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Neither Russian nor Israeli: Lessons from a journey to the homeland

After years of denying her Russian identity, Osnat Ita Skoblinski finally made peace with the cultural world of her friends and family. However, she never expected her first trip back ‘home’ to bring out feelings of hate and revulsion.

By Osnat Ita Skoblinski

My parents, who immigrated to Israel in the 70s, refused to have a decorated Christmas tree in our home. “We’re Jews,” they said, as they set out for a Novy God party on December 31st with Santa hats on their heads. Born in Israel to parents from the Soviet Union, I found New Year’s Eve celebrations especially confusing. I wanted a tree like they had in American films, but the trees I saw in Russian homes went along with characters like Snegurochka, and with wishing each other a “happy new year.”

Yulia Keslow’s post on Novi God (Hebrew) helped me delineate my outsider experience of being Russian in Israel. I recognized many of the traditions from home, yet had never heard of others. I was exposed to Russian culture almost only through the familial spectrum: the holidays, food, language. I related to life under dictatorship through my parents’ trauma and television. My meager knowledge of Russian popular music and literature was filtered through my parents’ cultural world.

The identity of a daughter of immigrants is interesting, because it is composed of nostalgia for something that I never really had – a kind of simulacra of nostalgia. This merely heightens the feeling that something was stolen from me when I was made to feel ashamed of being Russian. My identity was formed by a deep connection with Russian culture, along with an attraction to, and curiosity about, a culture that is actually foreign. This identity is not unique, but rather shared by many of my friends, sons and daughters of Russian immigrants from the 70s – a wave of immigration that changed the demographics and culture of Israel forever. It was an immigration of dissidents, diehard Zionists who were persecuted for their beliefs and torn from their families with no way back. Those circumstances created a group of 163,000 former residents of the USSR in Israel, who experienced assimilation and erasure, largely by choice, out of a strong desire to fulfill the Zionist fantasy and erase their connection with the detested Soviet Union.

This early wave gave birth to some very confused Sabras (Israeli-born citizens). In certain respects, my experience may be similar to that of other children of immigrants in Israel. We’re a generation of half-and-half. I speak Hebrew without an accent, my first name is Israeli, I’m part of the Ashkenazi hegemony in certain ways, but my foreignness has always bubbled beneath the surface, and continues to bubble.

I’ve been trying to write this text for a long time, because it captures not only an elusive identity but also a lot of pain. I want to touch on a cultural-social experience without writing a personal report or a family history – without licking my own wounds. I hope that this Novy God, this new year and beginning, will allow me to do so.

Today, my Russian identity plays a large part in my life – so large that new acquaintances are often surprised to learn I wasn’t born there, or that I don’t speak fluent Russian. My romance with Russian identity actually includes four distinct phases – initial rejection, followed by three attempts at reconciliation and, gradually, a renewed embrace.

My first language was Russian. I had swallowed whole books in Russian by the time I entered primary school, and even my nanny spoke only Russian. In 1990, when I landed in first grade in Israel, I quickly caught scent of the general attitude towards absorbing immigrants from the former Soviet Union. No one openly mocked my background, but the message was clear: being Russian was bad. At the age of six, I declared to my parents that I no longer understood or spoke Russian. From that moment on, I went through a process of erasing my identity. I was reluctant to disclose my origins, I forgot the language, and even tried to change my diasporic last name by shortening it. I was ashamed of my middle name, Ita, only telling those closest to me about it as a guarded secret. In some ways I tried to be as Sabra as they come, even though I was actually born in Israel.

It didn’t work. I remained different, rejected, and suffered violence. The social rejection increased when my classmates discovered we eat pork at home, heaven forbid. The new information quickly turned into gossip and fodder for hate.

My parents didn’t understand the concept of “school violence” and had no idea how to deal with it, nor how to work with the school system in order to protect me. As an Israeli, anger and threats come naturally to me when faced with a system that works against me. For them, it just wasn’t part of their DNA.

My first Russian renaissance happened when I was 14 and discovered vodka, swear words and trashy pop music. A lot of Russians lived on my street, and some of them became my friends. They taught me how to swear with words reserved for the lower classes and bohemians, delightfully coarse for any rebellious teen, perfect for making Russian bourgeois parents choke. They introduced me to terrible-wonderful trash pop like Rocky Werch and Strelky, and I found out that it was cool to declare myself Russian, while downing long gulp of vodka without batting an eyelid.

Rocky Werch:

Strelky:

It was my rebellion, an attempt to find my own unique identity. After years of watching children of immigrants teased over their clothing in class and transformed within months into Sabras, I suddenly found Russians who were closed off in their own group and had no wish to assimilate – on the contrary. It became the coolest thing in the world. I tried to take up writing and speaking in Russian again, but my friends’ mockery of my heavy Israeli accent and grammatical mistakes made me retreat. This time, it was my Russian identity that didn’t accept me. I had a place among neither Israelis nor Russians. I did, however, begin to understand the complexity of my identity.

I made a second attempt with Russian at university. By then, I felt that I’d stolen away my own language, a language that I had spoken fluently and written in since the age of four. Language, not only in the sense of words and letters, but of culture. I was an avid reader of Russian literature and lover of Russian authors. I wrote poetry and was amazed by the momentum and originality of the Russian avant-garde. Russian culture was something that moved me, and I wanted to be a part of it. I signed up for a beginner language course. After two weeks, something magical happened. From a dark basement, behind a heavy door, the letters and words began emerging into daylight. The lecturer told me that I belonged in the intermediate-level course. All of a sudden I began to speak, to read Chekov, to write fluent sentences, and no one laughed at my accent. I wrote limericks and played with the language like a long-lost childhood friend. Our brilliant teacher introduced us to Russian animated series whose songs were always, as per the tradition, a mix of sadness and joy, kitsch-less sentimentality and a non-saccharine sweetness. At 22 I found myself falling in love with children’s series like Cheburashka and the Russian version of Winnie the Pooh.

From Cheburashka:

From Winnie the Pooh:

I began to speak and think about myself as a Russian. I made an effort to speak Russian with anyone who had the patience. And despite the embarrassing grammatical mistakes that continue to this day, I am still on a continuous learning curve of the culture and language. I had a fantasy that if I speak Russian and learn the culture, I will be able to restore a culture that was stolen from me. But this did not happen, and it won’t happen. I may have insisted on forgetting the language, but there was an entire form of Russianness that I never knew to begin with.

Studying gender made me look at my identity differently. In certain respects, my Russian identity is a conscious choice, an aspect of my identity that I can choose to empower or play down. It’s a side of me I like – a world of its own, with its own cadences, rhythms, and never-ceasing inquiry. When I speak Russian with my mother, She is a different person – her speech is slicker, clever, beautiful, musical. It’s a side of my mother that I had the pleasure of getting to know as an adult, and the more my Russian improves, the more of it I’ll see. My Russian identity is a key to an entire cultural world, and to a whole world of communication with people, especially family members with whom I would like to speak more. Yet in a way, my identity is imagined, a fantasy, a kind of falling in love. Coming into full contact with it in my parents’ homeland was a jarring, sobering experience.

My parents visiting my grandparents' old house, where they all lived together. (photo: Osnat Ita Skoblinski)

My parents visiting my grandparents’ old house, where they all lived together. (photo: Osnat Ita Skoblinski)

This past August, my parents invited me to travel with them to the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, formerly in the USSR. It was a trip we’d talked about for years but had always avoided. Dealing with the ghosts of the past isn’t easy. My parents didn’t emigrate from the Soviet Union, they were torn from it and from their families, expelled in disgrace, putting their families – already struggling to survive in an anti-Semitic climate – to shame in the eyes of the all-powerful Party. My parents were dissidents, Zionist activists who studied Hebrew illegally and were persecuted by the authorities.

When I was invited to go to Ukraine, I happily jumped at the opportunity to get to know my imagined homeland. I was not, however, prepared for the extent of hate and revulsion that it would bring out in me, both due to the place itself, as well as listening to my parents’ experiences.

Russian identity was my rediscovered love, and I wasn’t prepared for its dark side. Landing in Kiev was difficult, but not as hard as the days I spent at my family’s home in Kharkiv. When we arrived, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d heard stories about huge parks and electric trams. I’d heard about KGB agents chasing my father through backyards. I knew about the poverty that made a bit of sausage a rare treat. But I had no idea what present-day Kharkiv would mean for my parents, and especially for me.

Electric tram in Kharkiv. (photo: Osnat Iti Skoblinski)

Electric tram in Kharkiv. (photo: Osnat Iti Skoblinski)

 

Beachfront in Kharkiv. (photo: Constantine Skoblinski)

Beachfront in Kharkiv. (photo: Constantine Skoblinski)

It turned out to be a mixture of sweet childhood memories and dictatorial nightmares. Kharkiv is European progress hand in hand with national depression and sour faces. It’s my family’s big, bleeding wound. It is the story of pogroms, of being turned down for jobs or university because you’re Jewish. But it is also the story of apple trees, cold rivers, old trams, piroshki stands, friends with green Ukrainian cars, village homes with vegetable and fruit fields, and barrels of sweet, homemade alcohol in the basement.

Apples strewn across the yard of our family friends' house. (photo: Osnat Ita Skoblinski)

Apples strewn across the yard of our family friends’ house. (photo: Osnat Ita Skoblinski)

 

Food at our family friends' home. (photo: Osnat Ita Skoblinski)

Food at our family friends’ home. (photo: Osnat Ita Skoblinski)

Family friends put food on the table in their bedroom, which doubles as the living room. (photo: Osnat Ita Skoblinski)

Family friends put food on the table in their bedroom, which doubles as the living room. (photo: Osnat Ita Skoblinski)

Getting picked up for a ride in a Ukrainian car. (photo: Osnat Ita Skoblinski)

Getting picked up for a ride in a Ukrainian car. (photo: Osnat Ita Skoblinski)

“Everyone looks so Russian, so Slavic,” I commented to my parents at the metro station. My mother, with her black hair and dark eyes, replied, “Yes, and I was so afraid of them as a kid.” The poverty of the relatives that stayed behind – the peeling wallpaper, the improvised apartments, the antipathy of local passersby – they all greatly saddened me. But the most difficult experience was meeting a group of young people my age.

A friend connected me with his local young colleague from the large hi-tech company he works in. On our third night in Kharkiv, which happened to be the eve of the city’s liberation, I went out drinking with him and his friends in the main square. They were 25 years old, middle class or higher; two of them were studying advanced degrees in Prague and were on a home visit. I asked them about Ukraine, to which they responded with beaming pride, even casually supporting the cancellation of Russian as an official language, which would leave only Ukrainian – part of a new wave of nationalism that has been washing over Ukraine since it broke off from Russia, and is getting stronger over the last few years. As opposed to Kiev, Kharkiv was always a Russian-speaking city, and my parents, who actually lived in the USSR, never spoke Ukrainian.

Performers prepare for celebrations in honor of the anniversary of the city's liberation. (photo: Osnat Ita Skoblinski)

Performers prepare for celebrations in honor of the anniversary of the city’s liberation. (photo: Osnat Ita Skoblinski)

I asked them why all the women wore heavy make-up and high-heeled shoes. They answered that it was pretty and was probably because there are more single women than single men. I offered a more feminist explanation, which was met with reservations. When I wanted to pay, they refused and told me that I could not, because I was a woman and that isn’t part of the Ukrainian custom. I replied that I may be a Ukrainian, but I’m also a feminist. They responded with loud laughter, as if I’d just contradicted myself. I asked them if I looked Ukrainian and they said that I would, if I wore makeup. In the end, I asked them if Ukrainians would consider me Ukrainian, since my parents were born there, or they considered me only a Jew. “Only a Jew,” one of them answered, followed by an awkward silence. “Well, she has to know the truth,” he added, reacting to his friends’ uneasiness.

That experience shook my perception of being able to choose my own identity. It does not matter what my internal narrative is – I am living in this world and I belong to certain groups.

On my way back, I came to the harsh realization that I’m not really Soviet, not really Russian, not really Ukrainian, and not really Israeli, although the last option is the closest to realization. The setting of my life is an impossible mishmash of Middle Eastern-Russian culture.

Renewing the inscription on my grandfather's headstone. (Osnat Ita Skoblinski)

Renewing the inscription on my grandfather’s headstone. (Osnat Ita Skoblinski)

That culture has fused with many subcultures of second-generation immigrants, men and women. Many people who, despite having been born in Israel, grew up feeling that they are “the other”. How can it be that here, local families that go back generations are considered “the other”, that every immigrant group feels alienated, and that everyone experiences the sense of erasing or blurring one’s identity? Whose hegemony is it? Who is the Israeli, the Sabra, the Canaanite, who reigns supreme here? Whom are we trying to emulate? That question is as complicated as the identities that constitute this place. To some extent, I’m a part of the hegemony and being screwed by it at the same time. Our identities can differ or overlap at different points of contact, and can even change over time.

The discourse on political identity that I share with my friends gives me hope that our attempt to ponder our roots will lead us to understanding that the other can be a part of myself, that she or he can encounter experiences very similar to mine, and that at some point we can belong to the same group, despite the ever-present power relations. It is precisely through sharpening our identities and our unique voices that we can bring down the walls of suspicion, alienation and estrangement. Spaces like Café Gibraltar give me hope against hope that, despite daily manifestations of racism, an accepting society can be created here – one that will contain its plethora of identities, with its queerness, aversion, curiosity and nostalgia. A society that will recognize the complexity and pain of different identities. A society in which half-and-half will be the natural state.

My parents on the streets of Kharkiv. (photo: Osnat Ita Skoblinski)

My parents on the streets of Kharkiv. (photo: Osnat Ita Skoblinski)

Osnat Ita Skoblinski is a writer, activist, founder of Bastarbut and dweller of the meeting point between culture and politics. She lives In Jerusalem and works for a human rights NGO.

This piece first appeared in Hebrew on Café Gibraltar.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Kolumn9

      Only someone thoroughly Israeli or American would think that a Jew can be a ‘Russian’ or a ‘Ukrainian’. Honestly, wow, just wow. She spent years learning Russian culture and yet she missed this simple truth about Eastern European societies. I blame her parents for this pointless drama.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Amel

      Your story is very relatable even to me an American born Palestinian. As a daughter of immigrants as well I find like you I do not fit with Palestinian culture or American. When I like to think of myself as American and try to fit with society I am pushed out. I found that it is easier for me to be friends with people who have multiple identities like me.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Alona

      Great article! I could relate to Osbat even though I migrated to Israel in my early twenties from the Russian republic of Uzbekistan.
      Interestingly, in Uzbekistan I was perceived as a ‘ bloody Jew’. On the other hand, I was harted Russian. I didn’t expected to be treated by a fellow Jews so badly. I was called names on the street, my elderly parents were pushed and spitted on. Unfortunately, my elderly Mum is still in Israel. It is my ambition to take her out if there to New Zealand, where I migrated a number of years ago. Osnat, you’ve realised in the early age that to be Rusian is bad. You had a choice to use your other, ‘sabra’ identity to survive. I didn’t have this choice and left Israel.

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