Israeli Life: The Invisible Literati
For Russian-language writers, aliya’s dislocation extends to their books they are best sellers in Russia but are rarely translated into Hebrew.
Dina Rubina is one of Israel’s best-selling writers. More than one million copies of her novels and short-story collections have been bought—her latest novel, On the Sunny Side of the Street(Eksmo Publishers, Moscow), sold 50,000 in the first three months. She is translated from her native Russian into 17 languages, including English, German, Dutch, French, Czech, Bulgarian and Estonian. Yet, even though some of her most popular books were inspired by her life in Israel since she moved here 16 years ago, little of her work has been translated into Hebrew.
“I am one of the five most famous and best-selling writers in Russia,” said Rubina, who is 54, in an interview at her home in Ma’aleh Adumim, a town east of Jerusalem. “It doesn’t matter to me that I am not known in Israel. It will take time until Israeli society accepts the writers who moved here as equals. It is a natural process.”
Rubina is one of hundreds of writers who immigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union, before and after its demise, and continued writing and publishing in Russian. They are read in Israel, in Russia and anywhere Russian émigrés have settled. A few enjoy star status in the Russian-speaking world. However, Hebrew-speaking Israel has hardly embraced these writers. While members of the literary community on both sides of the language divide differ over whether their exclusion from mainstream Israeli culture is deliberate or incidental, temporary or permanent, everyone agrees it exists.
“There are a lot of Russian writers living here who receive prizes, praises and have amazing things written about them, but the Israeli public doesn’t know them,” said author and cultural critic Anna Isakova, who made aliya from Lithuania in 1971. “I remember in 1994, out of 23 nominees for the Russian Booker Prize, 4 lived in Israel. In Israel, it went without mention. I remember because I wanted to write about it but couldn’t—because I was one of them.”
Isakova herself is something of an exception: She writes columns and book reviews in Hebrew in leading Hebrew newspapers and has served as a government advisor, so she does enjoy name recognition among Hebrew speakers. But only now is one her four novels, The Black Moon, about to be published in Hebrew, by the Ahuzat Bayit publishing house.
“For me it is not important at all whether my books come out in Russian,” she said, “because the public I really want to reach is the Hebrew-speaking public.”
Author Helen Tolstoy, a professor of Russian literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, charges that there was “a decision from above” to marginalize the Russian-speaking intelligentsia, although she can’t pinpoint it.
“There is a stigma attached to all the people of Russian origin in the cultural realm here, maybe except for in music,” she said. “It is not even an outrage, I have no words for it.”
A stately woman with ash blond hair and blue eyes, Tolstoy moved to Israel in 1973 with her husband, literary critic Michael Weisskopf. She said that while both of them are well known in Russia, in Israel they are invisible outside the Russian-speaking community. She cited an attempt by the Hebrew University to shut down the Slavic Studies Department last year—averted only after an international campaign of support from colleagues around the world—as evidence of an utter lack of appreciation for her and her associates’ contributions.
She painted a dire picture of a community whose writers and thinkers are humiliated by neglect, exploitation and unemployment: During the 1990’s, Russian newspapers and literary journals proliferated, often subsidized by public bodies and organizations devoted to helping immigrants resettle, but that period ended and many of the publications closed down. She also claimed that Russian-language journalists, and even professors, are paid less than their Hebrew-language counterparts.
Tolstoy said some of her colleagues have returned to Russia, and “a lot of people have died before their time, of drugs, suicide and poverty.” Among the tragedies are Anna Karpa (her pen name was Anna Gorenko), an original and talented young poet who died a few years ago of a drug overdose; and Alexander Rotenberg, a young, debt-ridden artist and writer who took his life two years ago.
“This is a big, seething wound,” Tolstoy said tearfully.
Tolstoy is sure Israel rejects its Russian intellectuals because they lean to the right politically. But, she said, they have found a way to survive on the international level.
“Russian literature is international,” she added. “It exists on the Internet, in Germany, in the United States. We have publications and Web sites and [the situation] has become bearable.”
The Israeli lack of awareness of Russian immigrant writers in their midst is all the more glaring considering their numbers. One million people emigrated from the Former Soviet Union in the 1990’s, making Israel the second-largest center of Russian culture outside Russia.
“The Association of Russian Writers in Israel has 240 members and is the second biggest subgroup [of writers] after Hebrew,” noted Efraim Bauch, chairman of the Israel Federation of Writers’ Unions and of the Association of Russian Writers. “It is as if a small country moved here. There are more than 200 Russian bookstores in Israel.”
The prominence of israeli-russian literature globally was evident at the international book fair in Moscow in 2006. Bauch, who has published several volumes of prose and poetry in Russian and Hebrew, said Israel had a “modest little booth” in Moscow, opposite Turkey’s bigger and more elaborate one.
“The whole week, theirs was completely empty and ours was packed,” he recalled. “The things we had on the wall were stolen, the Israeli flag was stolen. I signed books for two whole days.”
At Jerusalem’s fair in February of this year displays by Russian vendors took up a large section of the main hall, including books by immigrants to Israel; Rubina was a featured speaker.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry has discovered the potential of immigrant writers to introduce Israeli literature to their countries of origin. Dan Oryan, in charge of the ministry’s cultural ties, is a native Israeli who mastered the Russian language and served as a cultural attaché in Moscow. When organizing the Israeli delegation to the Moscow Book Fair, he made sure to include, along with Israeli literary light Amos Oz, Russian-language writers who had made aliya.
“I have a limited budget and first of all I am supposed to promote Hebrew literature,” said Oryan. “The segment of authors who write in foreign languages is not a high priority. But to send to Moscow someone like David Markish, who was a correspondent for [Russian newspaper] Izvestia in Israel, is to send a media star. He was interviewed on five TV stations.”
Markish is the son of yiddish writer Peretz Markish, one of a group of Jewish intellectuals executed by Stalin in 1952 when David was 14. The family was exiled to the wilderness of Kazakhstan in 1953 as “family members of a traitor.” Markish made aliya in 1972, and several of his 15 books deal with the traumatic events of his childhood. Markish is more fortunate than other Russian writers—11 of his books have come out in Hebrew—but he is still not widely known to Israeli readers.
“For instance, Jesters sold 28,000 copies in Hebrew and 300,000 in Russian,” Markish pointed out. (Jesters, about Jewish life in 18th-century Russia, was also published in English by Henry Holt.) “In Russia I am very well-known, but there is no love between me and that country. I don’t feel a flutter in my stomach when I go there, but I need to go for one reason: There are readers in my language there.”
The number of books published in Israel every year exceeds 4,000; more than half are translated from English, French, German and other languages. Only 10 percent are reviewed in the various media outlets.
Michael handelsaltz was editor of the Ha’aretz newspaper’s prestigious book supplement from 1993 to 2005 and wielded significant influence. Asked why the Russian immigrant writers are not better known here, Handelsaltz, who is himself an immigrant from Poland, said: “The Russians are a closed cultural community that looks down on us and thinks they are better than us. And I guess the Hebrew-speaking community is pretty closed, too.”
Author Mark Zaichek, who writes a column from Israel for the Russian edition of the New York-based newspaper the Forward, rejected all theories of discrimination and deliberate marginalization.
“Nobody intends to separate or discriminate,” he said. “What is sellable is translated and that’s it.” Although none of his nine books has been translated into Hebrew, “it does not bother me.” He added, “That is the way it has to be. This is a country where the first language is Hebrew, whether people like it or not. It is not Arabic or Russian or Yiddish or English or French.”
In one of a handful of efforts to introduce Russian-immigrant writers to the Hebrew-speaking public, in 2000, Yedioth Ahronoth Books published a Hebrew anthology of short stories titled Israel’s Ghosts. Tolstoy is included in the collection, with a story of the misadventures of an immigrant couple attempting to find housing in Jerusalem. Weisskopf wrote the introduction, about the theme of exodus in immigrants’ writing. Reviews in the Israeli press were lukewarm.
Isakova said when she sat on government committees, she was told the reason Russian writers were not embraced in Israel was “to protect the Hebrew language.” While she thinks that approach was valid 100 years ago, when diaspora languages were rejected to establish the primacy of Hebrew, she said, “today I think Hebrew is strong enough to contain them.”
She believes Israeli literature is missing the perspective of the immigrant experience, a key element of the national ethos, by limiting itself to Hebrew writers. “Who would know about [Isaac] Bashevis Singer if his work remained only in Yiddish?” she asked.
Bauch pointed to the irony of Israel’s disinterest in immigrant writers from Russia, since that was the country whence the classicists of Hebrew literature in the first half of the last century came: “Shlonsky, Brenner, Berdichevsky, Gnessin, Bialik, Chernichovsky—they all came from Russia.” In fact, the Association of Hebrew Writers itself was established in Russia in 1905 and transplanted to Israel when Hayyim Nahman Bialik arrived here in the 1930’s.
There are several Russian-to-Hebrew translators working in Israel today, many of them translating Russian classics—works by Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Bulgakov, Nabokov, Tolstoy and Pasternak—but few books by today’s writers.
“For an immigrant writer to be accepted by Israeli culture, first they have to die,” concluded Rubina. “This is a normal situation. My books are read by millions of people in Russia and that is enough for me.”
Israel Carmel, of Carmel Publishing, has published Hebrew translations of Russian classics but not the works of Russian immigrants. “We have not received any serious manuscripts,” he said with a shrug. “If we had, we would have published them.”
Julia Viner is another untranslated artist. A novelist, poet and translator who moved to Israel 36 years ago at age 34, she continues to write in Russian but neither feels connected to life in Russia nor travels there to promote herself. “The paradox is that when I left Russia, I really left it, not just physically but also spiritually.” she said. “And still I write in Russian and my reader is in Russia. It is a strange experience.”
Her novel, The Red Diamond (Text Publishing, Moscow), takes place in Israel and features a range of Israeli characters, with a Russian immigrant as the protagonist. It was well received in Russia, and a reviewer in Ha’aretz recommended it be translated into Hebrew, but Viner can’t find a publisher, leaving her in a Catch-22.
“For the translator to be paid there has to be a publisher who is willing to publish it in Israel,” she explained. “And for a publisher to be willing to publish it in Israel, he has to know what is in it, and for him to know what is in it, it has to be translated.”
Yet viner bears no grudge. “You can’t blame anyone for this,” she said. “It’s fate. It is very common to talk about a ‘literary ghetto’ of Russian writers in Israel, but I don’t call it a ghetto. I say it is the tragedy of immigration.”
Meanwhile, more Israeli literature is being translated into Russian, and a young generation of immigrants has begun writing in Hebrew, notably Miri Litvak, Alex Epstein, Boris Zeidman and Marina Groslerner.
Despite the loss to Israeli culture that comes from not being able to read most of the works of this generation’s Russian-immigrant writers, the Foreign Ministry’s Oryan concluded that there is still “something good…happening. I think we can be optimistic about the future.”