From Russia with Lova

Coping with the prejudice of veteran Israelis towards Russian olim in the early ’90s was no easy task.

Lova Tasischer 311 (photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
Lova Tasischer 311
(photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
Lev Tasischer, or Lova as he is known to his friends, had a vague idea he was Jewish when growing up in Vitebsk, Russia, mainly because the other children used to call him zhid. With no brit, no bar mitzva, no Jewish observance of any kind, he still felt different from the other children.
He has vague recollections of eating matzot at his grandmother’s house and even of her lighting candles on Friday night, but anything they did had to be in secret.
“My father’s family was all murdered by the Germans and he was the only survivor,” says Tasischer. “He stayed alive because he was a building engineer in the Russian army.”
Today, he and his wife, Nelly, live in Kfar Saba with their 24-year-old daughter Aliyana, who is studying computers. They work very hard at their own business, exporting medical kits abroad, specifically genetic tests for AIDS and other diseases. Much of their time is spent at Ben-Gurion Airport, in the customs department, dispatching their crates of merchandise, and their small apartment is crammed with cartons waiting to be filled and sent.
Nelly, who has a Jewish grandfather, tells me most of the story as Lova’s Hebrew is rather basic, even after 20 years. Hers, on the other hand, is impeccable.
In Vitebsk, near the town where Marc Chagall was born and lived, all that the young Tasischer wanted was also to be an artist. But his parents, who may not have observed any Judaism but had a Jewish parent’s concern for their offspring, insisted he learn a profession.
He studied to be a veterinarian, breaking off to do his compulsory army service. In the army he met many other secret Jews, and the Jewish clerks were especially hard on their fellow Jews.
“There was fear,” says Nelly. “They treated other Jews worse than anyone because they didn’t want to be accused of helping their own people.”
As he had always been a sportsman, he enjoyed the army and did not find it hard. He had some problems working as a vet in Moldova because he never joined the ruling party.
“I have never liked authority,” explains Tasischer.
He met and married Nelly, who came originally from Odessa, and also studied for a master’s degree in genetics. When their daughter was four, they decided to make aliya. They had good friends who had already settled in Kfar Saba. At the time, many Russians were also heading for the US, but Tasischer chose Israel.
“A lot of Russians went to America, but it wasn’t for me. There I’m also a zhid,” he says with a smile.“He is an Israeli patriot,” adds Nelly. “His soul demanded it.”
They went straight to an apartment rented for them by friends and started ulpan while their daughter went into first grade.
“We learned together,” says Nelly.
They had not been here more than a few weeks when the Gulf War broke out and Scuds rained down.
“For Aliyana it was a big shock, but we knew it was only temporary and it would soon be over,” says Nelly.
Tasischer had a fond dream that he could live from his art. He sold some paintings and even organized an exhibition of fellow Russian artists in Worcester, Massachusetts, which was well received and many paintings were sold. “It went well, but it wasn’t enough,” says Tasischer.
“Many of the artists in the group left Israel and went to other countries.”
He quickly realized his art was not going to support his family and he would have to think of something else. Nelly was at home, sometimes working a little as a child minder, but most of the time not earning, and their grant from the Jewish Agency was fast running out.
“The worst part was the way we were received by fellow Israelis,” says Nelly. “We were labeled a band of thieves and prostitutes. At school if Aliyana got into a row, she was called ‘stinking Russian.’ And even in the ulpan, the teacher used the Russian aliya saga to teach, so we felt strong prejudice in every area. For example, she would ask in Hebrew, ‘Why don’t we like you?,’ or say things like, ‘We all have to pay extra taxes because of you.’ It was dreadful.”
They take a very laid-back attitude to the fact that neither Nelly nor Aliyana is officially Jewish.
“If she wants to convert, she can. It’s not a problem,” says Nelly. “The main thing is that they should love each other. If someone really wants, they can learn, observe and convert.”
Today, they acknowledge, things are much better for Russian immigrants. “We have so many of our own shops where we can buy the things we were used to at home, and we have made our mark, with members of Knesset and ministers.
We made a base for ourselves,” Nelly says.
“Everything’s good except the heat.”
“Learn Hebrew – or come with a lot of money!”