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Tel Aviv's Little Russia

Allenby Street, Tel Aviv

Photo: Maira Kalman

“My hands are cold, but my heart is warm,” a tanned young Israeli girl coos to me in broken Russian at a Tel Aviv nightclub as we nod along to an incomprehensible ska beat. “Do you think I’m pretty? Are you a Russian billionaire? I only want to marry an oligarch. Like Gaydamak.”

That would be Arkady Gaydamak, the Israeli-Russian billionaire, aspiring politician, owner of the right-wing Beitar Jerusalem soccer squad (its fans famously refused to heed a moment of silence in honor of slain former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin), noted philanthropist, and fugitive from French justice for alleged illegal arms trading to Angola and the less glamorous crime of tax evasion. No book or screenplay has yet been written about Gaydamak’s fantastical life, an omission that may soon have to be corrected. “I am the most popular man in Israel,” Gaydamak once proclaimed (at least one opinion poll said as much), marking him as the most stunning representative of an immigrant group that has peppered the omelette of Israel’s politics, society, and culture since the 1990’s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and more than a million Russian speakers showed up in the Holy Land.

In Tel Aviv, Israel’s Mediterranean business and cultural capital, I meet the young, freckled, redheaded Masha Zur-Glozman, a freelance writer and Israeli-born daughter of immigrants from Russia and Ukraine. “The Russians are now perceived to be cooler, more cosmopolitan,” Zur-Glozman tells me. “They have connections to places like Moscow and Berlin [a city also home to a large Russian community] that the native-born Israelis do not.”

Zur-Glozman has written about the 10 stereotypes of Russian-Israelis. Among her menagerie: the bad-tempered veteran who puts on his World War II medals on Victory Day, can’t let go of his memories, and constantly toasts “Death to our enemies!”; the quiet, intelligent one with very specific interests like Greek pottery or Napoleonic campaigns who speaks shyly with a heavy Russian accent; the very bitter former-Soviet-bureaucrat-cum-third-grade-sports-teacher who drinks too much, terrorizes his family, and is forever torn between over-patriotism and hating Israel; and the sexy math teacher with a white-collared blouse, spectacular cleavage, and leather skirt who abuses her students, ignores the girls, humiliates the physically weak, and openly cheats on her poor schmo of a husband.

Walking down Tel Aviv’s Allenby Street I seem to run into all of the above and more, the Russian language muscling in on the spitfire Hebrew and the occasional drop of English. “Worlds colliiiiiiding!” Zur-Glozman does her best Seinfeld imitation with a comic flourish of the arms. Allenby, like many streets leading in the direction of a municipal bus station, has something not quite right about it. The street exudes its own humid breath, its faded buildings sweating like pledges at a Southern fraternity. When the sun goes down, darkened nightclubs with names like Temptation and Epiphany entice the passersby. Russian pensioners, some sporting the beguilingly popular “purple perm,” sing and play the accordion for shekels. Hasids try to snare male Jews with the promise of phylacteries.

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