Why is Israeli singer Omer Adam’s new song so controversial?

The debate over "Kakdila" speaks to deeper issues in the experience of the Russian-speaking Israeli community.
(A screenshot from “Kakdila” by Omer Adam)

We’re curious…

Israeli pop singer Omer Adam is used to creating songs that top the Israeli charts, but his latest single, “Kakdila” (which means “How are you” in Russian), caused a slightly different kind of reaction.

The song — which was released in time for “Novy God,” the Russian celebration of New Year’s — was criticized as racist and sexist by several prominent Russian Israelis, as well as Labor party leader and Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli who called it “the most vulgar three minutes heard during the last year.”

“Kakdila” quickly trended on YouTube following its release about a month ago, and currently has more than 4 million views and nearly 12,000 comments about whether it is racist or not. 

Critics argue that the song, which is about a Russian Israeli woman, contains derogatory stereotypes about the Russian-speaking Israeli community. The woman portrayed in the song drinks a lot, does not speak Hebrew well and is sexually promiscuous.

For example, the chorus includes the lyrics, “Where did she come from? She says that Hebrew is language difficult. All day long just Nyet and Da!” (“Nyet” and “Da” mean “no” and “yes” in Russian.)

Meanwhile, others came to Adam’s defense, arguing that he did not mean to insult anyone and is “allowed” to poke fun at the Russian Israeli community because his father is of Russian descent.

With the song causing such an uproar in Israeli society recently, we wanted to better understand this controversy and why this caused such strong reactions. What does the debate over “Kakdila” reveal about Russian Israelis and Israel?

Diversity of perspectives

Was Adam’s song written in good faith and simply meant to be humorous, or was it offensive and inappropriate? Transportation Minister and Labor party leader Merav Michaeli expressed her strong criticism of the song, calling it “racist, disparaging and humiliating.”

“I want to believe that if Omer Adam saw the girls who…believed what [this song] implies, he would make this song disappear from the world,” Michaeli wrote in a Facebook post.

Adam responded to Michaeli on Facebook, underscoring that his own family comes from the Caucasus (a region of former Soviet republics) and that the song was performed in jest and wasn’t meant to insult anyone. He added that Michaeli should “take a moment to breathe” and focus on improving transportation in Israel.

Israeli singer Netta Barzilai initially praised the song on Instagram as “catchy” and “addictive,” but removed her post and apologized after receiving comments that it was offensive.

“Sometimes in art we allow ourselves to do what is funny or what activates us in the room in good faith, and in practice it may hurt…an entire audience of people,” Barzilai wrote.

Meanwhile, Liza Rozovsky, a Russian-speaking Israeli citizen, explained how “Kakdila” brought back memories of being ridiculed for her accent and language as a new immigrant in the 1990s.

“Every Russian-speaker who went anywhere on the street, rode a bus or attended high school in Israel 20-30 years ago invariably heard “kakdila” and “horosho” [an expression of agreement in Russian] shouted at her in a mocking and disparaging way,” Rozovsky explained in a Haaretz op-ed.

But historian Gil Troy maintained that the song was not intended that way. “I admit I am not Russian and I don’t speak Russian,” Troy wrote in an email. 

“But Kakdila strikes me, and many other Israelis, as a light, silly song sung by Omer Adam, who himself has roots in Russia (the Caucasus Mountains). Culturally, Israelis remain brassy and bold, and would rather err on the side of laughing, and not take themselves or others too seriously,” Troy argued.

Israeli comedian Giora Zinger, whose parents immigrated to Israel from Russia, argued that the problem was not that Adam poked fun at the Russian community, but that Adam used stereotypes that were “outdated” and unoriginal. Zinger created a music video in response to “Kakdila” to show Adam a “better” way to joke with the Russian community.

Meanwhile, Anat Peled and Milàn Czerny, who are pursuing graduate degrees in Russian studies at the University of Oxford, argued in a Haaretz op-ed that “the real object of ridicule is Omer Adam himself” because he “seems curiously out of touch” with the “hybridized” and “multilingual” nature of Israeli identity today.

Who are Russian-speaking Israelis?

To really understand the controversy provoked by “Kakdila,” you’ll need to know some of the history of the Russian-Israeli community. Beginning in 1990, following the initial collapse of the Soviet Union, more than one million Russians immigrated to Israel within 10 years. To put this in perspective, Israel’s population at the start of the wave was only 5 million people. Read more about how the Russian aliyah changed Israeli society.

Why does this matter?

The debate over Adam’s song speaks to deeper issues in the experience of the Russian-speaking Israeli community. Here are a few important themes this story highlights:

  • Navigating complex identities — In his poem, “Who am I, what?” Russian-born Arik Eber, who immigrated to Israel in 1990, describes how he was not considered “Russian” enough in his birth country — and was not considered “Israeli” enough in Israel. Eber explores the challenges of being Russian and Israeli in his poem: “I am Russian/I am a Russian Israeli or Israeli Russian or Hebrew-speaking Russian or Russian-speaking Israeli or Israeli whose mother tongue is Russian,” he writes. The conversation about “Kakdila” puts a spotlight on the tensions that many Russian-Israelis feel.
  • Israel as a multicultural mosaic — According to historian Anita Shapira, the Russian aliyah marked the end of Israel’s “melting pot” period in which immigrants were expected to forget the culture they came from and become “Israeli,” and the beginning of a pluralistic society in which immigrants expressed their Diaspora culture (read our article about this here). This story shows how Israel’s multicultural reality can create challenges, not only for the Russian community but for many other groups as well.
  • The question of “Who is a Jew?” — One particular challenge the Russian-speaking community faces is the debate over the decades-old question, “Who is a Jew?” Many of the Russians who immigrated to Israel in the 1990s had at least one Jewish grandparent and qualified for citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return, but were not Jewish according to halakha (religious law). Today, an estimated 400,000 Russian-speaking Israelis are not Jewish according to halakha and therefore cannot get married in Israel.

The bottom line

As the Russian aliyah shows, the story of Israel is one of integrating different types of Jews and others who identify as Israeli. Whether it was the aliyah of Holocaust survivors or the Yemenite Jewish community in the first years of the state, the Ethiopian Jewish community in the 1980s and 1990s, Soviet Jewry in the 1990s, and many other Jewish communities from around the world, each wave of aliyah brought its own opportunities and challenges.

The debate over “Kakdila” is a fascinating window into the challenges and tensions that still exist today, more than 30 years after the immigration of the Russian community. Ultimately, this conversation is a reminder of the many different cultures and communities that exist within the Jewish state. While Israel’s multicultural reality presents challenges, it is also an opportunity to consider what it would mean to become one broader Jewish society, one gorgeous mosaic of multiple beautiful pieces.