Lost in Translation

Since marrying into an Israeli family and moving here, I cannot help compare the differences between American Jewry and Israeli Jewry. What is perhaps even more interesting is examining the two different community’s perceptions of one another.  Bound by religion, shared history and a complex combination of ethnicity and what can only be referred to as “tribalism,” there are some similarities which are likewise punctuated by deep differences.

Let’s start with how Americans see Israelis.  Many Israelis speak of seeing an almost rabid glimmer in the eyes of some American Jews when they meet a “real” Israeli. Fueled by youth groups, Birthright Israel, Jewish summer camp and Jewish Day School, many American Jews harbor a romanticism for the land and the people. Images of dancing Kibbutzniks, sexy young women in military fatigues, jubilant rabbis, fearless, strong soldiers protecting their mothers and sisters, and markets overflowing with delicious fruits and vegetables fill their minds- even the classic Israeli accent and notorious penchant for abruptness is titillating.

But these images are little more than one dimensional snapshots, and Israel, like any other country, is three dimensional and dynamic.  Once we look behind these Polaroids, we see many misunderstandings lurking.  For example, it seems to me that most American Jews mistakenly believe that Israeli Jews are just like themselves- except they live in a gorgeous, sunny country and know how to shoot a gun.  This is, of course, dead wrong.  Now obviously, I don’t want to stereotype either community, and clearly there are exceptions.  However, generally, American Jews are affluent. They travel, own nice houses and cars, have influential jobs.  Also, most (85%) go to college and graduate school.   Not so in Israel, where just 20-25% of the population have university degrees and where expensive cars and luxurious houses are not the norm. It took my mother years to wrap her head around the fact that many of my husband’s family members do not have “official” high school degrees (bagrut), and only some of them have university degrees.  In contrast, I cannot think of a single member of my American family (outside from my grandparents) that don’t have at least a Bachelor’s degree.

American Jews are guilty of projecting themselves onto Israelis in other, more amusing, ways.  For example, I remember my sister commenting that my husband “must have gone to Jewish sleep-away camp cause he’s Israeli.”  Not so.  Jewish sleep-away camp is entirely a (wonderful) American Jewish phenomena.  Israeli adolescents tend to do little more than roam around their towns in aimless packs (usually deep into the night) all summer long, while their American sweat in sleep-away camp, or slave away at volunteer work or academic programs in hope of bulking up college applications.  Another little example that makes me chuckle is the youtube video “Jews Don’t Camp.”  While American Jews may be guilty of fearing mosquitoes and tent building, Israeli Jews pretty much have a handle on that.

Israeli Jews, on the other hand, are often guilty of seeing themselves as the loan carriers of Judaism’s torch.  They seem to believe that American Jews (or perhaps all diaspora Jews) have lost all touch with their Judaism roots and have fallen prey to the golden calf of the nations. My mother-in-law still insists on asking if my family had a Christmas tree growing up, while last year, during my first Yom Kippur fast in Israel, my brother-in-law asked me if this was the first time I had ever fasted (I’ve been doing so since I was child).  In the same vein, I never fail to snap at Israelis when they assume that since I am American, I must not know the story of, say, Purim. Please folks, spare me your enlightening.

Perhaps these beliefs come from the older generation’s Zionistic ideals that the “galut” (diaspora) is a depraved place for the weak shtetl Jew.  I recently shocked my husband’s aunt by laughing when she expressed these beliefs, exclaiming, “What, life is better here where you constantly wait for the next war, under the thumb of the rabbis?”  Additionally, Israelis tend to believe the common stereotypes of Americans- that we are wasteful, pampered and that we all are filthy rich.

Now, none of these things are especially bad in of themselves.  However, because these wildly different communities are, in fact, quite connected, there are negative outcomes to these over-simplified beliefs.  For example, romanticizing the IDF and Israel’s militarization while overestimating the level of affluence easily allows Americans to believe that everything here is just fine and dandy.  In fact, there is nothing wonderful about living in a country in a constant state of siege, and where everything from education to social services suffers under the weight of huge military expenditures.  The reality is that American Jews, through the United States’ government, have remarkable influence over here, and when the problems here are overlooked, so too are the solutions.

On the flip side, when Israelis dismiss the Jewish American community, they are often cutting out a willing and meaningful partner.  For example, very few people in Israel know about J Street, the progressive Jewish lobbyist group tirelessly working to bring a sustainable peace to the region. Many, if they knew about J Street, would respond indignantly, wondering what sort of authority anyone so many miles away, who knows nothing of war, sacrifice and loss, could have over them? A valid emotional response, of course, but J Street’s solutions are viable, and really, what are the alternatives?

Additionally, by dismissing the USA, Israelis also dismiss innovative and exciting approaches to Judaism.  Many folks here have a negative view of religion due to the corruption and over-influence of the rabbinate. What they don’t understand is that it doesn’t have to be that way- that the problem of Judaism being controlled by the ultra-orthodox is a problem of Israel, not a problem of Judaism.   Coming from my American background, where Judaism is free to be pluralistic, dynamic and deeply progressive, I feel as if many Israeli’s experience of Judaism is dramatically limited.  In the end, both communities could bring much to the other one, if only there were more chances for open, realistic dialogue.

Finally, there are, of course, similarities between the communities.  Both have a sense of great brotherhood amongst themselves, (although not necessarily amongst each other), all have a love for Israel and a desire for her safety, all share a love for culture, for food and celebrations, and for innovation.  Yet when I look hard at these two communities, I see that their biggest similarity is also their greatest strength: the family.  Just as the strength of the family held together the Jewish people for generations, so too does it remain the core of the Jews in Israel and in the USA.  It is for exactly this reason why the work of New Family is so important.  As defenders of the family, their work ensures that our greatest strength is never compromised.

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