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Cultural Capital in Migration: Fishka Association of Young Russian-Speaking Adults in Tel-Aviv, Israel [1].


Young adults of immigrant background are increasingly in the spotlight, allowing migration and ethnicity scholars a fascinating inquiry into transitional forms of social identity and cultural expression. Although definitions somewhat differ, the 1.5 generation usually embraces adolescents and young adults who moved to the receiving country in their formative years (roughly between the ages of 8-10 to 18-20 years), usually with their families. Linguistically and socially, the 1.5-ers are located at the crossroads between their home and host cultures: some of them opt for expedient assimilation, others (the majority) emerge as competent bilingual/bicultural individuals and yet others may fall in the cracks between the two cultures, living in a chronic limbo (Steinbach 2001; Remennick 2003; Waldinger 2005). Research on the 1.5 generation in Europe, the USA and Israel indicates that these alternative trajectories reflect the age at resettlement (with younger migrants usually having a stronger drive for assimilation), geographic and social locations in the host society (such as living in ethnic enclaves or among the locals), economic mobility achieved by the parents, and perceived hierarchy between the cultures of origin and destination. Many young immigrants have lived through mixed scenarios, seeking rapid inclusion and rejecting their home culture at the outset, but later (typically by their early 20s) discovering the attractive sides of their origin culture and getting back to the fold (Remennick 2003, 2012). In any case, cultural scripts adopted by young immigrants are often hybrid, an admixture of languages, forms and content borrowed from both sources.

Due to the size of the ex-Soviet immigrant wave of the 1990s (forming 20 per cent of the Jewish population), Israel is particularly interesting for the study of 1.5-ers who now comprise a 'critical mass' among its young citizens. After spending 15-20 years in Israel and sharing common experiences and narratives, young Russian-speaking adults apparently feel the need to connect and express their specific forms of activism and creativity. This article casts light on one civic association that reflects the drive of young Russian Israelis to organize and establish their common (hybrid) identity--a club and community center called Fishka in Tel-Aviv. We anchor our empirical analysis in the theoretical frame of immigrant cultural capital and its role for immigrants' self-assertion in the receiving society. Following this framework, our discussion centers on various forms and expressions of cultural capital in the lives of young Israelis of Russian origin. We argue that creating new forms of cultural capital based on Russian legacies signifies their search for legitimacy and prestige in the new society. As a side effect, this cultural enterprise may affect the internal ethnic and social hierarchies between various subgroups of ex-Soviet and other Israelis.

Cultural Capital in Migration

The sociological discussion of creation and transformation of cultural capital by immigrants (Erel 2010, 2012) draws on the Bourdieusian paradigm. Bourdieu distinguished between three forms of capital: economic capital that is convertible into money and may be institutionalized as property rights; cultural capital that is convertible into economic capital and may be institutionalized in the form of educational qualifications, membership in intellectual and artistic associations, etc.; and social capital made up of social connections and convertible into economic capital and social mobility (Bourdieu 1986). Following Bourdieu, Lamont and Lareau (1988: 156) defined cultural capital as 'institutionalized, widely shared, high status cultural signals (attitudes, preferences, formal knowledge, behaviors, goods and credentials)' that may be 'used for social and cultural exclusion from jobs, resources and high status groups'. The power exercised through cultural capital grants legitimacy to the claim that specific cultural norms and practices are superior and institutionalizes these claims to access valuable resources (1988: 159). In migration research, the focus has often been on the conversion of cultural and social capital--such as migrant/ethnic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and informal networks--into economic capital by means of educational and occupational mobility (Zhou 2005; Waldinger 2005; Erel 2012). Although this process is somewhat relevant to the case study at hand--for example, social ties developed at Fishka help young immigrants find jobs and some of them are partly employed by this organization--in this article, we focus on the meanings and uses of the cultural capital produced by this migrant association.

Cultural capital appears in three forms: the embodied (as mind and body practices of demeanor, dress, etiquette and speech, together known as habitus), the objectified (cultural goods, such as musical records, pictures and books) and the institutional, including formal educational credentials (Bourdieu 1986). Cultural capital is also accrued in the process of informal education transmitted through the family, social networks and cultural associations. Cultural capital is mobile and crosses borders along with its carriers. Institutional forms of migrant cultural capital (especially educational and professional credentials) are often discounted in the new context; its physical vessels (books, pictures, etc.) are often left behind in the old country, but the embodied capital is an inherent part of migrants' identities and lifestyles (Erel 2010). It is an especially valuable asset for the migrants who lack substantial financial resources or social connections in the receiving country and can only use their knowledge and skills as vehicles of social mobility. Recent Israeli (Lomsky-Feder and Rapoport 2012; Lerner and Feldhay 2013), the USA (Zhou 2005, 2009) and European (Erel 2010, 2012) studies show that migrants always import their cultural capital from the country of origin but it seldom remains intact. Reflecting new experiences, their cultural tastes and consumption patterns evolve; over time they embrace multiple local elements, re-emerging in new, hybrid forms. Thus, Erel (2010, 2012) shows how educated Turkish women living in Britain and Germany creatively turn their imported skills (refurbished under new circumstances) into transnational cultural capital, both for themselves and their children.

Active cultural entrepreneurship is typical of many immigrant communities, taking the form of ethnic press and other media; ethnic food and music festivals; heritage language schools and enrichment groups for the children; adult classes of performing arts and spiritual practices. Russian and Chinese immigrants in both hemispheres are particularly well known for their prolific cultural industries and the drive for transmitting their cultural legacies to the children growing in the host country (Remennick 2007; Min Zhou 2009). If seen through the lens of ethnic social capital in diverse urban settings (Putnam 2002; Waldinger 2005), these enterprises usually pursue two related goals: reifying ethnic identity and fortifying internal community cohesion (bonding social capital) and outreach to the hegemonic majority and/or other ethnic groups in the host country (bridging social capital). These tasks may be equally important or one of them may supersede the other at different stages of immigrants' insertion in the host society.

Thus, the frameworks of social and cultural capital can really be intertwined for the study of immigrant cultural production. Applying this combined lens, our ethnography explored the novel forms of self-expression and organizational building among young Israelis of Russian origin. We tried to trace how various forms of hybrid cultural production helped empower the young immigrants allowing them to challenge the majority's cultural dominance and take pride in their Russian heritage. Before describing out fieldwork, a brief introduction of the Russian 1.5-ers in Israel is due.

Young Israelis with Russian Roots

Most young adults of Russian origin resettled in Israel over the last 25 years as 'reluctant migrants', due to their parents' decision to emigrate from the deteriorating post-soviet states. Over two-thirds of the adult immigrants failed to get adequate returns on their soviet education and work record and experienced occupational and social downgrading. Due to the soaring costs of living in Central Israel, many immigrant families had settled in the outlying towns with poor educational resources and few occupational opportunities. Most youths had a difficult time learning Hebrew, adapting to Israeli schools and negotiating local peer culture. Many were raised by single mothers, reflecting high divorce rates among ex-Soviets before and after migration. Their parents were often of little help and guidance during this painful transition, immersed in their own problems, socially disoriented and working long hours (Remennick 2012). The studies among young Russian immigrants during the 1990s have signaled multiple problems of inclusion: uneven performance at school, high truancy and dropout rates, lack of enthusiasm for the military service, and troubles with the law (Mirsky 1997; Fishman and Mesch 2005).

By the early 2000s, most young 'Russians' have outgrown these 'pains of adjustment', learned to navigate Israeli institutions and play by the local rules (Rozovsky and Almog 2011). Reflecting the forces of social stratification and variable economic mobility of their parents, the 1.5-ers with a Russian accent are now found in all social strata (Remennick 2011). The majority of those raised in the families of ex-Soviet intelligentsia, followed their parents' 'ethnic script' of social mobility via higher education (Rapoport and Lomsky-Feder 2002; Remennick 2003), and by the time of our research found themselves in the ranks of Israeli creative or professional class. Their higher education and professional identities (even those unrealized in Israel) have also served many Russian immigrants as a leverage to improve their status in the local ethnic hierarchy, surpassing veteran Mizrahi immigrants and on many levels merging with Ashkenazi middle class (Lerner et al. 2007; Gvion 2011). In a sense, this research can be seen as a follow-up on these earlier Israeli studies among Russian immigrant students and aspiring professionals in the domain of cultural production.

The story of Russian 1.5-ers in Israel is rather unique due to the size of this community and the existence of a thriving Russian subculture. It can be argued that such a 'critical mass' of same-origin migrants in a small country, where their language and culture have gradually gained acceptance and higher social status, may by itself lead to sociocultural retention. Yet, a similar tendency has been found among Russian immigrants in other host countries, where they comprise a much smaller minority. The studies among the former Soviet 1.5-ers in the USA, Germany and other Western countries (see, for example, Steinbach 2001; Kasinitz et al. 2001; Remennick 2007) have found a tendency to preferential social networking with co-ethnics, regardless of the extent of socio-economic adjustment in the new country. Most Israeli Russian 1.5-ers are bicultural (or intercultural); typically, they construct their own distinct pathway between the home and host cultures, augmented by the new transnational opportunities (Horowitz 2001; Remennick 2013). As a result, a new hybrid cultural bubble has emerged in Israel, typified by a hyphenated identity (Russian-Israeli), lifestyle (rock bands, clubs and fusion musical genres) and a mixed lingo called HebRush (Remennick 2003; Niznik 2011).

Current Research

We focused on one non-profit cultural association of young Russian Israelis, by the name of Fishka, literally meaning in Russian a dice used in board games and in youth slang referring to a peculiarity, a fluke or a brush of luck. This name hints at both the uniqueness and an ironic twist entailed in the 1.5 Russians' identity in Israel. Fishka appeared about 8 years ago on the social scene of Tel-Aviv, first as an art-cinema club, then as a framework for the (secular) study of Jewish heritage, and since 2011 as a full-fledged NGO with a multifaceted agenda and its own premises in South Tel-Aviv. This NGO is supported by a mix of donors, one of which is the Genesis Philanthropy Group founded by a Russian-Jewish business mogul M. Friedman. This is how this organization presents itself on its website (
Fishka's community is primarily comprised of young Russian-speaking
adults, who immigrated to Israel as children and teenagers from the
Former Soviet Union. Consequently, these young people may be dealing
with complex questions regarding their identity: they are Soviet-born,
Russian-speaking immigrants, Jewish and Israeli all at the same time.
The questions that concern us are: How would our different and
conflicting social identities merge with the multi-cultural society of
the State of Israel? How can we be an active part of contemporary
Israeli culture and society, based on our 'Russian' roots and Jewish
heritage? Fishka's mission is to support and expand the young
Russian-speaking community based on the values of creativity, cultural
influence, and social engagement in the context of the Jewish heritage
and Israeli society.

This mission statement underscores two related goals: the cultivation of the Israeli Russian identity as an asset, focusing on its creative potential, and building cultural bridges to the Israeli Jewish mainstream, with all its ethno-cultural diversity; combining and eventually merging the two forms of ethnic social capital. Fishka's projects include community volunteering--such as visiting Russian-speaking elders in local senior homes--a range of interest-based classes and groups--Russian drama troupe, tango class, Hebrew-Russian literary translation group, etc.--as well as novel, secular forms of celebrating Jewish and Russian holidays. Since 2009, Fishka's leaders took part in conducting alternative civic marriage ceremonies in Tel-Aviv s urban spaces for young Russian immigrants who cannot (or would not) marry in Israeli rabbinical courts. This activity signifies a challenge to the dominant religious establishment and joining the liberal agenda of civil marriage and divorce in Israel.

The club s premises feature a hall for events and dances where walls are lined with bookshelves containing hundreds of Russian books. An opposite wall is used for temporary art exhibits. There is also a patio with coffee tables, a conference room, a small kitchen and staff offices. The premises feature modern pragmatic design, pasting in multiple elements of the local, Middle Eastern flavor (furniture, fabrics, etc.), which merge the spirit of its renovated Ottoman-period building and the adjacent mixed Arab-Jewish neighborhood of Jaffa.

Our fieldwork with Fishka's staff, project leaders and patrons included 20 months of participant observation of its various events and activities, as well as 23 in-depth interviews with the key informants. The goals of the study included understanding the rationale for Fishka's appearance, the characteristics of its audience and activists, the evolution of its projects (including the reasons for their success or failure), and a close study of the hybrid cultural forms created by Fishka's participants. Due to size limitations, we will leave out the description of the public events sponsored by Fishka which we observed or participated in and focus on the selected interview findings and related narrative analysis. These semi-structured interviews highlight the personal intercultural journeys of the immigrants, the reasons for their attachment to the Fishka community and their roles in creating new forms of cross-cultural expression. Since both authors are Russian-Hebrew bilinguals, all interviewees were offered the choice of language, and two-thirds opted for their mother tongue. Yet, all of these interviews featured fragments of Hebrew idioms to enable more efficient expression. One-third felt more comfortable speaking Hebrew, but still pasted in multiple Russian words and expressions. Thus, in the best tradition of the 1.5 generation of Russian Israelis (Remennick 2003), our interviews were conducted in the language locally known as IvRus or HebRush.

Selected Findings

Being Russian-Israeli: Fishka's Place in the Immigrant Narratives

Fishka's members belong to the 1.5 generation: they came to Israel as older children or teenagers and are now in their late 20s or early 30s. Most are either single or divorced and appreciate the chance at social networking with young 'Russians like themselves in search of new friends and partners. The interviews therefore started with the request to tell the informant's story of resettlement and adjustment in Israel. The resulting narratives underscore the ambivalent and non-linear nature of the young migrants' experiences of inclusion-exclusion, attraction-deterrence and other facets of their uneasy encounter with the Israeli society. The informants exposed the complex dynamic of their evolving identities merging the Russian, Jewish and Israeli elements, featuring self-representations sometimes as migrants or sojourners and sometimes as locals, almost natives, with the combinations and order of these elements always in flux. Virtually all narratives described the initial years in Israel are marked by a psychological turmoil and forceful rejection of one culture (old or new) while sticking with the other in search of integrity and belonging. Longer tenure in Israel and personal maturation typically brought back the other (rejected) half; eventually, our informants found ways to peacefully incorporate both segments of their identity. They manifested a remarkable self-introspection regarding these shifts and locations vis-a-vis the Israeli mainstream. The bicultural, syncretic nature of the Fishka's vision and modus operandi perfectly fitted into their fluid sensibilities and nurtured the kinds of imagination that led to creation of hybrid genres and forms of expression.

The interview quotes below illustrate highly variable reactions of the young immigrants to their initial encounter with the Israeli society. Their narratives show that both perceptions and personal adaptation strategies of young immigrants vis-a-vis hegemonic cultural norms are constantly evolving. The bicultural model represented by Fishka helps its participants validate their complex identity and normalize their belonging to this cultural borderland. Deena and Lena, two project leaders at Fishka, arrived in Israel at different ages but had experienced a strong drive for rapid 'israelization'. Fishka helped them discover an attractive side of the Russianness that they had tried to abandon before. Deena (30), a physical therapist who came to Israel as elementary school pupil, told that, until recently, she had completely rejected her Russian origins and saw herself as a local--according to looks, perfect Hebrew, and general demeanor. She discovered Fishka by chance and fell in love with its style and crowd.
I always felt at ease with 'hidden' Russians like myself the kids who
grew up in Russian homes but tried to downplay their origins, look and
act like Sabras (Israeli natives). With them I could speak Hebrew but
didn't have to explain everything about my cultural roots, my parents'
problems of adjustment, etc.--we understood each other by default. Like
them, I used to be embarrassed by my Russian side [...] but all this
started to change at the university (where I met other 'hidden'
Russians) and especially at Fishka. Here I could tackle my 'backstory'
as an immigrant from its positive end, meeting the intelligent,
confident and successful young Israelis who proudly identified as
Russians [...]. They made me wish to learn more about Russian
literature, cinema, my own family story [...]. Now I am glad that my
Russian got back on track and I am not ashamed to speak it in public
although my Hebrew is still much better.

Lena (30) works in the high-tech industry; she came to Israel at the age of 18 but, just like Deena, strived to leave her Russianness behind:
Upon resettlement, I made a strong effort to switch into Hebrew in
everything reading, media use, and friends. Even my first steady
boyfriend was a Sabra [...]. But at some point I felt that all my
hanging out with Israelis was kind of superficial and limited to
'having fun' together at bars and clubs, not going much beyond small
talk. I missed a deeper substance I guess, and this brought me to
Fishka. Here I met the 'Russians' of a special kind, unlike those
square, hardnosed types that I used to associate with 'being Russian'
and distanced myself from. Fishka's crowd is different the intelligent,
thinking and creative kind, a real pleasure to be with [...] I got back
to speaking Russian and enjoy it, although I still largely think of
myself as an Israeli. Here I realized that one doesn't have to choose
between these two identities, but may feel comfortable right in the

Natasha (31), an actress working at a Russian repertoire theatre Gesher and a curator of Fishka's art exhibits, represents a different trajectory. She came to Israel with her parents at the age of 13, largely against her will, and had a very hard time finding her place in the new country.
I had been very happy in my native city, spending most free hours at
the drama studio, where I was loved and got to play major parts. When
my parents decided to leave, I was desperate, but couldn't stop them
[...] I remember being utterly miserable during my initial years in
Israel, feeling completely foreign to this place, hating the people,
the language, the way of life [...]. I'd learned enough Hebrew to
manage at school, but refused to speak it anywhere else. All my school
friends were other 'Russian' kids, united by our dislike of Israel and
of the suburban town where we were living [...]. All the time I looked
back with nostalgia to my old life and old friends [...]. Things
changed radically for me when I moved to Tel Aviv and got admitted to
the Moscovich Theatre School. There I met another kind of Israelis
living and breathing theatre like myself; we truly belonged together. I
started reading modern Israeli drama and fiction and fell in love with
the Hebrew language. Etgar Keret became my favourite author [...]. More
recently, I found the same kind of affinity at Fishka--it became a true
home for me, my ex-husband, and many others like us who felt
dispossessed of their identity and lonely in Israel. A great place to
invest your intellectual energy, to meet like-minded people, and
celebrate holidays together [...]. I keep thinking that if Fishka had
appeared in my life back in the 1990s, when I was struggling and
lonely, I could be spared these early years of misery [...]. I am
fluent in Hebrew now, but I still need a place where I can speak
Russian. We aren't really Russians anymore but neither are we true
Israelis; we are in-between, and we serve as a bridge between these
two cultures. This is a unique role our generation has to play.

All three narratives describe the journey of self-discovery by these immigrant women who had pitted their Russian and Israeli identities against each other as an insolvable dichotomy, only to find out later (and with the help of Fishka community) that they can be happily settled together in their mind and lifestyle. Natasha also reflects on the more general meaning of her peers' intercultural condition and concludes that the 1.5-ers have a special mission of bridging between the Russian and Hebrew cultures in Israel. Thus, joining Fishka community helped these cultural sojourners make sense of their lives, build a coherent self-narrative, and even discover a salient role in the new society.

A Journey Back Home: Reinventing the Habitus of Russian 'Intelligentsia'

Many narratives, including those quoted above, implied a complex relationship between our informants and their image of 'all things Russian'. Many of them had internalized the negative stereotypes of ex-Soviet newcomers circulating in the Israeli mainstream during the 1990s, the years of mass Jewish immigration, Aliya, from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) (Lemish 2000). Stereotypical images of these immigrants as Homo Soveticus unfit for living in a democracy, of mafia men and drunkards, sex industry workers and welfare-dependent single mothers--took a toll on the young minds of our informants, who had been called names by their classmates and street pals. Like Lena and Deena, many informants spoke about their eager wish to pass as native Israelis and erase any external signs of their Russianness. At Fishka, they encountered a very different kind of Russianness: articulate, intellectual, creative, seeking high standards of artistic self-expression. This constellation represented the best qualities of Russian-Jewish intelligentsia of their parents' generation who cherished European and Russian high culture and contributed a lot to its creation (Remennick 2007). The above-cited Deena (30, a physiotherapist) said:
At Fishka I met the people who want to spend their leisure in a
meaningful, creative way, just like me. Most of my Israeli pals would
go out for drinks and a little soul talk; they may go to a rock
concert or a movie, but nothing much 'heavier' than this. If you wish
to see a serious play or, G-d forbid, a ballet--they'll think you're
nuts, acting like an 'old Polish lady' [...]. At Fishka you can try
things that require some effort, not just light entertainment. For
example, most of my co-workers at the clinic find it weird that I
wanted to learn how to dance tango; this is simply beyond their
imagination. Or, say, many Israelis believe that Russian food is dull
and tasteless, so we wanted to prove them wrong and organized Russian
pancakes and sweet pastries festival on Memuna day [Passover's end
celebrated by Moroccan Jews with abundant sweet dishes]. We're showing
to the locals that Russians have many great things to offer, including
the food.

Deena's words underscore the group boundary building of Fishka patrons as consumers of high cultural genres like ballet and tango (elements of the 'embodied cultural capital' and perceived 'habitus of Russian intelligentsia') vis-a-vis their superficial and parochial native Israeli peers. Yet, she is also glad to prove the merits of her cultural inheritance to the prejudiced locals by introducing them to tango classes or offering them Russian sweet pastries at the Moroccan-Jewish Memuna celebration (trying to bridge these cultural and social gaps).

Many informants stressed the high quality of Fishka's entertainment and classes that they had never found before in other 'Russian' cultural venues and its unique brand of Russian-Jewish-Israeli merger of styles and themes. Thus, Fishka became the setting of the symbolic encounter between the values and practices of the previous generations of Russian intelligentsia and their current reincarnation, as young migrants in Israel. For some patrons, Fishka s library, cinema club and musical events became the first real encounter with their 'heritage' high culture, which they had left behind as children and experienced in Israel only second-hand, via their parents. Of course, at Fishka Russian cultural references (plots, images and texts) are reinvented and often poured in the new vessels of (post)modern culture--in the works of conceptual and video artists, song and poetry writers, stage directors and interior designers. Thus, Fishka supports a new branch of contemporary Israeli culture that borrows from the cultural repertoire of Russian--Jewish intelligentsia.

The 'ethnic script' of the parental generation (Epstein and Kheimets, 2000; Remennick 2007; Lerner et al. 2007) includes urban lifestyle (indeed, most Fishka participants have moved to Tel-Aviv from Israel s peripheral towns); higher education (most are professionals in the high-tech industry, medicine, education and a range of creative areas--journalism, design, theatre, etc.); broad cultural literacy (including history, art and philosophy), and the love for Russian and European high culture with concomitant attempts at artistic self-expression.

What are the foundations of the immigrant cultural capital cultivated and developed at Fishka? What does the ensuing cultural tool kit look like in terms of its components, sources and genres? It draws rather heavily on the traditional high cultural genres like drama, poetry and visual arts that are deemed prestigious by Russian--Jewish intelligentsia, with a more recent drift towards global and popular forms of cultural production (ethnic dance; jazz, rock and fusion musical performances; karaoke; food festivals, etc.). Signaling generational change, popular Soviet-time cultural genres like intellectual contests, humor festivals and trivia quizzes (KVN [1], Brain Ring, Chto-Gde-Kogda), as well as bard song festivals widely popular among the parental generation (Remennick 2007: 114), are present but less prominent on the club's agenda. In line with its above-stated mission, various forms of Jewish learning and traditional performance are another permanent item on the Fishka's schedule. Thus, the 'classical components of the Russian-Jewish intellectual habitus are augmented by novel activities in response to Fishka's expanding audiences and local urban fashions. Some constants, however, are carefully maintained. First and foremost, it is the quality of spoken Russian (articulation, lexicon, accents) that signals the origin in the FSU (Moscow and other capital cities vs. smaller towns of Southern Russia and Ukraine) and social origins of the speaker (more or less educated family). Most interviewees stressed the role of their Fishka experience in the improvement of their spoken Russian, often broken or rudimentary for those who had switched to Hebrew in childhood. At the same time, fluent Hebrew free of a heavy Russian accent is also central in Fishka's milieu; thus, the ideal patron is a symmetrical bilingual who can effortlessly switch language and cultural codes.

Second, Fishka's members show interest, and some basic erudition, in the world of classic and modern Russian literature; its importance is made evident by the size of the in-house library. Many of the center s cultural events focus on literary texts--meetings with Israeli and Russian poets and writers, translation workshops, staging Russian drama, etc. A basic competency in Russian theatre, music and visual arts is certainly a plus--many of Fishka's project leaders and patrons are artists, stage designers, singers, band players, etc. This literacy implies a fairly broad time range, including both the classic riches of the Russian culture and its current trends and icons. Thus, it requires being 'plugged in' by means of libraries, electronic media, and actual visits to theatre festivals, book fairs and the like--assuming a transnational lifestyle and keeping dense ties with former homelands and other branches of the post-Soviet diaspora. Although not all our informants pay regular visits in the FSU, most of them follow current political and cultural developments there, read new Russian authors, watch old and new films, attend performances of Russian bands when they tour in Israel: so, for them the connection to various tiers of contemporary Russian culture is real and tangible although their interests and choices are clearly different from those of their parents.

Some informants also mentioned the importance of cultivated and fashionable looks when appearing at Fishka's events, particularly for women who typically wear makeup, professional haircuts, polished nails and elegant shoes. This emphasis on groomed feminine looks hints at the casual (or unisex) appearance of many Sabras who come to Fishka. A couple of successful Tel-Aviv fashion designers (Frau Blau label) are among the club's patrons who also supply the stage costumes and clothes for project leaders, concert anchors, etc. Altogether, these manifestations of cultural finesse and good taste make a claim at these young immigrants' special place in the ranks of Tel-Aviv bohemia, their stake in creation of the city's thriving habitus, and at least parity (if not superiority) with other young creators who are native Israelis. This attitude is also supported by Fishka's main donor--the Genesis Foundation for Russian Jewry. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Sana Britavsky, head of Genesis Tel-Aviv branch:
This initiative [Fishka] looked unique from the outset, that's why we
decided to support it. It attracted young and trendy Tel Aviv crowd
that was interested in its Jewish and Russian roots. Not the ardent
Zionist kind that you find in Jerusalem but a bohemian kind,
professional, confident and well-adjusted in Israel. These were not the
people crushed by immigration and looking for a shoulder to cry on.
Most had received their degrees from good universities and started
promising careers [...] Even if they hadn't made it in Israel yet and
worked as janitors or guards, they aspired to become film directors and
artists and found here the outlet for their creativity. From the
outset, Fishka's leaders kept to certain standards that resulted in
self-selection: the rogue folks interested in loud music and a glass of
beer dropped out quickly.

Later, she mused:
In fact, Fishka is a post-migration phenomenon; its patrons are very
much the locals now [...] they remind me of the 2nd and 3rd generation
of the White Russian immigration in Paris. Already French, but of a
special kind, they cherished their Russian roots, sang Russian songs
and ate in Russian restaurants [...] Now this 'ethnic' tweak became
fashionable also in Israel, so it attracts young Sabras of a certain
kind who like hanging out with Russian 1.5ers [...]. Thus Tel-Aviv
slowly recovers its historic Russian roots--most of its founding
intelligentsia had come from Russia and built the city from scratch
[...] this lingering imprint helps young Russian Israelis feel at home

Sana's words evoke two elitist associations: one with the noble White Russian emigres in Paris who never severed their ties with the Russian culture, and the other with the Russian Jewish founders of Tel-Aviv in pre-state Palestine--iconic figures like poets Chaim N. Bialik and Alexander Penn, actress Hanna Rovina, the reformer of modern Hebrew Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, and many others whose names feature on many Tel-Aviv streets. She notes with pride that, thanks to Fishka and other similar groups, Russianness came into vogue among some Tel-Aviv's natives, which helps redress earlier negative stereotypes about the immigrants and bridge remaining social gaps. The invocation of historic Russian cultural icons of early Israeli statehood adds additional facets to the cultural capital construed by the immigrant leaders and fortifies their sense of belonging to Tel-Aviv's urban milieu. Sana's attitude (admittedly rather elitist) is shared by some other opinion leaders among Russian 1.5-ers and may reinforce feelings of superiority over both the natives and other ex-Soviets, of the provincial and unsophisticated kind, whose interests 'do not go beyond loud music and beer. It may both reinforce the internal boundaries along educational and ethnic lines within Israel's 'Russian Street and add political and personal advantages to these opinion leaders, both formal and informal.

Arguably, elitism is part and parcel of Russian--Jewish intelligentsia's self-concept and is seen as a virtue rather than a flaw. In this worldview, elitism implies strife for achievement and excellence, the hard work of cultural learning and self-improvement. Higher education, professionalism and broad cultural literacy form the main axes of this identity, with a special appreciation of self-made men and women, who excelled despite their meager origins and hostile milieu (as most Soviet Jewish professionals are descendants of poor and illiterate Jews of the Pale). In the last 30 years of state socialism marked by ubiquitous institutional antisemitism, Russian--Jewish intelligentsia developed a peculiar self-concept of a 'discriminated elite' (Remennick 2007: 31). Upon migration to Israel, many Russian--Jewish intellectuals continued to feel as a kind of 'unrecognized elite in their new homeland, due to their stifled occupational mobility, the language barrier, and perceived social exclusion by Israeli elites (Lerner et al. 2007; Remennick 2007: 109; Fialkova and Yelenevskaya 2007: 89, 239).

Yet, other informants felt uncomfortable or ambivalent about the elitism sustained by Fishka's habitus. This sensibility is exemplified by Ania (33), Israeli for 24 years, who works in information technology and is also an amateur painter:
I think this self-image of many at Fishka as 'Russian intelligentsia'
is snobbish and patronizing. The very term is probably irrelevant by
now, or too vague [...]. They try hard to ward off the 'simple folks'
who speak with Southern accents, the women with tacky clothes and
bleached hair [...] their worst fear is becoming a kind of a community
center for this low-income area.

Yet, Ania continues under the same breath:
On the other hand, this highbrow pose is empowering; it helps us feel
superior and insiders to the great culture unfamiliar to the locals.
Fishka is one of the few places where you can bring your Sabra friends
and enjoy their bewilderment and admiration at the images and texts
they don't really grasp. But it also makes me uneasy at times, because
I am not sure I belong to the ranks of 'intelligentsia' myself; I am
not always up to the standard.

Ania dislikes the Centre's tendency to isolate the outsiders, to avoid extending its welcome to unselected locals and immigrants. Yet, at the same time, she finds its elitist outlook empowering vis-a-vis her Israeli friends, allowing her to 'get even' with their former patronizing and looking down at the Russian newcomers. She is unsure if she is up to Fishka's standard herself (despite her being from Moscow, well-educated, and with the art streak). Ania's words attest to the tendency of Fishka's leaders to use their cultural capital as a symbolic tool to demonstrate superiority over native Israelis--at odds with its declared goal of bridging the cultural gap and attracting the Israeli peers to Fishka's activities. Aware of this critical undercurrent, in recent years Fishka has developed a more inclusive policy--not by giving up its high-brow workshops but by adding more popular, open-door events like food festivals, singing contests and holiday celebrations.

The Bridges between Russian and Hebrew Culture at Fishka

Several projects at Fishka aim at building intercultural bridges by introducing contemporary Hebrew culture to the 1.5-ers. One of them is called Chronicus (from Chronos--Greek for time); it includes meetings and readings of Hebrew writers, poets, stage directors, as well as field trips to culturally important sites in Tel-Aviv and beyond. Cronicus leader is Nadia (33), one of the key figures at Fishka, who came to Israel 22 years ago from Moscow, graduated from a theatre school and works as drama teacher and stage director. Nadia shared her thoughts on intercultural learning:
Most Fishka guys speak fluent Hebrew and feel Israeli, but they are not
always familiar with contemporary Israeli culture and its evolvement
over the 20th century. Chronicus seeks to fill in the gaps of their
knowledge and help them feel more connected to Israel [...]. We started
from the trips to several important museums and memorial homes, e.g. of
C. N. Bialik [a Hebrew poetry classic originally from Odessa], and
proceeded to learning urban history and architecture in Tel Aviv and
Jerusalem. We used any opportunity to invite different men of letters,
working both in Hebrew and in Russian, and the translators of drama and
poetry, like Peter Kriksunov who translated Bulgakov's 'Master and
Margarita' into Hebrew and Ro'i Chen, a Sabra who learned Russian
perfectly; he translates and adapts Russian drama at the Gesher
theatre. All of these events were sold out and some resulted in new
projects, for instance poetry translators' workshop.

Nadia added later:
One of our activists is a professional tour guide who works in both
languages and she really made us look at the city we live in
differently. Our field trips in Tel Aviv made a deep impression on the
Fishka guys. The stories of young Russian-Jewish pioneers who had
built the city in the 1910s-1920s remind them of their own journey 100
years later: back then, as now, the city scene is in flux and we can
contribute our fair share to its current history and cultural scene
[...]. These pioneers also felt being in the gap between the two
cultures and slowly learned to fill it with the new content. This
historical parallel makes us feel stronger and more relevant in this
place on the map.

Nadia's reflections underscore the role of Fishka in the fortification of young immigrants feelings of belonging to this country and city, their stake at and entitlement for a fair part in its on-going creation. The parallel between the earlier waves of Aliya from Russia and today's Russian 1.5-ers helps cement the intergenerational ties and a common vision of Israel's history and its culture as a complex tapestry with a significant Russian thread running across it. They claim their unique place as creators of Israeli, locally embedded cultural capital drawing on the Russian language and traditions.

Nadia's story also evokes the theme of cultural translation; it is not accidental that so many of the events revolve around translating and interpreters--of drama, poetry, bilingual city guides and the like. Lerner (2013: 35) argues that the whole process of immigrant integration in Israel can be seen through a metaphor of intercultural translation, combining both symbolic and pragmatic elements bridging between immigrants past and present. Immigrants employ their 'old knowledge and frames of reference as a lens to scrutinize and interpret new realities of Israel, thus creating unique cultural hybrids, products of intercultural translation. The act of translation occurs both literally, in the events and workshops discussing Hebrew--Russian literary translations, and metaphorically, for example interpreting Jewish and Israeli holidays into the cultural and symbolic language understandable for ex-Soviet immigrants who were raised without any Jewish traditions at home. The following quote (from Nadia's narrative) illustrates how cultural translation is deployed during celebration of the Passover Seder at Fishka:
The project Mahogim is about celebrating high Jewish holidays in novel
ways that make them enjoyable and meaningful for our participants.
First, we asked them which elements of Seder they like and dislike and
why [...] most folks disliked tedious reading of the Aggadah [a long
traditional text describing Jewish slavery and exodus from Egypt]
before starting the meal, making everybody edgy. On the other hand, we
didn't want to reduce this important evening into a mere dinner party.
So it was decided not to read the Aggadah but discuss instead the
major issues it raises slavery, the cost of freedom, and leadership in
the form of a brain storm game, with two competing teams tackling the
questions. It took about an hour and the folks got all excited about
this dispute, which continued over the meal. What did we do about
traditional singing of Seder songs in obscure Aramaic language? A kind
of karaoke--we posted the words on a screen so that everyone could
follow. Then we switched to singing familiar songs of Russian
bards--Vysotsky, Okudzhava, Gorodnitsky, Vizbor mainly those devoted
to journeys, roads, and personal transitions, and there are many such
songs in the familiar Russian repertoire. So everybody could connect
to the deeper meaning of Passover and also enjoyed themselves,
including my 70-years old mother.

Apparently, the Seder night at Fishka stood far from its traditional Orthodox format, but its symbolic message was clearly delivered by means of familiar cultural genres; a brain-storm game and singing Russian songs about freedom. This act of cultural translation made an ancient Jewish tradition more legible and meaningful to the secular patrons of the club, both young and old.


In this article, we present the selected findings from our on-going ethnographic project on identity and community building among young Russian Israelis, looking at it through the lens of cultural and social immigrant capital. Hopefully, it contributes to several related research streams: understanding immigrant cultural production as a tool of their social mobility; the ambivalent place of Russian immigrants in Israel''s ethnic hierarchy; cultural legacies and innovation in integration scripts of the 1.5 generation. Participant observations and interviews with the leaders of Fishka club--arguably the most prominent NGO of this kind in Israel--depict the creative reinvention of the habitus of Russian-Jewish intelligentsia emerging in the novel, hybrid, and rapidly evolving cultural forms. An association like Fishka could not have appeared during the 1990s, when the first generation of Russian immigrants tried various forms of self-organization. Its bicultural agenda and a distinctly Israeli modus operandi could only be implemented by the 1.5-ers educated and socialized in Israel. In the original venues designed by Fishka's leaders, the cultural capital imported by the immigrants from the FSU is poured into new vessels and forms prompted by the current Israeli realities and timeless Jewish traditions (like karaoke singing of Russian freedom songs instead of traditional Passover chants). Creatively combining Russian and Hebrew forms and effortlessly switching codes in between, young 1.5-ers give rise to the new genres and expressions of contemporary Israeli culture, in which immigrant narratives have always played a salient role.

Looking at this organization through a Bordieusian lens, we argue that Fishka's participants successfully merge and trade social and cultural forms of capital: drawing on their co-ethnic social network as a resource they produce new forms of high and popular culture, which in turn helps reinforce their social ties and hybrid identities. Their cultural work-in-progress sustains the special habitus of this immigrant association, stressing high cultural competence of its members made tangible by the impressive library, modern drama productions, choir and tango class, and educational trips to the important cultural and historic sites. Discovering together the historic Russian roots of urban Israeli culture, these young immigrants reinforce their feelings of ownership and belonging to the local narrative. Other signs of migrant cultural capital at Fishka include its members formal educational credentials and professional occupations, setting high standards for both languages spoken in its walls, and multiple projects aiming at cultural translation, literal and symbolic, between the Russian-Soviet and Israeli-Hebrew texts and traditions.

These signs of particular habitus and social locations of Fishka manifest its orientation towards the country's Ashkenazi elite, to which many of its leaders aspire to belong. In their outreach efforts, the association's leaders wish to attract a higher tier of the Hebrew-speaking patrons whom they construe as their social peers--the young professional and artsy Tel-Aviv crowd. Bringing their Sabra friends to the club, the Russian 1.5-ers can take pride in their high cultural production, educate and even somewhat patronize these locals, 'getting even for their exclusionary or down-looking attitudes towards the Russian newcomers in the initial years after migration. Thus, the tendencies to sustaining boundaries and opening up to the cultural outsiders are closely intertwined; they create a complex and ambivalent dynamic between this immigrant organization and its surrounding milieu. The specific Fishka's projects that we explored in our fieldwork but could not describe here (e.g. writing Hebrew poetry, outreach to the local youth centers and senior community, celebrating a folk Moroccan--Jewish holiday, etc.) aim at bridging the social and ethnic hierarchies of the Israeli society generally and the city of Tel-Aviv specifically.

We conclude that Fishka's agenda and practices merge and reconcile ostensibly different branches of immigrant social capital, the one seeking to reinforce internal cohesion and demarcate group boundaries and the other reaching out to the host majority and adopting local practices. Their hybrid cultural production borrows from Russian texts and images and weaves them into Israeli (and global) cultural tapestry. Fishka's volunteer and social-change projects targeting the social issues relevant for Russian Israelis (fostering intergenerational ties and support of lonely immigrant elders, alternative weddings for ethnically mixed couples) simultaneously express the immigrant 1.5-ers' drive for active citizenship in its very indigenous forms. The overall impact of this community for its members is often described by them as personal empowerment and resolution of identity conflict on bicultural grounds. While admittedly manifesting elements of elitism and selectivity at the outset, over time the drive for openness and outreach to ethnic and cultural others in Tel-Aviv's urban space has reshaped Fishka's declared agenda, the style and content of their events. The follow-up study of this organization's trajectory may engender interesting insights on the future of biculturalism, immigrant cultural production and ethnic stratification in Israel.


This research was supported by Sociological Institute for Community Studies at Bar-Ilan University. The authors are grateful to the founders and leaders of Fishka (particularly to Helen Buchumensky, Rita Brudnik and Nadia Greenberg) for their welcome and support of our fieldwork. We appreciate the time and cooperation of our informants who frankly shared with us their immigration stories and experience at Fishka. The responsibility for the interpretation of these narratives rests with the authors alone.


[1] KVN--loosely translated from Russian as 'The Club for the Merry and Ingenious'--is a popular humor contest, usually between two teams, including both scripted stand-up items and improvisations, on-the-spot quizzes, musical parodies and other genres. KVN shows were arranged as national and local league competitions, usually between college student teams, and were shown on national TV in both Soviet and post-Soviet times. KVN was molded into a unique cultural genre that was exported by ex-Soviet immigrants to Israel, USA and other receiving countries, so that KVN contests are staged in local clubs, community centers and broadcast on immigrant radio stations across the Russian-speaking diaspora (Remennick 2007).


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[1] Reprinted with permission from: Journal of Intercultural Studies, 2015, 36 (1): 17-34.
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Author:Prashizky, Anna; Remennick, Larissa
Publication:Sociological Papers
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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