Memo to American Jews: Learn Hebrew

Gulf Between Israel and Diaspora Is Growing Fast


By David Hazony

Published April 09, 2012, issue of April 13, 2012.
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Somebody help me out here. Every time I visit Jewish communities in the United States, I get this weird feeling. It’s like I’m a character in somebody else’s movie. I go from one community to the next, asking all sorts of questions about what life is like for our people across the great American continent. But the curiosity only goes one way. My hosts and their friends, usually very excited about the fact that I’ve “come from Israel,” are not very interested in what it’s actually like to be Israeli. They insist that in addition to speaking about my area of expertise, I also “say something about Israel” to their synagogue. So I name a few topics — the fascinating worlds of Israeli television, nightlife, music, the courtroom scandals or spiritual struggles of our people — and then I get this blank stare. “No,” they say. “Talk about the rockets in Sderot. About this Mofaz guy. About the women on the bus.”

The subjects they want me to speak about were either never that interesting to most Israelis, those that became obviated by events, or those that had their moment in the sun and then were lost to the public eye. But the deeper things, the cutting-edge things, the zeitgeist? No thanks.

This is an enormous problem, and one that, because of the outspoken support for Israel across America, is often easy to miss. Yet there exists no greater threat to Jewish peoplehood than the cultural disconnect between Israeli and American Jews. And unlike so many of our people’s other problems, this one actually is quite simple to solve — but only if American Jews decide they want to solve it.

It used to be that movies and sitcoms would wait years after being popular in the United States before they came to Israel. Now the cultural delay seems to move in the other direction. Most American Jews tend to be at least 10 years behind in following the developments of Israeli culture.

Israelis have secretly transitioned from poorly importing much of their cultural life to unselfconsciously striking out on their own, compiling and recombining and remixing and creating until things are produced that are not “Zionist” or even “Israeli,” but just whatever they are, amazing new expressions of human and machine and creative and artistic and bold. It is a culture that has become confident enough to create in other languages, as well: French and English and Russian. At its core is a small but incredibly potent Hebrew-speaking dynamo beyond anything envisioned by Ahad Ha’am or Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.

Israelis are suddenly appearing at the forefront of a whole range of previously unthinkable fields — not just medicine or military upgrades but also electronic music and fashion and television programming, avant-garde dance and wacky presidential video clips and Oscar-level filmmaking and world-leading architects and chefs and chemists. Every one of these successes sits atop a pyramid of incredible things, very little of which American Jews ever hear about, much less participate in.

Herein lies our trouble. The more time goes by in which American Jews fail to get on the Israeli-civilization bus, the less qualified they become to say anything at all about who we are and what we should or shouldn’t do.

The harsh truth is that any discourse that says “I love Israel, but I can’t stand Israelis,” “I love Israel, but could never live there,” “I love Israel, but can’t stand that horrible rabbinate, that horrible Lieberman, that horrible heat,” or, “I love Israel even though I don’t know Hebrew” — all these are variations of a single bizarre theme, a theme very different from what Jews used to be, a theme in which ignorance and love are seen as somehow compatible, in which what you’re loving isn’t really Israel at all, but your own saucy dreams.

But there is a simple solution to all this, perhaps incomplete and sure to cause many American Jews to bristle — but frankly it is the only way forward if this peoplehood thing is going to work. It’s the 800-pound falafel ball sitting in the room.


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