Hard Times for Grandfather Frost

Santa Claus was crying. Or rather Yuli Tsodnovski, 60, dressed up like Grandfather Frost, the Russian name for Santa Claus, was weeping.

Santa Claus was crying. Or rather Yuli Tsodnovski, 60, dressed up like Grandfather Frost, the Russian name for Santa Claus, was weeping.

He was giving out gifts. MK Sofa Landver, a resident of the city and chair of the Immigrants from the Former Soviet Union Association, had collected the gifts, not luxury items, but just the opposite: eyeglasses, small food packages of canned goods and snacks, space heaters or warm blankets.

A large label on the wrapper of one of the blankets stated: "A natural Israeli feather comforter - to indulge yourself perfectly."

There is very little indulgence in the lives of these immigrants, certainly not in Tsodnovski's. He arrived in Israel 11 years ago from Odessa in the Ukraine, where he had been a theater actor and comedian. More than anything else, he loved to make people laugh, to make them feel good.

In the past eight years, Tsodnovski has worked as a street cleaner for the city of Ashdod. Every day, from six in the morning until the afternoon hours, in the rain and the heat, he sets out for his area of the city to sweep, clear and remove animal carcasses. For this, he earns NIS 3,500 a month. Some NIS 1,800 goes for his mortgage, and another part of his meager wages he gives to his daughter, who is a single mother of a little boy.

"I am optimistic," he reiterates, "but psychologically, it is a little difficult."

The tears started to stream down his cheeks at the party at the Lehayim restaurant last Saturday night. About 300 immigrants came to welcome in the New Year and Tsodnovski mingled with them, dressed up as Grandfather Frost to bring a little cheer. The guests greeted him with joy. More than anything else, it was the momentary flavor of the old life that brought tears to his eyes.

"My life before and my life after are not the same thing," he sums up. And still he says, "Thank God, I have a permanent job," even if it makes him a little angry that there are people in city hall that sit on a chair all day and make NIS 25,000 a month.

Tsodnovski has good reason to be grateful. In recent months, Ashdod has become a focus of unemployment with 10.3 percent of the population jobless, an all-time high. In absolute numbers, 8,000 people, including academics, are unemployed.

"In terms of the number of unemployed people, because of its size, Ashdod holds the record," says Yossi Cohen, the director of the southern region employment office. Among the immigrants, the proportion of unemployment is much higher and is estimated to be about 25 percent.

In the past decade, Ashdod has taken in some 70,000 immigrants, and the population shot up to 211,000. Very many of them do not have jobs in the city because Ashdod's development boom was not accompanied by the creation of a compatible employment infrastructure.

Consoling themselves with a Christmas tree

There is an oppressive atmosphere in Ashdod. The people go their way in the lovely city with their heads down, withdrawing into themselves. MK Landver, who has lived in Ashdod for 22 years, says that she has never seen the city like this. Many of the downcast residents are immigrants from the FSU. They drag shopping carts long distances to do their shopping where the prices are cheaper. They save bus fare by going the whole way on foot.

Very many of them live on National Insurance Institute pensions, and the NIS 2.10 bus fare is something they have to think about more than once. Now an additional cut in these pensions is being considered, and they are very concerned.

The oppressive atmosphere created by the deepening poverty is interrupted by the Christmas trees scattered among the streets of the city, in shops that employ immigrants and private homes. The small trees can be found in the most impoverished homes, or perhaps especially in those homes, to bring a little winter cheer, such as in the humble home of the Niknerov family. They immigrated to Israel from St. Petersburg with 12 children and two dogs, a Jewish secular family that simply loves children and dogs.

The Niknerov family, like another 450 poor families, live in a housing complex in Ashdod's H quarter. The complex, owned by the Amigur housing company, contains three tall buildings not fit for human dwelling.

In some apartments, there are huge holes in the walls, most are damp, increasing the danger of electrocution, the outer walls are made of asbestos and rats run about the rooms. The sense of suffocation in the apartment is both physical and psychological, but there is a Christmas tree.

The number of Christmas trees and New Year's Eve celebrations is greater than ever. One might say that we are witnessing a phenomenon. In their initial years in Israel, the immigrants apparently gave into the line that Israeli society forced on them - not to celebrate the gentile holidays. The immigrants reluctantly complied. In the FSU, with so few celebrations, New Year's was a major holiday and it was devoid of all religious content.

In their early years in Israel, the immigrants spoke nostalgically of that holiday, celebrating it at first almost surreptitiously, only in the privacy of their homes. Now they are flaunting it, celebrating it openly.

There is a certain amount of defiance in this change, the meaning of which no one can explain. The immigrants appear to be telling Israeli society: You didn't really accept us. You called us "Russians." So that's what we are, whether you like it or not. This year, New Year's appears to be filling the same role here as it did in the FSU - to bring a little cheer and light into difficult, somber lives.

Even the Russian-language papers were filled with New Year's greetings. Egged, Golden Lines and other large Israeli companies published ads wishing the immigrants a Happy New Year, assimilating the fact that it is almost a national holiday. Among the pages of the newspapers, one can find notices offering the services of a Grandfather Frost, who will come to the house with a sack full of presents for the children and to parties, exactly as was the custom in the FSU.

What is conspicuous by its absence in the Russian-language media is a debate on the social-welfare situation. The intense discussion of the serious social implications of the new national budget appears to be missing from the Russian-language press, which focuses mainly on the political-security situation. Social-welfare issues are reported almost exclusively in news items, accompanied at most by articles by opposition politicians criticizing the immigrant parties in the government.

Yisrael b'Aliya party made do with the publication of a notice condemning the expected cut in support for immigrant organizations from NIS 13 million to NIS 3 million. That's it.

"It is good here"

The silence of the immigrant representatives in the Knesset is almost surprising. Infrastructures Minister Avigdor Lieberman is preoccupied with stirring up the winds of war. The voices of Housing Minister Natan Sharansky and Deputy Absorption Minister Yuli Edelstein fell silent at the critical moment. "I serve as the voice for those who have no voice," explained Edelstein this week. He was referring to the expected cut of NIS 5,000 from the absorption basket for immigrants, from a total of NIS 45,000 that a family of three receives for its first six months in Israel. In his view, this cutback is liable to affect adversely the immigration plans of those who have not yet made up their minds, a fact that concerns him considerably.

Another blow for the immigrants is the cutback in the KAMA program, which makes it possible for immigrant scientists to be absorbed by Israeli universities. Today, about 300 scientists are supported by KAMA, some of the best of the 12,000 scientists that have immigrated to Israel from the FSU in the past 10 years. "They will not be thrown into the streets, but the absorption of new scientists will be a problem," says Edelstein.

About a week ago, Edelstein canceled, last-minute, a meeting of an interministerial committee that prepared a program to treat youth at risk. He suddenly realized that he was unable to commit one million shekels to the program, his part in it, and the meeting was never held.

Edelstein did not raise a hue and cry. "I got the instructions where to cut by fax from treasury officials. They did not even bother to claim that it was the result of especially creative thinking."

The surprising silence on the part of the immigrants' representatives can be explained in two ways. On the social level, the immigrants no longer represent a group with unique needs. For better or worse, their distress is an inalienable part of the distress of the general public. There are very few unique needs that the immigrant parties are expected to address. On the other hand, the immigrants' agenda is a political-security one.

Comments made by Ludmila Grenlis, who came to the immigrants' association in Ashdod to get her gift, shed light on the immigrants' current priorities. Grenlis, a teacher of French and German, immigrated to Israel from Moscow two years ago with her father and son. She and her husband have been unemployed since their arrival and they live on a monthly pension of NIS 3,000 a month. Of that sum, $450 goes for rent for their tiny two-room apartment in Ashdod. That leaves them with only NIS 1,000 for other expenses. By any criteria, the Grenlis family is poor.

"It is good here," says Grenlis, surprisingly, of her life in Israel. "We came for our son." The son for whom they came has been serving in Gaza from almost the first day he immigrated to Israel. "It is difficult," agrees Grenlis, "But, just the same, it is not Chechnya. At least we can talk to him by mobile phone."

In this kind of atmosphere, the immigrant representatives consider themselves exempt from participating in a social struggle. Perhaps because there are not really any "immigrants" any more, nor are there "immigrant parties."

The political reflection of this trend can be seen in the great increase in support for the Likud, which in recent polls has gotten nine Knesset seats from the immigrants (compared to only two for Labor). Additionally, the change in the electoral system, away from the direct election system, appears to have killed the fighting spirit of the immigrant representatives. In the direct election system, they were the kingmakers. "Before the change, all the candidates would have been happy to pop in for cup of coffee, even at two o'clock in the morning," says Deputy Minister Edelstein cynically. "Today the rules of the game have changed. But it would still be a good idea for Sharon to remember how Barak and Netanyahu ended up. They tried to appeal to the immigrants on their own, without our help."