A Language of Their Own

Russian-language teacher Dr. Ina Rosentaler hands out worksheets to approximately 15 students who attended an afternoon class at Jerusalem's Rene Cassin High School. Most of the students come from families that immigrated to Israel from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). They gather here once or twice a week to learn Russian as a second foreign language. Aside from Rene Cassin, the Amit High School in Be'er Sheva, as well as many other educational establishments, have also started programs teaching Russian as a second foreign language.

The students at Rene Cassin read hesitantly from the worksheets, search for the words, hoping to find the correct pronunciation. For youths born in Israel, who study in the official educational framework and are immersed in the local culture, this is no easy task. All participants agree: The rules of grammar in Russian are complicated.

Last year some 1,900 students registered for the matriculation exam in Russian at the highest level (five units, just slightly less than the number of students who took the exam in Arabic in an expanded format). According to Maria Winiar, the Education Ministry's supervisor of Russian studies, some 20,000 students take Russian from grade seven onward, in some 150 junior high schools, as part of the requirement to study another foreign language in addition to English. The more the large immigration waves of the 1990s recede into the past, the more students born in Israel choose to study Russian.

Perpetuating heritage

It turns out that for most students it was anything but obvious to study Russian. Many of those attending the class at Rene Cassin, which also accepts students from those schools that do not offer any Russian language course, say that at first they were opposed to learning Russian, because they wanted to fit in with the Israeli surroundings. In the end, they gave in to pressure from their parents, who pushed them to take Russian out of a desire to perpetuate their heritage and identity.

"I didn't want to learn Russian," recalls Esther Akdishman, a ninth-grader from Be'er Sheva. "During elementary school, I didn't want to speak a word of Russian because the other students would immediately shout 'smelly Russian.' I tried to avoid this label as much as possible. I was embarrassed. I was even angry with my parents for sending me to study Russian after school. When I asked them why they were forcing me, they said it's important to keep up the language."

Other students have similar stories. Dana Rivkin, a ninth-grader at Jerusalem's Tali Beit Hinuch High School, says she concealed her Russian roots for years, while Ana Berezin, an eleventh grader at the city's Boyar High School, discloses that, "I always tried to prove that I'm not Russian, for example, by purposely using fancy Hebrew." The teacher, Dr. Rosentaler, comments that in the end, usually in eleventh or twelfth grade, the students admit that it was good that the parents pressured them.

In conversations with the students, it seems that once they reach high school, the internal deliberations and the fear of being stereotyped lose some of their potency. Perhaps it's because they are no longer in elementary school (where "everyone is looking to make fun of someone else," as one student describes it), or because of the greater openness displayed, at least officially, by the education system; maybe it's the mere act of learning together in a group with clear traits. They are barely familiar with the concept of "the melting pot" and at most vaguely remember their history classes on the immigrant absorption policy of the 1950s.

Some students explain their choice to study Russian as stemming primarily from functional considerations, because they find it relatively easy to study a subject with which they are familiar from home. Other functional considerations include the bonuses given by universities for matriculation exams of five units or the desire to communicate better with one's parents. But most students are also aware of the more complex aspects that relate to questions of identity and self-determination.

"We have to preserve the Russian language, pass it on to future generations. I also want my kids to know Russian," says Amos Ginsberg, a ninth-grader at Amit High School. "The classes help us understand the Russian experience. We can't understand it on our own." Some of the students have a strong desire to know "what went on there." Several of them have also visited their native countries together with their parents, in search of their roots. Studying Russian helps them delve into the subject. One student said that after she asked her mother for help with her homework, her mother told her new things about the family's history in Russia.

Creating new words

Formally, the Russian classes focus on learning the Russian language and acquiring the ability to speak the language fluently, but along the way, the students also get "tastes of the culture," as Dr. Rosentaler explains: short stories by Chekhov, poems by Pushkin and even a little Tolstoy, if the students are patient. The Russian language study book for higher grades, recently issued by the Education Ministry, even explicitly states that one of the program's objectives is "to become acquainted with prominent phenomena in Russian history and culture."

"Along with the language comes Russian culture, film, television shows, music that the students listen to at home. It's our way of learning about this culture on its everyday level, the phrases that appear later in conversations with parents," says Dalia Fishbach, an eleventh grader from Be'er Sheva.

But most of the students alternate speaking Hebrew and Russian at home. "Heb-Russ" is how Amos Ginsberg refers to the new language, and other students nod in agreement. In "Heb-Russ" the language may change in mid-sentence, for example when short, Hebrew words replace the longer, Russian version. In other cases, structures from both languages are used to create a new word: "datishnik" (used to refer to a religious person), for example. One student adds that she especially likes being able to change the way the letter "r" is pronounced, depending on which language she is using. "Mom once said that I don't have the 'r' of a Russian anymore," says another student.

"The more veteran immigrants, those who came in the 1970s, sometimes get angry with us [the immigrants of the 1990s]," says Dalia Fishbach of Be'er Sheva. "They didn't think it was necessary to speak Russian on the street or learn the language in school. It was almost incomprehensible. They claimed it was a ghetto and that we are shutting ourselves off. But that's not true. My mother tongue is Hebrew, and Russian is for enrichment only, to ensure that we will not cut ourselves off from our past."

Daniella Shochman of Jerusalem agrees. "Once they thought it was better not to pass on the Russian language, that it's better to forget it, in order to integrate better into Israeli society," she says. "But now they realize that it's impossible to forget. We don't want to or can't change."