Jewish World Review Oct. 9, 1998 / 19 Tishrei, 5759

Atlanta Diarist

Lost In The Promised Land

By Neil Rubin

WANT TO VIEW A REAL VERSION OF MODERN JEWISH SCHIZOPHRENIA? Hang out with some Israelis -- no two of whom are alike --- during this holiday season.

Take the case of our friend. She and her family don't belong to a synagogue, and it's unlikely that they'll step inside one during the year. They don't keep kosher or observe Shabbat. But when Yom Kippur rolls around, they become ultra-Orthodox.

They eat a pre-Yom Kippur meal at the home of friends, but hurry home before sundown. "I don't travel on the holiday," she says with a straight face. With no synagogue in walking distance, they stay at home. Of course, there's no television, turning on lights or handling money.

I'm not mocking her. It's how she grew up. And it makes sense --- in Israel. She is serious in her faith.

Israelis in America, despite all we know about them and their culture, remain a significant untapped potential for an American Jewish polity seeking to revitalize itself.

This is no minor subset. Estimates of Israelis and their children in this country run as high as a half-million. That is the equivalent of one in every 10 Jews in Israel, let alone one in every 11 Jews in this country.

This group was primarily secular in Israel. But in America, can a Jew be called secular if he or she is fluent in Hebrew, familiar with the Bible and knowledgable about the Jewish calendar and life? More important, can these people perpetuate their modern secular Jewish identity, one that does have deep value and meaning, in an adopted land?

A glimpse at their historical predecessors -- the practitioners of Yiddish culture -- is not encouraging. In the 1920 and 1930s, their lifestyle thrived as new emigrants kept arriving and pre-World War II Europe offered a political, intellectual and social lifeline of nourishment and creativity.

Israel, unlike European Jewry, is not in imminent danger of annihilation, despite what some might claim. But the Israelis here do have a bond with their European immigrant predecessors. They don't know how Jewish they are. And that means they're not setting up the educational and social apparatus needed to transmit their values.

Take the example of Israelis who gather for campfires on Lag B'omer. It's a Talmudic era holiday that few American Jews know of. Same goes for the Israeli penchant for festive, secular Purim parties, ones only "religious" American Jews attend. Perhaps it will rub off on some of the children, particularly those who return to Israel to do military service. But their children's children will not have such experiences.

Some Israelis, no doubt, will balk at the generalizations. Yet, the experience of Yiddish speakers in America is proof. Just like the Yiddishists, whose language now lives on primarily in universities, Jewish studies centers and Chasidic communities, Israelis are by nature more ideological and Jewishly educated than American-born co-religionists. That means they can all teach us a thing or two --- if only they could realize it and wanted to act on it.

Sadly, organized American Jewry has done little to understand Israelis here. Contrast this with our efforts to integrate Russian Jews. Sure, they came as refugees and the Israelis are economic opportunists (which is why anyone emigrates to America). But shouldn't we try with Israelis, a group that already owns the tools to lead successful Jewish lives?

It's not a one-way street. Many Israelis have little need for American Jewry, whose practices they see as alien at best, irrelevant at worst. For them, American Jewish life is filled with strange obsessions such as feminism, egalitarianism, gay rights and interfaith unions. Then there's the money thing. You have to pay for everything and anything Jewish here.

We American Jews love Israel and Israelis, particularly when they stay in their native land. But here, we often find them arrogant and not desirous of our help. But they have unique Jewish stories, ones that we need to learn.

The burden of integration is on those of us born here. While the Israelis might not like us at first, we need to open up our community to them a lot more. They should not be an afterthought. We need them and we need their language, which is our culture. We also need to convince them that they need us.

JWR contributor Neil Rubin is Editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times.


9/10/98: Memories
8/27/98: My Fundamentalist friends
8/3/98: Gotta just love 'dem Jews
7/16/98: Wishful thinking
6/23/98: Why Jews will continue to oppose school-choice
6/16/98: They keep coming (The growth of Atlanta Jewry)
5/27/98: What a show today!
Passover, 1998: Wait! You're not finished!
3/29/98: April means Passover ... and baseball
3/15/98: Has Jewish money run out?
3/9/98: Downsizing Jewish life
2/10/98: Film, Lies And Jewish Mothers
2/1/98: The news according to Sid

©1998, Neil Rubin