Correct me if I’m wrong: The way Israelis see American Jews is in many ways a microcosm of how non-Americans see Americans in general. Israelis assume their American counterparts care about Israel in a self-serving way, one that allows them to sit comfortably in America (note stores in Israel selling “American Comfort” mattresses) and hold forth on issues whose results do not affect them personally. Oh, and American Jews, like other Americans, are ugly and fat. (I prefer to think of it as Tel Avivians and Parisians are just especially thin and good-looking).

But the specific problem here is that American Jews care more about Israel than do other Americans, yet seemingly do not differ from their compatriots (or, for that matter, from the rest of the world) in their refusal to see Israel as anything other than a political problem. Israel is something to read about in the op-eds, to sign petitions defending. Israel is an issue to search for when choosing whom to vote for, along with abortion, taxes, and education. For American Jews, Israel is a cause, a stance, or an argument. It is not, however, a country with a unique culture.

When other minorities in America think about their “home” countries, the first thing they think of is not political conflict, but culture. Even when these countries are in the midst of political conflicts as big as or greater than the ones facing Israel. We know that Ireland has never had any conflict with any neighboring country, that this part of the world has never dealt with any dispute between populations that to all outsiders look to be identical. In any case, to be Irish-American is to have pride, either in Irish culture from Ireland itself or in Irish-American culture.

When most American Jews think about Israel, they do not think about falafel or Israeli rock, the beach culture of Tel Aviv, kibbutzim, aggressive driving, or any other cliched if not inaccurate detail of Israeli culture. They presumably have this information, and know a bit about Israel as a country, and may have even visited, but they hear “Israel” and their thoughts immediately turn to Thomas Friedman or, better yet, the European Left.

Let’s be realistic. American Jews will never know what it’s really like to be Israeli, any more than Israelis will know what it’s like to be Jewish in America. Which is fine. Israelophilia will never celebrate an accurate, “authentic” representation of Israeli culture. Also fine. But without expecting every last Jew with an opinion on Israel to trade in Springsteen for Beit Habubot, we need to switch the focus of American Jewish ties with Israel to one that is less a political alliance and more of a cultural one. Relatedly, cultural Judaism in 2007 needs to be less about latkes and more about schwarma. The choice need not be between a fun, cultural Judaism stuck in the past and yelling, to no avail, at BBC News. The political arguments matter, but in isolation are a complete waste of time.

Latest posts by phoebe (see all)

About the author

phoebe

24 Comments

  • OMG! I love this little post. It may be short but it says so much. My temple thinks Israel is a bus tour with stops at 5 major sites. Period. If we weren’t so broke from infertility, we’d love to have gone on the Smithsonian sponsored tour recently offered. The Smithsonian does a great job of getting the cultural and history of a place and introducing very personal connections. But the costs are unreal for most families. I have very little interest in that which is religious but have a very strong attachment to culture and identity which could be fostered by a more unique approach to homeland visits. Think that will ever happen?

  • Relatedly, cultural Judaism in 2007 needs to be less about latkes and more about schwarma.

    See, this is why the “Hummus isn’t Israeli!” thing isn’t quite 100% stupid….

  • Believe it or not, the Bronfman Center at NYU was sponsoring a unique social justice oriented program for a few years, I’m not sure if they are still doing it but it was great. Unlike the standard birthright trip, it was an exchange where the Israelis came to the U.S. and the Americans went to Israel. There was a group of about a dozen American Jews and a dozen Israelis and both groups were involved with social justice activism. Most, if not all, of the Israelis were affiliated with the group Memizrach Shemesh:

    http://www.mizrach.org.il

    This is a group dedicated to linking social justice struggles to the study of Jewish religious texts. They are also very involved in issues of concern to the Mizrahi communities. Many of them work at the Kedma school in Katamonim.

    The American group was more mixed. Some were involved in women’s health and reproductive rights, others with lgbt issues, gang violence, homelessness, etc. My interest is labor rights and immigration. We “met” a few times via video teleconferencing before meeting in person.

    First, the Israelis came to the U.S. to see the sorts of activist projects people are working on and what Jewish life is like in NYC. We went to a variety of shuls, brought people from all sorts of organizations and groups for presentations, and even managed to squeeze in a few fun field trips. Then the Americans went to Israel to see the sorts of projects they are working on and what Jewish life is like in Israel. A lot of their activism is centered in the Katamonim neighborhood. We also visited with feminist post-Zionists and Zionist olim at Hebrew University and went to the Open House in Yerushalayim, met with the head of the guest workers union in Tel Aviv, went to the Negev to visit a shul started by Indian Jews and also had a chance to listen to them play some amazing music. There was also a presentation and discussion with the amazing people at NATAL: the Israel Center for the Victims of Terror and War:

    http://www.natal.org.il/eng/eindex.aspx

    There was a real emphasis on discovering what life was like beyond the conflict and an emphasis on cultural life in both countries. I think these sorts of exchanges are necessary and important. Israel is much more than the conflict. But politics will always remain a huge part of the connection that Jews have to Israel as long as the situation remains so tense between Israel and the rest of the world. When Israel is in as stable a position as France, then it will be perfectly understandable that food, drink, song, and cinema (cultural life) takes precedence over survival (politics). Until that time…

  • “[P]olitics will always remain a huge part of the connection that Jews have to Israel as long as the situation remains so tense between Israel and the rest of the world. When Israel is in as stable a position as France, then it will be perfectly understandable that food, drink, song, and cinema (cultural life) takes precedence over survival (politics). Until that time…”

    There doesn’t need to be an until that time. Much of what goes on in Israel is absolutely, boringly normal. People go to school, to work, run errands, and yes, enjoy food, drink, song, and cinema. Not to put it too bluntly, but it ain’t over till it’s over, and, existential threats or not, Israel exists, and has for the last 59 years. In this time a specific culture has appeared; a “tense” relationship with other countries has not prevented this from occurring. By focusing on survival, by repeatedly telling people that Israel must exist, should exist, we give ground to the claim that Israel’s existence is up for debate. A celebration of culture is not some ornament for once Israel is accepted by all (a day that may well never come), but is itself the strongest possible way of promoting the nation’s survival. Israel is not just the negatively-defined result of a state resulting from the Holocaust, possessing the miraculous ability not to be destroyed by its neighbors. It is also a positively-defined spot with its own culture(s) and way(s) of life. By “positive” I do not mean uplifting, but just not defined by what it isn’t or what it manages to avoid.

  • You really dont know anything about Ireland or being Irish American. For years, a large part of the connection with Ireland from Irish-Americans came in the form of monetary and political support for Sin Fein and the IRA. This was a major way of connecting to the homeland. Now that the conflict is settling politically, ex-pats and Irish Americans are becoming much more involved in supporting business and cultural ventures in Ireland than political things.

    Also, if you are familiar with Ireland and with Irish Americans, you know that Irish Americans dont have the most accurate idea of what Ireland is like either.

    Also, this is a horrible generalization of American Jews based on what you see around you and feel you have to judge.

    Thanks for this babbling, judgemental statement that reeks of cultural superiority.

  • Oh no Trebek, That was only true for Ireland for much of the past 200 years or so. 100 or more years before the modern invention of Sin Fein and the IRA. Ditto for Zionism BTW. But history, she’s a distant foreign country that no one visits any longer. When did Jerusalem become a rallying cry for the West? And when did the French actually deign to agree to go to fight for it? Wait for it… Cheers, ‘VJ’

  • “It is not, however, a country with a unique culture.”

    It’s “unique” culture is about five minutes old. Some might mistake much of it for an intentionally fabricated social construct made of particle board. Of course, I wouldn’t, but some might.

    “Relatedly, cultural Judaism in 2007 needs to be less about latkes and more about schwarma.”

    BULL! Latkes are way more “uniquely” Jewish than Schwarma. Sorry if I can’t get all excited at pretending my Jewish culture is Arab, but it just isn’t. That is not the case. That is not where I, or many Jews like me in the U.S. and A. come from. And by the way, I like Schwarma (sometimes). But that doesn’t define my Jewishness anymore than sesame chicken does, because it isn’t my cultural heritage. Rather, it is cultural crossover.

    This is not even Kulterkampf, Phoebe. This is complete nonsense.

    I will not have my Jewish culture dictated to me my Zionists.

  • The unifying, eternal thing is the Torah. Even the Ashkenazi – Sefardi divide does not change that at all. There is one Torah.

    If we get bogged down in cuisines, of course there is no connection among us.

    People get so itchy around the Torah thing and ‘religion,’ but the fact is they should calm down, and not be so scared of it all. There is nothing very terrible about turning off the TV on Saturday. The other stuff can be worked out. People can wait. They can call you on Sunday. Lots of Orthodox people are successful. Their clients simply wait for them, because they are worth the wait. They have lunch with them in kosher restaurants. It’s not the end of the world.

    You can’t have a people based on a cuisine. Or social justice. That’s just income redistribution, and that’s not a unifying thing, either. Once you win, what unifies you? That social justice thing was won years ago. That’s nice. But we still have to be Jews and that is done by engaging, somehow, the ‘religious’ heritage. The Torah. Not pancakes. Everybody eats pancakes. You don’t have to be a Jew to eat pancakes. We didn’t get this old eating pancakes, or lamb stew, or tea. It’s the Torah. You get your own take on it, but you don’t get to ignore it, or you are not going to stay a people, people.

    Stop panicking. You could use a spiritual Saturday. You don’t need cheeseburgers. You can handle quitting early on Friday.

  • I think my daughter learned what Rashi had for dinner in her black hat Yeshiva. She knows everything she said. She is clueless about current affairs in Israel.

    “Orthodox Education: bad for Israel, bad for the Jews”

    or how about this one

    “Orthodox Education: worse than cheeseburgers”

    I meant well, I really did. I wanted to raise Jewishly aware children. My children know you can only use a Klee Shlishi to make tea on Shabbos, but my conservative after-public school Jewish education taught me more about tzedaka and Jewish history, philosophy , prayer and pride than they will ever learn at the Yeshiva Beit Hillel of Plifton NJ for 14,000 a year.

    Did Rashi where a Borsollino because will be picking out a black hat in 4 years. Excuse me while I finish crying my eyes out.

  • Just for the record, Trebek: the great majority of Irish-Americans had/have no use for Gerry Adams (a truly execrable human being) and his fellow Sinn Fein criminals.

    We don’t know much about Ireland? The shamrocks, the ice-capped mountains, a pint of Guiness, linguine with clam sauce…. Give me a break!

  • Your thesis is very interesting BUT the reason immigrant groups in the US identify with the culture of their country of origin is that they have ties to that culture. American Jews are not from Israel en masse …they are from eastern europe etc….
    Israelis who move here have a strong affinity to Israeli culture but not to the practice of Judaism…
    It would be nice however if American Jews did take a interest in Israeli culture and in that respect I couldnt agree more with you!

  • Part of my point Tom was that for generations of Irishmen born before Gerry Adams ever drew a breath, the unification & freedom of Ireland was a well known international cause, that yes indeed involved arms smuggling and funds for the Fenians & other like minded radicals. Basic NYC history too.

    And yeah, sorry Chutzpah, that it’s money you now suspect was not well spent. I imagine that the Yeshiva has different goals in mind for their education. Cheers, ‘VJ’

  • True enough, VJ– it’s just a lamentably long way from Charles Stewart Parnell (whose only sin involved poor Kitty O’Shea, cf. Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’) and that loathsome murderer, Adams.

  • What the heck is DK on about? Shawarma is exactly as Jewish as latkes. Some Jews have eaten latkes for generations. Other Jews have eaten shawarma for generations. For DK, it seems, the latter are not “real” Jews, because they are not European.

  • Serge, that is nonsense. I was contesting Shwarma for those who don’t have that culinary heritage in their ancestral background, and certainly meant no disrespect to those Jews who think they are Arabs.

  • DK, that was totally uncalled for. G-d put certain foods in the “middle East” and whoever happens to be there is going to find himself eating them. That doesn’t make anybody anything. In Eastern Europe the climate was very different and there was only potatoes, onions, carrot and salt. Root vegetables.

    Who cares? It’s all good. Study, DK, study and do the walk, the mitzvot.

    Yes, home made food is manna from Heaven but not any particular cuisine.

    Can you COOK?

  • Potatoes are a New World plant. Jews have been eating shawarma far longer than latkes, and didn’t invent either. (Nor did Arabs invent shawarma.)

    But what certainly isn’t the case is that shawarma/gyro/doner is a uniquely Israeli food, which is what Phoebe seems to be suggesting.

  • “shawarma/gyro/doner is a uniquely Israeli food, which is what Phoebe seems to be suggesting”

    When on earth did I suggest that? I made quite clear that these foods are all eaten by people of a whole variety of groups.

  • The study of Torah is completely useless if it is not applied to one’s daily life and current events. The Rabbis in Kollel are clueless as to what’s going on in the world unless someone sends them a letter telling them who to vote for in the next local election. The Torah without “derech eretz” is as useful as the classified ads from last week’s newspaper…use it wrap shawarma in.

  • Post 21, Yes, absolutely. The Kollel and black hats are OK, but one can study Torah without that. Yes, “derech eretz” – manners and personal virtue, that is supremely important. There has to be a middle ground between old-style suburban Judaism, which doesn’t inspire young people, and black-hat hasidism. Jewlicious is the middle ground! If CK can be Torah observant and totally cool, so can everybody.

  • Who knows, maybe the Sefardi model has more utility now than the Ashkenazi model!

    As long as the Torah goes forward.

    None of the Talmud should be lost, not Ashkenazi, nor Sefardi.

    Extensive research reveals that both Sefardi and Ashkenazi babies are very, very cute.

  • The Sefardim are doing extensive outreach, with huge Shakshuka and Shwarma parties, to reach out to the unaffiliated, right?

    Right?

Leave a Comment