The Pilgrim Soul
By Elana Gomel (Hebrew)
178 pages; NIS 74
Book Review by Shimson Arad, The Jerusalem Report
This is an ambitious account depicting how twisted images, often genuine misconceptions and some stale stereotypes, have made our perception of Russian immigrants and their perception of old-time Israelis even more plagued than necessary. It is a serious and generally laudable attempt, but frustrating.
The Pilgrim Soul: Being a Russian in Israel doesn't offer a magic prescription to correct the misconceptions, though it may have underrated the power of the surging second generation of immigrants, which has had a somewhat different heritage, a new experience and thus new proclivities. We discern in this Russian story a cultural or psychological cleavage that is not going to be easily repaired or quickly healed by a set of sponsored "dialogues." And yet I tend to think that spontaneous, authentic and meaningful discussions may help. That is despite the harsh prognosis of the author, who views the discussion between the Israeli-born and the Russians not as "a dialogue of the deaf but of the mumbling."
Elana Gomel was born in Kiev and came here in 1978. She studied at Tel Aviv University and Princeton. It is proper to mention here that she is the daughter of Maya Kagansky, to whom the book is dedicated. Quite capable of expressing herself in both Russian and Hebrew, she preferred to write her observations in English, which was translated into this Hebrew edition. She heads the English department at Tel Aviv University. When she hears Hebrew spoken in Hong Kong or in Palo Alto, it sounds like "the home language," but Russian sounds like "a threat."
An extensive analysis is offered in the book seeking to understand the special workings of the mysterious Russian soul. When she was younger, Gomel aspired to be an "ordinary" Israeli. While she is abroad, she is an Israeli, but when in Israel, she is considered Russian. Her statement that "Wherever I am, I am Jewish" is reassuring.
Those who have known Maya Kagansky and have read her brilliant essays on Russian literature will be happy to note the reaffirmation of the capricious law of genetics. They would also be content that Maya's earlier half-baked forays into Israeli politics have not overwhelmed her daughter. Gomel doesn't consider herself a political commentator or a sociological observer. Nor would she claim to be a typical representative of the Russian immigrant community; her observations are her own.
One-sixth of Israel's population now speaks Russian. They are everywhere. For liberal and left-wing Israelis, the massive Russian vote for right-wing parties was perceived as a personal betrayal, says Gomel.
The Russians, for their part, came to the Jewish state and found it small, Levantine and globally unimportant. "They never bothered to look at a map? They were expecting heroism, and discovered that Israel is steeped in hedonism and 'poor theater,'" she writes.
A bit presumptuous, I would say. The reason Russians feel alienated has nothing to do with "the absorption problem," as many Israelis tend to believe. The author proclaims her love for Israel, but dreams in Russian and thinks in English. No sin in that. Her two sons born here will likely dream in Hebrew.
In countries like the US and Australia, which for centuries have absorbed new immigrants, the aspiration of newcomers has been to join the host country's majority culture. A majority of Russian immigrants in Israel, claims Gomel, refuse to be integrated into the majority culture, believing (wrongly, I would argue) that their Russian culture is "superior."
That majority, asserts Gomel, does not include her. She does not conceal her origins, she is not ashamed of her accent, and feels contempt for the culture she left behind and the country that "vomited" her out. The primary reason she immigrated to Israel was to "run away from" her Jewish identity.
Again, it is not clear what she means by "Jewish identity." She assumed that being integrated into the Jewish state would liberate her from the eternal search for her Jewish identity. That illusion didn't endure long. Gomel maintains that she came to be an Israeli, not a Jew. The majority of Russian immigrants, she says, have come to be Jewish, not Israeli. I'm not sure how valid this observation is.
The ignorance that the Israeli "intelligentsia" has manifested concerning "Russian culture" is seen by Gomel as having contributed a considerable share to what she defines as its "Russian syndrome." She hardly mentions the disturbing depth of the Russian intelligentsia's ignorance of Hebrew culture, literature and history. She overlooks the wide gaps in Russian knowledge when it comes to Western writing that was not translated during the Soviet era.
Which brings us back to our earlier observation that the sons and daughters of the Russian immigrants - like Gomel herself - may be less obsessive about their Russian "cultural" superiority and thus more open to a process of reconciliation and integration.
Gomel rightly considers her book to be the story of a daughter who rebelled against a mother whom she deeply loves and respects. It is the narrative of a girl who was indoctrinated to admire the mass murder of the communist regime, and the tale of a writer who abandoned her mother's tongue.
It is also the story of an atheist in a country of believers, the saga of a Russian in Israel and the confession of a woman who swore she would never fall in love with a man of Russian origin.