15.04.2016 | From Odessa to Ashdod – a Russian Jewish odyssey

“Why would you go to Ashdod?” The question was frequently raised by friends and colleagues on learning of my intention to visit Israel’s sixth largest city, 20 miles south of Tel Aviv on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. “To have Gefilte fish,” was often my somewhat gnomic response.

I first tried the Ashkenazi dish while living in the Ukrainian city of Odessa.  My elderly Jewish landlady prepared Gefilte fish and borsch for me almost every day, then rejoiced in sitting on her flat’s balcony, gleefully pointing out the former Communist Party members entering the newly constructed Church opposite her building.

Odessa played a vital role in the formation of a distinct Russian- or Soviet-Jewish culture, although one that is sadly now more myth than fact.  The city had a Jewish population of only 12,000 people at the time of the last Ukrainian census in 2001, a figure that has almost certainly decreased since then.  Nonetheless, Odessa continues to sell itself as a capital of Jewish comedy and its most famous sons, including the lovable rogue Ostap Bender and Isaac Babel’s noble gangster Benya Krik, have invariably been Jewish.

In Soviet times, many Odessan Jews were among the waves of Jewish emigration to Israel, and I wanted to visit a city that has been widely described as a centre of Soviet-Israeli culture.  In the early 1990s, over 60,000 people from the former Soviet Union moved to Ashdod, areas of which have been described unflatteringly by the leading Israeli daily Haaretz as a “Russian ghetto”.

Israel’s Russian-speaking community, widely estimated to be over a million, has had mixed reviews over the years.  While widely lauded as one of the most successful immigrant groups in the country – its members well-represented in academia, medicine and the arts – it has also been the subject of negative headlines.  Bill Clinton controversially described the community as a “staggering problem” preventing peace with Palestine, while the Guardian and the BBC have both highlighted the “Russian vote” as one of the factors behind the election of successive right-wing governments in Israel. 

Some commentators have suggested  that the community’s Soviet past or collective memory means they are more likely to vote for security above all other concerns, preferring a strongman figure to protect the nation.  While of course this is a simplification, similar to the narrative which describes Russia’s 1970s immigrants as Zionists and their 1990s successors as mostly economically motivated, it is true that most Russian speakers vote for broadly right-wing parties. 

However, Israel’s most recent elections in 2015 saw divisive former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s party Yisrael Beitenu, at one time seen as a standard bearer for Russian-speaking Israelis, lose half its seats.  As the Russian-speaking community has integrated into society, the attraction of identity politics appears to have dwindled with their vote increasingly becoming fragmentary.

But tensions around integration do occasionally surface, reflected in the editorials of local Hebrew-language website Ashdodnet.com and Israel’s most widely read Russian-language news portal Izrus.com.il.  In July 2015, Ashdodnet.com complained about an advertisement for a local concert that only appeared in Russian, accusing the event organisers of sowing disharmony and division among Ashdod’s communities.  Two months later, Isrageo.com stirred controversy when it alleged that Ashdod police failed to investigate an attack by Ethiopian groups on Russian and Ukrainian teenagers.

Notwithstanding these periodic disputes and persistent doubts over some Russian immigrants’ Jewishness under orthodox law, the success of the Russian-speaking community’s integration is striking, with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu describing the immigrants as a “miracle”.  In 2009 Israel’s then Science Minister Daniel Herschkowitz noted that one in every four staff members at Israeli universities is a Russian speaker, while a significant proportion  of the country’s medical and start-up sectors are made up of Russia-born or descended Israelis. 

Ashdod itself bears out this success story.  I ended up having lunch at a sea-front Georgian restaurant after my admittedly confusing requests for somewhere to eat Gefilte fish drew a blank. As I feasted on Georgian staples khinkali and lobio, admiring the striking beach view, I was struck by the ease with which families on neighbouring tables switched between Russian and Hebrew.  Walking back to the train station after lunch, I dropped into a Russian barbers.  I asked a couple of men sitting sipping Baltika beers if I could have my haircut.  No of course not, they cheerfully replied, the hairdresser’s on holiday until April.  Soviet service culture, it seems, is an enduring trait.