Soviet Jews find 'very hard life' in Israel Shortage of jobs burdens new arrivals

March 01, 1992|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau The Knight-Ridder news service contributed to this story.

JERUSALEM -- As a biologist in Moscow, Helena Kashman learned long ago that organisms placed in new environments must adapt to survive. As a recent immigrant to Israel, she is learning that adaptation is necessary both ways -- for newcomers and for their new country.

"The first feeling is that everything is beautiful, wonderful," says Ms. Kashman, who arrived in December 1990, the month when the emigration of Soviet Jews reached its peak. "For most people I know the feeling lasts for two or three months."

At about that time, the difficulties of learning a new language and finding suitable work become clear. "Stage two is you see what's going on is a very hard life," says Sergey Makarov, who has known Ms. Kashman since their years in Moscow, where he worked as a journalist. "You see you have the hard type of existence you had before you came."

Immigrants from the former Soviet Union are experiencing the extreme highs and lows of trying to fit into a culture struggling to accommodate them. Israel genuinely welcomes the newcomers, only now in the slightly embarrassed way a host greets overnight guests after inviting more than he can easily accommodate.

About 40 percent of the adults who have immigrated since 1989 are unemployed, and about half of those unemployed are teachers. Because of the huge imbalance between supply and demand, few of them have a realistic chance of finding work in their field. Physicians -- more than 8,000 have immigrated in the last two years -- face the same problem.

These difficult conditions appear to be having an impact on the number of Jews immigrating.

"We are now in a deep low of the flow of immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union," lamented Gad Ben-Ari, spokesman for Israel's immigration authority, the Jewish Agency. "The primary reason, almost the exclusive reason, is the unemployment crisis in Israel."

At the same time, in a sense, the 400,000 immigrants who have arrived since 1989 make up a Soviet-style republic within Israel, a country-within-a-country, subject to the same insecurities as the newborn republics of the former Soviet Union.

Newly arrived Russians make jokes at the expense of newly arrived Georgians. Ukrainians brag they are better educated than immigrants from Kazakhstan. Russia's ambassador to Israel, at his embassy in Tel Aviv, receives letters from Soviet war veterans demanding he help them find apartments, as if the Russian government were in charge here.

The immigrants are in the process of giving up one national mythology and learning a new one. While the break-up of the Soviet Union helped liberate Soviet Jews by making it easier for them to emigrate, it also orphaned them by leaving them without a country they understand.

Nothing is more foreign to them than Israeli attitudes toward the military. Soviet Jews left a country in which army service was something to be dreaded. They arrived in a society where public opinion surveys consistently find that the military is the institution citizens respect most.

There also is the contrast between mythology and reality. Some immigrants say they arrived believing that Israel's army was invincible; now they are shocked by the most recent evidence that it is not.

Last month three soldiers -- two of them recent immigrants -- were hacked to death by Arab attackers at a camp for soldiers undergoing basic training. A few days later, a woman from the former Soviet Union was stabbed to death by an Arab in the town of Kfar Sava, near Tel Aviv.

Israel's press treated both incidents as exceptionally grave. There was an assumption that the violence would make other Jews afraid to emigrate to Israel or add to the insecurity of new arrivals.

Ms. Kashman found a sort of comfort from reactions to the attacks. An elderly neighbor climbed several flights of steps to knock on Ms. Kashman's door to express her concern.

"I know that in the Soviet Union the same kind of reaction would have been impossible," Ms. Kashman says. She has found unexpected solidarity -- a solidarity of worry.

Ms. Kashman lives in a top-floor apartment that is more attic than penthouse. She has one all-purpose room, plus a kitchen and bathroom. She has found space for her volumes of Pushkin and Dostoevski, a poster-size photo of a professor who inspired her in Moscow, a dozen snapshots of friends, a television, a milk carton doubling as a flower vase and a couch that doubles as a bed.

Crammed into the remaining space are two visitors from Moscow, Alexander Gonkin and Galina Yelshelvski. They are art critics, married to each other. Based on what they have seen in four days in Israel and what they heard in advance from friends, they are here as tourists instead of immigrants.

"Not every Jew can be expected to come," says Mr. Gonkin, who is unwilling to leave the Russian art world or his relatives. "I consider myself of Russian culture, and some things cannot be transplanted."

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