There should be a Birthright America, to let the never-left-Zabars set see Appalachia, the Eugene, Oregonians sent to the evangelical exurbs, and so on. Because much of the value of Birthright Israel is that you see the places you would never have booked a trip to otherwise, even if you were already set on heading to Ben Gurion. That said, when it came to booking a trip myself… I’m more a fan of sitting in cafes watching people go by, checking out book stores, and contemplating buying those amazing Israeli platform shoes, than I am of hiking or praying. I’d long been intrigued by Tel Aviv, which I’d read is an Israeli Jewish city the way that Paris is French and Catholic, in other words, a city with cultural specificity but not, as with Jerusalem, thousands of years worth of spirituality, rendering the city itself as it exists in 2007 almost irrelevant. You go to Jerusalem because it’s Jerusalem, not because of some particular cafe with especially good espresso.

Also, the particular history of Tel Aviv–modern political Zionism, Herzl in particular–interests me much more than does religious Judaism. I consider myself more of an Israelophile than a Zionist, since Zionism suggests the wish for a Jewish state to be created in Palestine, whereas Israelophilia is an appreciation of the existing state; plus, Zionism is about politics and religion, whereas Israelophilia includes cultural and aesthetic angles. For whatever reasons, I’m far more excited to see a nationally and culturally Jewish beach than to know that the Kotel is once again in Jewish hands. Of course these two elements of Israel are related–thus Old-New Land–but it’s the new bit I find compelling.

Why the new and not the old? Before visiting Tel Aviv, I stopped, among other places, in Paris and Brussels. Both of these cities have Jewish museums, both of which I saw for the first time this trip. In the Paris museum, interspersed with Judaica and other typical exhibition materials are photos of “real,” contemporary French Jews, often accompanied by quotes from these individuals on being a Jew in France today. I’m not sure what to make of this: it takes away from the accusation that Jewish museums in the Diaspora exist to document a now-dead civilization, but it’s also a bit odd, as though if “normal” faces weren’t put on this entity, Judaism, then who knows what the French populace would think the Jews might be.

The Brussels museum is all the more bizarre. Aside from Judaica and Holocaust information (along with what ranges from an idiot’s guide to Judaism to something a notch more sophisticated), it’s filled with what are basically family photographs and ordinary documents of more or less contemporary Jews, some in Belgium and some elsewhere. Amusingly, a wedding contract of two New York Jews is part of the exhibition. Not famous people, just Jews. The bottom of the barrel has officially been scraped.

The problem with these museums is not with the museums themselves but the oddity of European Jewish existence in 2007. Jews, being people, are bound to wind up all over the world, depending on where careers, spouses, or flukes of postcolonial migration may take them. And so there are indeed Jews in both France and Belgium, even when I’m not there visiting. But the specifically Jewish future–as opposed to the future that includes, among many others, Jews–is in Israel. Israel, and perhaps West 96th Street.

Given its architecture, climate, beaches, cuisine, and language, comparing Tel Aviv to Paris, New York, or Chicago, the other cities I know decently well, is impossible. These qualities are what make Tel Aviv seem so different. That Tel Aviv is located in the country CNN International, BBC, and Le Monde can’t get enough of discussing, that the violence not far afield happens to be the violence that most interests the rest of the world, is something you’d never guess from visiting the city. Tel Aviv feels (and by all accounts is) a far safer city, crime-wise, than those others. The well-guarded cafes and pre-shopping bag searches are all that hint at something being a bit different. The city is pleasant–probably something to do with the beach, the outdoor cafes, and the ridiculously good-looking population–but without an Eiffel Tour, with not a single hotel particulier, without a Morgan Library or a Frick, Tel Aviv simply does not feel Important. Fabulous, yes, but not cutting-edge. It doesn’t have enough of a past for suit-wearing elderly women from “old families” to cluster with their sweater-draping offspring, setting themselves off from the rest of the population as an aesthetic elite. Now, I was in Tel Aviv for less than a week; if the city does indeed have such a population, feel free to correct me. Yes, I am commenting on a city I know effectively nothing about, but this is all I’ve got.

Unlike even the most famously Jewish (but non-Hasidic) neighborhoods in NYC–i.e. Upper West Side– Tel Aviv shuts down on Jewish holidays. Why does this matter to the non-observant who do not observe these holidays, and whose first choice would be for a city that never closes? It just does. As Albert Memmi writes in his “Portrait of a Jew,” a country that shuts down for holidays not of your religion will never feel like your country. There is a confidence that comes from knowing that the religious version of whatever it is you are is the dominant way of being religious. I can’t explain why, but there is. This is where the “old” bit comes in, in what is 99% a new land.

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  • Honey, the birthright USA trip will be for people whose birthright it IS. The people whose ancestors physically cleared the old-growth forests in North America, without power tools, and successfully made war on the indigenous people there, and they were very tough, too, resulting in your comfortable shoes, air conditioning, full stomach and pain-free body, may you continue to be well.

    Birthright israel is for well, you know. It’s a different birth. A different right.

    But we are all cool and G-d’s children. G-d bless America, every day of the year.

  • Jewish Mother, you know neither that I am well, nor that I have a/c, nor that my ancestors didn’t make war with the American Indians. Geez.

    But seriously, do you mean to suggest that Jews were not among those who built the USA, from the get-go?

  • Some did. Some went broke funding the American Revolution. That may have been crucial for continuing that war. I don’t know. But our presence here in significant numbers post-dates the Colonial period. Our large immigration started in 1880. Yes, we have always been here.

    From your gorgeous photo here, you are obviously young and look well, so I hope you are. I am certain that you have eaten to your hunger today. Western social conditions take away hunger pains, and other hurts, such as on the feet, from lack of, or poor, shoes. Being pain-free is not available outside the West, for the ordinary shlepper who is nobody special. But you were talking about Tel Aviv, and identity issues, and I interrupted.

  • Maybe a Jewish life is so Present it has no Past? The only Past is Mt. Sinai. The rest seems to be curiously intangible. We may engage time differently from other people. That’s ok.

    But if you want to think about that, you are going to have to think religiously. But that doesn’t have to throw out your other knowledge! Such as how photosynthesis works, or who Mozart, Rembrandt or Voltaire are, and so on. I see no conflict with any of that. To me, G-d is in all of that. I am sure G-d likes the Frick.

    You write very well.

  • I’m not quite sure what you meant that the city “does not feel important.”

    Unlike Paris or London, it does not have centuries behind it, not to mention the history that those cities have. Tel Aviv is still a young city.

  • themiddle:

    That’s exactly what I mean. Without the endless checklist of monuments and museums, you have to already know that Tel Aviv IS important for it to feel that way when you’re there. You can go to Paris with no French-history knowledge and the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, and Arc de Triomphe will tell you that this is a city that matters. Tel Aviv, on the other hand, feels calm, fun, and like a city by a beach, not like a historical breakthrough.

  • Well, every statesman was an ice-cream- sticky little boy, once upon a time. Paris was young once, but nobody remembers. Paris was a bunch of Gauls huddling on a conveniently water- surrounded, marshy island in the Seine.

    What the French have is very nice. But it is very young. France was invented a mere five hundred years ago by Joan of Arc. The monuments you mention are four hundred years old (the Louvre) and a hundred sixty years old (Eiffel Tower). Very cute. Vive la France. But Rashi was writing a THOUSAND years ago. He is quite alive for many people. In now-time. Real-time. We were studying him last night, and not academically. We believe what he believed, for real.

    But I forget. You don’t go in for that old Jewish stuff.

    Then you complain about the new-ness.

    While ignoring what is NOT new.


  • Tel Aviv may be a young city, but the Jews are not in the least a young people. In our perspective, Charlemagne is last week.

  • You said it, Phoebe (you and Memmi). There’s something about walking on Shenkin St. or Lillenblum on Shabat, even if you’re as non-observant as we are, and just BEING. That’s the reason why we’re coming back to Israel for the fourth time in three years on vacation – there’s a feeling of being at home that you’ll never get anywhere else if you’re remotely Jewish. Although I’d take Shabazi St. and Neveh Zedek to symbolize calm more than Shenkin, but that’s just me. And as to the beach….maybe not on the weekends. They’re too crowded.

    Besides, in what other city do you find a neighborhood stray dog following you back to your hotel – and think of it as an “old friend”?

  • Why does anyone think I’m complaining that Tel Aviv is new. It IS new, which I find neat. I’m not favoring France over Israel. This was not a value judgment, no need for all the defensiveness!

  • You are right, sorry. You are just observing and analyzing. So am I … I am just observing you observing. You are a very interesting writer.

  • Hahahahahaha, another anti-Israel idiot preening before his audience. Phoebe, the writer of the post to which Alec from Prose Before Hos (what a clever name, if you’re a teenager) is alluding, is about as similar to a neo-Con as the Pope is Jewish.

  • in terms of “observing you observing” — my observation on Jewish Mother’s observation:

    Do you know where Rashi lived, those near-thousand years ago?

    Troyes. In France! (I went there when I was working for Let’s Go: France in 1994.) The city that also gave Western civilization Chrétien de Troyes (who some think may have been from a Jewish background: who but a former Jew gets a goyishe name that means “Christian”?), author of some of the most famous versions of the stories of King Arthur and of the quest for the Holy Grail.

    Rashi is part of the history of France as well as of the Jewish people. He is part of the history of the French language (his glosses give us some of the best evidence for some Old French words/usages) as well as of the Hebrew language. So I find it ironic that you’re davka using Rashi to stick it to the Frenchies. 😉

    The modern state of Israel is every bit as much an invention/creation as the modern state of France, or the modern state of America, for that matter. The history that it’s drawing on and linking to goes back in detail or sophistication to a further distance in chronological time, sure — but that same history informs Jewish life everywhere in the world, not just in Israel, even if that is its Once and Future locus. And if we want to have Chronological Priority Machismo, the Chinese and Egyptians may have us all beat…

    As it is, my birthright is in and of America as much as it is in or of Israel — probably more so, in fact. And I say this because of my Jewish life and identity, not in spite of it.

  • I knew he lived in Troyes. And I said, “Vive la France,” so I wasn’t mad at France at all. Yes, Israel is an invention just like France and America. They are all legitimate nations and Israel’s newness is the same as France’s in 1490, say.

    The Chinese civilization is (highly impressive) two thousand years old – the emperor Chin lived then. The ancient Egyptians are no more. Modern Egypt does not pray to Isis or Ra.

    But our patriarchs lived at the same time as the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt, five thousand years ago.

    You sound like a very cool and highly educated Jew, so Shabbat Shalom.

    You ought to marry GM. He knows almost as much as you do, and is nice looking. What more do you want? He has a job, too. He seems normal. From his posts, anyway.

  • What are you blathering about? Chinese civilization is the oldest continuous civilization in the world, with both the semi-mythic (yet apparently extant) Xia and the historically well-established Shang dynasties predating the real historical emergence of the Israelites by hundreds of years. By the time Qin Shi Huang (to whom I assume you refer with your ‘Emperor Chin’) and the following Han Dynasty solidified the Han Chinese identity 2000 years ago, Chinese civilization was already almost two millennia old.

    As far as our patriarchs, all genuine scholarship places the historical background through which they moved (and the Bible backs this all up) as, at the earliest, solidly within Egypt’s Middle Kingdom and, most likely, during the Second Intermediate period between the Middle and New Kingdoms when Egypt was overrun by migrant Semitic peoples. By the time the patriarchs appeared, Egypt had been around for at least 800 years.

    Why can’t the very real and impressive history and cultural achievements of the Jewish people be appreciated on their own, without significant historical revisionism? We’re not the oldest civilization. We’re not even the oldest continuously-practiced religion (the Hindus beat us by a long shot). And guess what – we don’t have to be.

  • Right, Chinese people certainly did not spring into being upon the accession of Emperor Chin, but his unification of their different groups seem to me to be the start of the enduring entity, China. That’s why it’s called after him. As for when our patriarchs lived, I don’t know. But it seems to me the patriarchs lived in a time when our folks were not numerous, before the period to which you allude. As for the Hindus, I have no idea. You are very learned.

    Anyway, Shabbat Shalom, learned one. Marry somebody. It would be a heck of a dinner table, oh boy, much interesting conversation.

  • Hey, Jewish Mother — shavua tov! 🙂

    Actually, I have been married for almost 10 years now, to someone who knows almost as much as I do (about some things, and even more than I do about some others…like King Arthur & the Holy Grail, since he’s a medievalist), and is nice looking (at least I think so). He has a job, too (which is what has brought us back to my hometown area of Our Nation’s Capital). He seems normal enough for me. And he has been a Nice Jewish Boy for those 10 years, though he started out life as a Nice Catholic Boy (but was already a Nice Lapsed Catholic Boy when I met him at summer camp nearly 20 years ago).

    I’m sure that GM, if unattached, will find someone suitable. And from my personal example I would just like to remind folks that if you haven’t found that Jewish Special Someone, you shouldn’t rule out — though you can’t count on — seeing whether a Special Someone you HAVE met could be part of a Jewish life and family with you, and potentially even become a Jewish Special Someone.

    He & I are American mutts & proud of it, but im yirtzah Hashem our future kids will never feel that there’s any conflict between their solidly Jewish religious tradition and the vibrant multiplicity of a genealogical background that’s Cuban, Irish, Scots-Irish, English, French, and German, as well as Eastern European/Russian Jewish.