Jews in the Soviet Union boarding a plane to Israel

By the Volga, we sat down and wept for Zion

Opinion: The chief rabbi's primitive and racist comments don't move me at all; my people came as others did because they believed in the same goal - to live as Jews in Israel - and this is the inherent beauty of Judaism, with its multitude of flavors and variations

Liran Friedmann |
Published: 01.10.20 , 23:52
My grandfather always used to say to me: "In Russia, I was a Jew; but here, I'm a Russian."
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  • It took me a while to fully grasp what he meant. I guess growing up in a migrant town didn't help. To this day, almost all of my friends from home are either Russian-born or first-generation Israeli from Russian families.
    Jews in the Soviet Union boarding a plane to Israel Jews in the Soviet Union boarding a plane to Israel
    Jews in the Soviet Union boarding a plane to Israel
    You never really grasp the idea that somehow you are different. We talk with each other, throw Russian slurs and slang freely and everyone understands. We all eat the same food. Borscht, pelmeni, kvass, and ikra were on everyone's table.
    I spoke Hebrew, went to school and learned about David Ben-Gurion and Haim Bialik, wore a school shirt with Hebrew lettering. But inside, it's all Dostoevsky and Russian 1980s culture.
    I'm an Israeli Russian. Simple, right?
    Unfortunately, that is not good enough for some.
    Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef's racist and infuriating statements on Monday are just an example of Israel and the failure and reluctance of its natural-born population to look at us as equals.
    I could go on about how I served in the army, that I study at a college in Israel, that my girlfriend is a fifth-generation Israeli and how much I love hummus.
    But I certainly don't need to explain myself or my brothers and sisters of former-USSR stock.
    Jews in the Soviet Union were always seen as different. When we migrated en masse in the 90s, Israel didn't know how to cope. They dispatched us to various towns and villages on the periphery and thought we would blend in - just as the immigrants who came before us did.
    Surprise: that didn't happen.
    Soviet Jewry suffered for more than a century a complete disconnect from the Jewish world.
    Jews were at the forefront of the Bolshevik movement, not because they were "gentile communists", as the rabbi likes to call us. They joined the socialist ranks because they were scum in the eyes of the tsar.
    They founded a new home in the east and began making their lives better. The Bund, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, Sergey Eisenstein; all the result of a new age for the Jews.
    But then the hammer and sickle were used against us. First by the Nazis and then by the Russians who we fought to be brothers in the fight for a new world. Our identity was choked and suffocated to almost non-existence. So, we did what Jews do best - we survived.
    Three former Prisoners of Zion. L-R: Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch, Yuli Edelstein and Natan Sharansky 
Three former Prisoners of Zion. L-R: Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch, Yuli Edelstein and Natan Sharansky
    Three former Prisoners of Zion. L-R: Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch, Yuli Edelstein and Natan Sharansky
    (Photo: David Rubinger)
    In our hearts, we knew we were Jewish, even if the anti-Semites in the USSR never forgot to remind us.
    Yuli Edelstein and Natan Sharansky gave up whatever freedom they had left for the right to be with their true brethren, the Jews of Israel. They were heroes and when the Berlin Wall fell, we came - all those millions of us.
    We came to this new homeland, for my family, a return to what we thought was a loving embrace 2,000 years in waiting.
    Slowly reality hit us hard. Working 14 hours a day for peanuts, in jobs that didn't fit our education and the state leaving us to our devices, except when beneficial to them.
    We realized the old Soviet reality was back, so many begun to crawl into their shell, the only place where we could be happy. The food, the culture, and the language were an escape for us. A way to remain sane in an insane situation.
    Time passed and we thought we had become normal - Israelis like everyone else. We have lawmakers in the Knesset, senior army officials, and academics and doctors.
    But for some, it's not good enough. For some, we are a horrible mistake and heresy that should have never descended upon the Holy Land's shores.
    We brought with us a rich tradition and culture that might not be Jewish by the book, but what is being Jewish anymore?
    A Red Army veteran marches in the Victory Day event in Haifa, May 2019 A Red Army veteran marches in the Victory Day event in Haifa, May 2019
    A Red Army veteran marches in the Victory Day event in Haifa, May 2019
    (Photo: Haifa Municipality)
    People such as the chief rabbi need to wake up. This is the inherent beauty of Judaism, its multitude of flavors and variations. No one honestly believes that a Sephardi Jew in Tel Aviv is the same as an Ashkenazi Jew in Brooklyn or a Kochini Jew in India.
    But we are all Jews.
    I don't care about the primitive thoughts of the rabbi or any of his acolytes. We will keep working hard and keep sacrificing ourselves for what we believe.
    I am an Israeli Russian. You can say whatever you want, but I am Israeli and I am a Jew, even if it doesn't fit your mold.

    Liran Friedmann is a writer and editor at Ynetnews

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