Reality bites

Sometimes life takes us in a completely different direction from the one we had hoped for, but we must make the best of it nonetheless.

Anatoly Rifkin 521 (photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Anatoly Rifkin 521
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Anatoly Rifkin is a very good head waiter – attentive, polite, pleasant, helpful and considerate of the staff working under him. Anyone lucky enough to sit down for dinner in the hotel he works at, in Netanya, will not have to wait long for good and speedy service.
But back in Russia, he was a doctor who studied for six years in a medical institute in his home town of Sverdlovsk. How someone with a medical degree and training works as a waiter is a long and rather sad story and something of an indictment of the system here that was unable to accommodate him because of the unusual medical fields in which he had expertise.
Anatoly’s parents were both Jews, his mother a gynecologist and his father an officer in the Soviet army. He served in the Second World War and had a chest full of medals, which Anatoly still has and doesn’t quite know what to do with.
He thinks he might send them back to his nephew still in Russia. After leaving the army, his father became a journalist.
Born in 1958, Rifkin grew up in Sverdlovsk (today Ekaterinburg) in the Urals, a central area of the former Soviet Union, and although there is a substantial Jewish community, he and his parents had absolutely no connection with Judaism.
“My father was a fervent communist and I didn’t know what it is to be Jewish,” he says. “Israel meant nothing to me.”
He served in the Russian army as a member of a tank team and became an instructor. He says he never experienced any anti-Semitism. He doesn’t look very Jewish although he does have an uncanny resemblance to the late British actor Peter Sellers. After his service, Rifkin went to study medicine and completed his studies at a medical institute in his home town.
He specialized in epidemiology and preventive medicine, and when he started work he was responsible for hygiene and work conditions in 78 factories with 170,000 workers in them.
Rifkin married a doctor – not Jewish – and they had two children, a boy and a girl. The family prospered and he went into business with a partner, buying and selling anything he thought would go – first food, later metal.
One New Year’s Eve they were out celebrating with friends and the conversation somehow turned to Israel. Rifkin remembered that he had an aunt living in this strange distant country who had gone there in 1973.
“Why don’t we go and visit her?” said his wife unexpectedly. They discussed it and for some strange reason he didn’t yet understand, his wife was very interested in settling in Israel. She argued that it would be a better place to raise their children and nagged so much that in the end he agreed. Little did he know that his wife had other plans.
Because they wanted to avoid going twice, once to look around and once to make aliya, they opted for aliya and burned their bridges in Russia.
His mother came too, happy about seeing her sister again after many years. His father had died in 1985.
The plan was to learn Hebrew and English, to work for a few years and eventually move on to Canada. But after three days his wife announced that she wanted a divorce.
“I was in terrible shock,” Rifkin says. “I thought I had a happy marriage. For three years I didn’t agree to a divorce until I saw that it was hopeless and we couldn’t live together. I left the rented apartment and since then I have not seen her or my children, who stayed with their mother.”
Things were as bad professionally as they were in his private life. He took all his diplomas and paperwork to the Health Ministry and was told that his specialties, including his degree in prophylactic medicine, don’t exist here. He would have to requalify and after three years could work as a family doctor – maybe.
“I’ve only done menial work since I’m here,” he says. “I’ve worked as a care-giver for an old man, in a warehouse and on a building site.
I’ve been depressed for many years. But once I took up waiting, I’ve at least stayed with it. I’ve been working in the same hotel for 16 years and I’ve worked my way up.”
Waiting on Israelis is not easy and he needs all his powers of diplomacy to avoid confrontations.
“Some are rude and uncultured and they don’t know how to speak nicely to someone they see as being subservient,” Rifkin says.
He rents a small apartment in Netanya and does not drive a car. He has a few friends, some other expatriate Russians and some Israelis, but he spends a lot of his free evenings at home with only a computer for company.
He’d like to meet another woman but feels he has nothing to offer and no future. He does not see his children and only makes enough money to pay the rent. He realizes he’s quite lucky to be able to eat his meals in the hotel.
PLANS “I don’t see my future here. It’s not my country.”