- Nostalgia for a Foreign Land: Studies in Russian-Language Literature in Israel by Roman Katsman
The two waves of immigration from the Former Soviet Union, in the 1970s and 1990s, created one of the largest ethnic groups ever to arrive in the state of Israel. Following this immigration, Jews from the former USSR constituted 12% of the entire population of Israel; though it is a highly heterogeneous group, its members were soon crystallized into a distinct category in Israeli society—"the Russians." The tremendous number of Russian speakers introduced the Russian language into every area of life in the country, and fashioned institutional and cultural infrastructure of the existent Russian community in Israel.
The Russian-speaking immigrants in Israel refused to throw off their former identity in their efforts to assimilate in the local culture, unlike their ancestors, who left Russia and arrived in the Land of Israel roughly 100 years before. While keeping the language and the culture was also desirable among the immigrant of the 1970s, the different circumstances in the 1990s created a real opportunity for living between the two cultures. Under Soviet rule in the 1970s, when the Iron Curtain precluded free communication between those who had left the USSR and those who remained, immigrating to Israel implied a total severance from the Russian space and culture. But by the 1990s, things changed radically: immigrants could foster strong continuing ties with Russia and with other immigrants, many of whom had departed the Soviet Union for other countries such as the United States and Germany. Thus, while the ties to the place of birth were mostly limited in the past, in the last three decades people can live, in practice, between countries, with a free two-way flow of information. In these circumstances, there is no need to pledge loyalty to a single nation or culture; on the contrary, people choose to define themselves as transnational, dividing their self-definition between their ethnic, linguistic, and cultural identity and their host country. [End Page 149]
This phenomenon is extremely interesting when it comes to Israeli literature written in Russian. In the past, Russian literature and culture had a major role in the formation of Israeli culture. The great founders of Hebrew literature in the twentieth century—Shaul Tchernichovsky, Avraham Shlonsky, Lea Goldberg, Natan Alterman, Alexander Penn, and Rachel Bluwstein—spoke Russian, and were raised on the Russian classics and influenced by Russian modernism, but they nonetheless chose to write in Hebrew after immigrating to Palestine. In contrast, many current Russian-Israeli authors choose to write and publish their works in their mother tongue, address their works to the Israeli Russian readers as well as to the global Russian reading audience, and gain success all over the world and even win major prizes in Russia.
Roman Katsman's book, Nostalgia for a Foreign Land, offers a pioneering discussion on Israeli authors writing in Russian during the last few decades. While the Israeli Russian literary scene was formulated by the 1970s immigration with figures such as Anna Isakova, Irina Vrubel-Golubkina, Mikhail Grobman, Maya Kaganskaya, and Mikhail Gendelev, to name a few, the 1990s mark a new and distinctive period in the writing of Isareli-Russain authors, as demonstrated by Katsman.
Katsman's book is composed of four chapters, each dedicated to a close reading of the works of one or two authors. Though the authors and the works differ from each other, together they mark what Katsman proposes as the "Russian Israeli literary metaphysics of the 1990s and the 2000s."
The first and most detailed chapter in the book is dedicated to the work of Dina Rubina. Though Rubina began to publish and gain recognition while living in the Soviet Union, most of her distinctive works were written in Israel, among them her most known book, Here Comes the Messiah (1996), which was translated into English in 2000. In her writing, Rubina employs autobiographical materials, calling into question the relations between character, narrator, implied authors, and her own persona as a...