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>PD Jan. 13, 1995, V3, #9
Israel is Home to Over 500,000 Former Soviet Jews
By Adam Phillips (Washington)
Despite its prominence in the international news, the State of
Israel is so small it is difficult even to spot on some world maps.
But since 1989, this nation of 5 million people has absorbed over
500,000 Jews from Russia and the former Soviet Union. This is the
rough equivalent of the United States absorbing 25 million new
immigrants. Five years after this massive immigration began, it is
appropriate to wonder how well these Russian Jews have been faring
in their promised land.
In the Bible, it says that when the Jews were in the desert on
their way to the promised land from Egypt, they sent in advance
scouts to check up on things and report back. When they returned,
the scouts said they found the promised milk and honey flowing
there all right, but the land was also one that "swallows up its
inhabitants." Even a Moses might wonder how a land as tiny as
Israel could possibly absorb a half a million Russian immigrants in
four years. Yet between 1989 and 1993, this is exactly what Israel
managed to do . A huge percentage of these new arrivals were
professionals back in the former Soviet Union. Their number
includes tens of thousands of doctors, lawyers, teachers,
scientists and engineers. There are even 18,000 musicians among the
new arrivals. That's enough for 200 full-sized Israel Philharmonic
Oleg Zaichokov, a clarinetist whose trio often plays for tips on
the busy streets of downtown Jerusalem, arrived in Israel from
Leningrad in 1990. Like many Russian immigrants to Israel,
Zaichokov was not particularly Zionistic back home. Still, systemic
Russian anti-Semitism, combined with worsening economic conditions,
told him it was time for him and other Russian Jews to get out
while they could. He speaks through a translator during a break.
"Here I realized I am a Zionist as I never had before. Even when I
was a little boy, I always heard, right in front of my face, that
I am a 'dirty kike' and all these other bad words about Jews that
I don't want people to even remember, let alone repeat. And the
same attitude I saw toward my son and to all the Jews in the former
Soviet Union. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union,
everyone with brain in his head understood that all the shortages
and disorder would be blamed on the Jews. Yes, I think I am a
Zaichokov has found enough work playing at weddings, circumcision
feasts and other celebrations to survive financially in his chosen
field. But many other Russian professionals have not been so lucky.
According to one 1993 statistic, only 30 percent of the new Russian
immigrant professionals now in Israel have jobs where they can use
the knowledge and skills they developed in their native land.
Many Jews who enjoyed high status in their fields back in the
former Soviet Union are appalled at their drop in prestige in
Israeli society, where lower level jobs are sometimes all that is
available to them. Yuli Edelstein is a former refusenik who was
sent to Soviet labor camps for his Zionist activities, and is now
an advocate for Soviet Jewry at the Zionist Forum in Jerusalem.
"People growing up here in Israel or in the United States could
express themselves in all kinds of ways. Here in Israel, for
instance, you can be a big fat nothing in terms of your
professional training, but you can be a peace activist, or a
settler who is trying to do all kinds of things to settle the Land
of Israel, you can be active in ecology, like Greenpeace and all
these kinds of things. So there are all kinds of self expression.
For us back in Russia, for Jews -- not only for Jews, but mostly
for Jews -- there was only one way to express ourselves. Our whole
identity was our professional training. For a Jew to make it in
Russia, the only way was to become a great doctor so that everyone
will come and kiss his hands and say 'Please Dr. Rabinovitz, could
you operate on me?,' Or a great teacher and so forth.
Edelstein says this is why the psychological cost of absorption
outweighs the recent improvement in government employment
statistics and many private retraining schemes.
"When I see a former doctor or engineer working in a gas station,
I know that he's probably earning money, I know that he's probably
doing OK and driving a good car and everything seems to be fine.
But I know that nearly all his identity was taken from him, and
this is how he looks in his own eyes, and this is how he looks in
his kids' eyes, and there is still a problem."
Netiva Ben Yehuda, who was a Zionist pioneer and demolition
commander for the Jewish underground during the 1948 War of
Independence, admires the "can-do" attitude shown by some older
immigrants as they try to adjust. She remembers the two Russian
gentleman who lugged a refrigerator up to her sixth floor flat in
Jerusalem. They were 70 years old.
"And when they entered, I said "Ohhhh! How old are you? So what are
you doing carrying refrigerators?' So one of them said 'I am [an]
engineer of mechanics' and the other one was a professor of physics
and they said 'as long as we can, why not?' First of all, we do it
much better than the idiotic porters, that don't know how to carry.
We know how to carry! Secondly, we don't have anything else to do.'
They were more optimistic than I was. I started to cry with tears.
They started to comfort me. They said 'Don't worry, don't worry. We
One group that has been trying to help the immigrants manage is the
American Joint Distribution Committee in Israel, or Joint, a
world-wide agency dedicated to Jewish rescue, relief and
reconstruction. Spokeswoman Deborah Lipson says that Joint has
specifically targeted middle-aged Russian professionals as they
face the challenges of their new world.
"I'm talking specifically about the older professional immigrants,
those over age 45 who have often reached the pinnacle of their
career before their emigration from the Soviet Union. They were
chief engineers, they were chief scientists, they were leading
professors. Because of their age, because of their high positions,
it is ironically more difficult for them to find work in their
field. An employer would be more reluctant to employ a 45-, 50-year
-old engineer than to employ a 25-, 30-year-old engineer. Often,
also, because of their age, they may find it more difficult to
learn Hebrew so that they're less marketable within the Israeli
economy. And therefore special programs are needed to help
these people fit into the work markets do that they won't be
Strong cultural differences between native-born Israelis and the
new Russian immigrants often make themselves felt even in places
where they have found excellent jobs. Professor Moshe Kaveh, the
academic director of Tel Aviv's prestigious Bar Ilan University,
oversees the work of scores of scientists and other top-level
professionals, many of whom are Russians. He says that even the top
scientist immigrants at his university are more comfortable with
the collectivist lifestyle of the former Soviet Union than they are
with the individualism and striving to be found in a Western style
democracy such as Israel.
"I would say creativity or trying to push things for yourself was
not something which was so much of use in Russia, because you have
a system which does not allow you to do so. So they, most of them
waited for getting clear instructions what to do and how to behave
and suddenly you come to a place where the rules are made by
yourself! If you are creative, you are energetic, you achieve
more. You have to plead your case, you have to demand what you
need, and this takes time to understand. On the other hand, we are
admiring their tolerance and their patience, and this is why I
would say we benefitted from their tolerance, but they benefitted
from the way of being very, very practical."
Many native-born Israelis actually resent the extent of the
practical benefit the Russians have received from the government
for absorption and resettlement costs. New immigrants to Israel
have always received these funds, but the sheer size of the Russian
influx has meant dislocation and hardship for many natives. This is
especially so among lower and middle income groups, most of whom
actually welcomed the new immigrants when they first arrived.
Marsha Tauber, an Australian Jew who came to Israel 20 years ago as
a social worker, says that the housing problem has been
"A lot of problems really started when the Russian immigration came
because the government was handing out huge monetary aid to the
Russians without specifying what it had to be used for. And greedy
landlords just pushed up all the rents. The rents suddenly went up
and all the Russians were moving in because they had all these
pocketfuls of money to spend on rent and a lot of Israelis
couldn't afford to pay the rents and they were pushed out into the
streets. And it became like a homeless problem. There's a big tent
city outside the government offices."
When Tauber left Australia 20 years ago, she left a comfortable
life behind in order to pursue her Zionist ideals in the rough and
tumble of the Jewish state. She says she finds a lack of idealism
on the part of most Russian emigres, and shares the perception of
many Israelis that most Russians came simply because they wanted to
get rich in business.
"To a lot of people in Israel, this wave of immigration is called
'aliyah knockneek,' sausage immigration. And what does that mean?
It means people are after sausage. It means just purely economic
motivation has brought them here. They were unable to get visas to
America or any other European country and this was their last
choice and they arrived here. And very little ideological or
religious motivation for coming here, as in previous waves of
Russian immigration, the few that came. And if they don't succeed
economically immediately, cars, apartments, jobs to their
satisfaction, they see themselves as failures and they just hope to
go somewhere else, like back to America where 'the streets are
paved with gold.'"
There is another factor that sometimes distinguishes the Israel's
new Russian immigrants from earlier immigration waves from other
lands. Until recently, most Jews who came to Israel identified
strongly with their Jewish heritage and had strong ideological or
spiritual reasons for wanting to live there. But the Jews of the
Soviet Union had lived in an atheistic political culture for
over 70 years, and were persecuted because of their ethnic
identity. So many of them immigrated to israel for political or
Still, a sizable number of Russian Jews became interested in their
millennia-old religious heritage while studying Hebrew and Jewish
history in the clandestine learning circles that sprang up in
Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev and other large Soviet cities during the
1970s and '80s. Miriam Kodrovsky is typical of this highly
"First of all, I really do believe a Jew should live here because
that is more or less what he is commanded to do. God expects us to
do it. Jews should live in their own land and build their life
together. And it's both the right thing to do and the good thing to
do for them. They're going to be happier and safer this way than
living in the Diaspora."
According to Jewish tradition, the silver lining in the Jews'
painful 2000-year-long exile comes upon their return. At that time,
they will bring to Israel all the wisdom and experience of the
world cultures where they have lived, thus making Israel a
microcosm of all humanity. Whether there will be a sure place for
the Jews of the former Soviet Union in this unlikely mosaic remains
to be seen.
This certainly seems to have been the case with 14-year-old Yaakov
Gorenshteen, a Russian boy from an assimilated family who learned
to love American jazz in Israel. During a performance his school
band is giving for a pre-Sabbath crowd in Jerusalem, Yaakov says
that getting to Israel from Russia and finding his place has been
tough, but that, in the end, he is sure that his future belongs
"It's not easy to be here as someone who came from Russia. To my
parents it was very hard because they didn't have work. But now,
after five and a half years, I feel like I belong to here. I
remember Russia but because we were Jews, our place is in Israel.
We can't always be in Russia and everyone thinks that we are
Russian. I'm proud to be a Jew!" (Laughs)
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