Russian Jews 101

Depending on how you count, there are about 900,000-1.5 million Russians in Israel.  I’ve explored many cultures in Israel and this one is next on the list.  I was initially hesitant to explore Russian culture in Israel.  First of all, I felt it was not particularly Jewish or Middle Eastern (we’ll explore how I’ve changed my mind).  Second of all, I felt Russian was a language of oppression.  I remember stories told in my family of ancestors who fled from there (because- and this is a crucial point- I’m also a Russian Jew just several generations back).  Ancestors who felt the Russian language, Russian rule, and Russian anti-Semitism was forced on them.  Because it often was.  Most Russian Jews, several generations back, were Yiddish speakers- just like in the U.S.

So on some level I felt guilt about learning Russian.  I knew that in fact Russian had become one of the most widely spoken languages amongst Jews – I grew up with many Russian Jewish friends.  As a teen, I learned a bunch of their slang and unique sense of humor.  My suburb of Washington accepted thousands of post-Soviet refugees.  I also felt that Russian was a harsh language, a language of stern people with no smiles.  And one with not so great cuisine.

These stereotypes are rooted in fact or personal experience.  Russia has an exceedingly bad record when it comes to anti-Semitism, which is why many more Russian Jews live outside Russia than in.  I also can’t help but wonder if the Cold War – which technically was still going on when I was a young child (I remember maps with the Soviet Union) – influences the way I perceive Russia.  To this day, the U.S. and Russia are embroiled in conflict and it is actually one of the few countries where it is easier for me to travel on an Israeli passport than an American one.

So the conundrum of me learning Russian is this- the 1.5 million Israelis (largely Jewish or married to Jews, though some not) who speak it are the ones who also fled these problems.  In other words, if I want to explore this culture (which is so rich- for many years I enjoyed exploring Russian art in D.C.), I need to learn the language that many of our persecutors spoke.  And that many Russian Jews today speak as well.  It’s the language of anti-Semites, it’s a language of Communist Jews (who were quite prominent), it’s the language of Tolstoy, it’s the language that influenced so much Yiddish and even Israeli folk songs.  And it’s the language of millions of people I don’t know yet- and who maybe aren’t all as prejudiced today as I’ve been taught.

In other words, complex.  So how did I get to a point where I want to learn Russian – and about Russian culture (here and in the Motherland)?

Oddly enough, Greek.  Over Christmas, I went to Cyprus.  I’ve long been a fan of Greek language, music, history, and food.  So I started learning the language.  And interestingly enough, once you can read Greek, you’re well on your way to reading Russian.  You can thank Saint Cyril for that 🙂 .  So when I got back to Israel and I noticed several identical letters in Russian on signs (because Russian is everywhere here), I started learning the alphabet.

Once I’m hooked on a language, everything else falls into place.  I’ve started listening to Russian music, buying Russian books (there are a lot of them in Israel!), and ultimately meeting Russians 🙂  And it turns out, some of them smile, some of them are Jews, some of them are really cute!, some of them like to dance (like the woman in the bookstore who put on a CD for me and started wiggling!).  In other words, the stern babushka who scolds and never smiles- I’m sure someone is like that, but like most images, this is merely a snapshot and not daily reality.

Which gets us to the word Russian.  In Israel, what exactly does that mean?  Well, it’s a bit complex (which will also bring us to the food question!).  As Israeli Sabras are not known for their nuance, “Russian” here tends to mean anyone who speaks Russian or whose family came from a post-Soviet republic.  Well, guess what?  That’s Belorussians, Lithuanians, Georgians, Bukharians (Central Asia), Latvians, Ukrainians- and so many more.  In some cases, Jews who have completely different cultures and delightfully delicious cuisines.  In some cases, Jews who only speak Russian as a second language.  In some cases, people who the Israeli government doesn’t even consider Jewish.  And in some cases, people who the Russian government wouldn’t consider ethnically Russian.  In short, the word “Russian” in Israel doesn’t tell you much.  Which is why it’s important to learn about this community in more depth.

Much like Russian Israelis are actually an incredibly diverse array of cultures, so too is Russia.  There are 25 *official* languages in Russia.  Most people are Orthodox Christians or secular.  And there are also about 10-14 million Muslims.  700,000 Buddhists.  And 1.7 million are pagans or shamans!  The latter a word I might associate with Native Americans more than Russians.

And importantly for me- there are a ton of direct flights to Russia from Tel Aviv.  I hope to take one one day, perhaps with a new Russian-Israeli friend.

My ancestors who came to America from today’s Lithuania and Latvia/Belarus- they were listed often as Russian because it was part of the Russian Empire.  Their relationship with the predominant culture and language were complex- sometimes a source of incredible hardship and also a source of richness.

What I’ve come to realize about Russian Jews in Israel (and I define the term broadly unlike the bureaucrats in the Chief Rabbinate) is that when I’m learning about their culture, I’m not learning about China or India or Bolivia.  All places I love where my ancestors probably never stepped foot.  When someone recently asked me if I was Russian, I paused for a second and said “yes”!  Because I am.  It’s just that my family had the good fortune of escaping to America.  But we are from the same place.  When I speak to a Russian Jew here, I’m speaking to a long lost cousin.

When I arrived to Israel and discovered the dearth of Jewish food I was raised on, I scrambled to find whitefish salad.  In a land filled with falafel stands being eaten by people whose grandparents largely didn’t know what the food was, I couldn’t find a bona fide Jewish spread!  Someone suggested I go to a Russian grocery store.  I did- and the woman behind the counter smiled.  She was Russian and her Polish grandma would prepare such a salad.  She walked around the counter and brought it to me.

It looked like whitefish salad, with the same texture, yet it had a bit of a tang to it.  Interesting- not quite what I was hoping for, but a good find.  Similar, yet not quite the same.

This is how I feel about Russian Jews.  We come from the same place, our foods are similar, our cultures are similar.  And we’ve spent some time apart- them in the Soviet Union, me in America.  And now we’re back together here in Israel.  Getting to know each other.  Sometimes over whitefish, sometimes over kebabs, sometimes at a Yiddish musical in Tel Aviv reminiscing about our shared civilization.

Perhaps to the chagrin of Israel’s founders, many of whom fled Russia and their Russian identities, coming to Israel is reconnecting me with mine.  And who knows the amazing places it’ll take me spiritually, culturally, and physically.

My cover photo is of a 1986 book- from the year I was born – “A Dictionary of Cybernetics and Applied Mathematics”.  Published in Communist Russia at a time when our countries were still at odds, it’s a bilingual book to help Russians learn English vocabulary.  I bought it (for 3 shekels!) because of what it represents.  Sometimes, changes are happening that you could never imagine.  And someone, somewhere, is learning about you in a place you’d least expect.  That conflict is neither interminable nor inevitable.

And that one day, an American Jew would renew his hope via an old book in a Tel Aviv bus station because he’s starting to learn the Russian his ancestors spoke.  And that his neighbors speak now.

To recall a phrase an old Russian friend from the U.S. taught me: Отлично.  Awesome 🙂

Author: Matt Adler - מטע אדלר

A compassionate multilingual Jewish explorer. Author of "More Than Just Hummus: A Gay Jew Discovers Israel in Arabic": & Join me on my journeys by reading my blog or following me on Facebook May you find some beauty in your day today. :)

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