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'We are happy we are allowed to do what we like'

On the banks of the Yarkon River lies a little piece of Moscow

Driven out of Russia by political change and economic crisis, Moscow intellectuals boost commerce and community life in Russian-speaking Israel

A girl catching artificial snow at the opening of the Table Talk Cafe in Tel Aviv. (Anna Rudnitsky/The Times of Israel)
A girl catching artificial snow at the opening of the Table Talk Cafe in Tel Aviv. (Anna Rudnitsky/The Times of Israel)

TEL AVIV — Late Saturday evening, a large crowd is congregating on the corner of Dizengoff and Bar Giyora streets in Tel Aviv. Almost everyone in the crowd speaks Russian.

These trendily dressed people are attending the opening of the Table Talk Café. Created by Dmitry Borisov, the famous Moscow restaurateur has of late opened several venues outside Russia, including in London and New York — places where large communities of wealthy Russians have appeared in the last decade. Now it’s Tel Aviv’s turn.

“There are many people here who are ready to pay money,” Borisov says, explaining the impetus for the new café in Tel Aviv. “I would prefer they stay in Moscow, because they are great guys, and the city has become drearier without them. But whatever.”

Since the the second half of 2014, aliyah (immigration to Israel) from Russia has sharply risen. This current Russian immigration is in part due to Russia’s military intervention and subsequent annexation of Crimea, the government’s crackdown on opposition parties, and a financial crisis accompanied by the collapse of the Russian ruble.

Since last year, the number of Jews arriving in Israel from Russia exceeds even those coming from France and Ukraine. According to statistics provided by the Jewish Agency for Israel, 6,600 olim reached Israel from Russia in 2015, along with another 3,114 in the first half of 2016. More than 30% of these new immigrants are from Moscow.

“The distinctive feature of this wave of aliyah is that we see many people from Moscow and St. Petersburg, which was not the case since the 1990s,” Zeev Khanin, chief scientist at the Israeli Ministry of Absorption, told The Times of Israel.

“It seems to me that I know everyone who arrived from Moscow in the last year or two. If not personally, then through friends or friends of friends,” says Misha Tripolsky, 26, who made aliyah about six months ago.

‘It seems like I know everyone who arrived from Moscow in the last year or two’

An event producer before his emigration, he now works as a waiter at a bar on the beach in Tel Aviv while getting his own business — installing photo printing machines in public spaces — off the ground.

When not at work, Tripolsky often spends time at Babel, a Russian bookstore opened last year in Tel Aviv by new immigrants Evgeny Kogan and his wife Lena. The store has become a popular meeting place for the latest wave of Russian immigrants. Babel holds lectures and literature events, inviting both Russian-speaking Israelis and guests from the metropolis.

“A couple of months after we opened, Tel Aviv’s mayor [Ron Huldai] showed up here, alone and without journalists, just to tell us how good it is that we bring Russian culture to the city,” Kogan says enthusiastically.

On the whole, Kogan seems happy with their new life in Israel, although it doesn’t mean it has been easy.

At the grand opening of Babel. (Facebook/Elena Orlova)
At the grand opening of Babel. (Facebook/Elena Orlova)

“Immigration is a hard choice for someone whose profession is the Russian language,” Kogan says, “but it had always been my dream to own a bookstore, so I decided to give it a chance here. We are happy we are allowed to do what we like.”

Besides Babel, there are other outlets for new arrivals from Mother Russia to feel at home. There’s a Russian-language Facebook group called “Newcomers, glad to see you” and a blog platform called “Shakshuka” which aims to explain the realities of living in Israel to new immigrants. One of its founders is journalist Alina Rebel, who made an appointment with the Israeli consul in Moscow to get a permanent visa to Israel the day after Russian President Vladimir Putin called Russians who did not support the annexation of the Crimea “the fifth column” in a March 2014 speech.

‘When even some of my friends started translating propaganda they heard from the state TV, I got frightened’

“I am not a political refugee and I’ve always wanted to live in Israel, but given the difficulties of making use of my profession in Israel and the appealing career opportunities I had in Moscow, it was hard to make a decision. Putin really helped me,” says Rebel. “When even some of my friends started translating propaganda they heard from the state TV, I got frightened.”

For Rebel, Shakshuka is an important site to make the life of Russian-speaking Israelis more interesting and to help with their absorption.

“During my first months in Israel I felt the need for some sort of social-cultural space that could bring bridges between me and the Israeli society,” she explains. “And then I realized that I can make it myself, and I hope Shakshuka will become one.”

The latest wave of Russian immigration has already been given many names: “Putin’s Aliyah,” “cheese Aliyah,” (cheese was one of the first products to disappear from Russian supermarkets after international sanctions against the country), and “the Aliyah of the active.”

Owner of the Babel bookstore Evgeny Kogan (left) helps a customer. (Anna Rudnitsky/TImes of Israel)
Owner of the Babel bookstore Evgeny Kogan (left) helps a customer. (Anna Rudnitsky/TImes of Israel)

Besides Shakshuka and Babel, other initiatives launched by recent arrivals include a number of educational projects for children and cultural activities for adults. There is also a show room for designer clothes called Taiga in Tel Aviv, a company that produces premium-class food souvenirs from Israeli products, and a café in Tel Aviv called Vatrushka (Russian for a traditional pie made with farmer’s cheese), launched by former Moscow journalist and human rights activist Elena Kaluzhskaya.

“The latest Russian aliyah may not have the same impact on Israeli society as in the 1990s, because the figures are not comparable,” says Zeev Khanin from the Ministry of Absorption. “But it will surely revive community life in Russian-speaking Israel and will strengthen Russian educational institutions.”

Despite the evident hardships of starting a new life, the new immigrants from Russia sound enthusiastic about Israel and their future in it.

“My social and financial status in Moscow was higher than here, but it is compensated by the sea, the sun and the absence of having to listen to the state news,” Misha Tripolsky says.

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