Suddenly you get up in the morning – and you feel that you are a member of another nation. Up until that moment, you had the feeling that you were 100-percent Israeli in the way you dress and the way you talk and that all your inclinations and even all your faults were typical of every Israeli. Now you recall that your mother tongue (and your mother's tongue) is Russian and that, way back in kindergarten, you were raised on Alexander Pushkin, not on Haim Nahman Bialik. When did this dramatic metamorphosis occur? Doctor, is there a cure for this ailment?
Recently, in one of the Russian web forums, a prolonged, vociferous debate developed among friends who have known each other for more than 15 years. The debate at times lapsed into insulting remarks and curses and sometimes even severed long ties of friendship. The dozens of participants in this verbal free-for-all consisted for the most part of religious Jews who were born in Russia and who today live in Israel or the United States. What subject stirred their emotions so passionately? Relationships between leftists and rightists? Or between religious and secular Jews? These two items were discussed in moderate tones, and I personally can attest to that fact. So what shocked rabbis, academics with Ph.D. degrees and other intellectuals, driving them to the verge of insanity? One of the participants had dared to touch a subject that is considered sanctum sanctorum: He had had the audacity to say a few harsh remarks about the city of St. Petersburg!
What a mistake!
It should be stressed here that none of the participants live today in St. Petersburg on the banks of the Neva River. They all agreed that the city has – or, at least, once had – its share of drunks, thieves and really filthy spots. However, the very utterance of any negative comments on St. Petersburg was simply too much for the participants in this forum and they were driven to distraction. Waves of deep love suddenly surged and participants vowed that they would return to their native city to breathe their last few minutes on earth and they acknowledged the existence of a “shared fate” common to all present and former inhabitants of St. Petersburg. Dozens of the participants even talked about being passionately in love with the city and even used the term addiction to describe the nature of their connection. Even those who were not born there but had either studied in St. Petersburg or visited the city expressed their love for this metropolis in gushing terms. (When speaking about St. Petersburg, most of the participants referred to it as the greatest city on earth.)
All Russian speakers are familiar with such extreme expressions of love for St. Petersburg and with the mysterious link that exists between the city and its admirers. The “St. Petersburg myth” has dominated the mood of Russian culture ever since the days of Pushkin and Fyodor Dostoyevsky and continues to haunt the writings of such recent authors as Joseph Brodsky. What is surprising about the above outburst of passion is that all the participants in the war of words who acknowledged that they were in love with the city are religious Jews, the vast majority of whom live in Israel. As Zionists and observant Jews, they have two cogent reasons for shaking off the dust of Diaspora life, just as the founders of the State of Israel did (most of them came to Palestine from Russia). Yet, strangely enough, their expressions of passionate loyalty to St. Petersburg are remarkably similar to the expressions of longing for Zion that have been heard on the lips of Jews ever since Psalm 137, also known as “By the Waters of Babylon,” was first composed. “I live in Israel, the Land of the Patriarchs, but my heart is deeply attached to St. Petersburg” is a statement commonly uttered by these contemporary Russian Zionists.
It should be clarified here that these Jews were not banished from their native land like those who were expelled from Spain in 1492 or who were exiled from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. They can return to St. Petersburg whenever they choose. Furthermore, they write a fluent Hebrew and have integrated well into Israeli society. Nonetheless, one thing is obvious: They are living in exile.
And another clarification should be made: None of them have any sentiments for Russia as a whole, its birch trees, the broad Volga River or any of its tourist attractions. When they say “homeland,” they are referring to a specific city on the shores of the Baltic Sea, in the icy north, on the border with Finland.
I admit that I share these feelings. Thirty years ago, I lived in a gray, seven-story building, that had been built in 1909. Between our apartment building and an adjacent one, there was a tiny courtyard. The sky seemed very distant from the ground at the time. From my window, I could easily see a room in the adjacent building; it was only 20 meters away. Our windows were adorned with translucent curtains that did not do a very good job of concealing us from the eyes of the curious neighbors who lived opposite us. The sun never visited our home and, when I looked up at the sky from my window, I could see only dark clouds. Blue skies were not part of my childhood; I knew that the sky was always gray because this was its natural color.
Rain could fall at any time during the year, and it did not matter whether the calendar said January or June. You never left your home without an umbrella. If the snow held its ground for two consecutive weeks in wintertime, it was a splendid winter; if the sun shone for two consecutive weeks in summertime, it was a splendid summer. The rest of the days of the year were one long autumn. The air was always damp and saturated with drops of fog, while the wind that blew in from the bay, from the Baltic Sea, brought us the smell of the sea, which was mixed with the stench of burning coal. I lovingly breathed this air, accepting it as a self-understood fact. Now I understand that this was a precious gift.
And one must not forget the river! “The width of the Neva River can be an entire kilometer in some places” is what is written in many travel guides. When I stood on the banks of the river beside the ancient fortress, I saw before me an expanse of waves – tiny waves that seemed endless. Somewhere on the horizon was the legendary royal palace that was located on the south bank. There was a bridge on the left, and another one on the right; the air above me was in constant motion and was always damp. For minutes on end, I would gaze at the gray water, which flowed so slowly, and would marvel at its immeasurable power. The Neva penetrates the heart of St. Petersburg and splits into dozens of channels at the bay's estuary. In some book, I read that St. Petersburg has 300 islands, and I have even tried on several occasions to count them on a map; however, I only got up to 90. Were the maps not detailed enough? Or were there perhaps some islands hidden from view? This has always remained a mystery in my mind. There must always be some mystery surrounding your beloved, some hidden secret. Sometimes, I would stand on the river bank for a long time, so long in fact that I would be late for a meeting. Who would dare disturb the serenity of such intimate moments? “Lovers never look at their watches,” one poet once wrote.
When will the ice break?
It is surprising that a passion for St. Petersburg is not part and parcel of an overall passion for Russia. Although Russia provides the cultural, historical “baggage,” it is not a place – it is simply a cultural concept. Apparently, the participants in the Internet debate were born in a land called St. Petersburg and it is just a matter of coincidence that they speak Russian. There is no question of dual loyalty here: Mother Russia is not their mother, not even a distant relative.
This mix has some elements that are more active than others. These individuals who have such a strange identity are generally not members of any association of immigrants from St. Petersburg. Their love for this city is so personal and so individualized that they have no need for being with other adorers of St. Petersburg. Their relationship with their beloved city closely resembles a man's relationship with a woman that he deeply loves, with one important qualification: This is a woman that he has abandoned.
People who were born in St. Petersburg think of their native city in the same way a man remembers the love of his life, whom he has abandoned in a search for a better and more beautiful woman. Sometimes they even pledge to be eternally faithful to this beloved, only to later violate their vow and travel to distant lands, while she, in accordance with classical tradition, remains waiting on the river bank for her lover to return as he promised her.
To this very day, she is still waiting. A return visit to the city of your childhood – for a week or for several months – has the character of hesitant voyeurism. “How will St. Petersburg receive me today?” you ask yourself. “Has she forgotten me? Has she forgiven me?”
This generation of Russian Jews are devoted to their new homeland, Israel, just as a man can be devoted to his new wife without giving any further thought to his first love; without such “amnesia,” he could never position himself under the wedding canopy. He will be faithful to his new wife but he will always be unhappy.
Other expressions of a Multiple Personality Syndrome (MPS; or, to put it more subtly, a multiple identity syndrome) among Russian speakers are just as interesting. Eli Bar-Yahalom was born in Russia and celebrated his sixth birthday on Kibbutz Dan. He attended the Hebrew Reali School in Haifa and then went on to study at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, also located in Haifa. When he was in the senior grades of high school, he began writing poetry in Hebrew and to sing his verses at Hebrew song festivals (he is continuing to do so even today, and with striking success). Just before he graduated from high school, Bar-Yahalom discovered Russian culture and the power of Russian poetry; he was captivated. Since that time, two poets coexist inside his creative soul: an Israeli poet writing in Hebrew and a Russian poet. At age 20, he was already writing poems in Russian, was singing them accompanied by a guitar and was becoming increasingly popular in Russia. People who have heard his passionate verse, which is so full of associations and allusions to protagonists of a literature that has not yet been translated into Hebrew and which sounds so authentically Russian, would never guess that the creator of these magnificent poems is a religious Jew who always wears a kipa (skullcap) and studies in a yeshiva (academy for Talmudic studies) in Haifa.
Shaul Reznik lives in the greater Tel Aviv area. A fervent supporter of the Greater Israel vision, he dons a black kipa. He has a degree in Hebrew language from Bar-Ilan University and loves modern Hebrew literature. In his spare time, when he is not earning an honorable living, he translates popular Russian verse into a highly literate Hebrew. He takes great pleasure in translating works that overflow with vulgarity, crudity and the most explicit of sexual terms. His translations have appeared in two books and have earned the praise of literary critics and reviewers in the literary supplements of Israel's major newspapers. They are perfect in form, their language is rich and eloquently poetic; furthermore, Reznik deserves accolades for his patient search for the right Hebrew words that can convey the endless variety of Russian vulgarisms. In this area, Russian has three times the vocabulary of Hebrew; no one would argue that point. Reznik should also be praised for having preserved the unique fragrance of the vulgarities and their cultural connotations.
A young boy sat on the roof,
Dipping his penis into turpentine.
Oh the magic of chemistry -
His foreskin is blue enough.
Why does a Jew like Reznik, who is faithful to both Jewish law and the Jewish homeland, invest so much energy in this sort of activity? He says that he finds the translation work relaxing. In his translations, you can detect his mastery of literary Hebrew, his striving to attain literary fame and his determination to enrich Hebrew culture with these translated poems. However, there is another element here: There is a stubborn urge to express himself while remaining anchored to the world of a rejected culture that any self-respecting enlightened religious Israeli Jew would naturally be expected to steer clear of. However, Reznik does not want to extinguish the flame of his Russian soul, which embraces even the most extreme expressions of Russian culture, and, unlike the protagonists of the first part of this survey, he does not want to assign a remote corner of his personality to that culture. Unlike Bar-Yahalom, Reznik opposes the idea of establishing an absolute distinction between his creativity in Russian verse and his creativity in Hebrew verse. Reznik is interested in highlighting and giving expression – in Hebrew translation – to a certain aspect of his Russian identity.
He has also translated many modern Russian poems, which are heard on festive occasions and beside bonfires and with which every native Russian is familiar; Reznik has even rendered the Soviet anthem in Hebrew. Bar-Yahalom has translated a number of classic Russian poems into Hebrew, and I myself own the copyright on a dozen translations of Russian poetry. We are a small group here in Israel, translating songs and poetry into Hebrew; we number about a dozen. However, one member of this group has done more than anyone else to introduce Russian poetry to the Hebrew-speaking public in Israel – a computer software expert who lives in Jerusalem, Zeev Geyzel.
Reading his biography, you would think that Geyzel was actually two distinct, outstanding individuals. In Moscow, he taught Hebrew clandestinely. He was the first head of the Hebrew Teachers Association in the Soviet Union. A prisoner of Zion, he was an inmate in a Soviet prison. In addition to being the founder of the Mofet network of schools in Israel, he founded the Aliyah for the Sake of the Land of Israel movement. The author of a textbook published by a Russian academic publishing house, The Political Establishment in Israel, Geysel has served as an adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on immigration and absorption. But that is all in the past. Today, he is a departmental director in a computer firm and specializes in computer software; in his spare time, he translates. The list of poems that have been given a Hebrew identity is long and includes some 120 poems by more than 20 poets. No other translator of Russian poetry into Hebrew has translated so many poems.
It is pointless to ask “Who is interested in Russian poems and songs translated into Hebrew?” We grew up with these poems and songs, we sang them by the light of the bonfire, we fell in love to the tune of these songs, they molded us. And we are grateful to all these poems and songs. Now that we have moved to another cultural sphere, there is no reason why we should not take them along with us. Precisely for those reasons, the halutzim, the early Zionist pioneers, sang about Donya and about Marussia; they sang all those songs that fill the thick, fifth volume entitled Russian Songs that is part of the series One Thousand and One Hebrew Songs. The character of new immigrants has not changed over the past century. Can Sabras, native-born Israelis, understand today's new immigrants who were born in a place where
January is full of roses,
A snowstorm is an exotic concept
That has perhaps been taken from the movies.
Can the native-born Israeli
The thoughts of those for whom the world “sky”
Is a synonym for “blue,”
Because their eyes have already adjusted
To constantly beautiful skies?
Can native-born Israelis understand
What it means to dream – not about summer,
But only about a moment of springtime?
Can they understand what it means,
When the wind plays a tune of despair
And daggers of cold pierce the heart,
To ask one more time, looking at the classroom whiteboard:
“When the ice will break?”
(Ilya Ehrenburg, translated into Hebrew by Zeev Geyzel)
Let us now descend deeper into the subconscious. What barely audible echo reverberates in the ears of adults and bursts forth into the open air when they embrace their firstborn child? Even new and not-so-new immigrants who feel that they are 100-percent Israelis cannot remain silent when they see their Sabra children singing a typical Israeli children's song, “Yonatan Hakatan” (Little Jonathan). Russian immigrants in Israel are absolutely certain that the children's songs of the homeland they abandoned are the best in the world and that, here in Israel, no one knows how to write children's songs. That is why they will start to translate Russian poems and songs, out of a sincere desire to enrich the world of Israeli literature for pre-school and kindergarten children.
I was once a toy
That nobody had ever heard of.
I stood all day in the store window
And I was called Cheburashka.
Every dog I met
Stretched out a paw and gave me a word of encouragement.
(Eduard Uspensky, translated into Hebrew by Zeev Geyzel)
It should be pointed out to non-Russian-speakers that Cheburashka (which means Pink Jacket) is a popular cartoon character in Russia.
Geyzel has put out an entire CD with songs of his childhood translated into Hebrew. The CD is selling well and is very much in demand (primarily among Russian immigrants, of course, for whom it was produced). Karen Pevzner, a Hebrew teacher and a translator, has presented to readers a series of her translations of books for very young children. Here are the first lines of verse that children aged one hear:
Somebody just sat,
Somebody thought about something simple,
Boris didn't say a word,
Nikolai threw a ball into the air.
They were on the stairs,
They had nothing to do.
A sparrow was chirping on the balcony,
A cat was dreaming while lying on the roof.
Boris told his pals
Something really simple:
“I have a real nail in my pocket.
What have you got?
A friend is coming to see us.
What have you got?”
Just gave birth to a litter of kittens.
They are now a little bigger since we last saw them.
But they still don't drink milk from a saucer.
(Sergei Mikhalkov, “What Have You Got?” translated into Hebrew by Karen Pevzner)
These acts of acculturation serve primarily those who perform them. As might be expected, the younger generation do not get very excited about old recordings or even about the new translations. Children want to sing what their friends in kindergarten are singing and are only too happy to liberate themselves from the shackles of their parents' culture. Granted, Geyzel's Israeli-born children, who do not know even a word of Russian, enjoy themselves when they sing in Russian about Cheburashka. But what an immense amount of energy their father must invest in order to get them to do so! Russian immigrants who are parents of young children are delighted to return to the world of their own childhood and revel in deluding themselves, as immigrants to any country tend to do, with such thoughts as “We live in a new country and we speak a new language, but that is perfectly alright, because actually nothing has changed.”
The religious laws governing Novi Godd that falls on a Sabbath
Up to this point in the survey, I have described straightforward instances of a Multi Personality Syndrome Russian-style, in which one half of the individual's soul does not interfere with the other half. But what happens when the two halves do interfere with one another? What if the Russian soul, with its memories and habits, demands something that the Jewish soul cannot allow itself? In that case, a real war breaks out. The issue is not the consumption of unkosher meat or pork; no, Russian immigrants have no problem adhering to a kosher diet. However, there is one custom, which is very prevalent among new immigrants from the former Soviet Union and which is becoming increasingly popular here in Israel: the celebration of New Year's Eve, or Novi Godd in Russian. It should be pointed out here that Russian immigrants are not interested in celebrating Sylvester Night, which is what Israelis call New Year's Eve. There is no such holiday in Russia. Nor do the immigrants want to celebrate Christmas; for the past century, Christmas in Russia has been distinct from the celebration of Jesus' birth and is not synonymous with Christmas in other countries.
On the Russian Christmas, it is customary to place a fir tree (a Christmas tree) in the living room, to decorate it and to hang colorful candles from its branches. Underneath the tree there is a Grandfather Frost (Dy'ed Maroz) doll, a character that resembles, but is distinct from, Santa Claus. Beside the doll is a Snow Daughter (Snegorutchka), Grandfather Frost's granddaughter. Scholars of culture and literature have pointed out that both characters were invented in the 1930s and have become part of the Russian psyche thanks to vigorous propaganda campaigns. However, as far as the Russian masses are concerned, Grandfather Frost and the Snow Daughter have been a part of their culture since the dawn of the Russian nation. It is also customary to put a festive tablecloth on the dining table and to adorn it with an adequate quantity of alcoholic beverages. Friends and family sit around the table and sing:
A little fir tree was born in the forest,
It grew up in the forest
During the summer and winter months, and now it is slender
Here we see it decorated
And ready for the festivities
Which will be plentiful;
The children will love them.
(Raisa Kudshve, “A little fir tree was born in the forest,” translated into Hebrew by Shaul Reznik)
This is a major holiday in Russia. It would be impossible – and I cannot stress this point enough – to expect Russian immigrants to refrain from celebrating it. Last year, the IDF issued an internal document that explained to its officers the holiday's importance for every Russian immigrant and which instructed them to try to give Russian-speaking soldiers a three-day furlough immediately before the holiday. The problem is that the rabbis strongly oppose the idea of such a furlough, just as they prohibit the custom of celebrating the Russian Christmas or New Year's Eve. The vast majority of Russian immigrants ignore this prohibition, although a small percentage, the hozrim betshuva who have decided to adopt an Orthodox Jewish way of life, are faced with a powerful personality split. As in classical tragedy, there is a conflict between emotions and duty. Some Russian immigrants celebrate these two holidays clandestinely, some celebrate only in their mind, and others try to justify their celebration of the holidays and to “purify” them with a myriad of explanations. The problem becomes acute when New Year's Eve (Novi Godd) falls on a Friday night, that is, on the Jewish Sabbath. In that case, religious Russian immigrants have a real dilemma: Should they celebrate New Year's Eve or should they observe the Sabbath? In order to solve the problem, a book resembling Hilchos of Xmas (The Religious Laws Pertaining to Christmas, published in America) has recently appeared in Israel; it is called The Religious Laws Governing Novi Godd When It Falls on a Sabbath (Yevgeny Levin owns the copyright). Noted Russian cultural and literary scholar Mikhail Bukhtin was right: Carnivals and the laughter and merriment they generate remove tensions, liberate us and enable us to better cope with life's hardships. This satiric collection of “religious laws” vividly conveys the suppressed tensions with which Russian immigrants in Israel must contend if they want to enjoy the best of both worlds:
l A fir tree is placed on the synagogue's Ark of the Covenant [which contains the congregation's Torah scrolls], as it is written, “She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her” (Proverbs 3:18). The fir tree is decorated with a star, as it is written, “... there shall come a Star out of Jacob” (Numbers 24:17). Candles are hung from the branches, as it is written, “For the commandment is a lamp; and the law is light” (Prov. 6:23).
l Because of the holiday's sanctity, a dignified male Jew with white hair and a beard is appointed to serve as cantor. If no such individual can be found in the congregation, a cotton beard is adhered to the face of the cantor who has been chosen. The cantor will hold a staff in his hand and on his shoulders he will bear a large sack to commemorate those who wander through the desert.
l The Friday night Sabbath meal is completed early so as not to mix the joy of the Sabbath with that of New Year's Eve. The festive meal begins at midnight and represents our prayers that the new year will be a blessing for us and our families. At midnight, the New Year is consecrated with a kiddush (special celebratory prayer) recited over a cup of wine.
l The meal will be plentiful, as will be the alcohol, in accordance with the rabbinical aphorism, “To joyfully celebrate a holiday or festive occasion, there must be plenty of meat and wine.” It is customary to send gifts to friends after the meal.
l How much should you drink in order to fulfill the obligation of celebrating New Year's Eve? Until you fall face-down into the your salad bowl. According to the classical rabbinical authorities, you should drink until you fall under the table.
l On Saturday morning, the prayer service should begin earlier than usual so that the worshipers can pray with a sufficient degree of devotion to God on the first day of the New Year.
The book contains many paragraphs that express this spirit of the holiday.
The picture I have presented here appears rather gloomy. The Russian soul is interfering with the “Jewish” or “Israeli” soul. In a best-case scenario, the Russian soul will express itself by itself, in Hebrew or Russian, while, in a worst-case scenario, people with a split personality will be forced to uproot the Russian half of their souls or to promote peace between the warring halves of their souls by means of laughter. Does this exhaust all the available possibilities? Can the two halves of their soul collaborate?
There is no need for despair. The two halves can definitely cooperate with one another. Here again, one can think of examples from the world of poetry and song. For instance, there is Zimrat Ha-Aretz (the Jerusalem Song Club), which features poetry dealing with what is currently happening in Israel. The members tend to be rightists, but that is not relevant to this survey. Although they write in Hebrew and Russian, the emphasis is on Russian songs (especially those of Yuri Lipmanovich). Most of the poems are not reworkings of familiar Russian songs. The words of each song allude to its Soviet source and the members of the audience can sing along with the singer on stage because these are tunes that they grew up with. Unfortunately, the nostalgic element in these Hebrew songs is unnoticed by most of the patrons.
Here is another example that is apolitical. Ask a Chabad Hasid what is “Stupid Marco” and he will enthusiastically explain to you that this is a traditional Chabad song describing the soul's experiences within the body. However, that meaning does not emerge when you translate the words. Actually, this is a Russian folksong, and Hebrew- and English-speaking Chabadniks pronounce all the words precisely without understanding what they mean. A similar trend can be observed in the current wave of Jews adopting a religious way of life: In certain circles of hozrim bitshuva, there is a widespread custom: Melodies of popular Russian and Soviet songs are applied to traditional Sabbath zemirot (songs of devotion). As years of experience have proven, songs about “Mother Russia” are ideally suited to one of the most popular of all Sabbath zemirot, “Y-ah Ribon Alam Ve'almaya,” while Ukrainian tunes provide a suitable melody for “Dror Yikra.” It has also been discovered that Psalm 126 (“A Song of Ascension. When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream....”), recited before Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals) on the Sabbath, festivals and other important occasions, can easily be sung to most Russian tunes, including that of the Soviet national anthem. Thus, when they observe the Sabbath, Russian-speaking Jews simultaneously salute the Sabbath Queen and the memories of their childhood. Their Sabbath meals are full of laughter and true happiness.
Proponents of the image of Israel as a melting-pot might hope that what has been described in this survey is a passing phenomenon, that everything will work out in the end, and that the different segments of the identity of the protagonists presented here will reunite. However, it is by no means certain whether these protagonists would be happy about such a development. While they love their past, they are also very happy about their present lives. In the final analysis, a split soul and a multiplicity of personalities and identities offer a richer and more interesting option than the integrated world of a soul that is undivided. The joys of double lives and double identities.
Dr. Arieh Ullman lectures on the Hebrew language and the Hebrew Bible.