Anastasia, Tell Me Who You Are

MK Anastasia Michaeli says her goal in the Knesset is to represent the people she cares most about - mothers and Russian-speakers. But for now, she has her hands full balancing her new parliamentary career with the demands of a large family.

On the window sill in freshman MK Anastasia Michaeli's office sit two stuffed toys: a pink sheep and an orange heart. Opposite, on the new blue sofa, a brown cow grazes. In the bottom drawer of the desk lie toy soldiers, waiting to be deployed on the wall-to-wall carpet. Michaeli, who turns 34 next week, a mother of seven, is prepared to host her young children in her office, as well as VIPs. But for her, the three days of work in the Knesset, from 9 A.M. to 9 P.M., are a break from the jungle she is running at home. "This is my vacation," she says. "At home I belong to the family: laundry, diapers, after-school activities, putting them to bed."

Next month this vacation is liable to end temporarily, with the arrival of her eighth child, a boy. But Michaeli is not worried about it. "I'll work as usual, maybe from home," she says. "Usually I would bring my children with me to work after giving birth. I'm not interested in sitting at home with the infant. When you have a child every year it's different; I don't even remember that I have a belly, only at night when I can't sleep because of cramps, and it makes no difference to me even when there's a baby. I can do everything at the same time. As far as I'm concerned, I would take him to the plenum too. All you do is sit there, you don't have to do much."

"To become an MK within such a short time is very exciting," she says. "But I've paid a price. I worked all the time and didn't sleep at night. I don't know how to rest, even when the doctors tell me to. It sounds easy, because I'm blonde and cute, but it's a lot of work."

No rush

When Michaeli immigrated to Israel from St. Petersburg in 1997, she didn't know a soul here except for her husband, Yosef Samuelson, and his family. They invited 20 people to their modest wedding, which took place that year - mainly colleagues from the modeling catwalk ("I didn't have enough friends"). By contrast, her 31st birthday party was attended by 2,000 people, from former models to President Shimon Peres. One can only imagine how many guests she will entertain at the circumcision ceremony of the new offspring - "another soldier," she says.

During her first days in the Knesset, she upgraded her office. First she purchased a blue sofa ("so that I can bring the children here on Friday; they can sleep and I'll work") and over her desk she hung the photo that appeared on the cover of the magazine La'isha at the beginning of the year, where she is featured as Snow White with the seven dwarfs. She populated the bookshelf with a Hebrew-Russian dictionary alongside professional literature about the status of women. Afterward she chose two parliamentary aides and the committees in which she will participate (the Education Committee, the Committee on the Status of Women, the State Control Committee). Only this month did she find time to begin legislative work. The proposed 2009 State Budget is still sealed in a carton near the sofa.

"I'm not in a rush," says Michaeli. "There are several laws I want to promote and they're checking the subject in the Knesset legal bureau. I was not born to be an MK. I'm still reading the Knesset regulations and reviewing things repeatedly, because there are words I don't know, I won't hide that. For example 'kalon;' only recently did I learn that it means disgrace."

Do you already feel at home in the Knesset?

"I started to feel that way the moment the children came here, about a month ago, and I'll feel totally comfortable after I pass good legislation."

In the previous elections Michaeli ran on the Kadima slate ("That's a sore point," she admits) but didn't make it into the Knesset. She says that Sharon's people persuaded her to join, but that the party changed after Sharon fell ill. During those years she worked in television and was filmed for the second season of Benny and Uri Barbash's TV series "Miluim" ("Reserves") and for a Russian film ("I signed a contract beforehand and therefore I couldn't refuse"). In the last elections she was placed ninth on Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu slate. As a career woman with many children and a new immigrant who had found her place here, she had the political capital to be considered the spokeswoman for single mothers and for the entire Russian sector.

"The connection between us began in my mind in 1999, when he ran for the first time [as the head of an independent faction] and received four Knesset seats. I followed his career and learned from him. That's a leader. He's also a walking encyclopedia, and you can call him at any time, he asks only not to be called between 4 and 6 A.M., when he sleeps. Stas [Misezhnikov, the tourism minister] said that in our party there's only one leader who speaks at faction meetings [in an interview with the daily Yedioth Ahronoth]. That's not the truth. Lieberman listens to all the MKs and answers patiently."

The fears regarding Lieberman's alleged involvement in corruption do not lessen her admiration for him. "People who feel that their enemy is becoming stronger want to kill him," she says. "These are nothing more than political games, and it's a shame and a disgrace. He is a Zionist who contributes to the country and who should be preserved under glass."

He is not being accused of failing to love the country.

"Let them start with real crime organizations that are really controlling the country."

If he is convicted, will you change your mind?

"It's a political game. Period."

What is the secret of his success in the Russian sector?

"He does things and doesn't only talk. And if he talks, it's only about things that he can also implement. This is a reliable person, you can take him at his word."

'I'm not a racist'

On election day, Michaeli awoke at 4 A.M., only slightly earlier than usual. "There was a strong wind, and the children were afraid and came to my bed. I walked around outside all day long. At about 10 P.M. we arrived at the Crowne Plaza, without the children. I was not excited by the election results; I took it for granted. The difference is that instead of calling me just Anastasia, they now call me MK Michaeli. But I don't like titles, I'm more comfortable with Anastasia. I'm not looking for honor."

She says her goal in the Knesset is "to represent a population that is close to my heart - mothers, Russian-speakers. There are about 300,000 people who want to live in the country, pay income tax, are bringing up the next generation. Why do they have to marry abroad? Do you know how long it took me to convert?"

Your public is liable to feel you betrayed them because you recently abandoned the subject of civil marriage.

"MK David Rotem is taking care of that; we're working on it from morning to night, but we don't like to talk before doing. The Knesset has just started to work, give us time."

Michaeli immigrated to Israel two weeks before the birth of her eldest son in 1997. "Before I immigrated, girlfriends asked me, 'What, are you crazy? Usually they bring girls for prostitution there.' But from the moment I descended from the plane I felt I belonged."

As the first convert to Judaism to be elected to the Knesset, she aspires to "transfer the authority for conversion from the rabbinical court in Jerusalem to the rabbis of the various cities. Not everyone has the money to travel to Jerusalem. I waited half a year only for a date for conversion, and then they failed me because they saw a cover article in La'isha that I had done in 1999. They claimed it was immodest."

What do you think of last week's High Court ruling that calls for recognition of Reform conversion?

"It's very complicated. In principle I'll support it, but I'm now a public figure in the legislature, so don't hold me to my word, I have to examine the law."

Before the elections, Yisrael Beiteinu drew fire because of the slogan "No Citizenship without Loyalty," which led the election campaign and was interpreted as a campaign against Israeli Arabs. Shouldn't one expect a little more sensitivity toward minorities from those who have suffered from stigmas because of their ethnic origin?

"That's politics," says Michaeli. "When people feel that someone is strong and a doer, they look for ways to bring him down. But the train is moving. Let them bark. Why are they attacking someone who is protecting the country?"

Because it's a racist slogan specifically designed to exclude Arabs. After all, you were not referring to those among the ultra-Orthodox who openly declare their lack of loyalty to the state.

"It makes no difference who, you have to be loyal. Anyone who isn't - should look for another country. When the moment comes and they attack us, everyone will understand the significance. There won't be peace here. We have to find another solution. But that's not the subject that I came to the Knesset to speak about."

Michaeli was accused of racism about two years ago, when she was a member of the committee that chose an Israeli representative to the Eurovision song contest in 2007. She was quoted as saying that a representative who looks Mizrahi (of North African or Middle Eastern origin) should not be sent. All those involved have denied the incident since then, but Michaeli emerged battered from the affair and is not interested in discussing it now.

"I'm not connected to that," she says loudly, and adds that she has no problem with the choice of Mira Awad, a Christian Arab Israeli, as a Eurovision candidate this year. "Good for her, fine, good luck. I think we have to integrate."

So you don't mind if Arabs live in the country?

"I'm not a racist, and I don't want to answer. Those are provocative questions."

Her schedule is crowded. Last Tuesday, for example, included a meeting of the Knesset State Control Committee at 9 A.M., the Education Committee at 10, a speech about Jerusalem Day at 1 P.M. ("Michael Ben Ari, who is from the far right, invited me") and at 4 P.M. a plenary session. But the meeting of the State Control Committee went into overtime, and at 9:30 Michael left for her office, skipped the Education Committee meeting and later skipped the speech in order to make progress with her office work. In any case she didn't speak at the committee meeting she attended, which dealt with the struggle against crime organizations ("I don't know much about the subject"). In the office she removes her shoes and calls Channel 9: "Yesterday an open studio program was aired between 5 and 6 P.M. and there was an item in which I participated. You put the item on the channel's Web site, but without sound."

Parallel to the meetings and committee sessions, her schedule also includes the children's after-school activities. Between one thing and the other she makes repeated visits to the Knessset's technical support department in an attempt to adapt her laptop to parliamentary work.

You moved from glamorous work on television to humdrum work in an office.

"And what does it mean to be on television? It's sitting in the studio and reading a prompter. But here there are also many events in the evening. When the pope came I went to the reception at the President's Residence. There are birthdays and weddings and requests by people who want me to attend their events. It's no longer a matter of self-promotion but of attendance, you're a representative of the State of Israel."

What does it do for your ego?

"I have no ego. Nor did the public elect me, it was the party."

It's claimed that Lieberman included you and Orly Levy in the party only to soften his threatening image.

"I'm not the one who will soften his image. We're not an ornament, we came to work."

He's also been compared to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, another one who likes to surround himself with beautiful women.

"Don't compare Lieberman to a populist, because that insults me. If anyone says anything negative about him, I'll be angry later."

Do other female MKs envy you? You're attracting a lot of attention even before your first draft bill proposal.

"I don't have time to think about that. Whether or not there's envy, that's not my business."

Feminist agendas annoy her, which may sound strange in light of the fact that she is an independent and determined career woman. "When they suggested that I sign a manifesto to have a minister for women's affairs, I laughed in their faces. What about a minister for men's affairs?"

That's almost the entire government.

"Women must not be afraid to advance. In effect those who run the Kneset and most of the government ministries are women. My mother used to say: The woman is the neck that holds up the head. The woman has to let the man feel that he's the captain of the ship, but she's holding the ship in her hand. But that's too feminist and I'm not a feminist at all.

"There's nothing wrong with staying at home to raise children, that's the country's main task. The mothers are raising our soldiers, the human treasure. I've seen men at the country club bringing children to activities. My man does that now too, but he doesn't have to wash the child's tushy. That's mine. But now, when I'm not at home, he does that too."

So why are you so opposed to the label "feminist"?

"I'm in favor of consolidation. Feminism is not looking for equality, but rather to be independent in everything. I don't want to belong to any person or to any definition."

Functional romantic

"Being an MK is not an end but a means," says Michaeli. "I've always cared about the people around me, even when I worked at Channel 9 I took an interest in public requests and in letters I received. If anyone had told me in Russia or Paris 12 years ago that I'd be an MK in the State of Israel, I might have believed it. But had they told me that I'd have seven children, I wouldn't have believed. It's a gift from heaven and that's what's most important for a woman."

Were the children planned?

"You can't plan children. When I was 19 the doctor told me that judging by the structure of my uterus I was sterile and wouldn't have children. Sometimes I don't believe that all this came from my belly."

Is the entire demographic struggle on your shoulders?

"I'm not the only one. There are many more mothers thanks to whom our survival will continue."

Do you like being pregnant?

"Very much. It's true that I don't sleep too much at night, but it's very sexy, more sensual. I feel that I'm a real woman. I can tell when I'm pregnant if I laugh for hours at something totally idiotic and can't stop. That can happen only during pregnancy."

"It's not easy now. We don't have much time to talk, during the day there are short conversations, so we have to arrange to meet. And besides, it's also impossible to get under each other's skin. I love him and that's good enough."

During her engineering studies in St. Petersburg Michaeli won a number of local beauty contests, and took a year off from her studies to try her luck in Paris. "I participated a little in pret a porter, I did campaigns for Nina Ricci and Schwarzkopf [hair products], but that was at the age of 19." She is disgusted that people forget to mention that she is also an electronics engineer and a programmer, even if she didn't work in the field after her studies.

In Paris she lived with a French partner, a graphic artist who rented her a room in his apartment ("I met him through a mutual friend, and we were a partial couple. But I have a husband, I don't want to talk about him."

The Frenchman was 15 years older than she ("I had no friends my age") and they almost got married, but it didn't work out and she returned to Russia. On her return she developed her relationship with Samuelson, and within a short time discovered that she was pregnant.

"I didn't know what to do. I went to consult my mother. I'm against abortions - maybe if the baby isn't healthy and has Down's syndrome, otherwise there's no reason to kill a work of art by God. The issue was: Should we get married? Should we not get married? Should I raise him alone? They had told me I was sterile, and suddenly it turned out that everything was working well, but only with Yossi."

What does that mean?

"What it means. I had boyfriends before that too, never mind how many. I also had a boyfriend who was an oligarch, but I don't want to talk about it in order not to hurt my beloved husband. I also know how to appreciate the simple life. Yossi won me over when he came to a fancy restaurant with shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. And his values as a Jew - you immediately sense his connection to a partner relationship, to trust, to family feeling. Yossi convinced me to finish my studies and in general, he's my GPS in life."

Because of Yossi she converted and moved to Israel. "I understood that it was important to his family, it's not acceptable to them to marry a non-Jewish woman. I told him, you don't have to worry. The moment I do something, I go all the way with it." During the conversion Yossi also became more committed to Judaism. "Before that he ate milk and meat together, now he's totally kosher."

They married twice. First in 1997, "for the papers" which were meant to arrange her aliyah to Israel. After she completed the conversion process in 2000 they married again, under the marriage canopy, "with three children in our arms. I never dreamt of a wedding with 1,000 people and a dress. For me marriage is signing a form. I'm usually not in favor of marrying before there are children; a wedding is designed to arrange the relations between a husband and wife when there are children."

Do you believe in monogamy?

"What's that?"

Only one partner.

"That's a tough question. I believe it's possible, but you have to know how to give in and forgive many things."

Even cheating?

"In my Russian education they don't make a big deal of it, but it doesn't exist with us because Yossi is reliable. You have to take care of the man in the house, in every sense. My mother said: 'Give a man a feeling that the thread is long, but it's in your hands.'"

Why do you send the children to a religious school?

"They won't get Torah from me, and they have to get to know their roots. I want them to accept religion and understand what it is, during their childhood. If later they don't want it - they don't have to, I won't force them."

These are not exactly your roots.

"We live in the State of Israel and we're part of it, and from the moment I arrived here I have roots here."

Do you have time to spend with each of the children separately?

"Of course. Not every day, especially with the workload, but by turns. I take only one of them to work with me or go out specially with one of them - the eldest likes sushi, so we go to a restaurant, Rami and Yehonatan like to look for toys in the store where everything costs a shekel, so I go there with them. Also according to what I sense, if someone was disturbed by something during the week. They call me to tell me what happened at school - me, not their father - sometimes it's in the middle of a plenary session. I get back to them within five minutes, no matter what."

Don't they complain that you're too busy?

"They say that Mom is at home less and that's true."

The Michaeli-Samuelsons live in Rishon Letzion, in a spacious apartment composed of two standard apartments that were connected, with an inside door separating them. On the right side is the parents' domain, including a piano, a living room and separate bathroom. That is also the location of Michaeli's office, which is perfectly organized. On the left side is the children's wing, where they sleep two to a room: David, 11; Rami, 10; Yehonatan, 9; Racheli, 8; Tali, 6; Eli, 4 and Michal, 18 months. They all bear Yossi's family name, Samuelson. They're used to having strangers in the house, and are not at all shy.)

At 7:20 Michaeli switches from being a cook and a policewoman to being a driver. Yehonatan stays home with his private English teacher. The others get into the family van, and we go out to bring Russian-language films back to the library and pick up Racheli from a birthday party and David from a gymnastics lesson, where he is an expert at somersaults.

We return home from the round of pick-ups and the children are sent to bed. "Whoever succeeds," says Michaeli, trying to tempt them, "will get a prize - ice cream." She speaks to them in a down-to-earth manner (she calls the boys gever - my man, and the girls malka - queen) and they usually cooperate ("The secret is a Russian education"). The orders continue: "Yehonatan, read a book to the little one. Racheli, help to wash Eli."

Yehonatan: "Anastasia, what about my ice cream?"

Anastasia: "I'm called Mom."

Yehonatan: "Can I please have ice cream, Mrs. Mom?"

Anastasia: "I'm not a missus."

Were you a perfectionist as a child?

"I was competitive. From first grade I've engaged in sports and from the age of eight on skis. It's not a matter of being first but of achieving. Thank God I was able to receive a free education during the Communist era, because now everything costs a lot of money. I came from a poor family, and I now understand the situation my mother was dealing with. I could find bread and butter in the refrigerator, but I bought shoes for the winter only thanks to the English lessons I gave children."

The struggle to survive left its mark on her even after she achieved financial stability. "I'm afraid to be in a situation of poverty. It's terrible to need something and ask someone for money. A teacher in Russia earned $8 a month."

That is also why she is strict about keeping her children on a short rein. "Yehonatan, David and Rami run the household - they wash the floor and do the shopping. Eli, who is three and a half, folds his pants by himself. I fold them after him, but let him get used to it, let them learn the value of money. We are modest people who know how save money; Yossi also grew up in a poor home."

The financial distress of her childhood was accompanied by social isolation as well. Her father was a seaman, absent from home for long periods. Her mother did not allow her to bring friends home. "She worked hard and was not connected to what was happening to me."

Did you choose to bring so many children into the world as compensation for your loneliness as a child?

"Not at all. What's important is that my house is always open to all the children's friends."

That blonde

Her full name is Anastasia Michal Michaelevski Samuelson. She received the name Michal from the rabbi after her conversion, but two years ago she parted from it and gave it to her youngest daughter ("only religious neighbors and in the synagogue called me by that name"). The brand name of the glamorous, blonde "Anastasia Michaeli" was coined by models' agent Adi Barkan, who managed Michaeli's modeling career a decade ago. "We sat and thought what name was most suitable and would be strong enough," she recalls. "Michaeli is Israeli, it's more suitable."

Anastasia isn't Israeli; why didn't you Hebraize it too?

"Because it's a pretty name."

The reception that awaited you here was not easy, was it?

"My children hear 'smelly Russian' every day. I also heard it at first. They used to say "That blonde," "That Russian girl.' I'll always remain a Russian. I'm not insulted by that because I understand where it comes from; someone new is always treated like a stranger. I didn't like to have men whistling at me or calling me kusit [sexy babe]. I felt like punching them in the face; it's extremely annoying."

But what angers her most is the Israeli tendency to touch women. "You can shake someone's hand, maybe a kiss if you're close enough. Here people touch your face, especially men. In Russia there's distance and respect. I'm a very sociable type, but don't touch my face! It lowers your level. And not only me - people try to touch the children. Caressing other people's children is not allowed! I don't know where their hands were before. Why touch? It's insulting."

Many Israelis also reject classical Russian culture as snobbish and arrogant. Can you understand why?

"Because they're afraid to really learn about it and don't know how to appreciate it. But I always get along, and I'll find a common language even with a cockroach. It's a matter of one's nature."

She began to study Hebrew in Russia, "the moment I realized I had a son in my belly." Today she speaks a kind of blend of Hebrew and Russian, and sometimes also weaves in expressions in English, for the fun of it. "I thought I learned Hebrew quickly," she says, "but now I think not. When I read Torah I don't always understand."

There are many sabras who don't understand that Hebrew either.

"But I'm a perfectionist."

What is more important to you, advancing the Russian sector or promoting the brand name Anastasia Michaeli?

"You're killing me with that question. I came to work, and I'm first of all a mother and a woman, not a brand name."

She studied for a certificate in business administration at Bar Ilan University because she was not accepted for a master's program at Tel Aviv University ("I didn't have good enough grades in the GMAT"), or for a doctorate in physics ("I didn't pass the Hebrew language exam").

Do you have an iron nature?

What is your next goal?

"To succeed in the Knesset. I don't want to announce what will happen in the future, only what I've already done. At the age of 21 I understood that I couldn't reach the moon. I don't want there to be disappointments."