Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Babushka in the Holy Land: Being a Russian-Israeli Grandmother in Israel Today

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Babushka in the Holy Land: Being a Russian-Israeli Grandmother in Israel Today

Article excerpt


In this paper I explore the self-definition of women who are now Israeli babushkas, ("grandmothers" in Russian), that is, women who migrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union (F.S.U.) over the past two decades as members of return-migrant families and became grandmothers in Israel.

In the F.S.U. the babushka was an explicit symbol of affinity and kindness and an essential and vigorous institution of family support and child-rearing. As Tiaynen (2013) explains, in the Soviet family culture there was often a woman of mature age-a babushka in her fifties or sixties-who was at the core of the organization and reproduction of everyday routines: taking care of children, cooking, doing laundry, pickling, cleaning, and being involved in her children's family life (see also Duprat-Kushtanina, 2011,2013; Utrata, 2008). The institution of the Soviet babushka, however, was challenged in the process of immigration to Israel in the early 1990's: A host society inevitably institutionalizes different discourses and practices of family life, and grandmotherhood is often (re)defmed and (re)negotiated in new cultural and socioeconomic contexts (Arber and Timonen, 2012; Settles et al., 2009). In the following sections I analyze the experiences and self-definitions of F.S.U. women who have recently become grandmothers. To that end, I have divided this article into five parts. The first part focuses on the theoretical concept of "return-migrant families." In the second part, before turning to the main challenges the newcomers faced in migrating to Israel, I briefly present the gendered (Jewish) families as they were in the F.S.U. In this section I also emphasize the special components of the Soviet gender contract, as encapsulated in the babushka institution. The third part deals with methodology and in the fourth part I present my findings, which reflect the way the women perceive themselves as immigrants who struggled to succeed in their new country. In part five, referring to the Soviet past and to the encounter with Israeli society, I discuss the making of the new Israeli babushka. The concluding section refers to what can be learned about family and migration from the grandmothers and their return-migration experience.


Return migration, once overlooked in research on migration, has become a growing concern in the field, and scholars now accord more prominence to this complex migration pattem, which can be found throughout the world. Examples may include Aussiedler, or individuals of German descent returning to Germany from Eastern Europe; Korean-Chinese or KoreanAmericans returning to South Korea or Jews returning to Israel ( Dumon, 1986; Kofrnan, 2004; Ni Laoire, 2008; Tsuda, 2009).

Like labor migration, ethnic return migration is linked to push factors that emerge when the situation in the country of residence turns bleak-politically, culturally, or economically. These factors are complemented by pull factors from the country of destination, such as a need for population growth or the desire to gain from the human and social capital of these immigrants, creating an environment in which waves of ethnic return migration can be expected. Although the returnees may initially be welcomed back, their homecoming often proves to involve ambivalent or negative experiences. Despite the returnees' ethnic affinity to the host society, they are frequently excluded as cultural foreigners and relegated to lowstatus jobs while new insider-outsider dualisms are constructed ( Ni Laoire, 2008; Tsuda, 2009).

"Diasporic homecomings" typically mean that entire families migrate. Thus, return-migrant families can often be defined as a mass family movement across borders. From the migrant families' point of view, this means that new challenges emerge, including the changing forms and (re)composition of the family; the gendered strategies deployed in the course of migration and their evolution; the changing status of specific family members, such as children and the elderly; and the implications of policy measures for the families (Dumon, 1986; Kofrnan, 2004). …

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