The Wayward JCC
Posted by Jew from Jersey
24 October 2018
In the early 21st century, we hear of a growing rift between Israel and American Jews. I believe this rift began at least a century ago, even if it has not been appreciated much until recently. I also believe this rift has less to do with policies of the Israeli government (the peace process, non-orthodox conversions, etc.) or particular Israeli politicians than with real demographic and sociological differences that have been developing for more than a hundred years.
My grandfather was born in the U.S. and grew up speaking Yiddish. In the Yiddish language, “Yid” is the word for “Jew,” and the word “Yiddish” means “Jewish” as an adjective, as well as being the name for the Yiddish (i.e., the “Jewish”) language. It was always my distinct impression that my grandfather and American Jews of his generation assumed that all Jews spoke this language. Of course, their own grandchildren did not speak it, but they probably took it for granted that if any Jew today did not speak Yiddish, then his parents or at least his grandparents had. In his later years, my grandfather visited Israel at least once a year. He must have noticed most people there spoke a language he did not understand, and he must have known this language was Hebrew, a language that too, had a claim to being the “Jewish” language. But he likely assumed these people, too, all had parents or grandparents who spoke Yiddish. Actually, most of them do not. And with this difference of linguistic heritage come many other differences as well, differences never recognized or acknowledged by my grandfather and his generation. This is the first part of the “rift”.
On his visits to Israel, my grandfather often wore a yarmulke in public. I don’t know why he did this. He did not wear one when he was in the U.S. In Israel, wearing a kippah is a sign of orthodox religious observance. And my grandfather was not observant. In fact, like many American Jews, he was largely ignorant of the religion he did not observe. This ignorance of, and misunderstanding of the Jewish religion and its symbols, is another part of the “rift”.
For my grandfather, at least 50% of being Jewish probably meant speaking Yiddish or being descended from someone who did, with the rest comprised of folk elements of the Yiddish speaking world and American Jewish culture. This included foods like lox and bagels, Jewish American comedians of the Vaudeville and Borscht Belt eras, and shared political experiences of particular interest to the American Jewish community like the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. I think it is safe to say that none of these things have ever been important to people in Israel, and they never will be. And so the “rift” widens yet again.
The proper term for speakers of Yiddish and their descendants is Ashkenazim. While the first Jews to arrive on America’s shores in the 17th century were Sephardim, the vast majority of Jews in the U.S. have been Ashkenazim since at least the late 19th century. By contrast, the population of Israel in the early 21st century is roughly 20% Arab, 30% Ashkenazic Jews, and 50% non-Ashkenazic Jews. This last number includes not only Sephardim proper, but all Jews of the Mediterranean, North Africa, Ethiopia, and other Asian communities such as Iranian and Georgian Jews.
But the demographic “rift” is even greater than these numbers suggest. American Jews and their culture are not just Ashkenazic, but Ashkenazic filtered through the American Jewish 20th century: through Ellis Island, the tenements, the labor movement, the mergers of all the various Temple Beth Els and Beth Shalomes, Jewish day camps, civil rights, the Democratic Party, the Catskills, Debbie Friedman, suburban sprawl, a century of shared political and sociological development, culminating in the ubiquitous Jewish Community Center. None of this is familiar or means much to anyone in Israel, even the Ashkenazim among them.
Ashkenazim in Israel are indeed descended from speakers of Yiddish, but they did not come through Ellis Island. They came to Israel directly from the shtetls, the ghettos, the concentration camps, the DP camps. America to them is just another foreign country, albeit one with a looming importance in Israeli politics in recent decades. When they or their parents or grandparents came to Israel, America was probably seen as less important a country than Britain or even France, certainly far less important than Russia. And America is still a foreign place. They see it as other Israelis see it, indeed as most of the world sees it, through the lens of American pop culture, Hollywood, Coca-Cola, the latest scandal surrounding the U.S. president. The statue of liberty to them is just a symbol of America, like the bald eagle or Uncle Sam, it has no meaning in their family history.
What is seen by American Jews as uniquely Jewish is seen in Israel as merely Ashkenazic, or as simply American. Generically Israeli culture is more non-Ashkenzic and Arab than Ashkenazic, which should hardly be surprising. Humus, falafel, shawarma, and bourekas are not seen as ethnic foods. They are seen as comfort foods by all Israelis, including Israeli Ashkenazim. Gefilte fish, on the other hand, is ethnic food. But gefilte fish is not seen as Jewish food, it is seen as Ashkenazic food. And many other foods so central to American Jewish life, like lox and bagels, knishes, bialys, Manischewitz, somehow never made it to Israel. Many of these foods are in fact American innovations, the way nachos are not native to Mexico and chop suey is not native to China. To American Jews of my parents’ generation, Woody Allen is iconically Jewish. Woody Allen’s movies have always been popular in Israel, but even if Israeli audiences know he is a Jew, he looks like an American to them. He is certainly not seen as iconically Jewish or even iconically Ashkenazic. Jerry Stiller once told of how when he was a G.I. stationed in Germany in the 1950s, German teenagers pointed at him and said “Look, a Jew.” Forty years later he was visiting Jerusalem, and Israeli teenagers pointed at him and said “Look, it’s Mr. Costanza.”
Perhaps 2-3% of Israelis have family histories that go through the 20th century in the United States. This is comparable to the percentage of Americans who are Jews. Like Jews in the U.S., these “American-Israelis” in Israel are probably disproportionately high earners and influential in Academia and politics. But, also like Jews in the U.S., their presence is almost invisible on the surface. Most Americans probably don’t know a Jew personally, and most Israelis probably don’t know an “American” Israeli personally either. The one striking difference is that while American Jews are very aware and proud of being Jewish, “American” Israelis aren’t always sure if being “American” is something they even need to identify as or preserve. As they assimilate to Israeli culture, they may not even bother to tell their Israeli-born children about lox and bagels.
I have spoken much here of food and pop culture because it is easy to speak of. Of course the real differences are far greater and run far deeper. The mentality of Ashkenazic Jews who moved from Eastern Europe to Israel in the 20th century cannot be expected to be the same as that of Ashkenazic Jews who have lived in America throughout that century. Theirs is going to be more like the mentality of the ancestors of American Jews before they left Eastern Europe. The life of the shtetl was not the life of the suburbs, or even of the Lower East Side.
The entire world sees Israel as a “western” country because supposedly the Jews “came from Europe”. But this is not even true. Most of them did not come from Europe. You might think American Jews would be more sensitive to this fact, but they often seem the worst offenders in this regard, acting as if the Jews of Israel all came not only from Europe, but from Europe by way of America. I cannot stress enough how different the world looks to someone who came from the pogroms and poverty of the pale of settlement directly to the malaria-infested swamps of Palestine, or from the death camps in Poland through the British internment camps in Cyprus to the transit camps of Israel in the 1950s, as opposed to someone who spent those 100 years picketing the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, protesting the Rosenbergs’ innocence, and keeping up with the Joneses in Levittown. It’s a very different 20th century for those two kinds of people, even if they are both Ashkenazim.
And most Jews in Israel are not Ashkenazim. Too many American Jews seem to be ignorant of the near total expulsion of almost 1 million Jews from the Arab countries in the 1950s. This is one of the most astonishing acts of ethnic cleansing in the twentieth century not only for its scope, but for how little it is ever mentioned. There have never been any reparations for them, no offers of repatriation. They have no museum, no memorial day, not even in Israel. Many of these people had considerable property, but most arrived in Israel destitute and were housed for years in what were called ma’abarot “transit camps”. This was a political term of art, but these were essentially refugee camps. When they found permanent homes, it was often in the poorest neighborhoods or border towns far from population centers or employment opportunities. This resulted in several generations of alienation and social dislocation which are only now beginning to heal. Many of these Middle-Eastern Jewish communities date back to late antiquity and have their own customs and traditions, things far older and more significant than Debbie Friedman and lox and bagels. On the eve of WWII, a third of the population of Baghdad was Jewish. Can you imagine how different a view of the world than yours someone has whose family fled Baghdad in modern times after living there since the time of the Babylonian Talmud? American Jews remain painfully ignorant and apathetic to non-Askhenazim. Most victims of the Holocaust were Ashkenazim, but I can’t imagine a Sephardic Jew even considering naming his son “Adolf”. Yet it is not uncommon to find American Jews who think nothing of naming their daughter “Isabella”.
And then there are the Arabs. Just as the Jews of Israel are very different from American Jews, so too are the Arabs there different from Arabs you may encounter in the United States. They are not immigrants. They see the Jews as immigrants. While Arabs are statistically a minority in Israel, they do not see themselves as a minority at all. They see themselves as part of the regional majority. They see the Jews as the minority, Ashkenazic and non-Ashkenazic alike. Indeed, for much of the early history of what was to become Israeli society, they outnumbered the Jews. But Jews were present in considerable numbers well before 1948, just as Arabs are still present in considerable numbers today. Continuously since at least the 1880s, these two populations have been in much closer contact than is usually assumed, and have had much more influence on each other than is usually recognized. This is one more difference between Jews in Israel and in Jews in America. As singer-songwriter Meir Ariel put it: “At the end of every sentence you say in Hebrew sits an Arab smoking a nargilah, even if it begins in Siberia or in Hollywood with Hava Nagila.”
Israel has had its own 20th century, which was quite eventful. Jews from Eastern Europe to Baghdad and even farther away did not simply move to Israel and preserve the cultures they brought with them in static form. They formed a society though a century of tumultuous events and challenges. Not only do they not share the American century with American Jews, they share with each other their own Israeli century. This experience is at least half Middle-Eastern, part Arab, partly direct from the old unreconstructed Eastern Europe, all thrown into a more than a hundred years of war and crisis and immigration, with virtually no American components going into it at all.
Is it any wonder there’s a “rift” between them and the Jews of Scarsdale or Brookline who drive their cars with the pro-choice bumper stickers to the JCC where they play the guitar and sing Debbie Friedman songs and eat lox and bagels? The real question is why this rift was not so evident until now.
There was a “rift” between my grandfather and the Israel he visited in the 1980s. Walking down the street there, a smile usually on his face, he was almost like a man on the moon. But he certainly didn’t want to accentuate this gap. I guess the yarmulke was his attempt to blend in. I don’t know what went on in his mind, if he actually understood how different he was from Israelis. But it was important for him to feel he belonged. The sudden “rift’ we hear about now is almost certainly primarily due to a change in attitude of certain American Jews. They don’t want to belong as my grandfather did. They want Israel to be more like them, more like the JCC.
My grandfather’s generation knew humility. Today’s generation see themselves as the center of the universe and smarter than anyone who came before them. My grandfather’s generation knew the old-fashioned anti-Semitism in America and even if it was not deadly as it was in Europe, they saw Israel symbolically as a hope and as a spiritual home, even if they didn’t understand that much about it. Today’s generation understand even less, but they experience anti-Semitism primarily in the form of anti-Zionism, and it’s very convenient for them to imagine that without Israel there would be no anti-Semitism, or at least, if only Israel changed its policies or its prime minister or stood on its head or something else, there would be less anti-Semitism, and their lives in America would be more pleasant. My grandfather’s generation debated Israel’s fate out of genuine concern. Maybe some took a more hawkish position, some a more dovish one, but ultimately all wished for Israel’s survival and deferred the decision-making to the Israelis themselves, who were the ones most affected by it. Today’s generation tend to see themselves as the subject of the debate, and Israel as important only insofar as it affects them.
My grandfather was largely ignorant of religion. Yiddish was for him the crux of Jewish identity. Today’s generation are no more religious or knowledgeable than my grandfather, but the familiarity with the Yiddish language and Ashkenazic folkways is gone. Some of the superficial markers, the lox and bagels, matzah balls, etc. are still there, and words like “kvetch” and “schmooze” are intoned as if badges of authenticity, but the center is long since hollow. Being Jewish in America is a label seen by gentiles who assume it means something to you, but often it doesn’t, it’s just a sticker that makes you feel self-conscious.
For many, this discrepancy has been filled by secular left-wing politics. Jews have always been more left than right in America, even when they still spoke Yiddish. But increasingly, lefty political fads have become a mama loshen in themselves. Something similar is probably being experienced by non-Jews of this generation as well, as traditional culture and religion erode among all Americans. Halakha, the Jewish code of law, is no longer important. We don’t even pretend it matters any more. But Tikkun Olam, an obscure mystical term from the middle ages which roughly translates as “fixing the world” is now a paramount concept, and it means whatever the political needs of the moment need it to mean. The Torah, the word of God literally carved in stone on Mt. Sinai which has remained unchanged for thousands of years, is suddenly found not to have any fixed meaning at all. But this morning’s editorial in the New York Times is pure eternal truth, at least until tomorrow’s editorial. Observing the Sabbath, abstaining from eating bread on Passover, commandments Jews have kept for thousands of years, no longer matter to America’s non-orthodox Jews. It is suddenly found that the true meaning of Judaism is abortion, veganism, or recycling, or the latest trending Twitter hashtag.
Judaism has always stood out as a religion that places a high value on human life and the ethical treatment of human beings. As Rabbi Hillel famously put it when asked to summarize the Torah while standing on one foot : “Do not to your neighbor as you would not want done to you.” Hillel supposedly said this while standing on one foot, but it often seems that American Jews stand Hillel on his head in their tendency to invert morality into mere virtue signaling. Ethics is no longer the evil you refrain from doing to your neighbor, but the cause you subscribe to that makes you feel morally superior to him. And the Kabbalistic concept of Tikkun Olam did not mean a remaking of the world, as “Renewal” and other new age Jewish approaches would have it. It was a mystical belief that if all Jews obeyed God’s commandments, the world would be redeemed.
To many American Jews, the Democratic Party and its attendant causes have become a central part of Jewish identity. By comparison, Jewish holidays, the Hebrew Bible, and Israel get only lip service at best. I always laugh when anti-Semites talk about the Jewish lobby buying votes for Israel. The truth is they’re too busy mobilizing for Planned Parenthood. Most Zionists in the U.S. are Christians. And as the Democratic Party moves deeper into anti-Israel territory, an increasing number of prominent Jewish Democrats now talk about Israel as if it is a domestic political adversary like Fox News or the NRA. This is for them a political necessity, but it also fits in snugly with their increasingly political and plastic understanding of their religion. If the true meaning of Judaism today is stopping climate change and tomorrow it’s transgender bathrooms, the day after that it could just as easily mean boycotting Israel. It’s also part of the larger trend of reinterpreting everything — from personal problems to international issues — as extensions of domestic policy. The end of the cold war was supposed to usher in an age of globalization, but instead it seems the rest of the world is fading into distant wall-mounted big screen tvs whose only significance is the shadows we can make them cast on ourselves and our domestic opponents.
And just as Israelis do not know much of American Jewish history, American Jews do not know Israeli history. Sometimes it seems as if they don’t even know there is an Israeli history. They sometimes talk as if Israel might have been sneezed into existence in 1948 by a U.N. vote that was held “because of the Holocaust.” But Israel was not built by Holocaust survivors, it was built throughout three quarters of a century before the Holocaust. You might think the first and second aliya, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, Sarah Aaronsohn, Joseph Trumpeldor, the moshavot, the Haganah, draining the swamps, the white paper, and the Matateh Theatre never even existed... Maybe everything was suddenly flown in overnight “from Europe,” you know, after we voted on it. But Israelis live an organic extension of all of this history, history that is largely invisible in America. Is it any wonder they neither act nor speak nor think like the folks at the JCC?
So, how does the real Israel deviate from JCC expectations? For one, Israel is not only the OECD country with the highest fertility rate as per 2015 statistics, but it is the only OECD country whose fertility rates are rising over the decade of 2005-2015. American Jews, on the other hand, have one of the lowest fertility rates among all groups of Americans. And another difference: Even sympathetic American visitors to Israel freak out when they see soldiers armed with automatic weapons on the street, on the bus, sitting in cafes, etc. Israelis see the soldiers and weapons as normal, and would be worried if they didn’t see them everywhere. And another: Israelis tend to know more about Islam and less about Christianity. To them, “the holidays” doesn’t mean December, it means September-October. Hannukah is a working and school week.
I tried to explain to a friend in Israel once about how in my grandfather’s time, Jews couldn’t get certain kinds of jobs in America and were not hired by certain companies. Universities had quotas for Jews, non-Jewish students wouldn’t sit next to you at lunch or invite you to their parties. Country clubs were restricted. And it was all done openly and considered polite and proper. My friend listened and said: “That’s a shame. All they did to my grandfather was send him to Auschwitz.”
Israelis are not “right wing” in the American sense. Israel has always been a far more left wing country than the U.S. The kibbutz movement, which played so central a role in Israel’s early years, is to date the only example in history of communism actually working without anyone getting killed or sent to reeducation camps. Even today, Israel is a far more socialist country than the U.S. Taxes are higher, government is more regulatory and centralized. The healthcare system is far closer to being nationalized than in America, even under Obamacare. Israel was ahead of the curve on gays and women in the military. Abortion has never been a political issue in Israel because no one is trying to prohibit it. And in general, Israelis see far more of a role for shared national burden and interpersonal responsibility. Americans tend to see their history as individual homesteaders striking west, relying on their own gumption and skills. But Israelis tend to think they wouldn’t have a history, or a future, but for collective effort.
Israelis have little interest in domestic American politics. They are not Democrats or Republicans. They know little of American history and don’t care about American issues like separation of church and state or the second amendment. They liked Harry Truman and Bill Clinton for the personal interest they took in Israel. They did not like Barack Obama because they saw him repeatedly taking sides against Israel, and actively supporting both the Muslim brotherhood and Iran. They like Donald Trump because he recognized Jerusalem as their capital. There was a time when all American Jews would have celebrated this. But now it is a partisan issue. I don’t think any Jewish Republicans objected to Harry Truman recognizing Israel in 1948. And Jerusalem has been Israel’s capital ever since then, but now many Jewish Democrats are uncomfortable about a Republican recognizing it.
We need to talk in more depth about religious differences. It is often said that there are three denominations of Judaism in the U.S.: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. I have never liked this taxonomy. Even in the U.S., there are many different kinds of Orthodox Jews, from the modern orthodox to the ultra-orthodox, who themselves can be divided into misnagdishe and Hassidic, with the Hassidic having many different courts corresponding to the villages in Eastern Europe where they originated. Around the world there are many other smaller offshoots such as Karaites and Sabbateans, and of course far greater numbers of Jews that belong to the great denomination of “unaffiliated”. The only Jewish groups that resemble Christian “denominations” are the Reform and Conservative movements, and only because that’s what they’ve been trying very hard to do since they were created. And it’s not just any Christian denominations they’re trying to resemble, but protestant ones. The Reform and Conservative movements trace their beginnings to 19th century Germany and attempts to reconcile Judaism with rationality. Some of their early findings were that it was more rational to have an organ in synagogue and to pray on Sunday instead of Saturday. Science!
Most Jews in America descend from Eastern European Ashkenazim who came to America during the Industrial Revolution. They were introduced to Reform and Conservative Judaism by the smaller numbers of German Jews who had arrived in America several decades earlier. These wealthier and more established German Jews played a large role in how the newer and mostly poor Eastern European arrivals adapted to life in the U.S. There was never really an “orthodox” movement, that’s just the word Reform and Conservative Jews use to describe everyone else who never joined them.
The “Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox” picture also obscures the fact that a categorical chasm separates Orthodox Jews from everybody else. There are several subtle but important differences between Reform and Conservative theologies, although both have changed over the years, but all Orthodox Jews have in common an acceptance of the burden of God’s commandments, all day, every day, essentially the same commandments that have been incumbent on Jews since Mt. Sinai. This is what the wearing of the kippah means in Israel. A non-Orthodox Jew may not even remember he’s a Jew if he doesn’t happen to be going to synagogue that day or attending a committee meeting of some kind, or some chance event suddenly reminds him of it. It’s a series of associations by choice, it’s not a way of life. Most Israelis are not orthodox, but hardly any are Reform or Conservative. None of these terms are heard very much. The big divide in Israel is between dati “religious,” meaning all forms of orthodoxy and hiloni “secular,” meaning everybody else. The term “orthodox” may not even be an appropriate description of any kind of Judaism. It is borrowed from Christianity, where the important thing is what you believe. The category we are referring to in Judaism is really “orthopraxy”, what you practice. The term hiloni “secular” means you choose as a conscious choice not to be religious. Many hilonim in Israel are quite knowledgeable about Judaism. They just choose not to practice it.
Israelis seldom ask if you are religious or secular. It is evident from the way you look, dress, and speak. This is why my grandfather, walking around in a kippah when he was so obviously not religious, seemed so strange and out of place. What you’re going to get asked in Israel, repeatedly, is what edah “community” you belong to. Acceptable answers include: Yemenite, Romanian, Persian, Polish, Tunisian, etc. As a kid, I was never sure what to answer, so I would say “American.” No one was ever sure if this qualified as a real edah. Each edah has its own customs, melodies, foods, and the like, but there are no doctrinal differences. Maybe American Jews are simply the edah who sing Debbie Freidman songs and eat lox and bagels? But in Israel no one knows what those things are. And Jews in America don’t think they are any kind of edah at all because they think all Jews in the world are just like them and they don’t even know what an edah is. If only American Jews saw themselves as an edah, one of many Jewish edot, instead of as a denomination among American denominations. If only they took the time to learn more about the Jewish world and what makes their edah unique in it, instead of trying to bring their “denomination” into line with the Christian ones, then the “rift” might assume stable and manageable proportions... Of course, there will always be great differences between Jews in Israel and America, just as there were in my grandfather’s time. But, as in my grandfather’s time, this need not be seen as the “rift” that is getting so much hype these days.
An important caveat to “the rift” is that it principally concerns non-orthodox American Jews. In fact, I suspect the most active push for the “rift” comes from Reform Judaism, a group that includes about a third of American Jews, and about a third of one percent of Israelis.
Recent trends within the American Jewish population clearly show that orthodox Judaism is growing in America, while non-orthodox Jewish congregations continue to shrink. Of course, orthodox Jews in America are likewise Ashkenazim with an American experience of the 20th century. But the center of their Jewish identity is neither the Yiddish language nor faddish political trends, but the Jewish religion, and it is the same Jewish religion that is recognized in Israel, even by those who do not practice it.
Non-orthodox Jews in America try harder every year to be more like Christians, specifically, like mainline protestants. You never see them emulate Catholics, southern Baptists, or evangelicals. This is odd because these last three are growing, while the mainline protestant congregations are shrinking. Non-orthodox Judaism has always based itself on reason and enlightenment, but it’s uncanny how often reason and enlightenment end up requiring you to imitate high-status protestants. Maybe congregational shrinkage is a status symbol now, too.
And as they shrink, mainline protestant churches are becoming increasing anti-Israel. A non-orthodox Jew in America who wants to be a Democrat in good standing or join a synagogue that resembles a respectable “denomination” had better find something wrong with Israel pretty quick. Jews once said with the psalmist: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.” But for the non-orthodox, whose Jewish identity is increasingly defined by domestic partisan political causes, Jerusalem is becoming a problem, especially now that Donald Trump has recognized it as Israel’s capital.
It’s ironic that after more than half a century of seeing Israel as a miracle and a source of pride, many American Jews should now shift to seeing Israel as a problem that must be brought into line. For that half century gone by, there were more Jews in the U.S. than in Israel. But the number of Jews in the U.S. is shrinking while the number of Jews in Israel continues to grow. The change in American Jews’ attitudes began to shift in the late 1990s, just as the Jewish population of Israel came to surpass the Jewish population in America. It’s almost as if American Jews were kindly when they saw themselves as a benevolent big brother, but have grown resentful when it turns out they are just one more sibling in a sprawling family they know surprisingly little about.