Podcast: Matti Friedman on the Russian AliyahThirty Years Later – Mosaic

Posted By on November 19, 2020

This Weeks Guest: Matti Friedman

After a decades-long, worldwide campaign to free Soviet Jewry, in the late 1980s the borders of the Soviet Union were finally opened, allowing its Jews to emigrate to Israel. This period saw approximately one million men and women from the former Soviet Union leave and resettle in the Jewish state. They came in fulfillment of Zionist aspirations, in search of material opportunities, and in pursuit of greater freedom.

At the time that the Russians arrived, Israel had fewer than five million citizens, and these new immigrants brought with them an entirely new set of cultural assumptions and practices. They posed a religious challenge as well, as many of them qualified for Israeli citizenship but did not qualify as Jewish under the requirements of Orthodox law.

How did they transform Israel? Its economy? Its culture? Its politics? And how did Israel transform them? In the three decades since they arrived, what has happened?

Thats the subject of Matti Friedmans November 2020 essay in Mosaic, and in this podcast, he joins Mosaics editor Jonathan Silver to probe the miraculous story of the Russian aliyah and what it teaches us about the exceptional spirit of Israeli society and Israeli citizenship.

Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.

Excerpt (9:43-11:52):

Matti Friedman

Generation 1.5 has this memory of being born in the old country while also having a deep familiarity with the new country, having grown up in it from a very young age, and in the middle they have this experience of being uprooted, which is a very powerful experience as anyone who has immigrated knows. They bring something really interesting into Israeli society, which is a native Israeli identity thats heavily influenced by Russia. They bring it into Israeli schools and they bring it into the army and they bring it into Israeli culture.

For example, Alex Rif, who I mention in the essay, is a poet who two years ago released a book of poetry looking at the experience of immigration, and its not easy to read. A lot of it is quite angry, a lot of its painful, a lot of its a reckoning with Israeli society, which wasnt always nice to these immigrants. I think their experience of landing here in the 1990s was the realization of the Zionist dream, and I think in retrospect its probably the best thing thats happened to the state of Israel since it was foundedyou could argue that point. But in those very grand statements are very painful human stories about people who went from being at home in a place to being homeless; who went from being capable adults in the home country to being helpless in the new country, where they couldnt speak the language, where they were reduced in status. There was this stereotype in the early years of the Russian physics professor cleaning the streets. Their story was not a purely happy, upbeat story, and a lot of thats reflected in Alexs poetry.

Alex Rif is interesting not just because shes a poet but because shes a social activist whose name pops up in almost any context when youre looking into Russians, Generation 1.5, and their experiences in Israel. Shes involved in all kinds of interesting social entrepreneurship; for example, one of the projects I mention in the piece is an attempt to take a Russian holiday and make it Israeli. Her project stated broadly is to make Russian identity a kind of Israeli identity. So not to accept that being Russian is foreign to Israel, but to force the society to admit and accept that being Russian is a legitimate way of being Israeli. I think that thats fascinating, and I think whats also fascinating is that its clearly working.

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Podcast: Matti Friedman on the Russian AliyahThirty Years Later - Mosaic

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