A Russian infusion

The wave of Russian-speaking immigrants not only created its own vibrant subculture, but also had a huge influence on the local cultural scene.

The Gesher Theater (photo credit: GOVERNMENT PRESS OFFICE)
The Gesher Theater
When a million Russian-speakers started arriving in Israel in the early 1990s – 30,000 new immigrants per month fleeing the collapse of the Soviet Union – native Israelis seemed confused and a little scared. They knew that their Zionist and Jewish duty was to accommodate their refugee brethren. But these people didn’t fit the familiar Zionist image. They didn’t speak Hebrew, didn’t know Israeli history, and didn’t show much interest in local culture. Not to mention that they dressed funny. And that, for many Israelis, a great many of them weren’t even considered Jewish. What most of the local population didn’t understand, and what the immigrants themselves couldn’t have known, was that such circumstances were, in many ways, quintessentially Zionist – and that the clash of cultures that took place over the past 25 years would greatly influence and contribute to the vigor of modern-day Israel.
One of the greatest differences between former aliyot from Russia and the Russian aliya of the 1990s is the sheer number of people that arrived at once.
People often speak of the Russian olim of the 1970s as Zionists and those of the 1990s as economic refugees. But in actuality, the 1970s immigrants, who came in much smaller numbers, ended up receiving much more economic help than those who came in the 1990s – when a lack of infrastructure able to absorb such an inflow of population left people fending for themselves. It also left them to their own devices. And they ended up establishing an infrastructure of their own which could provide them with both the familiarity of daily life in Russian and make them feel at home in their new land. From food to literature and popular media, the Russian aliya quickly established an entire subculture of its own.
But no subculture exists in isolation, and many aspects of Russian-speaking life in Israel were formed in dialogue or reaction to local culture. What took more time to see, however, was the way that Russian-speakers came to influence local Israeli life. One of the earliest cultural institutions to emerge from these historical circumstances was the Gesher Theater – whose dramaturge, Roee Chen, exemplifies Russian influence on Israel. Chen was born into a Sephardi family with no historical or cultural connection to Russia. But exposure to Russian culture in his youth turned into a lifelong romance with the Russian language and literary tradition. And with the perspective of two-and-a-half decades, he increasingly understands how crucial the Russian aliya was to revitalizing culture and identity in Israel.
“People who come from outside help you look at your country in a different way,” explains Chen. “Aside from the [Russian aliya’s] direct influence – on the arts, engineering, technology – the indirect contribution is to reevaluate the place we live in.”
He recalls a time when his Russian- speaking wife stopped and said to him, “Look at these beautiful palm trees,” to which he replied: “These ugly trees?” Or the first time that someone asked him: “Do you pick mushrooms in the forests up near Jerusalem?” The eyes that came from Russia were looking for things that the local Israeli eye no longer saw.
In addition to eyes, the olim from Russia brought tongues that spoke a rich literary language but couldn’t speak the local language. One of the problems they faced was that Hebrew wasn’t taught in the way that they were used to learning languages. With this mass of immigrants arriving without knowing where they were going to sleep or how they were going to eat, not only was there little time for going to Hebrew class, but there was less need: there were suddenly a lot of other people around who spoke Russian.
The late Hebrew-language poet Roman Baembaev, who had emigrated from Cernowicz as a teenager in the early 1970s, once told me that until the olim arrived he had almost never spoken Russian.
Since then, not only had his Russian returned, but the native Hebrew accent in which he’d spoken since teen-hood made way for a typically Russian accent.
While some people complain about Russian-speakers never learning Hebrew, Chen sees the Russian aliya as bringing new perspectives on the Hebrew language.
“When people ‘break’ a language, they actually build it at the same time,” says Chen. “There are many ways of breaking a language – children do this, slang does this, and immigrants do this. It’s an important part of bringing the language to life.”
A feedback developed between Russian and Hebrew that has influenced music, theater, and literature. One of the most prominent examples of this is the Gesher Theater itself – which is also celebrating its 25th anniversary. Chen explains that Gesher used to be a bilingual theater with the same group able to perform a single play in two languages.
This was the case with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – the first play the Gesher put up. Now more than half of the cast includes Israeli- born actors who don’t know Russian.
The plays are performed in Hebrew with Russian subtitles. And yet, to this day, the theater’s director, Arye Yevgeny, speaks only in Russian – working with a simultaneous translator at all times.
“The Gesher did what Habima did in the early 1920s,” marvels Chen. “They were established in Russian, came to Israel, and became a Hebrew theater. We thought that what happened with Habima was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. But then we saw that it’s a twice-in-a-lifetime thing. Israel is a country full of miracles.”
The Gesher Theater developed the way that theater was presented in Israel.
It introduced a stronger emphasis on the visual element and a broader vision of theater which included both a circus approach and a more complex perception of space. It also emphasized literary adaptations – from Russian and world classics to contemporary Israeli and Jewish literature. And it has since expanded into works inspired by literary sources, such as a play called Alice based on Lewis Carroll’s letters, and I Am Don Quixote, about two prisoners reading Cervantes’s classic, which will premiere in June.
The Hebrew language was also influenced by the introduction of Russian music in translation. In 1989, Arkadi Duchin, who had immigrated to Israel in 1978 at the age of 15, brought the music and poetry of Vladimir Vysotsky to the Hebrew language. Duchin went on to leave a bigger mark on Israeli culture with his band, “The Friends of Natasha,” which gained in popularity after the massive Russian aliya.
Part of this may be due to the fact that the appearance of so many Russian- speakers actually renewed interest in Russian culture. In addition to music and theater, Israelis began to be interested in classic Russian literature, which began to be retranslated into Hebrew.
Translators such as Peter Kriksunov, Nilly Mirsky, Dina Markun, and Chen himself brought new life to works by Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Daniil Kharms, and Varlam Shalamov.
“When a wave of books by authors like these appears in Hebrew,” explains Chen, “it has to influence readers and also authors.”
Russian-Israeli anthropologist Julia Lerner has pointed out that, unlike the aliya of the 1970s, which consisted mostly of various literary and scientific intelligentsia, the aliya of the 1990s brought in all kinds of immigrants – an entire slice of society, from top to bottom, varied in both age and social status. And the raw reality that they faced upon arriving in Israel hardened into a tougher attitude.
Among the immigrants, a lost generation of teenagers developed that included both Russian and Israeli youth, some of whom gathered at the abandoned Arab village of Lifta just outside Jerusalem.
This literary and artistic group led an edgier lifestyle and included hard drinking and drugs. Among them was the poet Anna Karpa, whose pen name was Anna Gorenko, and who died of an overdose at the age of 27. The Lifta group also established connections with older generation Russian-Israeli poets like Mikhail Gendelev, Roman Baembaev, and Vladimir Tarasov, as well as other emerging artistic circles that included poets Petia Ptah and Sivan Beskin, scholar and translator Ronen Sonis, theater director Yulia Ginis, and visual artist Masha Zusman, among others. But the Lifta group’s harder edge also set them apart – and they became the inspiration for Chen’s first novel, The Ink Horses.
“Everything that happened in the 1990s that was really interesting,” he says, “was a reflection of what happened in the first half of the 20th century. Alterman, Shlonsky, Rachel, Alexander Penn – they all grew up on Russian poetry and translated Russian poetry into Hebrew. When the Russian aliya came they looked for a connection to them – not to Natan Zach or Dahlia Ravikovitch or David Avidan. They went for rhythm and rhyme.”
A similar return to the past is taking place in the visual arts. Zoya Cherkassky, one of the leading artists to emerge from the Russian aliya of the 1990s, has established a painting group called Barbizon – including Natalia Zourabova, Anna Lukashevsky, Asia Lukin, and Olga Kundina. The group paints Israeli landscapes from observation – going out into the streets and countryside – and aims to show Israeli society a view of itself.
For Chen, these kinds of artistic tendencies repeat a process of cultural transformation that have already taken place in Israel’s history. One of the major effects of these experiences on Israeli society for Chen is that the idea of Israel as a single melting pot shifted. Part of this shift had to do with Russian-speakers insisting on retaining their language at home, on the street, and in the media.
“Once, if you spoke another language to your children, it was considered a betrayal,” he says. “Today the old command – ‘Hebrew, speak Hebrew!’ – is gone.”
He explains that the strengthening of Hebrew as the national language came at the expense of other Jewish languages – Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Yiddish. These were all written in Hebrew letters and could have easily been commonly used across Israel. For this reason they had to be sacrificed. “But then we lost the language of exile,” says Chen. “We became Israeli – but we lost almost everything on the way.”
“When the Jews were in exile,” he continues, “they looked toward the future.
Now we have toward the past.”
He adds that it’s difficult for a people who actively lived their yearning for 2000 years to suddenly live without yearning. “We were Romeo, and Zion was Juliette,” he says, comparing the situation to Shakespeare’s famous play. “The world was the families that wouldn’t let us be together. But instead of dying at the end, we’re in a new play that Shakespeare didn’t write. Zion and the Jews are living together. It’s like married life – less romantic than yearning.”
Like any major societal change, the massive struggle for survival in Israel has plateaued over the last 25 years.
Many Israelis now know a few words in Russian and have friends who came from the former Soviet Union. But, for Chen, the new immigrants who came in the 1990s contributed something crucial to the country – they infused it with a much needed dose of yearning.
“They came to Israel with a fantasy – which we had lost. They awakened the libido of Israelis.”