Russians' taste of home offends religious Jews

Immigrants' pork fuels Israeli debate

January 14, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIT SHEMESH, Israel - The shelves of Borris Yoffe's butcher shop brim with delicacies of Eastern Europe, from tins of black caviar to bottles of Romanian cabernet. And the meat case has what thousands of Russian immigrants in Israel long for - choice cuts of pork.

Observant Jews want Yoffe's deli moved from a strip mall near the center of town to the outskirts, arguing that its blatant disregard of Jewish dietary laws forbidding pork undermines the Jewish state.

As a result, Yoffe has sparked a culinary culture clash in this working-class city south of Jerusalem and helped fuel a debate about Israel's identity.

A gruff, unhappy man of few words, Yoffe, 50, is as unimpressed by the attention his pork sausages have received as he is by an indictment charging him with running a business without proper permits.

He is a butcher by necessity, having been unable to find a job as an economist since moving here three years ago from Baku, capital of Azerbaijan.

"Everywhere people have problems," he said, shoving copies of his court papers across the counter and switching his attention to a customer buying cheese.

The dispute in Beit Shemesh is a byproduct of the country's self-examination into how the wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Union has influenced Israel culturally by altering the balance between religious and secular interests. Most Russian immigrants came not for religious reasons but for a better life, as measured by education and jobs.

"The big question is, can you integrate without having a basic common denominator with the majority?" said Yuli Edelstein, Israel's deputy minister of immigrant absorption, who moved here from Russia in 1987. "We don't yet know what the long-term impact will be."

Most of the Russians have arrived since 1989, and account for about 20 percent of Israel's 6.5 million people. Their assimilation has changed the country as well as the immigrants themselves. The newcomers have shared in Israel's successes and tragedies, becoming government leaders and victims of terrorism. Along the way, Israel has become more ethnically diverse and less religious.

More than half the newcomers did not consider themselves Jews but were allowed to immigrate because they could trace a Jewish heritage to their parents or grandparents. Even those who lived as Jews in Europe or Asia rarely observed Jewish dietary laws and do not understand why they are discouraged from eating food considered a staple in their homeland.

"I love Israel," said one of Yoffe's loyal customers, Berta Shipira, 65, who grew up outside Moscow. "People should leave us alone and let us eat what we want. I am Jewish, and I like eating pork. I eat what I like."

Many like her have turned Yoffi's shop and five others in town into gathering places, unofficial town squares where people can cash checks, call home, down shots of vodka and exchange gossip in their native language.

"This place is part of our life," said Mira Rubinstein, 40, who emigrated from Russia seven years ago and was shopping for a loaf of dark bread from Belarus. "Everyone should let everyone else live."

But to religious Jews in Israel, it is not that simple.

"Eating pork has become a symbol of offense to Jewish people," said Malcolm Palmer, 31, an ultra-Orthodox political leader in Beit Shemesh.

"People come to Jewish Israel for a Jewish life, and when they find pork sold openly on their front door, it makes them uncomfortable," said Palmer, a recent immigrant from Great Britain. "If someone opened a restaurant and sold dog meat in the United States, people would be demonstrating from the rooftops."

The issue of selling pork in Beit Shemesh is now before Israel's Supreme Court, whose justices are expected to hear arguments in a few months on issues that include whether the shops have the required permits.

Palmer said it might be time to compromise. One proposal, he said, is to move shops selling pork to the Beit Shemesh industrial area, far from downtown, where the practice "would be out of sight."

Many countries faced with waves of immigrants experience problems, most commonly with language, as new groups struggle to keep their cultural identity and, at the same time, to fit in with new and unfamiliar surroundings.

But in Israel, the wave of outsiders arrived in a rush, and their sheer numbers have turned them into a political force.

Edelstein said the country has been in denial about the impact of Russian immigrants, good and bad, on Israeli society.

"It's something we have to deal with," he said. "They've had an impact on nearly every field. I see it as a positive influence."

Edelstein grew up in Moscow and immigrated to Israel after spending three years imprisoned near the Black Sea city of Novosibirsk for promoting his Jewish beliefs. His mother is Jewish; his father is a Russian Orthodox priest in Moscow.

Yoffe said he obtained several permits to open his shop three years ago, but the city insisted he needed others. Finally, he gave up applying, and the city is taking him to court. His doors remain open while the charges are pending.

The shop is nondescript, without a sign to advertise its presence, in a strip mall near the city center, sandwiched between a small appliance store and a florist. Inside is a different world, full of smells of meats and cheeses, and stockpiled with Russian goods.

Moving outside the city would destroy his business, Yoffe said, because most of his customers cannot afford cars. Asked about his troubles, he shrugs: Too much attention, he says, and too few results.

"What's the point?" he said. "I'm tired of talking about this problem. I don't think anyone can help me."

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