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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776

From Russia With Love

December 30, 2001
Marc Rosenstein

The other day I gave the first in a series of lectures in Karmiel, in an inservice program for teachers who are immigrants from the FSU. This is a repeat of a course I gave last year for a similar group in Kiryat Shemona. With the new group, as in last year’s, this teaching experience has reminded me of one of the most beautiful aspects of the wave of aliyah from the FSU that has been washing over Israel for the past 10 years or so.

Generally, when the topic of the aliyah from the FSU comes up in conversation or in the media, the focus is negative: the large number of non-Jews or of Jews who have no connection to their Jewish identity, the crime and violence, the failure to find vocational integration (neurosurgeons sweeping streets etc.), the lack of Zionist motivation (Israel would take them; the US wouldn’t). Like all the waves of immigration to Israel over the years, this one has brought its share of adjustment problems, of cultural clashes, of personal tragedies, of jealousy and resentment between natives and immigrants - and between “old” immigrants and “new” immigrants. It seems inevitable that any large scale group migration from one culture to another, no matter what the motivation, will generate such problems. The challenge is to solve the problems within a generation. In many cases, the social and economic and cultural clashes that arose from the arrival of the waves of immigration from middle eastern countries in the 50s are still unresolved, and contribute a negative energy to Israeli society to this day. It seems that the Ethiopian aliyah will also not be quickly absorbed. With respect to the FSU, there is some reason for optimism, but we will have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, what I experienced the other evening was a sort of fulfillment of the Zionist dream. Jews who were educated in the Soviet Union, with minimal knowledge of any aspect of their history and tradition - in some cases the nostalgic memories of a parent or grandparent; in many cases not even that; Jews who came here for whatever reasons; Jews who are public school teachers - which means they have become part of the mechanism of socialization of Israelis into Israeli society - a society in which they themselves are still newcomers; Jews who want to know everything that they never had the chance to learn, to become fully conscious members of their people.

On the one hand, let’s not get carried away. Attendance at inservice courses translates into salary points. And there are certainly members of the class who use the time to work on their lesson plans. But on the whole, this teaching experience is the adult educator’s dream: a class who in those difficult Hebrew school hours (4:00-7:00 pm) are not only fully attentive, but full of questions. Every text I have planned leads to a digression into background information: the time line of Jewish history, the difference between Tanach and Talmud, between Rambam and Ramban, whatever. Everything is new and interesting. I can see the wheels turning and the connections being made to bits of knowledge from other sources - from childhood memories to Israeli pop culture. I am having a great time - and they even come up afterwards to thank me.

Converting Zionism into a real state has turned out to be a much more difficult task than the founders of the movement imagined. In the tangle of moral dilemmas and confused priorities that we face every day, not only in our relations to the Arabs, but within Israeli society - in the areas of religion, social welfare, environment, education, etc. - it is possible to lose sight of the half of the glass that is full: Zionism as a coming home, as an opportunity for revitalization, as a chance for Jews to put down roots. It is interesting that the immigrants of the generation of the grandparents of my teacher-students - the pioneers of the early waves of aliyah - came from Russia with strong Jewish cultural roots, but feeling that without roots in the soil of Eretz Yisrael they were incomplete. Those who stayed in Russia for the past century had their cultural roots systematically cut or starved; for them, “coming home” is far more than physical.

For me, the opportunity to help them “grow” their Jewish roots here helps me reaffirm my own Zionism in a time of doubt and blurring of vision.


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