Here in Jaffa and South Tel Aviv, we tend to focus quite a bit of our attention and conversation on the most recent newcomers to Israel– the African refugees and Asian foreign workers. They frequent the news, are the target of progressive socially conscious resource centers, and provide a constant source of heated debate. But I had a nice experience today with a slightly older generation of immigrants today, while I was shopping at my favorite clothing store in Jaffa.
I walk into Castro Outlet having been attracted by the “sale” sign: shirts for only 20 NIS (a little less than $5.50). Though I’ve been living on a volunteer budget, there’s must be something American deep inside me that makes me extremely receptive to retail therapy. Even if it’s something small: a cheap necklace, or a new blouse, I can’t help feeling more upbeat and ready to face the world when I’m wearing something new.
Upon entering, I quickly recognized the Russian-Israeli saleswoman. (I guess you could say I’m a regular). She was speaking with an Arab customer wearing hijab … in Russian! A little blue-eyed blonde girl identical to her mother was sitting on a stool behind the counter, listening in on the conversation. I began to browse through the blouses. “So which languages do you speak,” asked the saleswoman after a few minutes, switching into Hebrew. “Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, and English,” the Arab woman responded unabashedly. “I work in a Russian company so I learned there,” she explained.
The little girl behind the counter looked confused. “She speaks Russian, Ima?” she asked her mother in Hebrew, looking confused. “Yes, Russian!” the saleswoman clucked back delightedly, eyes still on the Arab woman. At this point, I chimed in, in Russian, “And so do I!” This is a big stretch of the truth, being that I know only a child-like vocabulary that my mom taught me when I was six. But I felt it was relevant to the conversation, and so I continued to ask the little girl in Russian, what her name was. (I mispronounced a word and the Arab woman corrected me).
The little girl stared back at me in shock, and suddenly the saleswoman started laughing. “She doesn’t know what to make of all this Russian!” she cried. We all laughed together, and I paid for my new blouse.
Though the Russian immigrants are not the newest of newcomers, they continue to face cultural differences such as the generational language gap between first and second generations. Those with Russian accents are stereotyped and looked down on just as much as the next foreigner in Israel, and oftentimes still find themselves in undesirable occupations like cleaning and prostitution. I hope that the type of kind of positive cross-cultural interaction that occurred in Castro Outlet, in Jaffa and elsewhere in Israel, will lead little girls like the saleswoman’s daughter to understand that it is okay– and even useful– to continue speaking the native tongue of their mothers.