How pumpkin spice lattes defined a new wave of olim - opinion

“During October, everywhere in St. Petersberg has pumpkin spice lattes,” Tatyana Sheremet said. However, a Google search for Starbucks yielded no results. 

 Pumpkin spice latte (photo credit: STOCKVAULT)
Pumpkin spice latte
(photo credit: STOCKVAULT)

On one afternoon last October, Tatyana Sheremet looked out the window of her Haifa apartment and saw rain. 

The murkiness, unusual for Israel, reminded her of her home in St. Petersberg, which she left only two months prior to escape the turmoil of Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine. The move was fast, unexpected, and left a pit of sadness that flared up inside of her when she remembered her home.

Back in Russia, she just bought her first apartment with her husband, was working her dream job, and felt like she was finally able to create a beautiful life for her three kids. Now, all of it was gone. 

Sheremet began to crave a familiar comfort, a tradition she had for herself on gloomy St. Petersberg days – a pumpkin spice latte. 

“During October, everywhere in St. Petersberg has pumpkin spice lattes,” she said. However, a Google search for Starbucks yielded no results. 

 Haifa Port (credit: Courtesy)
Haifa Port (credit: Courtesy)

The search for a pumpkin spice latte

So, Sheremet took to a Facebook group for Olim in Haifa to ask about where she could find a pumpkin spice latte. “I suffer a little,” she wrote in Russian. She was being ironic. 

However, many users did not see the irony. The post “burst the Russian internet,” with many hateful commentators accusing her of entitlement, greed, of caring about silly things like lattes when her country was bombing Ukraine. Many of the commentators were olim from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) who had immigrated in the 90s, in much more difficult conditions than olim today. 

The older generations “remember how hard they worked for their lives, how they slept on the floor, how they had just over $100 in their pockets,” Sheremet said. “They feel angry when they see another kind of life, when you can do what you what. It’s very painful to think that you lived your life wrong.” 

The next day, Sheremet’s luck changed, and hundreds of commentators flooded the post and her private messages with support for her. Though there was the war in Russia, and a tense election season gearing up, and even if there was an apocalypse, it would be okay to want a pumpkin spice latte, the commentators said. 

“They knew that the latte was maybe only a way to feel normal, when your previous life was ruined because of the war, and everything is changing,” Sheremet said. 

Her post became an international meme: suddenly, Sheremet was a star, and everybody had something to say about pumpkin spice lattes.

Another Tatyana – Tatyana Glezer – saw the Facebook Post, and realized that olim chadashim from the FSU needed a safe space to “ask each other for this or that and not be hated,” she said.

So, on October 26, she founded a Facebook Group called “Pumpkin Latte,” a place where olim from all over the FSU could speak freely. The next day, the group already had 1,000 followers; nine months later, nearly 34,000 people follow the group. 

These followers – who affectionately refer to each other as “Pumpkin lattes” – define a wave of aliyah that is very different from the others, Glezer said. 

“These are people who had very good lives in Russia, in Moscow, St. Petersburg, mainly, they came from the big cities of Russia,” she said. “And these are people who came because they couldn't tolerate the war in Ukraine; it was a moral decision to leave the country.” 

New olim suddenly found, in some sectors, a much lower standard of life in Israel than in Russia. Beyond simple comforts like lattes, olim from the FSU have struggled to transfer money from Russia to Israel, attend ulpan classes, or access work suitable to their skill level, Glezer said. In “Pumpkin Latte,” olim can openly complain and come together to find solutions. 

However, many older waves of aliyah are still very bitter towards new waves, Glezer said. She added that the group is a social phenomenon, as it represents the first “aliyah conflict” that takes place online. 

“It’s not something new. It's as far as I understand it, it always existed, but here you can see it online. Older aliyah, they think that we just complain and we are ungrateful, that we are not patriotic enough, and that we want to use the country,” she said. 

Yair Smolianov, manager of Aliyah absorption at the One Million Lobby, which represents Russian-speaking immigrants in Israel, said that the “Pumpkin Latte” Facebook group has helped many cope with the challenges of aliyah.

 There are large changes, like moving a home or a job, but there are many other cultural changes that seriously impact the psychological well-being of Olim, Samulinov said. 

“Those are kind of things that if you don't prepare yourself,  and if the country you come to does not have classes on cultural mentality in Israel, you can come here and not expect these changes,” he said. “Then, the small things in your life that you wanted them to be stable, are also not stable.”

And Sheremet’s hankering for a pumpkin spice latte? It’s still there. One comment on her post suggested going to Kashtan Cafe in Haifa, owned by Michael, a Ukranian.

She tried the Pumpkin Latte, but it was “not the taste I was looking for,” because Michael uses real pumpkin, rather than syrup. So, when the weather cools off this autumn Sheremet will begin the quest anew, comforted at least by the fact that the Pumpkin Spice Latte Facebook group is providing answers to thousands of others.