

After her family left Chernivtsi they landed in Netanya, a largely Mizraḥi city. That was true of most of the new arrivals, who weren’t acculturated in middle-class neighborhoods, where they couldn’t afford to live, but in working-class cities like Ashdod and Afula. That meant that the Israeli identity the kids encountered in school was often Mizraḥi. The music that Rif picked up, in other words, wasn’t the kibbutz classics, it was the Mediterranean sound of Mizraḥi pop, and particularly the queen of the Mizraḥi scene in those years, Sarit Haddad. Today that sound is mainstream, but back then it was the music of the margins.

The collision of Russians and Mizraḥim wasn’t all pop music and happy cultural exchange. A good example is a controversial painting by the best-known of the Generation 1.5 artists, Zoya Cherkassky, showing a Russian woman who works at a falafel joint being sexually harassed by a character drawn as a vile stereotype, complete with hairy chest and Star-of-David necklace, under a photograph of the revered Sephardi rabbi Ovadia Yosef. (The same artist has a lovely painting of immigrants arriving at the airport with Israeli flags, which is designed to warm any Zionist heart until you see the title, which is “New Victims.”)

“Itzik” by Zoya Cherkassky. Israel Museum.

On the side of the veteran Israelis, there was some resentment of the immigrants’ social mobility, with a sense that doors closed to Mizraḥim were opened for the newcomers. I remember a conversation in the early aughts with a friend from my reserve unit who grew up in a tough part of Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv. He managed to get out, but many of his relatives and friends were still where they’d been, and where their parents had been—on the country’s economic periphery, in crumbling apartment blocks built in the 1950s to house immigrants from North Africa. He told me, with astonishment, how the Russians blew into the apartment blocks in the 1990s. You only saw the kids and the grandmothers, he said, because the parents were all working two jobs to save for homes in better neighborhoods with better schools. Within a few years they were gone.

This anecdote about the Russians’ social mobility seems to be borne out by statistics. In 1991, for example, only 21 percent of the immigrants had jobs requiring an academic degree. This created the famous stereotype of the Russian physics professor cleaning streets for a living. By 2015 the number had more than doubled, to 43 percent. In 2003, more than a quarter said they were worried about job security. By 2015 that number was 7 percent, slightly under the national average. They were moving up and out of the Bat Yam apartment blocks, as my friend said at the time, but many veteran residents were looking ahead to another generation of being stuck.

In the last few years, as the shock of the encounter has worn off, and some of the ill will, the collision between Russians and Mizraḥim has given off sparks that Amnon Dankner, who died in 2013, didn’t live to see and would have had trouble imagining:

That’s Orgonite, a rave band founded by two Gen. 1.5 Russians from Akko, Vadim Kartashov and Yan Lubin. They describe themselves as a “mutation of the melting pot,” and as “a post-Soviet seed that drank Mediterranean water and grew into something new.” Their philosophy is expressed, in English with a heavy Russian accent, in the song’s opening verse:

I’m Russian and Arabic in one man
Hot weather cold temper, never understand
Living in the Middle East because we’re all the same
Love to do kombinot and to smoke Mary Jane.

Kombinot is a Hebrew word probably best translated as “hustles” or “scams.” Orgonite’s aesthetic is Volgograd meets Baghdad. There are other good examples of the same vibe, like the YouTube personality Mediterranean Russian Girl, whose catchphrase is a Mizraḥi term of endearment, kaparah, but pronounced with a Moscow accent and with the addition of a Russian diminutive: kaparushka. In that article from 1989, Dankner wasn’t completely wrong. It’s true that Russian echoes in every Israeli laboratory and orchestra. But the fact is that a melting pot is an unpredictable appliance. “Yasha, Vasily, Natalya, and Jenia” didn’t get the memo about joining the Ashkenazi elite, and weren’t necessarily going to play the oboe.

Obviously most members of Generation 1.5 aren’t rave musicians or YouTube personalities. They’re programmers or plumbers like everyone else. But the artists are symptoms of something genuine which no one expected, and which has political significance. The Russian parties in Knesset, when they were established in the 1990s, turned out not to be a great match for the Labor party. They had an easier time with Likud, whose voter base is largely Mizraḥi. It’s true that the Russians tended to be secular, but they were skeptical of ideas like international goodwill and peace, and of optimism as a political attitude. That alone would have put them at odds with the left of the 1990s; on top of it, few post-Soviet emigrants wanted much to do with anything that smelled like socialism.

On the issues, the political attitudes of Russian Israelis don’t easily break down into left or right, as the survey of 1.5ers conducted by Prashitsky and Remennick shows. When asked if they thought religion and state should be separated, 84 percent said yes, about the same number who said they supported full legal rights for LGBT people. When asked if Israel should withdraw from all occupied territories, only 17 percent said yes and two-thirds said no. Today the best-known “Russian” politician, who is actually from Moldova, is Avigdor Liberman, whose right-wing party Yisrael Beitenu rests on Russian votes and is currently in opposition to the right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu. Also prominent, and more important in the current landscape, are Ze’ev Elkin and the former refusenik Yuli Edelstein, both senior members of Likud.

 

V. What’s Funny?

 

There are fascinating insights to be found about this aliyah in the work of the scholars I’ve already mentioned, and in that of Vladimir Ze’ev Khanin of the Absorption Ministry, or in the superb Hebrew book The Million Who Changed the Middle East, by Lili Galili and Roman Bronfman, and in the invaluable number-crunching of Viacheslav Konstantinov of the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute. But another way to learn is a Giora Zinger show.

Giora is probably the best-known Russian stand-up comedian in Israel. He’d be the first to admit the pool is small. He’s a mainstream type, not avant garde, which makes him more interesting: for an audience of regular people, what’s funny about all of this? And what isn’t funny, but can be laughed at anyway? And how has comedy changed as the Russians have morphed from foreigners into locals?

The subject of the preceding section, the unexpected encounter of Russian and Mizraḥi Jews, has proven one good vein of humor. Giora has a bit about a Russian mother at a henna ceremony, a pre-wedding party common among some Jews from the Islamic world. Participants wear ethnic costumes and eat food from the old country, which might be Yemen or Morocco—but is definitely not Novosibirsk, and also not the European Jewish state the immigrants thought they were moving to. “Why are they wearing carpets?” asks the shocked Russian matron as she walks in. “Don’t they know carpets go on the wall?”

If you’re in the north of Israel, where there’s more mixing between Jews and Arabs, the names get even stranger, and you start meeting kids like “Stas Abd el-Qadr.”

Writing the jokes requires not just knowledge of Russian Israelis, but knowledge of what non-Russian Israelis might think is funny, like hanging carpets on walls. That particular joke requires an audience that knows a Russian mother would increasingly find herself at a henna as one of her daughters marries a guy whose family came from, say, Fez, and that she would still have trouble distinguishing these exotic Jews from Muslims. “Russian girls are being created here with names you wouldn’t believe,” Giora says onstage. “Yulia Buzaglo. [Laughter.] Please meet my sister, Olga Shar’abi.” And if you’re in the north of Israel, where there’s more mixing between Jews and Arabs, the names get even stranger, and you start meeting kids like “Stas Abd el-Qadr.” That gets a laugh. The audience knows exactly what he means.

Giora Zinger.

Giora was born in Ternopil, Ukraine, and moved here in 1990, when he was six. He was on the comedy scene for a while before he figured out there was an audience for jokes about Russians, and what kind of jokes they might be. The growth of his audience—which is mostly but not fully Russian—corresponded with the rise of Generation 1.5 and the growing confidence of a population that could not only take a joke but get one in Hebrew. In 2003, just 27 percent of the immigrants described their Hebrew reading skills as good or excellent; by 2015 that had nearly doubled to 49 percent.

By then the original jokes about the immigrants, the ones with mobsters, prostitutes, and vodka, no longer worked. It wasn’t because they’re offensive, which doesn’t put off a comedian, but because they no longer ring true. The same goes for the Russian supermarket checkout lady, a type once so common that it spawned a true cult figure, Luba, on the country’s most popular satire program. Luba had bleached blond hair and outrageously bad Hebrew, and was played by a man. But there aren’t many Russian checkout ladies anymore, and Luba has retired.

You can get a few laughs, Giora told me, with jokes about Russian security guards, still a staple of our shopping malls—the guys asking in Slavic accents whether you’re carrying a weapon. It’s still funny, he said, that Russians wear track suits, and it’s funny, though a bit obvious, that they don’t feel cold. “There was this cold snap,” he says onstage. “I called my father and said—Dad, I hope you closed the door. He said, ‘I’ll call you when I get back from the beach.’” You can get some laughs with ridiculously long Russian words or with superstitions, like the belief that once you’ve left home on a trip you cannot, under any circumstances, walk back through the door: “You forgot your kid? Let him die.”

There’s also humor in the gap between the religious practices of native-born Israelis and the lack of knowledge that marked the Soviet immigrants, though that’s more treacherous territory, and Giora likes to keep it light. He tells the audience about coming home once with a new girlfriend, a sabra from a traditional family, and asking his parents to make a good impression by having a proper Shabbat dinner, something they don’t know how to do. His dad put on a kippah. His mother put on a kippah too, and for good measure they put a kippah on their pet pig, Antiochus. (That’s the name of the king who persecutes the Jews in the Hanukkah story, a symbol of Gentile evil.)

Here the comedian is approaching, gingerly, the fraught matter of the suspicions about the immigrants’ Judaism and their harassment by the rabbinic bureaucracy. The same issue was illustrated with less sunshine by Zoya Cherkassky, the painter, in a work showing a Russian couple—she with her hair modestly covered, he with a white kippa—standing in their home as a black-clad rabbi pokes around their kitchen, opening a pot in their fridge and confronting the unmistakeable snout of a pig.

Hostility toward the immigrants remains common in the ultra-Orthodox world and the rabbinate. Just this summer the Sephardi chief rabbi, Yitzḥak Yosef, declared that many Russian Israelis were “complete Gentiles.”

Hostility toward the immigrants remains common in the ultra-Orthodox world and the rabbinate. Just this summer the Sephardi chief rabbi, Yitzḥak Yosef, declared that many Russian Israelis were “complete Gentiles” who’d been brought to Israel to counter the ultra-Orthodox vote in elections. “There are many, many Gentiles here, some are Communists, hostile to religion, haters of religion,” he said. That’s the sentiment that Giora’s laughing at, obliquely, with his pet pig Antiochus. It’s not funny, but neither is Zinger’s family story, which includes the death of his grandfather, a doctor who was the deputy director of a large Ukrainian district hospital until he died of a stroke in 1987 after years of threats and anti-Semitic harassment. The comedian’s family believes this is what killed him, and it was one reason they left for Israel as soon as they could, to be called “Gentiles” and “Communists” by the chief rabbi.

Still, the Russians have moved to adopt the traditions of the Israeli mainstream. According to polls conducted by Shmuel Rosner and Camille Fuchs for their 2019 book Israeli Judaism, fully 80 percent of post-Soviet immigrants reported having some kind of Passover seder, and 53 percent said they fasted on Yom Kippur (as opposed to 97 percent and 67 percent, respectively, of the general Jewish population). When asked if Israel should be a Jewish state, no less than 90 percent said yes—the same as the percentage among all Israeli Jews.

Perhaps the most important detail of Giora’s shows, with all of their Russian material, is the language in which it’s all delivered. The truth is, he admitted when we spoke, that his Russian isn’t great. His native language is Hebrew. His frame of reference isn’t really Ternopil, where his family’s from, but Kfar Saba, where he grew up. He’s Russian, he explained, like some of his high-school friends were Moroccan even though they’d never been anywhere near Morocco.

A few years ago there was a segment about Giora on the TV news, and the reporter interviewed his father, Boris. The comedian’s parents didn’t like the idea of him leaving a job in tech to tell jokes instead. They’re still not happy. But his father did find it funny to hear his son joke about being Russian. To a real Russian like Boris, his son’s secret is clear, and it seems like the secret behind a lot of what’s going on in this essay, and in the country. “When he says onstage, ‘I’m Russian,’ trust me, it’s not true,” Boris Zinger explained on camera. “He’s a total Israeli, par excellence.”

In the survey of 1.5ers, the researchers asked if they felt at home. Three percent said never, 10 percent said sometimes, 37 percent said usually, and half said always. Of the million who came, about 120,000 left, heading to points west or back home. The ones who stayed have had 300,000 children. The Russians are a group with a complicated story and with strong ties to Israel, accompanied by a long list of grievances and disappointments directed at the state—all of which, taken together, is more or less the definition of Israeli.

 

VI. Deep in the Dew

 

One question without an easy answer is why the Russians have had such a growing impact on the mainstream here, and have been accepted as a kind of core Israeli, while English-speaking immigrants never have. Numbers are certainly part of the answer: only 148,000 Jews have immigrated to Israel from America since 1948, for example, barely a tenth of the number of Russians who came in one decade. But English-speaking immigrants tend to come with capital and education, and are also coming from a dominant culture to which Israel aspires to belong. It would make sense that this would translate into a real cultural or political presence, that these people would assume prominent positions. That hasn’t happened. While the English-speaking Diaspora has played an enormous role in building the state from afar, it’s remarkably hard to think of English-speaking immigrants who’ve had real impact on Israeli society. (Golda Meir is probably the first name that comes to mind. Although she grew up in the United States, she was born in Ukraine.) The Russians, on the other hand, have played a key role in politics since the moment they landed, and the 1.5ers are making local culture their own—not the children of immigrants, that is, but people who are immigrants themselves.

While the English-speaking Diaspora has played an enormous role in building Israel from afar, it’s remarkably hard to think of English-speaking immigrants who’ve had real impact on Israeli society.

One of the best examples in pop culture is the singer Marina Maximillian, who was born in Dnipropetrovsk in 1987 and moved to Israel three years later. Given classical training and groomed rigorously for the stage by her parents in the Russian style, Marina rocketed to public attention in 2007 on a TV singing competition and has since become a staple of Israeli pop, and of the gossip pages, which pay close attention to her diets, marriages, and makeovers.

In 2010, when Marina was twenty-three, before anyone had heard of Generation 1.5 and before being Russian was remotely cool, she released a song called “Deep in the Dew.” It’s a simple love song about the pregnant moment before a lover’s arrival, with no political import at all. But the song might help answer the question from the beginning of this section, and also serve as a key to understanding this Russian moment.

When I first heard “Deep in the Dew,” in a recording from a live performance, I thought Marina was covering an Israeli classic. The song sounds like one of the timeless masterpieces of the state’s early years, and the words are by Leah Goldberg, the poet on our 100-shekel banknote. I was surprised to discover that in fact Marina had written the tune. She’d also added a verse in Russian, asserting implicitly that the language wasn’t just one of supermarket checkout ladies but of culture—of Israeli culture.

Leah Goldberg, who died in 1970, was unique in the state’s early years for speaking openly of her “two homelands,” subverting the Zionist idea that the Diaspora was best forgotten. She has a famous song addressed to “my birthright,” which Israeli listeners typically assume is an ode to the Land of Israel. It’s actually about where she was from, the lands that fell in her lifetime behind the Iron Curtain. Goldberg was born in the East Prussian city that later became Kaliningrad, and spent most of her childhood in Kovno (now Kaunas, Lithuania), except for a few years when her parents escaped World War I to Saratov in Russia on the River Volga. When Marina added a Russian verse to the Hebrew words in 2010, it sounded natural.

When asking why the aliyah, 30 years since it began, has succeeded not just in putting down roots but in altering the country, a few answers present themselves. One is the ferocious drive and adaptability of the immigrants, and their grasp of local politics. Another is the dynamic nature of this society and its capability for renewal and adjustment—the way it simultaneously made things hard for the newcomers but also made room.

A more profound reason, it seems to me, is that Leah Goldberg’s generation, the Jews who founded Israel and created its culture, came from the same places as today’s “Russians.” They spoke the same language. The outlook they brought with them a century ago—practical and tough, with a suspicion of flowery rhetoric or political illusions, and a grasp of how bad it is to be weak—is the genetic code of the country, just like the Russian folk songs they sang with Hebrew words and called “Israeli” music. Our national theater, Habimah, was founded in Russia and operated there for more than a decade before its actors ever set foot here in 1928. “A person,” wrote Shaul Tchernikhovsky, the early icon of Hebrew poetry, “is nothing but the shape of his native landscape.” The founders and the new arrivals had the shape of the same place. (Tchernikhovsky, it hardly bears mentioning, was from Russia.)

The new Russians arrived in a country where the surface frictions were many but the deep currents were familiar. That isn’t true for many Jews from North America, who may like the idea of Israel but often come formed by habits and sensibilities that put them at odds with the personality of the place. Israel doesn’t conform to the expectations of the Western middle class, where Jewish communities now tend to operate—expectations like order and fair play, or that violence will happen far away and be taken care of by someone else. The real Israel is hard to understand coming from an American day school or summer camp. The distance is shorter from Dnipropetrovsk.

Maybe that helps understand how things have fit together here, how Generation 1.5 is achieving a kind of native Israeliness that’s Russian, or the way Russianness has become a legitimate way to be Israeli. Thirty years ago, as the immigration wave began, some predicted that Israel would be swamped and would end up the sixteenth post-Soviet republic. Like most of the predictions, that one, too, was wrong. Israel stretched and strained and assumed a new shape while remaining itself.

More about: Aliyah, Israel & Zionism, Israeli culture, Mizrahi Jewry, Russia, Russian Jewry