“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.
At 106 Allenby the Mal’enkaya Rossiya (Little Russia) delicatessen has everything you need to re-create a serious Russian table in the Middle East. There’s vacuum-packed vobla, dried fish from the Astrakhan region, which is perfectly matched with beer; marinated mushrooms in an enormous jar; creamy, buttery Eskimo ice cream—a Leningrad childhood favorite of mine; tangy eggplant salad; chocolate nut candy; glistening tubs of herring fillet; and a beautiful pair of pig legs. “Israelis love these stores now,” Zur-Glozman tells me, and the pig legs may be just one of the reasons. Russian speakers, Jewish or not, have an abiding love affair with the piggy, and it was the influx of former Soviet immigrants that brought a taste for the cloven-hoofed animal to Israel, much to the dismay of the country’s religious conservatives. The wildly successful and ham-friendly Tiv Taam chain of luxe food stores came along with the Russian immigration; the aforementioned Gaydamak tried to purchase the chain and turn it kosher, but even his billions couldn’t temper the newfound Israeli enthusiasm for the call of the forbidden oinker.
Farther down on Allenby, the Russian-language Don Quixote bookstore—the Russian nerve center of Allenby Street—is full of curious pensioners and boulevard intellectuals feasting on a lifetime’s worth of Isaac Asimov’s science fiction, Russian translations of the kabbalah, and an illustrated Hebrew-Russian version of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which is presented like a Talmudic text with sweeping commentaries crowding the words. “To Nineteen Year Old Gaga—so that he won’t be stupid,” an old tome is helpfully inscribed.
A few blocks down the street, the Little Prague restaurant is full of Russian boys hitting on Israeli waitresses, and young Russian women pretending to eat. Little Prague exults in a wonderful version of the Czech classic veprove koleno—a marinated and slow-roasted pork knuckle with a hint of rye, which in the hands of the chef is flaky and light. There is also a heroic schnitzel and excellent Staropramen and dark Kozel beer on tap. The interior is gloomy Mitteleuropean, but outside a nice garden deck beckons, fully populated by drunk, hungry people as late as 3 a.m. and at times bathed in the familiar sounds of the theme song to The Sopranos.
Allenby saunters into the sea, where pale ex-Soviets take to the beach like it’s their native Odessa and florally dressed babushkas offer me advice: “Young man, take your sneakers off, let your feet breathe.” A right turn at Ben Yehuda Street leads to the Viking, a languorous, partly outdoor restaurant that joylessly specializes in dishes like golubets, a stuffed cabbage peppery and garlicky enough to register on the taste buds. As I tear my way though the golubets and lubricate with a shot of afternoon vodka, a mother in one corner softly beats her son, who is wearing a T-shirt that says ready when you ready. Crying, beaten children, along with sea breezes and heavy ravioli-style pelmeni swimming in ground pepper, complete the familiar picture, which could have been broadcast live from Sochi, Yalta, or some other formerly Soviet seaside town.
Off the Allenby drag, Nanuchka is what Zur-Glozman calls a neo-Georgian supper club, a place where one can order a cool pomegranate vodka drink, featuring grenadine juice from Russia and crushed ice, or a frozen margarita made with native arak liquor, almonds, and rose juice. The décor is mellow and cozy like a shabby house in Havana, complete with gilt-edged mirrors, portraits of feisty, long-living Georgian grandmas, and many charming rooms stuffed with sumptuous divans and banquettes in full Technicolor. The highlight of the crowded and raucous bar is a photograph of the former prime minister Ariel “The Bulldozer” Sharon staring with great unease at a raft of Picassos. At its more authentic, the Georgian food can really shine. Try the tender chakapulu lamb stew with white plums and tarragon, or setsivi—a cool chicken breast in walnut sauce, bursting with sweetness and garlic. Pinch the crust of the cheburek meat pie and watch the steam escape into the noisy air.
On the same street as Nanuchka, the club Lima Lima hosts a popular Sunday night showcase for Russian bands called “Stakanchik,” or “little drinking glass.” Amid luxuriant George of the Jungle décor, young, hip, and sometimes pregnant people in ironic CCCP and Jesus T-shirts shimmy and sway by the stage. A young singer wearing an ethnic hat begins a song with the words “Now it has come, my long-awaited old age,” a sentiment somehow both Jewish and Russian.
I end my tour of Russian Tel Aviv at a much stranger place, the cavernous Mevdevev nightclub, located a stone’s throw from the American embassy but occupying, until its recent closing, a space-time continuum all its own. As the evening begins, a birthday boy in his forties, dressed in a plaid shirt and sensible slacks, is paraded on stage by the MC and forced to sing 70’s and 80’s Russian disco hits.
A young woman in a skimpy plaid schoolgirl outfit dances around a SpongeBob birthday balloon as the nostalgic Russian music, along with a detour into the early Pet Shop Boys, bellows and hurts. My friend Zur-Glozman meets an armed, cigar-chain-smoking Ukrainian, a graduate student of the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas at Tel Aviv University who now lives in the occupied territories, as do many ex-Soviet immigrants. He invites Zur-Glozman and some of our friends for a ride in his car, which is the size of a school bus. We negotiate the gleaming white curves of Bauhaus Tel Aviv, looking for a nightcap. Over at Little Prague, the inevitable Israeli political argument breaks out between the right-wing Russian-speaking settler and some of my liberal Israeli friends. “You probably think our houses are built of Palestinian babies,” the settler huffs.
“Well, you’re the one with the gun,” an Israeli woman tells him.
I worry for the sanctity of the evening, torn between geographical kinship with the formerly Soviet settler and political kinship with the progressive Tel Avivians, but as mugs of Kozel beer are passed around and the nighttime temperature falls to bearable levels, the passions cool. “As you can see,” an Israeli friend tells me, “we aren’t killing each other.”
Gary Shteyngart is a T+L contributing editor.
The best time to visit Tel Aviv is between March and June, as well as the stretch between September and mid-January. Unless you’re ready to brave temperatures over 100 degrees, avoid July and August. Delta, El Al, and Continental all have nonstop flights from New York City or Newark, N.J., while several other carriers connect through London.
The best way to get around the city is by bus; when taking a taxi there’s no need to tip the driver.
Great Value Cinema Hotel Housed in one of the city’s first movie theaters, this film-themed property now has 82 rooms, complimentary Wi-Fi, and bikes for guests’ use. 1 Zamenhoff St.; 972-3/520-7100; cinemahotel.com; doubles from $196.
Eat and Drink
Little Prague 56 Allenby St.; 972-3/516-8137; dinner for two $48.
Mal’enkaya Rossiya 106 Allenby St.; 972-3/566-8989; lunch for two $20.
Nanuchka 30 Lilienblum St.; 972-3/516-2254; drinks for two $20.
The Viking 6 Ben Yehuda St.; 972-3/620-6502; dinner for two $52.
Don Quixote 98 Allenby St; 972-3/566-4195.
Lima Lima 42 Lilienblum St.; 972-3/560-0924.