This blog post is written by Skylar, a Yahel fellow living in Lod.
There is a substantial Russian population in Lod, and many Olim from the former Soviet Union (FSU) live here alongside Arabs, Ethiopians, native-born Israelis, and others. I first heard of Little Russia, otherwise known as Ganei Aviv in Lod, within the context of Christmas. I have celebrated Christmas culturally with friends and family for many years. Of course, being in Israel is special because it has allowed me to explore my Judaism in profound ways. Even so, during the holidays, I couldn’t help but miss the huge display of Christmas lights, the eggnog, the candy canes, the movies, and the general merriment. Not to mention, the outstanding display of commercialism that accompanies the holiday season in North America. I miss Target superstores.
During my time in Israel, I have come to learn about Soviet Jews, and about how they celebrate Christmas in a secular/cultural context. In the FSU, this holiday was celebrated across denominations and ethnicities. And it is still celebrated in some capacity today. Rather than a Christmas tree, in this practice, there exists a New Year’s tree. Instead of Santa, there is Dzed.
Much of my family ended up in Russia while in exile in the diaspora, but I know so little about that family history. I have come to learn that Russians in Israel face huge amounts of discrimination. Culturally, they have different practices. But Mizrahim also have different practices, as do Ashkenazim, as do Bnei Menashe. As such, could the divides really be chalked up to these different practices? Was it because no religion was tolerated in the Soviet Union? Historically, most Soviet Jews came later than other groups of Jews. There was the 1990 post-Soviet Aliyah that occurred after the fall of the Soviet Union. This event brought almost 1 million Russian-speaking Jews to Israel. Is it the later timeframe that is responsible for the different levels of assimilation and acceptance that exist in Israeli society? Is it the language barrier? Is it the fact that some Russian Jewry do not practice the laws of kashrut? I was surprised to find pork in Ganei Aviv. Being Jewish looks incredibly different to many people. Perhaps it was a forced assimilation outside of Israel that made native-born Israeli’s question Russian Jewry. The neighborhood of Ganei Aviv truly stands out in so many ways.
In order to understand what the Russian experience is like in Israel, I will need to have conversations. The problem is that my ability to communicate in Hebrew is limited. Further compounding this challenge is the fact that I speak almost no Russian. And a within the Russian community here, many, like me, speak beginner-level Hebrew. Russian is spoken at home, at work, and in shops in these communities. I was greeted with “Привет” (pronounced privyet), which is hello when I visited Ganei Aviv. I was left with “спасибо” (pronounced spasiba), or thank you, as I paid for my purchases.
To some people, it may seem that these practices held dear by Soviet Jews are a sign of assimilation to the diasporic community in which they found themselves. To me, it seems like a bold practice of resilience. To maintain a Jewish identity while embracing the practices of a place in which you live is to defy assimilation while making the best of a situation. I am not Christian, but I celebrate Christmas. It brings me joy. That celebration is not a sign of weakness in my connection to Judaism. It is my participation that signifies my embrace of the joy being celebrated around me. My family is very much assimilated in North America. Neither side of my family knows their exact place of origin in terms of current, modern-day borders. We have been in the United States for three generations, mostly in New York. The journey to explore my identity has been fraught with frustration as I have encountered so many dead-ends in my ancestry search. This is largely because our elders are deceased and did not spend time dwelling on the past as much as they worked toward the future. The problem with being Jewish, and trying to understand genealogy, is that so much of our history has been burned, destroyed, erased, and oppressed.
What I lack in family heirlooms, birth certificates, and certainty, I hope to fulfill in Lod. To find ways to connect with the Russian community of Lod is to come to terms with the fact that there is much I will never know beyond my nuclear family. The connections I make will honor my family history despite so many unanswered questions. I write this here to hold myself accountable: I will engage with the Russian community, and other communities, in meaningful ways while I am in Lod. The challenge I face here will be to push my way out of my own comfort zone. To be bold and to ask questions that make me nervous. To be rejected. So much of the work we are doing here depends on the consent and cooperation of the communities and organizers we work with. I need to go beyond the boundaries of my placements and my direct-impact communities to truly understand what it is like to be an FSU Jew in Lod.
I too have grappled with my own ethnic identity while in Israel. In the US, I am ethnically ambiguous. I benefit from conditional white supremacy because of the color of my skin. But it is conditional because I am a Jew. I am white to some, and non-white to others. I have been told by Israelis that I appear Russian. Seeing how Russian immigrants are treated here, I can’t help but wonder how that would affect my life if I decided to stay here. So much of political dialogue in Israel is grounded in identity. So, I ask myself, what am I to me? I am American, but I am not Native. I am Jewish, but what does that look like in my everyday life? These are just some of the questions I continue to grapple with while I live and work here in Israel.
Holiday cheer from a Christmas market in Ganei Aviv