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

Israel's airport terminal filled to capacity with new immigrants, 1990 (Photo: Simionski Israel). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

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.

Celebrating Igor Goldfarb, Israel’s 200,000th immigrant of 1990
(Photo: Shaul Rachamim). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

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.

New immigrants from the Soviet Union wait outside a Tel Aviv bank, 1990 (Photo: Shaul Rachamim). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

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.

Finance Minister Itzhak Mudai with a young Russian immigrant, 1990 (Photo: Danny Lev). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

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.

An accordion-playing immigrant waits to audition at the Beit Lesin Theatre in Tel Aviv, 1990 (Photo: Vered Peer). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

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.

Several hundred immigrant doctors demonstrate opposite the Knesset over the fact that they have to take an examination before being allowed to practice in Israel, 1991 (Photo: David Mizrachi). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

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.

Brides at a special ceremony for twenty-eight Russian immigrant couples who wanted to be remarried according to Jewish tradition, 1990 (Photo: Vered Peer). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

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.

D. Dashevsky at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, overlooking the Old City, 1990. From the Institute of Jewish Studies St. Petersburg; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

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.

Famous Russian author Yevgeny Yevtuschenko signs a book for Israeli President Chaim Herzog at the Jerusalem International Book Fair, 1993 (Photo: Zeev Ackerman). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

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.

Simulated image of the reading room in the new National Library of Israel, set to open adjacent to the Knesset in 2022. © Herzog & de Meuron; Mann-Shinar Architects, Executive Architect

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.

Hannah Senesh’s Last Note

“Dear mother, I don’t know what to tell you. I will only say this: A thousand thanks and more, and forgive me, if you can…"


From the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

Anyone who even casually follows the course of Hannah Senesh’s life quickly discovers her biography’s common thread: Hannah Senesh (often spelled Szenes) never stopped writing. Even before she learned to write herself, she composed poems and stories. When she was a teenager, she was accepted to the literary council of her prestigious school (though she was forced her to give up her place due to antisemitism). From the moment she arrived in Mandatory Palestine, she wrote—first in Hungarian and then, very quickly, in Hebrew as well. She even continued writing when she returned to European soil, after embarking on the parachute mission from which she never returned.

In fact, Senesh continued writing until her final moments. She even wrote a poem while being held in her prison cell. The Senesh Family Archive at the National Library of Israel, however, preserves the very last lines she wrote in her lifetime. Following her execution, a tiny, brief note was found in her dress, written in Hungarian. It was addressed to her mother Katherine, as Hannah, who never stopped writing her whole life, finally chose to emphasize the value of silence:

Dear mother, I don’t know what to tell you. I will only say this: A thousand thanks and more, and forgive me, if you can. After all, you will understand, better than anyone else, that words are not necessary now. With great love, your daughter.

This note is now part of Senesh Family Archive at the National Library of Israel.

The last note written by Hannah Senesh. It was found in her dress following her execution. The Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

This was not the only note or letter that Hannah wrote while in Europe. Senesh left Palestine in January 1944. In March, she was flown to Italy, and shortly afterwards parachuted into Yugoslavia, into the heart of enemy territory. She wandered among the local partisan forces for about three months, waiting for an opportunity to continue her mission and infiltrate the country of her birth, Hungary. At the beginning of June 1944, the mission commanders thought the time had come—but Senesh was captured the same day, shortly after crossing the border. Charged with espionage, she spent the final five months of her life, until her execution, in prison.

Hannah Senesh at the Nahalal Agricultural School for Girls, the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

Over the years, stories have surfaced about what she managed to write during her months with the partisans and even during her imprisonment. One of these is the story of “Blessed Is the Match”, one of Senesh’s best-known poems. Senesh passed the note on which she wrote the four-line poem to her comrade Reuven Dafni, just before crossing into Hungary. Dafni recounted how she asked him to take the note in case she didn’t return from the mission, and how he threw it away, saying there was no chance she would not return. Fortunately, he went back to retrieve it. How exactly it made its way to Israel we do not know, but this is one of her last poems. The original note in Senesh’s handwriting is held at Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta’ot.

The original handwritten Hebrew manuscript of “Blessed is the Match” (Ashrei HaGafrur), by Hannah Senesh

Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.

Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart.

Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor’s sake.

Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.


In November 2020, the Senesh family decided to deposit the Hannah Senesh Collection in the National Library of Israel. The collection includes several more notes and letters that Senesh wrote after leaving the country for her dangerous mission. Among these are two notes Senesh sent to her mother Katherine and her brother Giora (George) on March 13th, 1944, two days before her jump. The two small notes were written in pencil in Hungarian. Senesh wrote to her mother, who was still in Budapest at the time:

My dear mother, in a few days I will be so close to you, yet at once also far away. Please forgive me and try to understand me. A million hugs. Anna.

She wrote the date at the bottom. On the back she wrote in Hebrew “To mother” and signed with her codename, Hagar.

The note Hannah Senesh wrote to her mother Katherine, mere days before her parachute jump, the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

These notes, along with other letters sent by Senesh during her time in Europe, form a sort of path by which we can trace the events of her final days, during her dangerous mission in Europe. Brief regards, a plea for forgiveness, even poems – Hannah Senesh wrote all of these during the last months of her life, until the very last moment.


The materials above are part of the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

The Emotional Reunion With Hannah Senesh’s Notebook

In the 1950s, Katherine Senesh donated four pages containing poems handwritten by her paratrooper daughter to the National Library. Now, with the deposit of the full Hannah Senesh Collection, these pages will be reunited with the notebook from which they originally came


Hannah Senesh, with the first poem in her notebook in the background, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

In the early 1950s, Katherine Senesh, the mother of the famous paratrooper and poet Hannah Senesh (often spelled Szenes), entrusted a number of documents from her daughter’s estate to the National Library of Israel. Among these were some of her letters: a few she sent to her mother while attending the agricultural school in Nahalal, a letter she sent to her brother while she was with the partisans in the Balkans, and a letter she sent to her friend. There was also a collection of typed poems she had written in Hungarian, as well as four handwritten poems in Hebrew.

The four handwritten poems can be viewed on the National Library website, here. All were written during 1941 in various places linked to Senesh’s life in pre-state Israel: Nahalal, Kibbutz Sdot Yam, of which she was a founding member, and Ginosar. With their donation to the National Library, they joined the Schwadron Collection, which collects portraits and autograph samples of many personalities.

The upper corners of the handwritten pages are numbered, and the pages look as though they have been torn from a notebook, which they were. Now, we can finally tell the complete story of these pages.

The handwritten text of Hannah Senesh’s Hebrew poem Lamut? (“To Die?”), donated to the National Library by her mother. From the Schwadron Autograph Collection at the National Library of Israel

Hannah Senesh was born into a home where writing was an integral part of family life, and she herself began writing at a very young age. She wrote first in her mother tongue, Hungarian. After arriving in Mandatory Palestine, she began to learn Hebrew and very quickly mastered writing in that language as well. She wrote constantly and kept a diary for years. As is well known, she wrote her poems in secret, with all of them being published posthumously.

Just before embarking on the parachute mission from which she did not return, Senesh copied her poems neatly into a notebook with numbered pages. She titled the notebook Lelo Safa  (“Without Language”) though most of the poems were in Hebrew, and signed it with her underground codename, Hagar. She gave this notebook to her close friend and classmate at the Nahalal Agricultural School for Girls, Miriam Yitzhak. On the first page, she added a dedication: “To Miriam Yitzhak, my first and dearest reader and critic, in true friendship, Hannah.”

“To Miriam Yitzhak, my first and dearest reader and critic, in true friendship, Hannah.” Hannah Senesh’s handwritten Hebrew dedication to her friend, Miriam Yitzhak, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

When Katherine Senesh arrived in Israel and began collecting poems and letters for the commemoration of her daughter, she asked Miriam, who had kept the treasured notebook, to send her some poems in Hannah’s handwriting. In a letter Katherine wrote to Abraham Schwadron, she mentioned Miriam’s qualms about tearing pages from the notebook: “This time I am sending the poems I promised, the ones that Hannah’s friend, after much hesitation, was willing to tear from the notebook.” This was how the pages reached the archives of the National Library of Israel. Now, decades later, the torn pages have finally been reunited with the complete notebook.

After Miriam Yitzhak’s death, the notebook passed into the possession of Eitan Senesh, Hannah’s nephew, who for years managed, cataloged and maintained the Hannah Senesh collection. In November 2020, when the family decided to deposit the entire Hannah Senesh Collection with the National Library, Eitan confessed that he asked himself many times what had happened to those missing pages – numbered 7, 8, 11 and 12 in Hannah’s handwriting. Eitan did not know that his grandmother, Katherine, had already handed them over to the National Library seventy years earlier, into Abraham Schwadron’s trustworthy hands. Now, the lost pages are finally reunited with the original notebook, from where they were torn. Along with the notebook, dozens of other items from Senesh’s estate were deposited with the Library, among them her typewriter, camera, certificates, documents from Hungary, letters and photographs.

Two poems from Hannah Senesh’s handwritten notebook. The missing pages are noticeable, as the page on the right is numbered “10”, and the one on the left is numbered “13”. Pages 11 and 12 are among those that were torn out in the 1950s and donated to the National Library. From the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

With this donation, the National Library’s Archives Department now faces a professional dilemma, whether to physically reattach the torn pages to Hannah Senesh’s original notebook, or leave them as separate items in the Abraham Schwadron Autograph Collection. Matan Barzilai, who heads the Archives Department, hesitated but finally made an unconventional decision: “Although there is no doubt that the pages were torn [from the notebook], and that it is our job to reflect the work as it was originally, in this case I am inclined to leave things as they are. Hannah Senesh’s story did not end in 1944. The archive also reflects the commemoration process and the creation of the legacy surrounding her figure. Katherine’s frank deliberation, her communications with Schwadron and the tearing of the poems [from the notebook], for example—all offer an authentic glimpse of the culture of remembrance in the first years of the state, of Katherine’s involvement in her daughter’s commemoration, and the attitude of librarians in those days regarding the preservation of the original work. Therefore, despite the dilemma, I think we will keep the pages out of the notebook, and leave them were they have been for the past seventy years.”


The materials above are part of the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

Annual Docu.Text Documentary Film Festival Going Online

The sixth annual Docu.Text Documentary Film Festival will take place online from the 15th to the 25th of November, 2020

Due to the pandemic, this year’s sixth annual Docu.Text Film Festival is going digital.

Two parallel online festivals will be held November 15-25: one for international audiences and one for audiences in Israel, both of them featuring award-winning documentary films, Q&A sessions, and an array of special events.

The international festival will highlight some of the best Israeli documentary films from years past, including, among others:

Black Honey, The Life and Poetry of Avraham Sutskever, followed by a glimpse of archival treasures from the legendary Yiddish poet held at the National Library of Israel and the National Library of Lithuania;


The Jerusalem Dream, a personal story of Ethiopian immigration to Israel;


The Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev, a colorful look at the internal life of one of Tajikistan’s most famous musical families, followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker;


Picture of His Life, a retrospective with renowned Israeli nature photographer Amos Nachoum, followed by a Q&A with Nachoum;


You Only Die Twice, a suspenseful thriller of stolen identity and a charged meeting between descendants of Jews and Nazis, followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker;


Golda, the story of Golda Meir’s term as prime minister, followed by a talk with Dr. Michal Asaf Kremer.


The Israeli festival will feature both Israeli and international documentary films, with a number of films and talks related to cultural and political protests, including, among others:

Meet the Censors, a first-hand look at censorship from Iran to China;


and Four Mothers, about the struggle of four women to get Israel to withdraw from Lebanon in the 1990s.


New films on female writers who have affected minds and societies will also be screened, including Margaret Atwood: A Word after a Word after a Word is Power; Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin; Ferrante Fever; and Rain in Her Eyes, about legendary Israeli children’s author Dvora Omer, followed by a look at items from her archive at the National Library of Israel and a conversation with her son, who made the film.


The Docu.Text Film Festival is produced in collaboration with the Docaviv Film Festival. International Docu.Text is 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.

Please Note:

  • All events are free of charge and open to the local and global public, Zoom registration required.
  • All film screenings are available for streaming by purchase only.
  • Based on the user IP address, viewers will only have access to films from the Israeli festival or the international festival.

For more information and tickets, please visit the Docu.Text website.