Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues 8 (2004) 87-114
[Access article in PDF]
Providers, Caregivers, and Sluts:
Women with a Russian Accent in Israel
After the fall of state socialism in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, over 1.7 million Jews left the former Soviet Union (FSU) for Israel, the U.S., and other destinations in the West. Although this recent wave of Jewish migrations has been relatively well researched by sociologists,1 few have used a gender lens to look at the problems of the social incorporation of Jewish immigrants. Most writings about post-Soviet immigrants have either been gender blind or presented male experiences as the norm. Yet there is little doubt that apart from the challenges of resettlement and acculturation encountered by all immigrants, women face many specific problems in the course of their encounter with the host societies, leading some scholars to define the female experience of immigration as double jeopardy.2
The literature on female immigrants in the West has typically focused on women coming from traditional third-world societies, most of whom had little formal education and seldom worked outside the home before their emigration. These women typically follow either of two alternative paths: One is to remain a homemaker, resulting in social isolation, dependency on a male breadwinner, and no advancement in learning the language and social ways of the host country; and the other is to join the lowest tiers of the workforce and take part in segmented assimilation into a coethnic/other minority inner city culture.3 The migration saga of former Soviet4 Jewish women offers a very different case study in light of their socio-economic background in the FSU, which was characterized by very high rates of higher education, universal participation in the labor force, and economic independence. The process of their integration into the Israeli Jewish mainstream has also been rather different, given the importance of ethno-religious issues in the national discourse. [End Page 87]
Of some 900,000 Soviet Jewish immigrants who arrived in Israel in the 1990s, about 500,000 were women. The majority (over 80%) came from the European part of the FSU and were Ashkenazi (of central European Jewish background) by ethnic origin. These women will be the focus of my article.5 Women moving between cultures face a special set of constraints, evolving from normative differences between their former and latter homes in the areas of sexuality, fertility, and family life, which are viewed both in the FSU and in Israel as primarily feminine domains. Moreover, sexual and reproductive issues are seen in most cultures as having a moral nature, rendering such differences particularly potent in shaping the experiences of female newcomers. In addition, the encounter between immigrants and the host society provides an opportunity to observe otherwise silenced features of the Israeli gender system. While local politics may be powerful enough to enforce (at least in the mass media) a relatively egalitarian gender discourse, the appearance of the "other" may trigger open manifestations of otherwise suppressed sexist views and actions.
In the following pages, I will profile the gender-related problems faced by these former Soviet women in Israel and explore various facets of the cultural conflict between them and the host society. In doing so, I will rely on the aggregate analysis of several surveys conducted on this group of immigrants, also including my own data, and on publications in the Israeli press during the 1990s. In brief, three types of sources have been employed. My descriptions of general social trends among Russian immigrants draw upon official statistics,6 surveys by the JDC-Brookdale Institute in Jerusalem, and other macro-sociological data. At the micro-level, I draw upon the fragments of my earlier qualitative studies among different groups of Russian immigrant women, including both published7 and unpublished focus groups and interview materials. Finally, the treatment of issues of cultural stereotyping of the immigrants by the host society reflects selected publications in the principal...