Discovering the mother tongue

PHILOSOPHERS SAY INNER contradictions are a natural thing; they lie within the core of the human condition. I'd add that from the imbroglio of everyday paradoxes, there will always emerge one overriding paradox – one that defines the course of our lives without us even being aware of it.

The overriding paradox of my life began one autumn day, when I was 12 years old and stepped out of an El Al plane at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport, along with my parents and two youngest brothers. I remember being dazzled by camera flashes, surrounded by media and confronted by a bunch of girls about my age, waving signs at me: "Welcome."

It was 1985, a hallucinated time in Russian history, after the death in 1982 of President Leonid Brezhnev, who had ruled the country for 18 years. He was replaced by Yuri Andropov, who died in 1984, followed by Konstantin Chernenko, who died just over a year later. It was an autumn of uncertainty before the later emergence of the man who would change the face of Russia forever: Mikhail Gorbachev.

On that September day, the Iron Curtain was still tangible, protecting the fairytale of communism. But my parents, the leaders of the Odessa dissident underground had succeeded in penetrating the curtain – after pestering the authorities for six exhausting years we were allowed to leave. With very short notice, we packed a few suitcases, got onto an almost empty plane (11 passengers, five of whom were my family) and took off for the "promised land".


BACK THEN, MY family – before the huge wave of Russian immigration that inundated the Western world in the early 1990s – was a media curiosity. This explained the schoolgirls, who had arrived at the airport to welcome me to their school.

The following years at the school were confusing in their ambiguity and didn't resemble the excited welcome in the airport. I grew up in the shadow of a double message. I was often asked to give speeches for school events and would describe my childhood among the dissidents, the struggle against the KGB and how I'd refused to take the mandatory oath of allegiance to the party, part of a ceremony for 10-year-olds when joining the compulsory "Pioneers" youth movement.

Outside such special school events I was constantly told I was expected to be "like everyone else". My good manners were considered to be "too much, too Russian". I was told it was "impolite" to speak Russian and whenever I did something that my teachers or classmates disliked it was defined as Russian and wrong.

My high school years and army service passed in the shadow of the massed Russian immigration following the fall of Iron Curtain. Towards the end of my days at junior high school, I ceased being the attraction, the heroine. I remember those years mostly as one long struggle to prove that I was not one of those Russian immigrants. Their clothes were ridiculous, whereas I wore the famous sabra sandals and used slang in the Arabic manner, the way Israelis did, emphasising the guttural sounds. My accent almost disappeared. Only very rarely would my "r" roll in a slightly foreign manner. This would lead to the suspicious question: "Are you Russian?" immediately followed by, "Tell me, is it true that your men work for the Mafia and your women do it for 10 shekels?"

I became a typical product of Israeli society and took pride in the new image of myself I'd built over the years: I was an ex-army officer and a journalist, swimming like a fish in the water of Israeli reality. I was especially proud of the fact that all my friends were "native" Israelis or sabras. I was ashamed of my Russian past, as though it was my fault I was born somewhere else. It's difficult to admit but in those days, whenever Russian immigrants, looking lost, approached me on the street with questions, I would shrug my shoulders and say in Hebrew: "I don't understand."


DURING THE 1990s, Israeli society discovered a new scapegoat: the Russian immigrants. They were blamed for all manner of ills: unemployment, prostitution, crime. Israelis claimed that these Russian immigrants received money from the government for nothing and took Israelis' jobs. In reality many lived on the poverty line. The immigrants didn't bother to dispel this image and became more and more enclosed in their own milieu. Their protest was mainly passive. They didn't try too hard to learn Hebrew and adopted a disdainful attitude towards Israelis, accusing them of being philistine and arrogant.

History made some sense of the situation. Israel is a young state at only 55 years old, a tiny piece of land (20,770 square kilometres) surrounded by much larger, hostile Muslim countries. Israeli residents live under permanent threat of war; their political and economic situation has never been stable. Israel is a warrior society. To survive, Israelis try hard to be united. The sabra culture has adopted tribal characteristics, including fear of the foreign. One of its superior values, though, is friendship, manifested partly in the famous army brotherhood. Many Israelis learn in the army that a united group functions best and they maintain these groups in civilian life. You see it in Israeli backpackers who make a big trip at the end of their compulsory army service, traveling en masse.

This tribal warrior culture has emerged out of necessity and has developed through many difficulties. Israeli society is composed of immigrants mainly from Eastern Europe and Arabic countries; however, there are also those with roots in Western Europe, North America, South America and even Africa and Asia. For centuries, Jews have lived throughout the world, absorbing different cultures. In order to unite them and create a society able to defend itself, it was necessary to create a hybrid, a mythological creature – the sabra: the tanned strong warrior who could also work the land. The new sabra, the clichéd one, emerged from the term that defines Israel – the melting pot. The "old" cultures had to be melted down into a new homogenous blend, out of which the warrior sabras could be shaped.

The mythical sabra was equipped with warrior messages, which again, served a clear survival function. One of the best-known Israeli mottoes is a saying, associated with the Zionist hero Joseph Trumpeldor: "It's great to die for our country!"

The massed Russian immigration of the '90s became a threat to Israeli society. Here was a huge mass of strangers, arriving all at once, holding firmly onto their culture and traditions, resisting the Israeli melting pot. And they didn't even know who Joseph Trumpeldor was! The media expressed the Israelis' collective fear. Mythological characters were created: the Prostitute and the Mafia Man. And so my ambiguous glory days at junior high school ended. A period of total denial took their place. I began to abandon my mother tongue.

A famous Israeli song from the 1980s (before the big Russian immigration) was sung by an Argentinean immigrant: "I sing in Hebrew in the morning ... but at night I dream in Spanish." Social anthropologists claim that the extent of competence in the language of a new country is a direct indication of an immigrant's sense of belonging. On the other hand, the better immigrants learn the second language, the more their mother tongue regresses, at least for a certain period. In my case, there was no "certain period", just a long deterioration. In my early 20s I could barely string together more then a few sentences in Russian.


WHEN I ARRIVED in Australia, near the time of the millennium celebrations, I was no longer a Russian but an Israeli who had immigrated to Australia. My Russian roots had long since rotted. I strolled around the Melbourne streets, watching Indians in their elaborate turbans, Asians speaking loudly in their native tongues and Australians calmly sipping wine in the modern cafés. I was fascinated and overwhelmed by the diversity. I thought to myself that, perhaps, this move would be easier and I wouldn't have to find another new identity.

As a new immigrant, I couldn't be too choosy about work. So when friends found a job for me in a Russian video library, I couldn't refuse. I was, however, terrified. I recalled the Russians in Israel (as I had seen them from my Tel-Avivian bubble) – lacking confidence, not speaking Hebrew, seemingly rootless and living on the edge of society. I didn't want to be one of them there, so why would I mix with them here?

The shock was mutual. In the video library I found myself surrounded by my childhood movies, but also by the new Russian post-communist cinema, which seemed foreign and exotic. I became acquainted with the latest Russian pop music and encountered Russians very different from those I'd come across in Israel. Even in Melbourne, many Russians stand out because of their appearance. The women seem to be competing with each other in make-up quantity and hair volume; the men insist on decorating themselves with as many silver and gold teeth as possible. Yet being different didn't mean they were frightened by Australian society or made fun of it. It seems Australian Russians have willingly adopted certain local customs, such as waiting patiently in queues and, in general, are satisfied with their new country. When talking about the locals they sound like scolding, but loving parents: "No, they are not very cultured; one can't compare the Moscow theatre to the local one. But they are such nice people ..."

The Russian customers were just as confused by my appearance in their video library. I was to learn quickly that this place in East St Kilda didn't match its modest name. It was unlike Blockbuster or Video Ezy. The Russian video library is a cultural centre. It supplies the community with movies, tapes of the Russian television shows and series they miss. The library provides other needs as well: books, dictionaries, newspapers and magazines, and even traditional Russian foods, such as pelmeni (a kind of ravioli). This modest place is a social centre. People can always sit down here and rest after an exhausting shopping campaign in Coles, get filled in on the latest gossip, meet acquaintances and find someone to listen when they pour their hearts out.

It was a shock when a new worker appeared unexpectedly in their second home, a stranger with an exotic, un-Russian name, Lee. They were unable to accept that someone – who spoke their mother tongue and was in charge of their beloved movies – would not be called Natasha or Lena. They kept changing my name, distorting it into Lia or Leechka, sounds more comprehensible to the Russian ear. After some time, as I improved my Russian and expanded my cultural horizons, my clients accepted my presence; they even began to adopt me and show me (the way you might show a tourist), how they spent their leisure time.

Their favorite entertainment is found in the Russian restaurants in the south-eastern suburbs. Like the video library, they have little in common with other ethnic restaurants. They all serve food but Russian restaurants also provide entertainment and lifestyle. They open mainly on the weekends; the entertainment begins around 8pm and lasts till the early hours. There is no menu. Dishes are served continually on the large tables while a band plays. Between the huge courses, the guests dance to the latest Western hits, modern and classic Russian repertoire, electronic beats and more. Here they celebrate birthdays, engagements or any event with speeches and big bunches of flowers. Everything is in the Russian style: abundant, glittering, full of drama and tempting.

The 25,000-strong Melbourne Russian community has created a self-sufficient community, well-served by its own media: a few radio programs, a community television program and several magazines. Its members organise frequent concerts, artistic evenings (or "Café Musa"), mind-game competitions ("Club Intellect"), musical, humour and seniors' clubs. They have established Russian food shops, a chain of video libraries, a Russian business directory and even a singles' agency. They have their own church and synagogue.

A high percentage of the community emigrated from my family's home town, Odessa, near the Black Sea. The majority– like the Israeli Russians – are of Jewish origin. Their immigration occurred in two waves: during the '70s and later, following the Gorbachev reforms, in the early '90s. A considerable number arrived first in Israel and then moved to Australia. Their memories of Israel tend to be bitter; they remember Israelis as closed and supercilious but think of Australians as "friendly". Their Jewish identity is very frail, which perhaps partly explains the failure of their integration into Israeli society. Growing up in Russia, they were uprooted from Jewish culture and history, which led some to deny their heritage and change their surnames.

It deeply saddens me that Israel is so wretched a country that it is compelled to treat its immigrants harshly. I wish its residents could soften. The relatively easy lifestyle here significantly eases the lives of Australia's immigrants. The main difference between the two immigration streams is the sense of belonging. Many Australian Russians consider Australia their "second homeland", if not their first.

Despite this Melbourne's Russians lead – as do their Israeli brothers – a cloistered life, ruled by its own codes. Community members tend to befriend each other. The Jewish Russians are hardly involved in the local Jewish community and within the wider, Australian, context; a political leadership has failed to emerge from within this community even though many Russians are successful business people, professionals and artists. Nostalgia is strong, despite what one of my Russian friends says: "Nostalgia is when you mistake the loss of your youth for the loss of a place."


SIMONIDES, AN ANCIENT Greek poet, said: "Always expect the unexpected." Just four years ago I would never have imagined myself living in Australia, improving my Russian and making friends among Russians as well as Australians. This second immigration has done something to my personal identity, made it more flexible and enriched it. I no longer need to declare loudly: "I'm Israeli." But neither can I say that I'm Russian or Australian.

Sometimes, while spending time with my Russian friends, someone will pull out a guitar and play some famous Russian melodies. I see the excitement in people's eyes, the memories awakening. Often I join in the singing and they clap me. "This is an Israeli writer," they proudly introduce me to their friends, even though they've never read any of the books I've written in Hebrew – the language I think in and dream in. Today I'm certain that no matter how long I might spend in the company of my former compatriots, dancing in their restaurants and eating their food, I will never perceive the world as they do. I'm the one who spent her childhood in the Communist Russia and this is all I know. My Russian friends also lived through glasnost and perestroika and saw Russia without communism. And this is the main difference. Their memories are different from mine. I will always remain the exotic stranger, the ex-IDF (Israeli Defence Force) soldier, who, incidentally, can speak their language.

And it's okay. Honestly. Slowly, as the years pass, I learn the advantages of being a "mini crossroad of cultures" where Cyrillic, Semitic and Latin meet.

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