There's more than a million, taking account of those born here minus those who have left for what seemed greener pastures. And certainly when taking account of those who came before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It’s a misnomer to call them Russians. Russian speakers is the more acceptable and accurate term. There may be more from Ukraine than from Russia, itself. And many are from the Baltic Republics or Central Asia.



Most are also Jews, with a strong input of Jewish culture from parents whose mother tongue was Yiddish.


Yet many who identify as Jews are not viewed as such by the Israeli Rabbinate. Or they’ve had to struggle with the Rabbinate when a child or parent has faced the crucial points of marriage or burial.

We’ve noticed the complexities in the Russian-Jewish-Israeli phenomena for decades, and shared our own complexities with Russian speakers who have become close friends. Now the picture has become more relevant with the commotion surrounding that meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

Israelis perhaps more than American Jews, are familiar with cultural complexities. Family backgrounds in dozens of countries, as well as the secular-religious-ultra-Orthodox divides, with several generations of intermarriage have made this a cultural salad that defies simplistic description. It remains more thoroughly Jewish than that of American cousins, due to far less intermarriage with non-Jews, and to a society that is explicitly Jewish rather than proudly  multi-cultural and officially neutral on matters of religion.

An Israeli’s decades-long struggle to understand the complexities of Russian Jews makes a mockery of Donald Trump’s claims of reaching an understanding and affinity with Vladimir Putin in the early minutes of a four hour meeting. The mockery is not lessened by Trump’s seeming inability to understand himself or his advisers with respect to what he was supposed to say, or actually did say to Trump in that meeting.

Among the fascinations with getting to know Russians:

For at least some of the Russians, there is something akin to dissonance, or inner struggle between a Russian and a Jewish identity. Several have noted with pride of parents who were Communists, and proud to have served their nation in war or in peacetime.

It was not simple being a Jew in the Soviet Union. Entrance to elite academies or occupations was denied or severely limited, yet the Jews as a whole surpassed other Russians in acquiring higher education and the occupations that came along with it.

Moreover, levels of intermarriage approached those of American Jews. That has caused some problems for couples and their descendants living in Israel. It has also produced Israelis with blond hair, blue eyes, and beautiful Slavic faces.

Our own contacts with Russians has been tilted toward an elite. That obviously reflects meeting individuals in one or another venue of the Hebrew University or nearby French Hill. And prior to concerts or at intermissions of the Israeli Philharmonic or the Jerusalem Symphony, there is a lot of Russian spoken by performers and people in the audience.

These may not be typical Russians, but we’ve learned to appreciate a level of education in several ways more impressive in its coverage of European classics than what is provided by American or Israeli primary and secondary schools. It’s risky to generalize, but there’s also a search for ideals that may have something to do with the aspirations of Communists’ pursuit of the perfect society, that somehow goes beyond the multi-cultural liberalism heard from American leftists.

In this and other observations, one must admit to a sense of knowing people well, but imperfectly. There are cultural differences. Expressions in Hebrew or English may not mean the same to people understanding the words but not their significance. At times it’s looking through a dark and clouded glass, and guessing about the landscape on the other side.

There are at least as many differences among the Russians here are there are among the Americans we’ve met here.

Both surveys and personal experience indicate that Russian speakers tilt heavily to the right, politically. However, we have friends who vote Meretz or affiliate with the remnants of the Israel Communist Party.

The range of Americans here is no less wide. Extremes appear in the recorda of the late Baruch Goldstein, MD and Meir Kahane, leftward to a bizarre young man who claims to have served in the IDF, then found his way into Syria and joined ISIS, saying that he did it for humanitarian reasons. There are numerous Americans in the right wings of Likud and the settler movements, and Americans equally intense in their view that Bibi Netanyahu and settlement is the essence of political folly or evil.

Russians also vary in their views of Vladimir Putin. There are friends who use the Hebrew for “murderer,” “corrupt,” “liar,” and “woefully unreliable.” There are also those who respect his realpolitik, his capacity to create a Russian base in Syria and save the regime of Bashar al-Assad and work with Netanyahu, and who may be twisting the American President around his little finger. An Israeli commentator called Trump the poodle of Putin.

Our Russian friends express admiration for the simple support given Israel by Donald Trump against what they call the naïve duplicity of Barack Obama, and others who express disbelief, ridicule, and fear about the man in the White House.

I met the family who became my first Russian friends soon after we all arrived in 1975. The family was headed by a prominent refusnik who had collaborated with Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. His son and mine became close, and traded lessons in English and Russian. The boy’s life ended tragically years later, caught in an avalanche while climbing in the Caucasus. The father died of heart failure in a Moscow hotel while seeking news of him. A generation earlier, the grandfather migrated to the US, and returned to Russia in order to participate in the Revolution. He served the regime until he fell afoul as did many others, and died or was killed in a gulag.

America and Israel are easier places. More or less complex—it’s not clear. What is clear is that individuals coming from one or another must struggle to understand their friends’  complexities.

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