Moscow on the Yarkon: Russian Salon Swings Open Its Gates

After revisiting their own roots, three Tel Aviv women have just launched what they describe as a cultural salon, featuring literary events, delicacies and cocktails in the best Russian tradition.

Tomer Appelbaum

It took actor Neta Riskin slightly more than a third of a century to come to terms with her parents’ and her own family roots in Russia. When she did, she was able to immerse herself in the fictional character of Natalia Gordin, a successful businesswoman who immigrated to Israel as a girl and was a spy for Russian intelligence – the role Riskin played in the Israeli television series “The Gordin Cell” in 2012. A year later, when she met Dina Kornveits on a film set, she could already identify with the latter’s bicultural way of life as a 1990s immigrant to Israel from the Former Soviet Union.

“Dina was in charge of art, and all of us in the production fell in love with her immediately,” Riskin recalls, and goes on to talk about the circle they developed.

“We met at her place in the evenings to work, eat her borscht and drink vodka,” she says. “We complained constantly that there was no good place where we could go and eat the Russian foods we liked.”

Riskin, 37, and Kornveits, 28, spent a whole winter in this way, with Riskin preparing borscht based on the recipe of Kornveits’ Grandma Faina. At one point, Riskin invited her friend Ahal Eden to join them, not knowing the other two were already acquainted from their work as deejays.

“In retrospect, I also discovered my Russian roots,” says Eden, a 36-year-old musician and entrepreneur in the realm of Tel Aviv nightlife, who was born here into a Russian family. “But I didn’t grow up like Dina and Neta did.”

Not long ago, the three decided to expand their social activity and established Rasha, which they describe as an Israeli-Russian cultural salon, on Har Sinai Street in Tel Aviv. Uri Lahav, owner of two bars on the street, suggested they use an available space adjacent to one of those bars. The trio converted it into the salon of a Russian grandmother , with ethnic rugs, inviting sofas with floral-print cushions, potted plants (one with leftover Christmas decorations), and delightful images of animals and Christian icons on the main wall, painted forest green.

In the interior bar, its walls covered with shiny gold wallpaper, guests are invited to imbibe vodka and nibble on delicacies from the Russian kitchen. The overall effect of the kitschy design and the DIY spirit it inspires is to thrust the visitor immediately back to the final decade of the 20th century. Not only because that decade has enjoyed a cultural rebirth in recent years, but also because it was a period of mass Russian immigration to Israel.

“We actually wanted to call the place ‘1990s Russia’” – a logical choice for her and others of her generation who emigrated then, says Kornveits. That was a decisive time in their childhoods, when their true Russianness began to fade. Today she has a Russian accent when she speaks Hebrew, but when she visits her family in Moscow she gets comments about her Israeli accent. “Plus, because I immigrated to Israel when I was 6, my Russian isn’t good enough. My grammar is bad, and sometimes I think in Hebrew and translate back into Russian, and it comes out weird,” Kornveits adds.

This sort of cultural mix, though, is just what the three women were aiming at when they opened Rasha: a place with a distinctly Russian character that is also very Israeli. A place that can reflect Kornveits’ Russian-Israeli identity, and to a degree also that of her girlfriends, who feel that a certain layer of their persona had once been obscured and remained something of a mystery. Over the years, they relate, they discovered that they moved in circles of people who also have a “dormant” Russian element in their identity, even if some speak fluent Russian with their parents or are deeply tied to the culture because they have relatives living in Russia or the FSU.

‘Ultimate cliche’

In a moment of inebriation at the official launch of the salon earlier this month, Kornveits gave this explanation: “This place is like an attempt to put into a capsule that whole moment of leaving Russia and immigrating to Israel. After all, if I were to go back now, I would no longer find what used to be there or what I experienced as a girl – the music, the sights, the impressions.”

The childhood memories, for her, lie neither there nor here but somewhere in between. “It’s so sad,” she added in an artificially melodramatic tone, reflecting what the three women joke about as the Russian mother’s typical tendency toward sentimentality.

Riskin makes it clear that Rasha is not a cultural ghetto: “You know, people are always trying to define and characterize the ‘real Israeli,’ but no such animal exists. We are a country of the offspring of immigrants, and that’s what constitutes Israeliness. Which is why I don’t see this place as Russian but as Israeli. It’s not trying to be part of Russia, but to engage in the Israeli way of life.”

For the same reason, they don’t consider Rasha to be a successor to now-defunct establishments like Fetish and Dinitz, a club and a restaurant, respectively, in Tel Aviv, which were owned by new immigrants from the FSU.

Eden elaborates on the difference: “Both Fetish and Dinitz were opened by people who came to Israel at a later age. They arrived with a fully formed identity and felt that they didn’t belong here, so they wanted to ‘import’ their culture and build around it, in order to have something to belong to. In our case, we are the second and third generation who grew up as full-fledged Israelis, or at least on the axis between Russia and Israel.”

Even though they serve liquor and small side dishes with it, the three women don’t view Rasha as a bar. “We are still feeling our way, but in our vision it’s a little like a kibbutz culture club or a stormy salon in a Russian home, with books, records, food and music,” Riskin says. There is also a space for talks on cultural subjects, which can be transformed into a dance floor or a setting for a karaoke evening. For now, they are open only one evening a week, on Wednesdays, from 8 P.M.

Two weeks ago, they invited a group of Russian singers and musicians, who performed patriotic songs from World War II, last week they hosted Russian-born Israeli writer Alice Bielskifor a talk on her debut novel, “We Saw the Night,” originally published in Russian and now translated into Hebrew and selling well.

The possibility of holding evenings dedicated to Russian literature at the new establishment is likely to please Riskin’s father, who for years tried to instill in his daughter an appreciation for such works.

Riskin: “My father has a large library, with special editions of Tolstoy and Pushkin, of which he is very proud. It’s a kind of holy ark of Russian literature. Every time I visit, he asks, ‘Why don’t you read some of these books?’ I say I don’t know. I can read the letters, but I won’t understand what’s written.” Now, she says, she is conducting a dialogue with her father about World War II songs, and hopes to hold a “veterans’ evening” at Rasha.

At the opening event, deejay Natisha Shpaner played all-time Russian hits, ranging from tunes from well-known children’s movies, to pop anthems and covers of famous songs, like “All That She Wants,” by the Swedish group Ace of Base. Behind the bar the three proprietors served small, tasty dishes made by Kornveits (borscht, blini with caviar, herring and Olivier, a typical Russian potato salad, with a plate of pickles), and cocktails including Bloody Masha (vodka, tomato juice, lemon juice, Tabasco, celery garnish) and Bloody Rasha (vodka with Russian-style berry compote).

Says Kornveits, who is in charge of inventing a menu in the hybrid style of “Russian by origin, but Israeli in the present”: “People associate Russian food with something heavy, but our menu is becoming Israelized. It is lighter, because of the climate, and suitable for vegetarians. The idea is to take each dish and simplify it a little, to use local products that appeal to every palate.”

“Do you like herring?” Riskin asks me. Not especially, I tell her, but I know people who do. “I know,” she says, “and we are still looking for them!”

In the meantime, she ranks the Russianness of the three friends: Dina is the most Russian, she is in the middle, and Eden is the least Russian.

For her part, Kornveits still has vivid memories of the day her family left Moscow. “We arrived here with a cello and sausages – the ultimate Russian cliché,” she recalls, adding that her grandmother sewed heirloom jewelry and also medication into her coat pockets.

Riskin likens the moment when she stopped resisting her father’s Russian culture to experiencing Stockholm syndrome: “In the end, you start to love your captors. At some point I stopped fighting it and started to be a real Russian, at least in my eyes.”

Eden’s grandparents died before she had a chance to get to know them, but she was always drawn to their culture. “I remember that as a teenager on kibbutz, I thought the new immigrants were the biggest hunks and the best dressed,” she says. “I couldn’t understand how people could make fun of them.”