‘Perestroika in Haifa’: Exhibit brings immigration from USSR into focus

A new exhibition at the Haifa City Museum highlights the experiences of the Soviet-Israeli community, which has played a major role in the port city's history.

‘Perestroika in Haifa’ offers an intimate glimpse into the inner reality of Jewish immigration from the USSR. (photo credit: LENA GOMON)
‘Perestroika in Haifa’ offers an intimate glimpse into the inner reality of Jewish immigration from the USSR.
(photo credit: LENA GOMON)

Jewish immigration from the USSR to Israel is at the center of Perestroika in Haifa, a new exhibition now being shown at Haifa City Museum.

Roughly half of all employees of the various museums in the port city hail from the former Soviet Union. From painter-turned-framer Vlad Braylovsky to furniture restorer-turned-carpenter Semion Meltser. While they worked for decades on exhibitions showcasing works done by others, this is the first time their voices, and art, are being presented to the public.

Meltser created wooden crates that perfectly mimic those allocated to those departing the Soviet Union during perestroika, a period in the 1980s when Soviet leadership attempted to introduce economic reforms to the USSR (the term means “rebuilding”). Only one crate was allowed.

“They brought over the thing which was meant to be of greatest value,” curator Yifat Ashkenazi said. “It did not always work.” 

For example, many brought over their best samovar, lovely objects that represent the family tradition of enjoying a cup of tea together. Three decades later, these iconic objects are often thrown out with the passing of those who so valued them.

This is the first time the paintings of Vlad Braylovsky, framer for all Haifa Museums, are being shown. (credit: LENA GOMON)This is the first time the paintings of Vlad Braylovsky, framer for all Haifa Museums, are being shown. (credit: LENA GOMON)

“I joined a social media group called Humorless Russians and their Friends and began getting text messages,” Ashkenazi told me. “‘Come pick this up or we will toss it away.’ I wonder what we will do with them once the exhibition ends.”

In another part of the exhibition, a USSR-style living room was recreated, complete with Russian literature on the shelves. These books were once the pride and joy of the man who shipped them here, Ashkenazi shared, but when he arrived he realized such items would not serve him in his new life and he never opened the boxes they were packed in – until this exhibition.

“I did not seek out the well-known heroes of the Jewish struggle to leave the USSR,” Ashkenazi pointed out, people like Natan Sharansky or Yuli Edelstein. “I wanted to give ordinary people a chance to tell their story.”

The result is a very gentle exhibition that describes the confusing, and at times painful, process of immigration in a subdued, self-restrained manner. In the printed materials on offer, people tell their life story in clipped sentences in three languages, Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian. Places of birth, dates, what happened. That, too, is a Soviet way of expressing things. One does not volunteer information.

Miriam Tiomkin, a museum guide, shared a collection of Christmas decorations that had been in her (Jewish) family for nearly a century. The Novy God holiday is not Christmas in the Western sense but a secular state holiday that marks New Year (the Russian Orthodox Church marks Christmas on the eve of January 6). As a child, she was ashamed of it and refused to invite friends over when her parents celebrated it. As a mother, she cherishes these family traditions. A photograph next to the decorations depicts a Christmas tree in a desert landscape typical of the new homeland.

Leonid Pekarovsky, an art historian who makes his living in Israel as a lobby security guard, had been discovered by Hebrew readers thanks to his Russian to Hebrew translators, Tanya Khazanovsky and Tomer Sarig. This gentle exhibition reminded me of his personal essays, collected in the 2015 book Parabola of Success, describing a man of letters making ends meet in a culture not really his own. His work Umbrella can be read online in an English translation at Jewishfiction.net. 

Those brought up in the USSR believed they had a mission to save the world, Ashkenazi suggested. This exhibition can be seen as a powerful exploration of how regular people respond to a world that does not wish to be saved.

Perestroika in Haifa at the Haifa City Museum will show until April 30. Special guided tours (in Hebrew) will be given on October 26 at 11 a.m. and October 30 at 7:30 p.m. For details call (04) 911-5888.

Also on offer at the museum is What Will the Neighbors Say?, a detailed history of LGBT life in Haifa from the British Mandate years until today. A special place in the exhibition is given to the late Marcia Freedman, a US-born Israeli feminist who came out of the closet as a lesbian in the 1970s. https://www.haifamuseums.co.il/pride