What Have We Written Since the Bible?

Aviad Kleinberg
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Aviad Kleinberg

Eretz Aheret, vol. 19, "A million Russian immigrants: How we have changed and how we will continue to change," Edited by Bambi Sheleg. Published by Eretz Aheret, 80 pages, NIS 35.

Even those who are not interested in the humanities and social sciences and those who do not regard an intellectual periodical concerned with "Israeliness and Judaism" as their favorite reading material - in other words, the vast majority of Israelis - will find it difficult to ignore Eretz Aheret. It has resources that other journals can only dream about, resources that enable it to publish a large number of giant ads in the press and fund many expensive minutes of radio advertising. Apparently, the patrons of Eretz Aheret - the New Israel Fund, the United Jewish Appeal of New York and the Avi Chai Foundation - are not tight-fisted.

In the impoverished sphere of intellectual journals in Israel, where editors and publishers work as volunteers and think it over 10 times before they publish a tiny ad in the back pages of Haaretz, such an arrangement arouses envy, even a certain degree of suspicion.

Yet Eretz Aheret is an excellent journal. It deals with important cultural and social issues, which are often pushed off the agenda of public debate; it is edited superbly in every respect and it offers its readers well-written, interesting and challenging articles. The authors do not belong to the same camp and are not part of the permanent reservoir of experts; people whose names I have never before encountered write interesting and original articles for Eretz Aheret. Editor Bambi Sheleg and her editorial staff manage to produce, issue after issue, a periodical that is a rewarding read from cover to cover. Even Uri S. Cohen's book review section is excellent. The investors can therefore be proud of a good investment and of the people who work for them. Supporting Eretz Aheret is certainly better than wasting capital on the Avi Chai Foundation's showy and superfluous "Tzav Piyus" campaign for greater understanding in Israeli society.

Although issue no. 19 of Eretz Aheret includes an article by Micha Odenheimer on Iraq and an article by Hezi Cohen on his connection with one of the greatest Iraqi rabbinical authorities, Rabbi Yosef Haim, the "Ben Ish Hai," it is concerned primarily with Russian immigrants in Israel. It contains articles by Maya Kaganskaya, Dimitry Slivniak, Michael Weisskopf, Gregory Chejegov-Haimowitz, Dov Kontorer, Olga Perlutzky, Dan Shapira, Einat Yakir (who writes about immigrant artist Sima Konson), Aryeh Ullman, Avi Pikar and Gur Salomon. The issue opens with the beautiful poem, "Opening," by Yulia Weiner (translated by Hamotal Bar-Yosef).

What will readers find in these articles? Some things will not be eye-openers - like the great problems faced by all immigrants. Intellectuals find the immigration process particularly difficult. Not only have they been deprived of their greatest possession - their language in the deepest sense of the term - their immigration to Israel represents a shift from a great, imperial culture to a small, provincial one. The heavy shadows of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Bulgakov hover above us and above them. It is hard for Russian immigrants to see the large gaps in their own culture: the deep philosophical weakness (just think about one point: an illustrious culture without even one major philosopher); the narrow-mindedness; the paucity of psychology, anthropology and sociology; the shallow roots of the literature (try to think of even one Russian author who lived before the 18th century).

Salt in the wounds

They compare Tolstoy with A.B. Yehoshua, and Venedikt Erofeev with Etgar Keret, and find the Israeli authors unimpressive, completely disappointing. What in fact have we written since the Bible? Very few things of any value, apparently. Read, for example, the article by Michael Weisskopf, "Wall." Weisskopf is disappointed.

"Today's Hebrew-speaking Israel has no drawing power." Dov Kontorer delicately scatters additional comparative salt on our wounds: "All those who are familiar with Russian literature ... cannot avoid drawing some rather clearcut conclusions regarding Israeli literature, and a word to the wise is sufficient." Since he does not rely on our ability to take a hint, he quickly adds: "From the standpoint of form and style, Israeli culture hardly has any prospects in comparison to the cultural baggage of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union."

And, frankly, how can one even make a comparison? Some of the articles exude a deep contempt for Hebrew culture, and there does not seem to be much evidence of any familiarity with the achievements - modest, perhaps, but nonetheless not completely unimpressive - that this young, nervous culture with such a small audience has managed to attain. Weisskopf is disappointed with us: "Israel unswervingly obeys the powerful instinct of being ordinary." Kaganskaya agrees: "Israeli culture ... has rested on its laurels, so self-satisfied and so talentless."

Incidentally, Weisskopf, Kaganskaya and Slivniak pin the blame for a rapid internalization of Israeli mythology on Israeli leftist intellectuals - envious, narrow-minded and with an intellectual idee fixe, they are unable to appreciate the true value of the representatives of Russian culture in Israel. Nor do they sufficiently appreciate the Russian desire to "live," as Slivniak writes, "in a country that has the largest possible territory." Ah, the vast expanses of Mother Russia! Ah, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Bulgakov!

There is something in this accusation, although it smacks of an overzealous haste to downgrade: It is hard to bear the callousness of the members of the absorbing society (incidentally, it has not been exactly paradise for them either!) and their indifference to the achievements and status of those whom they are supposed to be absorbing. Such words are particularly painful for those who, like Weisskopf, for example, were accustomed to being on the other side, to treat the culture of others condescendingly. Here is a typical Weisskopkfian piece of analysis: "(There are examples of) ideal cultural absorption [but] they can only be found when the immigrants are people who have come from Russia's remote regions and who are not very familiar with Russian cultural traditions. In other words, they have very little to lose in the intellectual sphere."

True, true. I sometimes wonder whether it might not make sense, when all is said and done, to learn to somewhat emulate Western thinking's unworthy fashion of calling for a respectful attitude toward other cultures - not, perish the thought, because of a belief that is "intellectually totally mistaken," as Kaganskaya writes, in the possibility of comparing cultures. Comparisons are impossible, of course, yet perhaps, nonetheless, something worthwhile can be learned in Russia's remote regions - perhaps even in Georgia, let us say, there might be something to lose on the intellectual plane!

Perhaps not, of course. However, if that were the case, perhaps then it would be possible to regard Israeli culture with a lesser degree of contempt. Something that is interesting, alive, rich and sometimes moving is growing here. Given its circumstances, modern Hebrew literature could be regarded as a near-miracle. One must listen carefully. One must conduct a dialogue, despite the immigrants' feeling that they have been insulted. You know, after we have sprayed the new arrivals with DDT, we mingle with them, learn from them and sometimes became a little more talented and a little less addicted to the goal of being ordinary. "Don't be afraid of us," writes Dan Shapira, "we might not be exactly white but we too are pretty furry inside."

There are also other voices in this issue, voices that genuinely try to create a dialogue, to teach, to learn. Olga Perlutzky writes about Israelis with warmth and a touching degree of understanding, while Avi Pikar proposes that Israelis consider the impact of Russian immigration on development towns - an impact that is not characterized by coldness, arrogance or a desire to be ordinary. Dan Shapira writes an illuminating article that breaks down the monolithic essence of "the Russians" into its human components; with great insight and with considerable humor, he explains differences in sensitivity and historical memory. I learned a lot from that article.

Finally, my favorite article in this issue: the one written by Aryeh Ullman, "Jerusalem- Petushki." The article contains no cliches; it is a brilliant, exquisitely written continuum of insights on the essence of modern Russianness, on Russian Jewishness and on Israel. This is a clever exchange of correspondence with Erofeev's immortal "Moscow-Petushki." Here is how the article ends: "The course of life of our generation is a known given: The goal of our journey is to reach Petushki, yet all the rail tracks and all the airline routes twist themselves into the Mebius ring, and the Oroborus snake encompasses the entire world; if we depart from Moscow, we will nonetheless arrive in Jerusalem, and if we begin our journey in Jerusalem, we will, whether we want to or not, arrive in Moscow. Where is that city, the image of the Golden Era? Is it not on this planet? Or is it only in the lines of the poem, "Moscow-Petushki"? Our journey will stop midway and we will only be able to mumble the last words of the book. Since then I have not fully regained consciousness, nor will I ever fully regain it."

Prof. Aviad Kleinberg is the editor of "The Love of Mothers and the Fear of Fathers," published by Keter and Tel Aviv University