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Summer 2020

Banana Pita

How the story of the Russian aliyah is finally entering the Israeli mainstream.
A

few months after we made aliyah, a journalist from La’Isha magazine asked to interview my mother. I don’t remember what questions she asked or how my mother responded, nor do I recall how she found us or who translated. Perhaps the journalist spoke Russian.

I am sure, though, that the journalist left our shabby house with a good amount of material for a great story, because she couldn’t have encountered such wretchedness before.

Another few months passed before I could read the article in Hebrew. Until I was able to read and to understand, I flicked through the pages without purpose, waiting for these new Hebrew letters and words to come together for me as a language with life and substance.

I filled out numerous crossword puzzles and I stared at the lingerie adverts which appeared on the page after the article about us. Friends would ask, laughing, if the thong model was my mother. Towards the end of that year, or maybe a little later, I finally understood what I was reading. It was my story, written by someone else.

“Fillings fell from Yulia’s teeth,” was the caption underneath the picture of me sitting next to the desk in one of our temporary flats. “And her mother doesn’t have enough money to pay the doctor.” The article’s headline was “Guests with a tendency to stay the night.” For years, I tried to understand what it meant. Why are we guests? And why do we have a tendency to stay the night?

Much later, I discovered that ‘A Guest for the Night’ is the name of a story by S.Y. Agnon (אורח נטה ללון in Hebrew). The hero of the story leaves the Land of Israel and returns to the city of his birth. A guest who came to visit, with a tendency to stay the night. Why did the journalist choose to call us guests? Surely we did not come to visit? We came to stay forever.

I have kept the magazine, well wrapped and stuck deep in a box, together with all the other memories that I wanted to repress.

I never thought that my aliyah story deserved to be written. After all, everyone’s an immigrant to Israel; it’s no big deal. In any case, it’s actually my mother’s story—this was her choice, not mine. At the time, that choice was not thought of as something special, because everyone around us was making aliyah. My mother and her friends were not big Zionists. They did not have a religious or spiritual affinity towards Israel. They were Jewish in a particular sense: it was a biographical fact, a line in their resume which sometimes prevented them from getting what other people got, like being accepted at prestigious educational institutions. They were days of want and uncertainty, but the gates were opened. My mother packed her things, said goodbye, took me and left, without really knowing where.

But then I came across a Facebook group with the ironic name “Humorless Russians and their Friends.” Earlier, there was no chance I would have joined the group: I am Israeli and was born in Belarus, and not Russian at all. What’s more, I have a sense of humor. This group, established to amplify the voices of those who were discriminated against because of their “Russianness,” never spoke to me. I never experienced such discrimination and I never felt like I needed a group to defend me from ugly Israelis.

But then people began posting their aliyah stories. One after another, the stories of Natasha, Yevgenya, Oksana, Lena, Masha, Tanya, Vera, Ira, Yulia, Anna, Elena, Olga, Svetlana, and another Tanya, and another Lena, and another Anna. But also aliyah stories from people with totally Israeli names like Naomi, Avital, and Dana. And also dates, among them many dates in the same year: 1990. Nearly every day that year, a plane landed at Ben-Gurion with new olim.

We made aliyah from Minsk on November 8, 1990, five years before the assassination of Rabin, just my mother and me, the only child—without a father, without a grandfather or grandmother, without relatives, without anyone. My mother was 34, three years younger than I am today. I was eight, the age of my eldest daughter.

In the first few years we lived in twelve apartments, probably seven or eight in the first few months. In truth, it is hard to describe some of the places we lived in as “apartments.” They were weird places, tiny rooms, hovels, moldy dormitories with old women and cats, homes of friends who had made aliyah a month before, flats of friends of friends, in Jerusalem, Kiryat Ata, Haifa, and Ramat Gan.

During the Gulf War, we found ourselves living in the home of a demented old woman who wore pantaloons, a cross between pajamas and wide underwear. She would take them off every time she got into bed and put them on again when she got up; so far, so logical. But sometimes there were sirens many times each night. My mother and I slept in our clothes, but Mrs. Tzimerman insisted on putting on the pantaloons when the siren started, and taking them off again when she heard the siren signaling the attack was over. Again and again.

“Ne snimaite pantaloni!” “Don’t take off the pantaloons!” my mum would shout at Mrs. Tzimerman, pantaloons around her ankles, on her way to bed at the end of another attack. “Skoro snova budet!” “Soon there will be another siren!” We already knew how Saddam operated. Thanks to Mrs Tzimerman’s pantaloons, we sometimes made it to the shelter, which was one floor beneath us, only after the attack had already finished.

I do not know why we wandered so much, why we moved from places to place with such frequency, sometimes every week, sometimes every fortnight. Honestly, I have repressed those first months; apart from the flashes of isolated events, I cannot reconstruct them. As my mother sometimes says, “Ya kak vspomnyu” “When I remember…” and sighs and falls silent.

After a few months in the north and center of Israel, somewhere between Haifa and Bat Yam, we rolled up in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem. In the early nineties, unlike today, a few non-Haredi Yemenite families still lived in the heart of the neighborhood, close to Shabbat Square. One of them, the Masood family, rented us a room and kitchen. The wall was built with some kind of dodgy, improvised construction, a metal mesh covered with plaster, like the Pal-Kal method used for the Versailles wedding hall. Ten chickens walked on the roof, pecking at dried corn. Everything crumbled, and one day, thankfully when we were not at home, the ceiling collapsed into our living room along with a gaggle of miserable, shitting chickens.

In Minsk, my mother was a pianist, with perfect pitch and amazing improvisational skills. She played piano at gymnast competitions all across the Former Soviet Union (FSU). Her piano was delivered to the sixth or seventh flat out of the twelve, on the fourth floor above the falafel stand on King George Street in Jerusalem. The Russian movers cursed because the building did not have an elevator. When they were finished, we bought falafel for everyone and they cursed again.

In Israel, she never played piano. She cleaned homes, took care of children at the WIZO day care center, worked at a hi-tech factory until she broke her back, worked as a sales lady in clothes stores, and today she takes care of old people. Now the WIZO children are already thirty, and so is the piano.

I moved around my new world like a chameleon, listening and seeing everything, quickly matching myself to my environment, pretending to understand without really understanding. I think that is how I succeeded with my aliyah. I learned quickly.

I was angry with the Russians. I was angry with the segregated culture they created, but at the same time I was drawn to it. I loved Russian films and read a lot in Russian, but I was also angry at those who only had Russian friends, listened solely to Russian music, and did not make an effort to learn Hebrew. I connected equally with sabras and Russians. The sabras would frequently distort my family name—the totally non-Jewish name of my father, Medvedev—into sounds that caused my body to recoil. This combination of syllables was almost random to the Israeli ear, to my educators and teachers, the commanders in the army, the clerks. Their wrong pronunciation of the cluttered syllables steeled me for a blow that could fall at any moment.

I knew from the look in their eyes, from their facial expression, that they would be unable to hit exactly on the simple combination: Medvedev. There are no vowels in written Hebrew, so one can read the name in many different ways—this is especially a problem with unfamiliar non-Israeli names.

At the end of third grade, my teacher Yafa Frankel wrote in my certificate “Yulia Medvizva.” They would say Madavdav, Medavdev, as if they had created a verb in the present tense, ledavdev. Ani medavdev, ata medavdev, at medavdevet, anachnu medavdavim, aten medavdavot.

I hated it when a new teacher read out my name. I hated enunciating my family name, explaining it to people and correcting them. Even at the final ceremony for my army paramedics course, which I finished as an exemplary cadet and received the medic pin from the chief medical officer, and even after enunciating my family name for the commander, the microphone rumbled and called for Yulia Medaaaaavdev. Later in my army service, I took a day off and went to the Ministry of Interior. I returned as Yulia Ben-Dov.

A year or two later I went back to the Ministry of Interior. This time I dropped the letter heh from my first name. I was now Yuli Ben-Dev, Israeli and nimble, exactly how I wanted to feel.

During the first few months, my mother and me would miss important information in Hebrew. For my first Holocaust Memorial Day, I went to school dressed in blue and white, like they told us to. When everyone was standing in line waiting for the siren, I cast a quick glance at the other children—something was wrong. I realized that when the teachers said we should wear “blue and white,” what they meant was blue pants and a white shirt, not the other way round. I was in white jeans and a blue tailored shirt. How was I supposed to know whether the blue or white comes first?

I liked the blacked lacquer shoes that the Haredi girls wore in Mea Shearim on Shabbat. It was my dream to dress elegantly and Shabbat-y like that, like them. I was really happy when a generous benefactor gave me a pink shirt and a shiny white sweater—proper Shabbat clothes. I also got the black lacquered shoes. I remember the sound they made on Shabbat along the streets of the neighborhood, trying to dress like everyone else, to be like everyone else, even in Mea Shearim.

Laundered clothes in my childhood home had a pragmatic Russian smell, clean and dry. In the homes of the Israeli friends I visited they smelled like perfume. Ever since I’ve had my own washing machine I buy gallons of fabric softener, fill the small softener compartment to the top, always putting in much more than I need. I try to reconstruct the smell of pines or violets or citrus flowers, the smell of laundry that always evaporated from the clean clothes of the Israeli children around me, but never stuck to mine.

Today I wrap my children’s sandwiches in colorful paper napkins, fold them from corner to corner. I place small notes next to them with hearts or smilies, so it will be fun for them to open their lunch boxes at school. I do it because I don’t want them to have banana pita. Banana pita is a sandwich that my stepfather used to make when I went to school. He would put petit beurre biscuits, bananas, and chocolate into a stale pita, and then put it in a plastic bag without a napkin. He thought it was cool. I thought that it was weird and I didn’t know how I could eat it. I literally didn’t know.

My childhood was the childhood of an olah. My dominant feeling in the years after aliyah was foreignness. I felt different from native-born Israelis; this difference accompanied me over the years and maybe it is still with me. My aliyah was not terrible or bad or evil, it just wasn’t roses, not easy, not smooth. And what would have happened had I grown up in Minsk? Maybe we would have been spared the feelings of displacement and immigration, which are difficult experiences for everyone, for children and adults alike. The fact that we are Jews wouldn’t have made us feel foreign there, no more than what we experience in Israel as new immigrants from Russia. Not everything is a result of aliyah difficulties and I don’t blame the difficulties of my life solely on aliyah. Some found it easier and some found it more difficult, like everything in life. For some aliyah was a rupture that didn’t heal for years, while for others it was the best thing that happened in their life. What’s certain is that it’s a defining event in a person’s life, just like the departure from Egypt was for our people.

A little over ten years ago I became religious. I was raised in a secular household; most olim from the FSU didn’t have any Judaism in their lives. Most of them rejected the religious establishment, a result of years living under communism. And so anything which had even a small taste of religion or the religious establishment immediately aroused rejection and disgust.

But deep inside, the soul continues to search. I didn’t feel disgust towards the religion – just the opposite. It interested me, aroused my curiosity. As a child I read booklets from the Jewish Agency, slim books in Russian that were distributed by the Absorption Ministry, explaining Jewish festivals. Some of what I read was entertaining (why live for a week in a booth made from planks and leaves?); some was ridiculous (bread is hametz, OK, but what’s the connection with corn?); and some made sense and was even beautiful (‘every mother and daughter lights the Shabbat candles’). As a child we didn’t celebrate any Jewish festivals. We marked my bat mitzvah with some new clothes and a meal with salty fish and lots of wine. We didn’t do Seder night and during Pesach we ate pita that we had frozen in advance.

In middle school I volunteered with Magen David Adom, where I met religious people for the first time. They became my best friends; I looked at their lives and what I saw enchanted me. After the army I became an emissary in Ukraine and I learned more about Judaism. I decided to study Education and Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University. I studied Bible and Talmud and Jewish Thought, I read midrash and studied in chavruta. A whole world opened before me. Why didn’t I know this before? Such depth, such ancient wisdom, such strength. What a waste. I became more religious with my husband Yuval. Slowly we began keeping Shabbat together, we bought our first hot plate and urn. We went to prayers in a small, sweet synagogue in Ein Kerem, where we were living at the time. Boys from Chabad came to kosher the kitchen. Only a few years later could I say that I was a b’aalat tshuva. Other Israelis don’t believe that I’m Russian, and they don’t believe that I wasn’t raised in a religious household. I play these roles well; like a chamelon I adapt myself to new groups, embedding, surviving.

***

The stories, the dates, and the names kept coming and I kept reading. People wrote about trauma, about violence and harassment, about the loss of a childhood, about the complete upheaval of the family unit, about humiliation and wickedness, about the feeling of an earthquake, about wretchedness and poverty and survival. But they also wrote about good people, about teachers and educators in schools, who saw and heard and strengthened. They wrote about a violent childhood where they stopped speaking, about children who spat at them and beat them on their way home. Many wrote about second-hand clothes from WIZO storerooms, about absorption in kibbutzim in city centers and moshavim, about parents who collapsed and never recovered, about emotional detachment, about children who became adults in just a few months, about hunger and real poverty.

Reading these stories over the past few months has created an interesting reality. Many children of olim from the FSU of the 80s and 90s have made their voices heard for the first time. Those who came to Israel as children are now parents. Their stories connected people. Experiences of aliyah and absorption finally became a legitimate story.

Today we are in Holland for my husband Yuval’s post-doc. We have four children because it was terrible being an only child. Our daughter is in fourth grade. We came to Holland a year ago, when she was the same age as I was when I made aliyah. But our childhood experiences are worlds apart. She comes from a family with two loving parents, with three wonderful little devils for siblings—who would have dreamed it? With an extended family of fifteen cousins, two grandmas and one grandpa, with a family history, with a framework, values, connection, support—everything I didn’t have.

Why did my mother bring me to Israel when I was eight? Why did we move between all those rented flats, rooms, and hovels? Why did she clean homes, wipe bottoms, and work nights? Why did I cringe when the teachers distorted my family name again and again? What was it all for?

I think it was to renew the chain that was broken somewhere between the Tzar and Dedushka (“Grandpa”) Lenin, in order to return to what we had forgotten (or been made to forget), to return to ourselves, to our Judaism, and our roots. Probably it is also so that my mother would have Israeli grandchildren, half-Russian, half-Moroccan, and that they would call her by that warm word full of love, Babushka.

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Yuli Malka

Yuli Malka is an independent content writer and tour guide.

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