“Makom: Innovative Israel Education” is The Jewish Agency’s central resource for Israel education, providing programming, content and workshops for global Jewish communities, institutions and leaders, rabbis, activists and informal educators. I was privileged to be part of their first cohort in 2007, and as part of our experience we spent an entire week in Tel Aviv experiencing Israel as Israelis do. It was an eye opener. We met with artists, writers, entertainers, journalists, musicians and educators. We visited the high-tech innovators and traditional silversmiths. Most Americans just hit a few tourist spots and/or the beach, and Tel Aviv is over in a day or two. There is so much more to the vitality of Israeli life that is being ignored. Aside from all the historical, religious, archaeological, commercial, gastronomical and tourist attractions of Israel, there is also an indigenous Israeli culture to which non-Israelis are not exposed. Granted, Hebrew language skills are necessary, but we have already touched on that topic. How Israel is viewed by Diaspora Jewry as well as how Israel presents itself to the world are manifestations of a cultural schizophrenia that needs to be addressed.
American Orthodox Jews are often unaware of the cultural and religious lives of our Israeli brethren. We inhabit a different cultural space with disparate influences; we read different books, listen to different music and have different public intellectuals, authors and poets. Moreover, and more importantly, American Jews are often unaware of the impressive variety and creativity of Israel’s religious leaders and thinkers. We tend to hear about the religio-political controversies—the Temple Mount, women’s services and mixed services at the Kotel, questions of “Who is a Jew?” and other areas of intersection and overlap between religion and politics.
Israel today is very different from the mythologized Israel of my youth. It is no longer horas and debkas, tractors and Jaffa oranges, the Israel Philharmonic, “Sallah” or Agnon. Israel is brimming with a homegrown, vibrant, mature and challenging culture. Novelists, playwrights, musicians, singers, political commentators, actors, comedians, artists, dancers and writers are active providers of a cultural milieu that eludes most non-Israelis.
Take for example the parallel bubbles of “Orthodox” music, Israeli music and popular Jewish music. Each constituency rarely, if ever, knows of or listens to the artists from the other genre. Similarly, when groups come to Tel Aviv they visit Rabin Square, the famous cemetery, Independence Hall, the shuk and Bet HaTefutzot, the Museum of the Diaspora. Rarely do they spend more than a day there. They don’t go to the movies or to the clubs.
Granted that Hebrew fluency is a factor, but many outstanding Israeli authors’ works have been translated to English. This window to Israeli culture is rarely explored. Israeli theater is also available in translation. Israeli hip-hop does not need to be translated any more than the lyrics to contemporary American hip-hop. Israeli writers and humorists speak English, as do columnists, but they are rarely invited to speak to American audiences. Israeli dance does not require Hebrew competency, nor does art. Israeli films have subtitles. Why this disconnect?
I must admit that I am conflicted. My Israel has never been Tel Aviv. I suspect the same is true of most of my friends and co-religionists. Most Americans have never heard of Rami Kleinstein, Kobi Oz, Sayed Kashua, Gadi Taub, Jackie Levy, Motti Lerner, Dorit Rabinyan, Galila Ron-Feder, Eti Ankri or Etgar Keret. My exposure to them and to others has generated deep soul-searching. Israel is the sum of its parts, and we just take those parts with which we are most comfortable. To really understand Israel, we have to be exposed to Israeli culture. It may disturb us, it may not always be comfortable, and it may not reflect traditional Jewish cultural norms—but it is Israeli.
Grappling with this will not be easy. My rabbi will tell me not to waste my time. My literate Israeli friends will rush to share their favorite author. It’s a challenge on many levels. There is Israeli art just for art’s sake and there is much that is message-laden. Sitting in a club reminiscent of Greenwich Village in the ’60s and listening to a newly Orthodox pop artist sing about the financial burdens facing everyday Israelis, and then launch into an Arabic-flavored jazz scat followed by her longing for the Holy Temple, is a mind-bending experience.
We understand how we must support Israel, and we do, but building a relationship is a two-way street. There is so much that we as Americans do not understand nor appreciate about contemporary Israeli culture.
Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky recently pointed out in Lehrhaus that some of the most exciting developments in Jewish thought, law and scholarship are taking place in Israel, and we have no idea what they are and who is driving them. Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun is the father of an exciting stream of text-based Tanach study, whose popularity is widespread in Israel but is not particularly well-known outside of Israel [local exception: Chovevei Torah’s annual Tanach ymei iyyun]; Profs. Yair Zakovitch and Avigdor Shinan, the leading “secular” Tanach commentators, are even more obscure outside of Israel.
Rav Shagar (Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg) is practically unknown in America except for some esoteric places. Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Brandes is an innovative scholar of Talmud study and teaching whose instructional approach is now being used to train Talmud teachers at the Herzog College. And yet, most Diaspora Jews have never heard of him or read any of his writings.
Rabbi Chaim Navon and Dr. Tomer Persico write on religion, economics, politics and everything in between, but they are inaccessible to those who are not
fluent in Hebrew. Sivan Rahav-Meir, a haredi woman and media personality, draws huge crowds from across Israel’s political and religious spectrum for her lecture on the weekly Torah portion. Former MK Dr. Ruth Calderon’s inaugural Knesset speech went viral, but it was a flash in the pan, and her readings of Talmudic narratives remain under-explored.
In the realm of Jewish law and religious scholarship, only recently have Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, the rosh yeshiva of the Yeshiva in Har Bracha who is revolutionizing the religious Zionist halachic world with his eminently reasonable and balanced halachic approach, and the brilliantly creative Rabbi Osher Weiss, gained currency outside Israel. In academia, Prof. Benny Brown’s monumental work on Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (the “Chazon Ish”) or Dr. Maoz Kahana’s dazzling study of the way Rabbi Yechezkel Landau (“Noda Bi-Yehuda”) and Rabbi Moshe Sofer (“Chatam Sofer”) responded to the currents of their times.
While American Orthodox Jews debate the roles, function and titles of women in communal leadership, Rabbaniyot Michal Tikochinsky, Esti Rosenberg, Tova Ganzel and Malka Puterkovsky, to name some of the most prominent, have created institutes for advanced Torah study for women, integrating their graduates into communal frameworks with minimal comment and controversy. Prof. Vered Noam, in addition to being a learned Talmudist, has authored scorching articles on women and Orthodoxy in mainstream, widely-read publications. Yet many of us have never heard of any of these women. The late Chana Safrai, in addition to being a pioneer of Jewish women’s study, began a project with her father and brother to produce a commentary on the entire Mishnah that would bring history, botany, archaeology and other academic disciplines to bear on the text. The result is over a dozen full-color volumes of the Safrai Mishnah have been published, but rare is the American Jew who has heard of them.
The truth is that even if we did know who Israel’s most exciting thought leaders are, their writings would be all but inaccessible to too many American Jews, as only a small fraction of this output has been translated into English. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot tells us (2:1), “Be as scrupulous about a light mitzvah as about a severe one.” What is a “light mitzvah”? Rambam explains that this refers to mitzvot like making a festival pilgrimage to Jerusalem or teaching Hebrew. Rambam listed this as a prime example of a mitzvah that really ought to be taken far more seriously than it is.
Leon Wieseltier, in “Language, Identity and the Scandal of American Jewry,” bemoaned this lack of Hebrew proficiency of American Jewry:
“The American Jewish community is the first great community in the history of our people that believes that it can receive, develop and perpetuate the Jewish tradition not in a Jewish language. By an overwhelming majority, American Jews cannot read or speak or write Hebrew, or Yiddish. This is genuinely shocking. American Jewry is quite literally unlettered....
“The assumption of American Jewry that it can do without a Jewish language is an arrogance without precedent in Jewish history. And this illiteracy, I suggest, will leave American Judaism and American Jewishness forever crippled and scandalously thin.”
Regardless of one’s political affiliations, Americans who are limited in their Hebrew knowledge aren’t exposed to the nuanced political writing that appears in Israeli papers, only to the juiciest (and often mistranslated) bits that filter into the English media. As a result, we are woefully ignorant of what Israelis are really thinking, saying and doing.
This cognitive dissonance can be productive. It can inspire eventual aliyah, it can also spur some introspection and evaluation. To what degree do we, in our lives, truly manifest a connection and an alignment with Israel in any deep way? If we keep asking ourselves this question, perhaps we will conclude that the lip service of a few prayers and perhaps a check to an Israeli charity or political action group is not sufficient. Perhaps then we will begin to explore and attempt to understand Israel’s incredibly rich musical, intellectual, spiritual, material, artistic, religious and, last but not least, deeply and authentically Jewish culture.
By Wallace Greene
Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene would like to lead a tour of the real Israel that Americans never see.