Social Realism: Russians in Israel

 

Currently showing at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is an exhibition by Zoya Cherkassky, who was born in Russia and immigrated to Israel with her family in the 1990s. The Cherkasskys were part of the million-strong influx of Jewish immigrants from Russia who were finally able to leave the ‘Soviet socialist paradise’ following the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

 All immigrants (myself included) undergo a period of acclimatization and integration, in the hope that they will eventually find their place in Israeli society. For some of the Russian immigrants this was a painful process involving having to get used to a very different way of life, learn a new language, overcome difficulties in finding employment, and find a way of fitting in and adapting to the new environment.

 Zoya Cherkassky was fourteen when she came to Israel and portrays the experience of people having to confront the rigours and demands of a very different society. Arriving as an impressionable teenager, Zoya still remembers what life was like in Russia and is well-placed to observe and compare the two societies. Her family was not imbued with Zionist ideology or well-versed in the practices of the Jewish religion, concepts which required both mental and physical adjustment from the newcomers.

 Underlying Zoya’s pictures, which are painted in bright colours with bold contours, conveying the life of the new immigrants in a way that is almost a caricature of individual figures and expressions, is a lively sense of humour that pillories Russians and Israelis alike. One of the first pictures, entitled ‘Fresh Victims,’ portrays Zoya’s family, still all swathed in their winter clothing, descending the gangway from the airplane bringing them to Israel. Some of the faces display eager anticipation, others apprehension, even dismay, while on the tarmac awaits a fresh-faced lady official ready to welcome them and present each one with a small Israeli flag.

 I happened to mention my impression of the exhibition to a Russian physician of my acquaintance and her face showed displeasure. She told me that among the Russian community the exhibition, and Zoya herself, had come in for a great deal of criticism for the negative portrayal of Russians as well as Israelis. I found the paintings delightful and full of humour, but it seems that this view is not universal.

 One of the paintings shows a mother and daughter, their faces impassive as they eat a meal and watch what’s on the television screen, which is showing ballet dancers performing. The explanatory panel tells us that as the Soviet regime was collapsing and it was not yet clear what was happening to the leadership, the television showed a performance of Swan Lake all through the day. I suppose it’s a sad fact that for many of the immigrants the music of Swan Lake will forever be associated with the fall of the Soviet Union.

 Zoya’s portrayal of life in Israel is often cynical, almost cruel. Throughout Israel’s existence each new influx of immigrants has been welcomed with a mixture of appreciation and suspicion by those (themselves doubtless former immigrants) who came before them. Zoya portrays this ambivalence in several of her paintings, primarily those showing life in Israel as experienced by Russian immigrants. Thus, one painting shows the aggression displayed by young Israelis towards young Russians, comparing it to the violence inflicted on Jews in Russia. Another painting, entitled just ‘Itzik,’ shows a swarthy falafel vendor trying to force his attentions on his horrified blonde Russian waitress.

 Many of the pictures raise a smile. The painting entitled ‘Friday Night Dinner’ shows an appalled rabbi inspecting a cooking pot from which a pig’s snout emerges, while the newly-converted Russian couple, sporting religious headgear, look on uncomprehending. Zoya is a past-master at conveying human emotions through facial expressions, making use of appropriate details to emphasize the context of each situation.

 Altogether, this is an exhibition that is both entertaining and instructive, giving the viewer an insight into the inner workings of the mentality of the immigrants from Russia. In so doing Zoya is shining a light on a situation that is endemic to any country, as Israel is, that purports to welcome immigrants.

 

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