Veterans: From Leningrad to Jerusalem, Masha Buman

She loved kibbutz life - until she could understand what those around her were saying.

Masha Buman 88 248 (photo credit: David Stromberg)
Masha Buman 88 248
(photo credit: David Stromberg)
Masha Buman always thought that things had gone smoothly for her, that they happened of their own accord and that this was for the best. Moving to Israel was no different. "I had a friend whose husband worked on a submarine. It was highly secretive work, and these people were never allowed to leave. She and her husband had to divorce before trying to emigrate separately. And we joked: I said that if they give him permission - which I was sure they wouldn't - I would apply too. And they let him go! So I had to apply." PREPARATION "I really didn't like the Bolsheviks," says Buman. "When they gave me permission to leave after 20 days, I knew they did it as a way of getting back at me." Twenty-two years old and alone, she was soon to make aliya. Buman didn't have the usual six months or more that most people had for "those terrible good-byes that were like funerals, since people never expected to see each other again." It never occurred to her to study Hebrew. She studied English, though she knew very well that she was going to Israel and not America. JOURNEY The airplane journey was long, with lots of changeovers. The Jewish émigrés took an Aeroflot plane from Leningrad to Warsaw, where they changed planes and flew to Budapest, and then Vienna. "At the Warsaw airport we had to stay in the Aeroflot airplane, and you felt like you were still in Russia. Only when we got on the other plane did we feel like we had actually gotten out." Buman says that Russian émigrés who were going on to Israel were kept close together in Vienna. She felt truly like a refugee during the week in which she waited for the next plane to Israel. She says that except for her and one other family, everyone who left Russia on their plane went to America. ARRIVAL Buman was sent to Kibbutz Hatzor, near Rehovot, to work and learn Hebrew. "We worked for four hours, and studied for four hours." They were assigned to all kinds of work: in the orchard, factory, kitchen, laundry. "The orchard was great. We got up at 5 a.m., while it was less hot, and gathered grapefruit, a fruit I'd never seen before." She says that her time on the kibbutz was great as long as she understood no Hebrew. After three months, she landed in the laundry room. When she overheard - and actually began to understand - how miserable everyone was there, she decided to leave. SETTLING IN Buman moved to Jerusalem and joined a summer ulpan. But differences in Israeli culture and her Soviet upbringing made it difficult to participate. "We had a teacher there named Yossi. Not Yosef - Yossi. Now, I'm 22, and he's 60. I couldn't call the man 'Yossi.' So I just didn't talk." She stopped going to ulpan altogether, and started hanging around a bookstore with Russian-language books. She would come there daily and read all day. When she had read everything in the store, the woman who owned the store let Buman sit at her house and read the books from her personal library. Buman was always the youngest among her family and friends, and people always taught her how to live and what to do. When she got a scholarship to go to university in Jerusalem, everyone said she had to find a major, and somehow it was decided she would study economics. Not only did she have no interest in the subject, but she didn't know enough Hebrew to study it. "There was a great group of Russians at the university dorms then, and I didn't exactly get to all of my classes. So I didn't go to the university for a year, and that was that." DAILY LIFE Buman then went to work for Israel Radio. "Once or twice per month you had to work the morning shift, which meant getting there at 4 a.m. I liked it, because you were free by 8 a.m. Sleep a little, and you've got the whole day left." She made some friends there - "older, as usual" - and says that everyone in Jerusalem knew each other then, and were very close. Buman later married one of her colleagues from the radio station, where she worked in the Russian department and was the only person completely fluent in the language. One day, her husband wrote a letter to prime minister Menachem Begin about how the station's Russian department was being mismanaged. The letter was sent from Begin's office back to the radio's top management. Though everyone in the department knew that she was one of its best members, the top management fired Buman. "I understood then that I had to live by my own smarts." She went back to university and enrolled in the Russian Literature Department. And this time, she paid for it herself. As a child, Buman had been a Leningrad champion in table tennis, and so in Jerusalem she began to work as a private table tennis instructor for children. "It was a great way to make money - with your legs and not with your head." She says there are still people who recognize her on the street as their teacher. The "unsuccessful student" became someone who really cared about her studies. When she made the decision to study Russian literature, all her friends thought she was crazy. "There were five people in the department," she says. "Back then, no one needed Russian literature." REWARDS/CHALLENGES "After I understood that I had to do what I wanted, I had to figure out what it was that I wanted. This was very hard." After her MA, she moved to Los Angeles to begin her PhD studies. It was in Los Angeles that Buman began to understand that she was a foreigner no matter where she was - America or Israel. "I didn't feel any 'culture shock' when I got to Israel. But after my time in America, I began to understand that the fact that I didn't go to ulpan and sat in a bookstore reading Russian books meant I was going through culture shock even here." REST OF THE STORY Buman became interested in these kinds of cultural changes just as she returned to Israel in the early '90s. The massive aliya from Russia was in full swing. "There was no orientation. Ulpan was not taught in the way that Russians were used to. Neither was looking for work or registering kids for school." She and a close friend, Sonia Solomonick, opened an organization called "SAMA" (in Russian, "myself" in the feminine). Understanding that the process was hard not only for immigrants, but also for those taking them in, they held workshops for Israeli social workers on all kinds of subjects related to working with Russian olim. "Most of the social workers in Israel went through our courses," she says. ADVICE "When we move to a new and different kind of place, there are many things that look impossible and illogical. We know there's a logic, but we don't have the strength to find it. But it's there. And when you understand it, it's easier to live with it. You don't have to live by that logic, but you should understand it." To propose an immigrant for a 'Veterans' profile, please send a one paragraph e-mail to: