Guest Post by Liza Schwartz

Allow me to explain. After two years working at a publishing company in New York editing mostly romance novels, I joined Masa Israel‘s Career Israel internship program looking for something else to do with my English major. A few days after arriving in Tel Aviv, my roommates and I went shopping for desk lamps. Not seeing any displayed, I said to the salesperson in my best Hebrew, “We want light,” pointing to the light bulb in the ceiling, “but on a table.” Amazingly, he understood what I meant and answered in Hebrew, “Oh, you want a menorah.” I missed the name of the other store he suggested because I was stuck on the word menorah. Suddenly, it represented not only a ritual object, but also the everyday appliance known as a lamp.

During my five months in Israel I encountered a number of Hebrew words removed from their stale religious contexts and infused with life. I was among the offended when, during a panel discussion at the American Jewish Committee‘s 2006 meeting, A. B. Yehoshua dismissed Diaspora Judaism and implied that Israelis were the only real Jews. During a subsequent speech at the Manhattan JCC he expanded on that blunt statement, and I accepted, at least academically, his argument that only Israelis experience Judaism in its entirety—as a nation and religion. It was only in this Tel Aviv appliance store that I fully understood what he meant and maybe even started to agree.

During the first week of my internship at the English-language website of Haaretz, I was surprised to hear everyone constantly talking about the Mishna. How was Torah commentary relevant to the news? It turned out that mishna simply means “secondary,” and in the newsroom it refers to the additional headline that expands on the main one. The mishna of Haaretz connected me to the Mishna of Rashi in a way Hebrew School never did. And the content of those mishnayot—crime, politics, corruption, and war—was no less relevant than their name. Living the totality of Jewish life as in biblical times means experiencing the celebrations of a shared heritage alongside the problems of modern nationhood.

Down the street from my apartment, I once heard a homeless man moaning in Hebrew, “Am yisrael, help me.” In America, I only heard that phrase, people of Israel, when it was time to break out the Israeli folk songs at weddings and bar mitzvahs. Another time, a beggar came into a restaurant and addressed my friend as adonee, sir (literally, “my lord”), when asking him for money. Even adonai, a term for God so holy it’s only pronounced in prayer, has its street-level equivalent in Israel. In America, Jews have the luxury of isolating themselves based on differences in religious observance and lifestyle. There is a network of charities and cultural centers that connect the Jewish community, but one must choose to get involved. In Tel Aviv, I exited my building each morning into an uncensored Jewish world.

I’ve been back in New York for over a year now, working at the Jewish Theological Seminary and writing freelance. Why? Because, among other reasons, even though we don’t have a Knesset to bind us into a nation of “complete Jews,” as A. B. Yehoshua might say, our betai knesset offer a complete range of religious options that is rare in Israel. I grew up on Long Island attending a Conservative synagogue. When I moved to the city after graduating from Binghamton University, I found a number of young, egalitarian minyanim to choose from. In Tel Aviv I had to search for these kinds of congregations, and the attendees were mostly American expats my parents’ age. Luckily, I was only trying to attend services, not get married or adopt a child outside the boundaries of the religious monopoly that exists in Israel.

Neither America nor Israel offers the complete Jewish experience, but my ear is now trained to hear what’s missing in New York and fill in the blanks. Not a big believer, I’ve always let Kol Nidre’s haunting melody draw my focus away from the prayer’s words, which ask God to annul all vows made during the previous year. This Yom Kippur, in New York, I stopped staring at the cantor and looked back at the machzor when I heard him sing the word mevutal. At Haaretz I spent hours clicking mevutal, cancel, to delete inappropriate reader comments posted to the website. Finding this familiar Hebrew word in the (admittedly Aramaic) Kol Nidre prayer was like running into an old friend.

What once inspired goosebumps now inspired a sense of community rooted in a language that embodies Israel’s mix of the religious and mundane. Memories of the lowest newsroom duty transformed the loftiest prayer. It was an only-in-Israel experience brought to New York, thanks to five months off the tour bus and into the vibrant claustrophobia that inspires so many to call Israel home.

Liza Schwartz met ck in the winter of 2008 when she participated in Do the Write Thing. She lives in New York and works at a Jewish non-profit. In addition, she has contributed to a number of publications as a freelance writer, including Haaretz.

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  • What a wonderful and insightful article on hebrew and judaism on both sides of the pond, so to speak. YOU know what it means to be Jewish. It is neither Israel or the diaspora or observant or not. It is the common thread that binds us all and all of us together across the whole spectrum and the whole world. It is the understanding of this fact that you so beautifully share with your readers, that will keep Israelis and the diaspora together.
    We need each other. Its not one or the other. I hope A.B. Yehoshua knows this too. P.S. great title too!!!!!!