Rabbi Yitzchak Yaacov Reines, the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel
An uproar filled the large hall in the Swiss city of Basel. The shouting of the delegates participating in the 6th Zionist Congress in the summer of 1903, accompanied by a variety of dramatic gesticulations, was overwhelming. The conference later came to be known as the “Uganda Congress.” It is difficult to overstate the drama that took place at this historic event, in which a significant rift emerged in the young Zionist movement. Theodor Herzl’s proposal, to create a (temporary!) shelter for Jews in Africa, was accepted. However, following that vote, a group of Russian Zionist delegates left the hall and shut themselves in another room, where they proceeded to mourn the destruction of Jerusalem. According to one of the descriptions, when Herzl asked to come into the room and speak to them, they refused, with one even calling him a “traitor.” Herzl ended the congress with a promise that the Uganda Proposal was only a temporary solution and swore: “If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill.”
It is worth mentioning the events that led to Herzl’s rushed decision to advance the rather strange idea of settling Jews in East-Central Africa. On Easter 1903, antisemitic riots broke out in the city of Kishinev, then part of the Russian Empire, with mobs of local residents descending upon Jewish homes and businesses, unimpeded by military or police forces. Thousands of shops were looted or demolished, houses were set on fire, and it is best not to go into detail about the other horrific events that took place. Approximately 50 Jews were murdered, and around 600 were brutally wounded. The event left a brutal, profound impression on the Jewish population around the world – as well as on Herzl, who decided to accelerate his efforts to attain approval from a major world power that would allow Jews to settle in a designated location somewhere across the globe. As far as he was concerned, this was a transitional stage in which several Jewish colonies would be established in different locations, where Jews would then undergo training in order to later establish a state in the Land of Israel.
The Uganda Proposal received many votes in the Zionist Congress thanks to the support of one of its major factions: The “Mizrachi” movement – the religious Zionists. Rabbi Yitzchak Yaacov Reines, the leader of the movement and one of the founders of the stream of Religious Zionism, was an associate of Herzl and firmly supported his plan. Many historians have wondered about his support, which, at face value, seems out of the ordinary in the context of Religious Zionism. However, historian Dr. Moshe Berent argues that Reines’ position adheres to the principles of early Religious Zionism. These Mizrachi members solved the alleged contradiction concerning the goals of Zionism with the religious prohibition against “hastening redemption”, arguing that Zionism’s goal was to carry out an immediate, material, and political redemption. According to the members of Mizrachi, there was no connection between Zionism and the spiritual redemption of the Jewish people. The spiritual redemption that would eventually come in the Land of Israel would occur only through the will of God and not through any human actions.
Reines believed that the existence of Jewish autonomy would reinforce religious sentiment among the Jewish people. Where that autonomy would exist was another matter. Contrary to the competing argument that Judaism would be saved only if the Jewish National Home were to be be established in the Land of Israel, Reines argued that in order for there to be Judaism, there must be Jews as well – and therefore, the salvation of the people themselves was of the highest priority. Reines saw the issue of Europe’s Jews as the most urgent matter on the agenda, arguing that the very real physical danger superseded any “spiritual” interests. Furthermore, surely if the danger arose because of a person’s Jewishness, he or she could easily be tempted to throw it away. Thus, Reines’ position was justified as a measure against assimilation.
This does not imply that Reines did not believe, as an ideal, in a Jewish revival in the Land of Israel. However, he laid emphasis on his practical motives, saying: “We agreed to the African proposal because we took heed of the needs of our people, whom we love more than the land.”
As aforementioned, the British proposal for Jewish autonomy in East Africa was accepted in the “Uganda Congress”. However, as you may be aware, it wasn’t actually carried out. The political drama that took place in Basel was only the start of long months of turbulent debate within the Zionist movement. After a compromise was settled upon, a delegation was sent to East Africa to examine the area and its suitability for the establishment of a Jewish colony. The report presented to the 7th Zionist Congress was unfavorable, and, consequently, the proposal was rejected. British enthusiasm for the idea also waned after the Minister of the Colonies was replaced.
Less than a year after the “Uganda Congress” crisis, Herzl died prematurely. Rabbi Reines continued to lead the Mizrachi movement until his death in 1915.
One Last Bonus:
The best-known opponents of the Uganda Proposal were the members of the “Zionists of Zion” faction. Most were Russian Jews, headed by Menachem Ussishkin and Chaim Weizmann. Herzl was supported by his friend Max Nordau, British Zionist activist Israel Zangwill, and, as mentioned above, leaders of the “Mizrachi” movement. However, the “African Proposal,” as it was called, had a few more surprising supporters. One of the most vocal was a prominent Zionist activist, who had already settled in Jerusalem decades earlier, named Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the “reviver of the Hebrew language”. In addition to enthusiastic articles endorsing the proposal, which he published in his journal “HaZvi,” Ben Yehuda wrote and published a pamphlet called “The Jewish State,” detailing the reasons that led him to support the idea. This was what he wrote in the first chapter: “Has nothing been learned from the Chronicles? Will we, too, sin as our ancestors sinned for one thousand and eight hundred years, by closing their eyes to reality and satisfying themselves with hope only?”
The NLI approach has been guided by the goal of protecting the health and welfare of our staff and users, while also identifying strategic opportunities to better fulfill our mission now and well into the future.
The COVID-19 crisis has presented unprecedented challenges as well as opportunities for cultural and educational institutions across the globe, including the National Library of Israel. NLI’s renewal and dual mandate requiring it to engage both domestic and international audiences, as well as the current construction of its new home, have in many ways magnified the challenges posed by this difficult period, as well as – and perhaps even more so – the opportunities it presents.
Following a brief summary of the crisis in Israel, below are a few examples of the adaptations we have implemented and some of the ways in which we have aimed to maximize potential opportunities in fulfilling our mission during this time.
The COVID-19 crisis in Israel
The Israeli governmental response to the COVID-19 pandemic began with recommendations against non-essential travel to China from 26 January 2020. Over the next few weeks, flights from a number of countries with high infection rates were suspended, and on 26 February, the government urged cancellation of all travel abroad.
From 9 March, all Israelis returning from abroad were required to home quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. On 12 March, all schools and universities were closed, with other restrictions in the public sphere put in place. A week later a national emergency was declared and on 25 March, citizens were prohibited from moving more than 100 m from their homes, with the exception of a few permitted reasons, such as medical care and procurement of foodstuffs. Citizens were shortly thereafter required to wear masks in public places. Cities and neighborhoods with high infection rates were in some cases fully quarantined, with the army providing citizens with basic services and support.
For the festival of Passover, beginning on 8 April, even stricter lockdown measures were in place, as they were in majority Muslim areas during the holy month of Ramadan, which began on 25 April.
Gradual easing of restrictions began in the last week of April. Schools, some commercial entities and public areas were allowed to begin opening in accordance with very strict regulations, starting from the beginning of May. While much of the public sphere and economy was open during the summer months, regulations remained in place with regard to mask-wearing and social distancing requirements. Various levels of lockdown restrictions have been in place since early autumn 2020. Overall, in terms of public health, Israel has fared relatively well, case fatality rates among the world’s lowest.
Ensuring staff welfare and flexibility
As the severity of the pandemic became increasingly clear, the management of the National Library chose to try and enable continuity of work processes and routine to the greatest extent possible, while ensuring the well-being of its staff and visitors. With the introduction of restrictions in the beginning of March, National Library employees capable of working remotely were largely encouraged to do so and as restrictions tightened and the Library was closed to the public, the vast majority of Library staff were either working remotely full time or taking partial or full paid leave, utilizing vacation days to do so.
A bank of vacation days was established so that employees with many accrued days could donate them to help colleagues take paid leave. Many employees who usually work in public services were given various cataloguing and other tasks that could be performed remotely, so that they would not have to take paid or unpaid leave. Throughout this difficult period, we have tried to prioritize the medical, mental and financial well-being of our employees, with only a few employees placed on unpaid leave.
Throughout the closure periods, a skeleton staff came into the Library daily, to ensure the security and well-being of the collections as well as continue to progress on digitization projects. All of these employees were given special permission in accordance with governmental regulations and have adhered to strict social distancing practices. As will be discussed below, the crew at the construction site of our new home was also permitted to continue working.
Serving the public differently
With the Library closed to the public for what was initially an unknown extended period of time, we wanted to ensure that researchers knew that our reference staff was continuing to work remotely and that they were available through a variety of channels. We posted this information prominently on our home page and on social media.
As we have many researchers who come on a daily basis to the National Library building, many of them were not familiar with the different ways to reach our reference team (i.e. via email, chat, WhatsApp and phone), nor were they necessarily overly familiar with our vast collections of digital resources. Thus, to continue serving the public under these complex circumstances, we felt it was critical to make this information more widely known to our user base.
In addition to highlighting this information clearly in places where our users would find it, we also produced a series of short instructional videos to help them adapt to the new reality and use online resources in an effective manner, as well as a new centralized portal to more easily access approximately one million digital items. As many scholars also usually come from abroad, these actions will continue to have additional value as long as international travel is severely limited.
As soon as the initial government regulations for reopening to the public became clear, the National Library staff began dedicating very significant human and financial resources to ensure that the building could reopen as soon as possible, while adhering to all of the strict government-mandated requirements, which entailed significant physical and procedural modifications. All visitors and staff must sign health declarations and have their temperatures taken prior to entering the building, as well as maintain social distancing while on the National Library premises.
When permitted to come, readers are required to reserve study areas in advance and dividers have been installed throughout the reading rooms and at service desks, and in employee areas. Surfaces are disinfected frequently according to a strict schedule and all users and staff must use provided gloves and disinfectant when utilizing shared equipment such as computers, printers and refreshment areas. On the practical level, as well, we needed to purchase additional laptop computers, equipment and licenses so that staff could effectively work and meet remotely in adhering to social distancing guidelines.
All of these actions clearly required significant time, money and effort on the part of our staff. No reader reservation system existed and so one was developed in-house. We had to design and produce a significant amount of new signage to ensure that visitors knew the procedures and adhered to them. Cleaning and disinfectant supply costs are clearly higher than they were before, and we purchased and installed hundreds of dividers and reconfigured work areas and schedules to protect the welfare of staff and visitors.
Capitalizing on opportunities to improve education
As part of the National Library’s current renewal process, a broad range of educational and cultural initiatives have been developed over the past decade. Some of these were already digital in nature and so we had a strong foundation upon which to build during this complex period.
With schools closed, NLI proactively undertook a wide range of programming to help students, educators and communities transition to both new realities and teaching methods focused more on actively guided and independent learning. This programming has included trainings for teachers; the development of new content suitable for families to learn together; active online educational activities for youth; and the development of new materials and adaptation of existing materials specifically for distance learning.
As part of ‘Pocket Library’, an initiative of our Israel National Center for Humanities Education undertaken in partnership with the Ministry of Education, we offered dozens of audio books through the iCast app, including many works by some of Israel’s most beloved authors for children and youth. We also developed, expanded and promoted a wide range of other educational materials, activities and resources based on National Library treasures in Hebrew, Arabic, English and French.
Moreover, normally hundreds of schoolchildren come to the National Library for programming every week in Hebrew and Arabic. Obviously, once schools and the Library were closed, these programs also could not take place, and so we developed a model to suit the new reality, in the form of a digital program that integrates Zoom gatherings with digital activities like virtual escape rooms, riddles and interactive activity pages, games, competitions for prizes and so on.
Unfortunately, we had to cancel our regular annual summer program for Arab youth, which usually has around 100 participants from the Jerusalem area. Nonetheless, as with many other areas, we are focusing on the positives and potential presented by this new reality and actually saw a number of advantages to a digital program. It enabled us to offer the program to a broader audience, in terms of both the number of participants and additional geographic locations.
Logistically, in the past, it only made sense to offer the program to around 100 Jerusalem children, but we opened this year’s program up to hundreds of participants from across the country. We were able to offer enriching and engaging educational content to the many youth who were stuck at home and did not have many other similar options or resources; and it also provided us with experience, insights, tools and new audiences to further improve and expand our online Arabic educational materials and programs, which will serve throughout the year and in the long term.
These new creative initiatives and avenues for engagement have allowed us to reach new audiences including many youth. With all of the difficulties, we have tried to see the crisis as presenting an exceptional opportunity to connect youth with the National Library’s cultural treasures in creative, innovative, interesting and diverse ways.
We hope that making the most of the opportunities presented during this complex time will allow us to continue engaging young audiences, while developing digital products and content that will continue to inspire long after we return to our new routines. This is truly an historic opportunity upon which we have aimed to capitalize in thoughtful and expedient ways.
Cultural programs under lockdown
To continue fulfilling its mandate and serve as a platform for culture, knowledge and inspiration even during this difficult time, NLI launched ‘The Reading Room’, a virtual space to enjoy live lectures, conversations and interviews via Zoom, as well as a range of previously recorded events in various languages, and in partnership with institutions and organizations across the globe. Overall, tens of thousands of people have participated in hundreds of online events since April. Our annual Docu.Text Documentary Film Festival was also presented in a virtual format this year. While we hope that restrictions will continue to be eased, we also look forward to continuing to develop our online culture program to reach and engage diverse audiences across the globe.
Usually every year we have events exploring Muslim culture timed around the month of Ramadan. With gatherings prohibited due to coronavirus restrictions this year, we led ‘Ramadan Nights from Jerusalem’, a broad collaborative effort to offer diverse opportunities to experience Ramadan, bringing together Jerusalem’s great cultural institutions, religious bodies, grassroots initiatives and community organizations. The initiative sought to provide a virtual platform for Muslims and non-Muslims in the city and around the globe to mark the holy month.
While its overarching goal was to expand awareness about Muslim culture in general and Ramadan in particular, this year, under the shadow of the coronavirus crisis, the platform also provided meaningful programs for those unable to participate in Ramadan’s traditional prayers, family gatherings and public events. Events were live streamed, recorded and are now available on demand via the trilingual (Arabic, Hebrew and English) website. Held in one of the three languages, the events included lectures, talks and virtual tours related to Islamic culture and history; traditional Muslim recitations and prayers; intimate conversations in Jerusalem homes; musical performances; culinary workshops; special programs for children; and more. Around 70% of the nearly 30,000 sessions on the platform were on the Arabic site.
Our annual program ‘Bustan – Writers’ Encounter: Residency Program for Jewish and Arab Writers’ offers an innovative opportunity to utilize the National Library’s extensive collections of Hebrew and Arabic literature to provide a foundation for engagement, creativity and conversation that fosters connections between writers from different communities and supports their production of new work. Six poets were selected for the fourth cohort of Bustan in 2020, representing a diverse group (in terms of religion, language, age, gender, ethnicity and professional background) of highly accomplished fellows who share a love of poetry.
This year’s program was adapted to the new realities, which are unfortunately defined by uncertainty and social distancing. It included an orientation, a retreat and an intensive month-long program of writing workshops, peer-to-peer learning, exposure to National Library experts and collections, and a special translation course. Almost all of the program was able to be held in person in accordance with social distancing guidelines.
The Global Jewish COVID-19 Archive
At the end of March, we announced the creation of the Global Jewish COVID-19 Archive, which documents the unprecedented impact the current coronavirus pandemic is having on Jewish culture, tradition, law and society globally. We are asking the public to contribute digital and physical materials reflecting this impact, including things such as synagogue emails about communal prayer on Zoom, public appeals to help lonely community members, announcements about innovative halachic (Jewish legal) rulings, promotional materials for creative Jewish distance learning initiatives, posters for emergency loans and so on. We are also leading a coalition of partner institutions and organizations across the world to try and help ensure that the collection will be as comprehensive as possible. The Global Jewish COVID-19 Archive will be included as part of our broader archive collection, which contains millions of items, including personal and communal archives, photographs, documents, letters and more from many of modern history’s most prominent cultural figures.
Construction on the new National Library campus
The new NLI will be a striking, multifunctional architectural icon, enabling NLI to most fully realize its ambitious mission and tremendous potential. Designed by Herzog & de Meuron, with Mann-Shinar serving as the Executive Architect, the building and its surrounding gardens and plazas will reflect the central value of opening access to the National Library’s treasures for broad and diverse audiences. Within its 45,000 square meters (480,000 sq. ft.) of space, it will provide venues for exhibitions, cultural and educational programming and more in a secure, sustainable and state-of-the-art environment. The lead partners in the building renewal project are the Government of Israel, the Rothschild Family through the auspices of Yad Hanadiv and the David S. and Ruth L. Gottesman Family of New York.
With the new NLI campus just over a year from completion when the pandemic began, it was critical to minimize the impact of the crisis on construction progress, to the greatest extent possible. Construction was designated as an essential industry by the government regulations related to COVID-19 and therefore work on the new campus has been permitted to continue as long as we can ensure that some 130 employees on site 6 days a week comply with all public health requirements. And so, for the aspects that have been in our control, we have done our utmost to ensure that the project stays on schedule, with the project team constantly monitoring the situation locally and globally to prepare for various potential scenarios. As a result, the crisis has only caused a project delay of a few months, due to difficulties importing some materials, though our team is now working to try and mitigate the impact of those delays, while preparing for any other potential impacts moving forward.
Looking back, looking ahead
Virtually every country, institution and individual in the world has been impacted in some way by the current COVID-19 crisis. Many of us certainly never planned for such an event and so as the situation has unfolded, we have had to largely react in an ad hoc manner. At the NLI, our approach has been guided by the goal of protecting the health and welfare of our staff and users, and as new circumstances developed we have sought to identify strategic opportunities to not only make the most of the difficulties presented by this complex new reality but also build programs and initiatives that will help us achieve both short-term and long-term strategic goals in striving to serve as the open, dynamic and meaningful institution of national memory for the State of Israel and all of its citizens, as well as the Jewish people worldwide.
"It’s kind of a chutzpah not to donate something the Library doesn’t have." (Photo: Aviad Stollman)
Ezra Gorodesky, who passed away on January 10, 2021, was a peerless and devoted friend of the National Library for some six decades. In 2017, I was privileged to have the opportunity to interview Ezra and hear about his life’s journey and life’s work, in his words. The following article is based on that interview.
May his memory and his legacy be a blessing.
It was hard not to be charmed by Ezra Gorodesky, the understated star of multiple video clips and newspaper articles. Into his 90s, he remained spry with a sly sense of humor.
“I have a very rare disease” – he would announce dramatically and pause – “it’s collecting. And I thought if I’d give my collection to the Library it would be a cure and I wouldn’t need to collect anymore. But interestingly, the next day I bought a book. So I guess there’s just no cure.”
Ezra began collecting as a 10-year-old boy in Philadelphia, starting with miniature books and then branching out to ABC and Alef-Bet primers, synagogue dedication booklets, and unusual prayers, including ones composed for Napoleon and Montefiore. In later years he developed sizeable collections of tea tins, books, and paraphernalia, and buttons. The latter collection is now housed at the Shenkar College of Engineering, Design, and Art.
Ezra was a Zionist from an even younger age. When he was two years old he fell in love with picture books of the Land of Israel. The first exhibits of his collections – haggadot and miniature books – were put on display at the Philadelphia Free Library in 1957.
In 1960, Ezra came to Israel for a first visit and stayed, settling in Jerusalem and renouncing his American citizenship. The National Library of Israel’s current home on the Givat Ram campus was completed later that year, and Ezra has been a dedicated friend of the Library through the many years since.
Until the closures caused by the pandemic, Ezra would come to the Library at least every couple of weeks “just to look at the Ardon Windows.” He personally knew all of the Library directors and often declared the need for the creation of an official national library, when today’s National Library of Israel was known as the “Jewish National and University Library”, and had a significantly less extensive mandate than it does today:
I’ve always said things; sometimes they come true, sometimes they don’t. This one came true. Every nation has a national collection and a national library. We lost many books because there was no national depository. Things were sold to bookstores. Researchers and collectors took books.
Ezra was especially known for a very unusual science he developed to perfection – the purchasing of old books and the taking apart of their bindings to reveal manuscript fragments within. In 16th-18th century Europe, paper and parchment from existing books (including countless Jewish books confiscated by the Church) were often used for the binding of new ones, creating a hidden trove or, some might say, a genizah of Hebrew-Jewish texts.
Through this method, Ezra discovered and brought to life over 200 fragments that otherwise would never have been known to the world, some extremely rare and extremely valuable.
In the late 1980s Ezra decided that his collection of manuscript fragments, along with unique Jewish publications and ephemera, needed a permanent home where it would be accessible to the public. Nobody yet knew the treasures it contained:
When I decided to give my collection to the National Library I came in and spoke to the director. He said, ‘Maybe you just want to keep your collection.’ So I went to Rafi Veiser and Rivka Pleser in the Manuscripts and Archives Department. They said, ‘Bring in 30 pieces, and we’ll pick out what we want to keep.’ The next week I brought in 50 pieces, and they took them all. This went on week after week. Of well over 900 pieces I brought to the Library, they turned down two. Also, they told me in advance, ‘Just know, there will not be an exhibition or a catalogue.’
Some 30 years later, Ezra’s collection has been the focus of three NLI exhibitions and a catalogue, “Revealed Treasures from the Ezra P. Gorodesky Collection in the J.N.U.L.,” published in 1989. The 2012 International Jewish Curators Conference at the National Library featured a dinner honoring Ezra for his contributions.
Over the years, Ezra donated other treasures, including a collection of 1,300 family photographs and an antique original printing press from 1860s England, which has long been on permanent display in the National Library lobby. Years earlier, in 1966, he entrusted the personal archives of his dear friend, Rebecca Affachiner, to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP), which is now part of the National Library of Israel. One of Ezra’s prized possessions was the handmade Israeli flag Affachiner flew on May 14, 1948, which earned her the title of “Israel’s Betsy Ross”. The flag was donated to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev a few years ago.
Many of the pieces Ezra collected and donated to the Library were worth considerable sums of money, but he never asked for even a shekel for any of it. When people expressed amazement at his generosity to the Library he replied:
If God gave me the power to build a collection with little money, who am I to sell it? It’s kind of a chutzpah not to donate something the Library doesn’t have. I’m not a hero, I’m a Gorodesky. I was raised to do the right thing… I think it’s an honor that the Library was big enough to take a little nobody’s collection and build it up.
Crotchety Old Academic Reflects on the Great Russian ‘Wave’
As a young grad student 30 years ago, Prof. Brian Horowitz was an active witness to history
Thirty years ago, a huge wave of immigration transformed Israel.
Over a million Russians arrived, turning their adopted country into a more prosperous, dynamic, and culturally rich (in a European sense) version of itself. I was there too, a grad student in Jerusalem, observing the changes as they happened. What I recall now, on the thirtieth anniversary of the “Russian flood,” is a little less triumphant than what journalists in Israel and the United States are now recalling.
My short memoir tells two intersecting stories. One recounts the general context of which I was an observer. The other is the story of Russian Studies in Israel that I, an American, experienced first-hand with the new immigrants.
It was a peculiar time in Israel, the end of the First Intifada. Peculiar, too, was the situation in Jerusalem, where my neighbors were all new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The place was as motley as a Central Asian bazaar: some came from Moscow and with pretentions, some from Rostov, others from Uzbekistan. Some drank vodka every night with friends, bought new clothing, had style. They burned through their “Aliyah money” quickly.
Others were more fastidious. There was a real poet, too, who bought a washing machine and put it in his suite. He and his wife argued a lot. I remember one of her complaints: how an Israeli had propositioned her, and she, offended, told him that she was married. “We won’t tell your husband,” he replied.
Because I often spoke Russian, I was scoffed at by Moroccans who told me to go back to Russia. Little did they know, I grew up on Long Island.
Thousands of Jews were arriving daily. In Hebrew they were known as “olim hadashim”, while in Russian, they called themselves “repatriaty” (those repatriating). Although the Russian term underscored the Zionist vision, to some Israelis, the immigrants were people who could have come earlier, but didn’t, preferring to let others create the state. Now they had come because no one else would take them.
With few exceptions, the “Russians” knew little about Zionism. It wasn’t their fault; they had come of age in a party dictatorship in which emphasizing one’s Jewishness could get you in trouble. In the Soviet Union, getting ahead was best achieved by repressing national and religious difference and quietly working for oneself in tandem with service to the state.
Life in Israel was no piece of cake.
Just as you’d expect, the new immigrants struggled: poverty, displacement, and confusion accompanied their journey. Movies such as “Yana’s Friends” romanticize the experience, but it was painful to see the humbling of talented people. Street musicians looked more like pitiful beggars than concert masters brought down by circumstance.
Prostitutes appeared. And let’s not forget discrimination in employment and education. Russians were often treated coarsely, put through the ringer. Meanwhile, sexism was also present; women had a difficult time building their careers and complained about ubiquitous sexual harassment.
Everywhere one went, one overheard confessions: outlandish dreams, impossible hopes.
Money—and anxiety about money anxiety—was on everyone’s minds, as they shared cheap deals on apartments, clothing, and groceries, as well as practical tips about finding work. Along with anxiety, one sensed disappointment.
It feels churlish to say this, but many recent Russian immigrants barely considered themselves Jewish, and wanted to be elsewhere. They were lost in their new country, unfamiliar with Hebraic culture—the Hebrew language and its rich heritage from biblical times to the present. To them, culture meant Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. Many “Russians” considered Israel a cultural desert; how could they survive so far from Moscow, Paris, and New York?
The most painful part of their experience was the Jewish question. For some Russian émigrés, the question was existential: how will I, an atheist, fit into Israel? Having come from a culture that mocked religion, the “opium of the people,” they viewed Judaism with some embarrassment. For other Russians, the problem was practical: 30% of them weren’t considered Jewish by halachic law; could they have a place in the state? Furthermore, many immigrant men were uncircumcized, and had to endure painful surgery as adults. If that wasn’t difficult enough, one still had to wait on the rabbinate’s approval.
And in addition to everything else, there were the Palestinians. Terror created a common cause and forged an Israeli identity for the newcomers. But fear was compounded because the immigrants largely rode buses; they couldn’t afford private cars.
While the “Russians” are now sometimes criticized for their rightist and anti-Arab politics, it’s difficult to discount the impact of those early years on the “Russian” experience in Israel.
My personal story focuses on the Hebrew University.
The influx of Russians brought a wave of scholars and would-be scholars. These were human encyclopedias – especially on Russian history and culture – yet with little knowledge of Judaism and Jewish history. The Hebrew University had a large army of professors in Russian Studies, and, although there were never many students, during the Cold War its function had been to research issues on Soviet-Jewish persecution as well as Jewish history in Russia: the Bund and Jewish radicalism, and of course, the history of Zionism in Eastern Europe. The professors were like Yekes, yet nonetheless warmly greeted the Ostjuden; they often drank coffee with us at Beit Belgia or another campus café.
The academic successes that emerged from this injection of new blood surpassed expectations. It was an auspicious moment: rare archives in Russia suddenly opened, and thanks to the internet, collaboration across continents and disciplines started in earnest. Within a few years, a dozen fine dissertations had been written.
What was life really like for us Russianists? This was not the stuff of musty rooms and dusty books. Russian Studies in Israel was punching out of real life. The city of Jerusalem fueled our feverish efforts with its hastily erected Russian bookstores and cheap Russian restaurants. It was easy to find a bowl of borsch, 50 grams of vodka, black bread, and kapusta (sauerkraut) for merely a few shekels.
Inspiration came from people, from the energy of the moment.
I have to admit, however, that studying liberal arts was risky then (as it is now). We tried to ignore how difficult it would be to find jobs, but our parents, husbands, and wives never ceased to worry about us and themselves. We accepted our fate, while others made different choices and started to make real money. The next generation would seek well-paying jobs in business and computers, but we embodied a different set of values; books, ideas, and esoteric knowledge gave us a powerful feeling of self.
At the time, there was still enormous respect for learning, as quaint as that sounds today.
Then a few years passed. The bookstores disappeared, as did the hundreds of Russian food joints. Russian was heard less and less often. The number of professors in Russian Studies at the Hebrew University dwindled. With the Cold War over, Israel shed her Russia experts. Within a decade, the things we cherished had all but vanished.
Although some commentators are claiming that the “Russians” are the first immigrant group in Israel to retain their original culture, I disagree. In fact, they have assimilated as did immigrants before them. Their children speak Hebrew, fulfill army service, vote, and work. Most important of all, they marry other Israelis, creating families in which Hebraic culture overwhelms the Russian.
About me? I am now old and crotchety, as are my colleagues, the generation that studied at the Hebrew University and sat from morning to evening at the National Library. Some have already retired. The great luminaries have passed to the other world (may their memories be a blessing). There will soon be a new national library built next to the Knesset in Givat Ram and it will have a stop on the light rail.
Although that sounds trivial, it is part of the success story that is today’s Israel – superpower of the Middle East – that in large part came about thanks to the ‘Russians’. However, those who lived through that earlier time have memories of a genuine (uncomfortable, painful, vibrant, dynamic, and full) experience that changed our lives forever and, despite everything, for the better.
This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.