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The sizable Russians in Israel

A hefty part of the population of this country is made up of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

india Updated: Dec 31, 2006 18:23 IST

"Zdrastvitiye!” (Hello!) An impeccably groomed blonde at the check-out counter in the local supermarket busily toted up the groceries.

"Kak dyela?' (How are you?)

"Normalni. Spaceba." (Fine, thanks)

"Benny Sela police catch, catch you understand?"

"Yes, ya panimayu, ochin kharasho da?" (Yes I understand, great isn’t it?)

Is this the Tel Aviv diary or the Moscow diary, you may well wonder. Sadly, Moscow is far away. Irina and Rosa who check out my groceries, Sasha who packs them and sees me off with a cheery "Paka!" (Bye!) are my friendly neighbourhood Israelis. 

A hefty part of the population of this country is made up of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and Russian is one of the most popularly spoken languages. Russian speaking oleh are by and large integrated into Israeli society, but cling stubbornly to their native language. A bit of broken Russian goes a long way here.

Benny Sela who last week threatened to cast a pall over the Hannukah holidays, has been caught after a two week manhunt and is safely placed in isolation at the Rimonim Prison. His companions include Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzak Rabin. While women have finally breathed a sigh of relief, Sela’s capture has led to as much controversy as his escape. The beleaguered police are now being pilloried for having insulted, ill-treated and paraded Sela as though they had caught a wild beast of prey, violating basic laws of human dignity and freedom.

A much discussed book in intellectual circles in Israel lately has been the Hebrew translation of The Attack by Mohammed Moulessehoul, an Algerian Muslim, who for some strange reason writes under his wife’s name Yasmina Khadra. The book's main character is a Bedouin, Dr Amin Jaafari, who works as a senior surgeon in a Tel Aviv hospital. Jaafari, quite apolitical, remains indifferent when a terror attack takes place in the city, wounding dozens.

His life dramatically changes when he is called to his own hospital to identify his wife’s dead body. There he learns his wife was not an innocent victim, but one of the suicide bombers. His inner turmoil after  making this discovery takes up the bulk of the work.

Khadra has never visited Israel or Palestine. That makes his immense familiarity with Tel Aviv's streets most surprising. He explains he chose the Bedouin hero because of "the tradition, the authenticity and the philosophy that accompanies their lives." Foremost in Khadra's mind, Jaafari represents an example of what Palestinian Arabs could be if the world lets them stop fighting.

It is well known that Jerusalem is crucial to three different religions - Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Not so well known is that   Jerusalem celebrates three separate Christmases!  The Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Chruches  all celebrate the birth of Jesus here on different days: December 25, January 7 and January 19 respectively.

Not many people know about the Armenian Church, which is ironic, because Armenia officially adopted the faith in 301 AD, well before the West did!  This church does not believe in merry making or gift exchanging at Christmas, which it claims are  pagan influences.  Says the spokesman for the Armenian Patriarchate, "Originally the pagans worshipped Saturn on  December 25 in Rome, while Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus on January 6." The pope of the day, Sylvester, in order to abolish the pagan feast, moved the celebration of Jesus's birthday from January 6 to December 25, but the Armenian Church saw no reason to follow his diktat.

Since the Armenians maintain the ancient date of Christmas as well as the old (Julian) calendar, 13 days are added to January 6, postponing Armenian Christmas until January 19 on the modern (Gregorian) calendar.

The Greek Orthodox Church was initially most reluctant to join the Western church in celebrating Christmas on December 25, but eventually did so for the sake of Christian unity. Still, Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox Church clings to the Julian calendar, so when it adds the required 13 days to December 25, it celebrates Christmas on January 7 according to the modern calendar.

Obviously since the majority population is Jewish, for most Israelis all three days are simply normal working days.