- Russian Israeli Literature through the Lens of Immigrant Humor
From the 1980s onwards, Russian Israeli fiction surprised its readers with an outpouring of immigrant humor ranging from mild playful jokes to biting social satire. Humor is one of the most important literary devices that can be traced through the entire corpus of Russian-Israeli literature, and doing so illuminates complex processes of identity formation in a new socio-historical context through an array of literary and linguistic experimentation. The phenomenon of Russian-Israeli humor is directly related to the travails of immigrant experience, and the collective efforts of many writers and journalists has resulted in a new Russian-Israeli idiom. The current hypostasis of Russian-Israeli humor has absorbed the legacy of Yiddish humorous self-criticism, the Bible and other religious texts, Russian-Hebrew word play, a complex network of intertextual allusions to canonic Russian and Soviet works, and, of course, a healthy dose of Soviet skepticism toward any ideology, political or religious passion, or official rhetoric. This article introduces several important figures: two iconic older authors, the poet Igor Guberman and the prose writer Dina Rubina, and two younger authors whose works are now garnering the interest of the wider reading public, Gala Rubinstein and Victoria Raicher.
Looking at Russian Israeli culture through the lens of its literary humor allows us to see a sophisticated artistic response to the hardships of immigration and the pressures of self-identification with respect to both the past in the former Soviet Union and the present in Israel. Cultural misunderstandings, linguistic lacunae and incongruities, differences in behaviors and social norms, as well as a certain distrust of master narratives of any kind are the underlying materials for the writers' exploration of the immigrant experience and their new identities. In the words of Sara Cooper: "Even the most trying circumstances (and perhaps particularly these) are shaded with a sense of the absurd; when we can focus on the ridiculous, we can often transcend the most confining problems."1 The Russian-language Israeli writers considered in this article examine the difficulties of living in Israel. While Guberman draws extensively on the legacy of Soviet cynicism, using Soviet political humor as his discursive blueprint, Rubina engages with the performative aspects of immigrant [End Page 147] experience, structuring her humorous portrayals of the interactions between Russian Israelis and the sabras along the lines of the theater of absurd. Both incorporate familiar types—Homo Sovieticus co-exists with a luftmensch (airhead) and a schlimazel (fool), the pretentious intellectual urbanite can be found alongside a conniving shakher-makher (wheeler-dealer)—along with the language of the "lower bodily stratum" and Hebrew-Russian linguistic fusions.2 The two younger authors, Gala Rubinstein and Victoria Raicher, are interested in post-modern literary strategies, showing the influence of magical realism and incorporating elements of various literary genres and styles. Their humor can therefore be seen as a manifestation of the contemporary state of flux, global political upheaval, alienation, and re-negotiation of social and cultural foundations. Russian-Israeli humor becomes a discursive phenomenon that incorporates echoes of Russian culture and the Russian present in Israel, creating a new network of meanings and interpretations that can be understood only within its own cultural context.
The importance of cultural context has been emphasized by many scholars of humor; in the case of Russian humor, this is particularly relevant due to the cognitive gaps between insiders and outsiders, where cultural context and unique historical circumstances have led to its formation. In fact, it is specifically through Russian-Israeli humor that the culture of the latest Russian aliya is made explicit by the strategy of foregrounding tacit assumptions such as misogyny, racism, and other forms of prejudice as the foundation of this humor. In the words of Emil Draitser:
Properly analyzed, folk humor can help make visible areas of unacknowledged attitudes and behaviors in private, unofficial terms. Analyzing and interpreting jokes make it possible to deduce certain behavioral patterns based on deeply-held popular beliefs, the hidden underpinning of culture. Jokes, then, can give us clues to what people think about their lives; we learn by studying the way they verbalize their thoughts...