Amid the public news dealing with the grand issues of Muammar Qaddafi and Gilad Shalit, our personal weekend brought me to recall my variious experiences with the Russians of Israel.
It began at an Absorption Center outside of Jerusalem in the Summer of 1975. It was the tail end of an immigration wave that seemed to signal one of the thaws in the Cold, until the Soviets ended it under the leverage or excuse of the Jackson Amendment, one of the several well-intentioned efforts of American politicians to influence things poorly understood, that produced the opposite of its announced intentions.
My significant encounter was with Mikhail Argursky, a prominent refusenik and associate of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Mikhail became a colleague and friend at the Hebrew University, and I learned early on that he had an American background. His father migrated in the same pre-World War I wave as many other Eastern European Jews, but returned home to participate in the Communist revolution. His story ended badly in the purges of the 1930s. Mikhail and his son Benny seemed fated for the same tragedy. Both died on visits to their former homeland.
I knew Benny as a young teenager who traded language lessons with my son Stefan. Benny became a mountain climber, and died in an avalanche somewhere in the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan. Mikhail died of a heart attack in a Moscow hotel room, while on yet another unsuccessful effort to locate his son''s body.
Going forward to 1987 or 1988, my cadre of the IDF''s lecture corp assembled for a briefing on what was seen as the onset of a significant new wave of migration from the then crumbling Soviet Union. Israel had no idea about the numbers who would be involved, but it was likely to be significant, and maybe more than the country could handle well. Soldiers were starting to worry about having to compete for jobs with the flood of Russians, and there were some concerned that the migrants would outcompete them for girls. Varda''s mother thought of her own move from Germany to Palestine in the mid-1930s. She was worried that the government would deal with a housing crisis by requiring each family to take some Russians into their home.
The task of the lecture corps was to tell the soldiers not to worry. Lots of Russians would mean more consumers as well as workers. It would be necessary to build a great deal of housing, as well as to increase the supplies of consumer goods and everything else needed by an expanding economy. There would also be Russian girls among the immigrants. If I then had the experience subsequently gained, I could have emphasized the beauty of all those Slavic faces. Religious Israelis worry about the infusion of non-halachic blood, but the rest of us enjoy the aesthetics that have made some of these Israelis players in the international community of fashion models.
It was the Fall of 1989 when first grader Mattan came home with the news that there was a new Russian girl in his school. Varda did her patriotic duty, and invited the family to dinner. We have since learned that the invitation was something of an intrusion, but one that the recipients felt obliged to accept. We sensed reluctance, perhaps due to a language gap, or maybe the family''s lack of awareness of Israeli culture, where a strange family asking questions was not the agent of a security conscious regime.
The father of the family was trained in English, and Varda could communicate with the grandparents in something between German and Yiddish. After several visits we learned that Mattan''s classmate was born with a heart defect. Physicians in Leningrad said that she was all right, perhaps reflecting a shortage of resources to deal with her problem. Their counterparts at the Hadassah Hospital said that an immediate operation was essential. That added to the family''s sense of insecurity. Varda employed her status as a Medical School lab technician to urge compliance with the physicians'' recommendations.
Before and after encounters were with the same little girl, but whose new face was pink rather than pale white.
The initial migrants who came in large numbers to the university were almost exclusively concerned with science, computers, and mathematics. Russian dominated the conversations I heard on the paths to the swimming pool located on the Givat Ram campus. It was some years before I heard Russian accents among the students in the Social Science Faculty on the Mount Scopus campus.
Now the children and grandchildren of those migrants are pretty much like the rest of the population. In the last semin I taught before retiring, about half the students showed a Russian background either in their accents (pretty light by that time) or names.
Over the years I have seen Mattan''s first grade friend mature into a self assured Israeli. Some of our contacts have been at occasional family visits, and some chance encounters on campus. She now has a masters degree in sociology, and this weekend''s dinner was to meet her fiance''.
I felt comfortable enough in her parents'' home to get right to the young man''s politics. Several degrees to the left of center, pretty much like the family he is joining. And no less a bright spot in any social gathering. The grandson of professionals, and the son of a Hebrew University professor, with serious personal and family involvement with music. We spoke about all of that, as well as Shalit, Qaddifi, the new publications of his future father-in-law, and whether protesting Israelis could accomplish anything against a crafty Prime Minister and reform proposals that deal with a small portion of the protesters'' demands.
The young man is not Russian in his background. I overlooked the opportunity to comment from personal experience on the problems as well as the attractions of a mixed marriage, but Varda noted on the way home that, as usual, I had spoken too much as it was.