Russian Jews are making the laughter flow in Israel Long-repressed humor flourishes under freedom


JERUSALEM -- When they were still in the Soviet Union dreaming of going to Israel, Soviet Jews used to ask: "What do you call a Soviet symphony orchestra after it returns from an engagement in Israel?" Answer: "A string quartet."

When the big post-Communist wave arrived in Israel a few years ago, the new joke was: "A remarkable change has been observed among Israeli street cleaners. Two years ago they spoke Arabic. Since then, they have all learned Russian and acquired a higher education." After a few years in Israel, the Russian Jews told of placing an ad in a Moscow newspaper: "Soviet Jews! Come to Israel! Only here will your long-cherished dream of becoming Russians be realized!"

The progression suggests two things: first, that the 600,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union who have immigrated to Israel since January 1990 have not had an easy time of it; and second, that Jewish humor, as conceived in Odessa and nurtured under repression, has found a home in Israel.

"In Russia, we concealed for a long time in humor what we really wanted to say," said Irina Blat, a staffer on Balagan ("Pandemonium"), one of two Russian-language humor magazines founded by the immigrants, both in 1991. "Here in Israel, the political satire recedes to a lower level, but it is still Jewish humor, which is laughter with sadness in the eye."

In the beginning, when the Russian Jews were arriving in droves and confronting the bureaucrats of the Jewish Agency and the problems of finding work, the jokes focused on that, according to a selection published in the Jerusalem Post.

* "I sweep, therefore I am," proclaims Dr. Decartman, Ph.D., former Marxist-Leninist, now street-sweeper.

* Saddam Hussein, accused of importing Russian physicists to build a nuclear bomb, denies it: "I use them the same way Israel does -- for construction and sweeping."

* Advertisement by the Center for New Immigrant Business Encouragement: "If you are young, dynamic and ready to realize your talents in business, stop pestering us and get on with it."

Much of the earlier humor focused on circumcision, which many older Russian immigrants underwent only on arrival in Israel. So much, in fact, that the other Russian humor journal, Beseder ("O.K." in Hebrew), published a notice that it would accept no more jokes about circumcision.

As native Israelis began forming stereotypes of the "Russians" -- overqualified, all musicians, or engineers, or prostitutes, or mafiosi -- that became a theme.

A potential employer asks a Russian his profession, and he replies in fledgling Hebrew: "I am married, two children. Wife is violin, daughter is piano, son is school." His age? "I am engineer, I am Moscow, I am experience, I want."

The "Russians" formed their own stereotype of the "sabra," the native-born Israeli -- burly, sandal-shod, uncultured, a bit dim and ready to cheat new immigrants. In 1992, Beseder published a simple multiplication table to "help" the sabras avoid "mistakes" in dealings with Russians. The Hebrew daily Haaretz reprinted the column with a huffy caption, "This is what they think of us." Beseder came back with a "correction," apologizing to Israelis for insulting their intelligence and reprinting the table -- this time with incorrect answers.

As the Russians assimilated, the "them vs. us" themes gave way to more straightforward humor. A weekly humor supplement to the Russian-language paper Vremya, called Ne Pravda ("Not Pravda," and also "Not True"), has its own versions of traditional Soviet slogans, like "A Jew is the future of Israel and the past of Russia."

More and more, the journals are taking on Israeli life and politics, especially the agreements ceding control over occupied land to Arabs.

In one, Boris Borisovich is negotiating with Syria. "Forget the Golan!" he declares. "Let's given them Birobidjan." That is the Jewish Autonomous Republic set up by Stalin in the Far East, where very few Jews settled voluntarily.

But the bread-and-butter is still the classic Odessa crack "Nice boy. What's his name?" "Abrahamchik." "So small, and already a Jew!"

"We have to sustain this humor here," Mrs. Blat explained. "If Israel can laugh while surrounded by enemies, then it'll be strong. Only healthy nations can laugh."

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