'Christmas in Budapest Is Like Yom Kippur in Jerusalem... but With Food'

Departures/Arrivals: An Israeli ponders why non-Zionists move to Israel; a lawyer formerly from St. Petersburg outlines the difference between the Russian and Israeli justice systems.

David Kosher and Reka Tamas at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Tomer Appelbaum

David Kosher, 39, and Reka Tamas, 25; live in Jerusalem, arriving from Budapest

Hello, where are you returning from?

David: We were on a Christmas holiday.

Reka: Visiting my family in Hungary.

How was it?

David: Amazing. Christmas in Budapest is like Yom Kippur in Jerusalem: all the streets are empty, everyone is home, there are no cars, an empty city.

Reka: But unlike Yom Kippur, there’s lots of food.

Are there any special dishes?

Reka: Fish soup with plenty of fat and paprika.

David (wrinkling his nose): The very concept of fish soup is problematic.

Reka: And also bejgli  – a kind of cake with nuts and raisins.

David: That wasn’t tasty, either.

Reka: Yes, mostly because of the raisins. There’s also a version with poppy seeds, but it isn’t much better. Anyway, those are the traditional holiday foods.

David: Her parents are divorced, so three evenings in a row there was an event. And each time at some stage, chaos – everyone takes out presents. Everyone buys for everyone else. If you’re invited to a Christmas event with 20 people, you’ll whip out 20 presents.

No going to church?

Reka: I’m actually Jewish on my mother’s side. I immigrated to Israel.

So you met here?

David: I first met her in 2012, at Hasira, a pub that’s a microcosm of Jerusalem. I tried to work up the courage to approach her. It happened in 2013: I escorted her home. We held hands and walked from downtown to Talpiot, in the east. A long walk.

Since then you’ve been happily together?

David: We became a couple, but after a year she annoyed me and we broke up.

Reka: I went back to Hungary.

David: Brokenhearted.

Were you brokenhearted?

Reka: I wanted to reach a point where I could get along without the help of my family. I mean the small things, like what if you don’t have a pillow? ... It’s not self-evident. I also tried to go to university here, but it was hard because of the language, so I left. I felt that I’d learned enough about myself, so going back was the right thing to do. 

David: I missed her and realized I’d made a mistake, so I went to visit her many times. I lived there for about a month.

Reka: We thought that maybe David would move to Hungary.

David: I was lost. I produce artistic content, which is a profession that’s not appreciated in Israel – you make 5,000 shekels [$1,280] a month for a full-time position. I was a freelancer for the Jerusalem Season of Culture festival. I told my boss by phone from Hungary that I was leaving the country. She said, “No way, tell me what you need” – an amazing woman. Now I have a dream job.

Reka: And we’ve been living in Arnona [an upscale section of Talpiot] for a year and a half.

Do you find it easier here now?

Reka: Yes, but it’s still hard, especially the language. I’m studying shiatsu now. I started that in Budapest.

David: It’s amazing that people come here when they’re not Zionists. It’s not like coming to build the country. Even so, I have only criticism of the aliyah [immigration] process. It makes me angry that the newcomers haven’t freed themselves of the tourist consciousness. Immigrating to Israel is not like immigrating to Canada or Lisbon. You’re in the very heart of the Middle East conflict, and you have to work out a stand. I come from a place where people aren’t passive bourgeois types in a bubble. If I moved to Hungary it wouldn’t really be important what I thought, but people who immigrate to Israel because they are Jewish, and are given an opportunity by the state, have a responsibility. Our society is still being built, and Reka is an important person in that structure. Is she liberal? Humane? A fascist? What is she? And what is she doing about it?

Reka, why did you immigrate to Israel?

Reka: I felt a connection to the religion and heard about the opportunity to immigrate and receive an “immigration basket” [of grants and subsidies from the state], and I thought things would be a little easier here.

David: You see? That’s what I find unfortunate. It should be because of what you and I are building here. Someone comes here and right off has the status of a premium migrant, but a friend of mine, an Arab, who worked for the Season of Culture and was born in Jerusalem can’t even get through the airport without a hassle.

Emily Braun at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Tomer Appelbaum

Emily Braun, 32; lives in Jerusalem, flying to St. Petersburg, Russia

Hello, where are you flying to?

I’m going to celebrate the new year with my family – my mother and my brothers and sisters. I’m coming back in three weeks.

So you live in Israel?

I immigrated here this year with my husband, I have an ID card now and I am a citizen.

Why did you decide to immigrate to Israel?

I thought the economic situation in Israel is better than in Russia, it’s warm here and my husband wanted to leave Russia – that’s the main reason.

What do you think now that you’ve been here for a while?

There are advantages and disadvantages. I like the sea and the climate and I like Israelis, but I miss my country and my work. And I don’t understand the language. Because of that it will take me a long time to advance professionally. It’s like starting a new life.

What is your profession?

I am a lawyer, and lawyers need language. To work as a lawyer in Israel I also have to pass tests, clerk for a year and then pass two more exams – only then will I get certification. In Russia I specialized in commercial law. I worked with companies on agreements and on negotiations. I dealt with proposals for tenders and wrote and examined them. It’s an area that demands experience and professionalism. But most of all I liked presenting cases in court; I’d like to do that here, so first of all comes language. Yesterday I finished my exam at the A level in Hebrew. I’ll get the results at the end of January and plan to continue studying.

Did you have a hard time in the ulpan [intensive language course]?

We studied five days a week from 8:15 A.M. until 12:45 P.M. and there was homework, too. I can’t say it’s very hard, but it’s still a new language. I can already read and write, and sometimes speak. Speaking is hardest for me. I make a lot of mistakes and I realize that I need to practice more. But it’s interesting, too. To be a lawyer you need to have a certain order in your mind. In Russia the law changes all the time, there’s always something new to learn, and that way you’re never bored. So learning a language is also interesting, and so is what is happening here with the law. You don’t have a constitution, right?

Not really.

We do. And the system is different from the one in Israel. There are no precedents in Russia. You can use previous judgments; it’s good to know and cite them, but they are not binding. It’s not like in the United States or here. A decision by a Russian court is more interpretative, and that’s a big difference. I’m curious to see how it will be here.

Can judges question defendants in Russia?

A lawyer usually questions the defendant first, and then the judge can ask him whatever he wants. Here?

The judge can’t ask anything, not even about a person’s plans for New Year’s.

I’m scheduled to land at 8:30 P.M. I hope there won’t be any delays and I make it to the party. We have a special square in St. Petersburg where there is usually some entertainment, a popular place. Many people will be with their families. They’ll eat and watch television, and some will go outside and walk back and forth in the streets. I’m going to celebrate with my family. We’ll meet, hang around together, eat and talk. Maybe afterward we’ll go to a club and dance.

What will you eat?

Russians like to make an Olivier salad for the new year. It has potatoes, eggs, mayonnaise, sausages, green beans and sometimes also carrots, but not always. I don’t eat it, because I don’t eat meat, but Russians adore it. There’s also usually champagne around. At 11:55 P.M. the president of Russia delivers a speech, and when he finishes everyone raises the champagne glasses, wishes everyone a happy new year, people kiss and the party begins. Israelis don’t celebrate New Year’s, right?

Some do. There are a lot of parties in Tel Aviv.

But I thought you celebrated at the Hebrew new year.

That, too. Are you Jewish?

My husband’s family is Jewish.

So what did your family think about your decision to immigrate to Israel?

My mother was a little worried. She thought I was wasting time, because I lost my job in Russia, but I think: That’s life. I don’t regret it in the least. It’s interesting to come to a new country and collect new experiences.