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The Hebrew Rhythm and the Challenge of Israeli-American Identity

Seventy percent of children of Israeli migrants to North America shed their Jewish-Hebrew identity within a generation
Dr. Ruth Calderon is a former research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and one of Israel’s leading figures spearheading efforts to revive Hebrew Culture and a pluralistic Israeli-Jewish identity. She co-established ELUL, the first beit midrash in which secular and religious women and men studied and taught together. In 1996 in Tel Aviv, she founded in ALMA, a Jewish liberal arts program for advanced learning and is the author of A Bride for One

Losing the Hebrew Rhythm

Seventy percent of children of Israeli migrants to North America shed their Jewish-Hebrew identity within a generation. Quietly, and without much of a struggle, we are losing some of our best and brightest: families engaged in hi-tech and academia, business owners and entrepreneurs, engineers, artists, and educators. The impressive Israeli-American communities successfully integrate into the American Dream, but it comes at the expense of the cultural assets and the sense of identity that had been second nature. That said, the challenge of preserving Israeli identity in the Diaspora is not a complete failure.

An Israeli Jew is born into a never-ending rhythm of Hebrew culture, the result of a rich and thick experience that is separate from, but not alien to, a religious framework. The Hebrew language is an echo chamber resonating with words, concepts, names, and places from antiquity until today. It begins with a person’s first name and the name of the street they live on, extends to newspaper headlines and basic concepts like the Hebrew words for government (“memshalah”) and security (“bitahon”), and even includes the words to songs that are played on the radio.

Even Israel’s temporal rhythm enables us to adapt ancient descriptions of time to the reality of life in Israel: In the month of Nisan everything begins to bloom, in the month of Tishrei, at the end of a stifling hot summer, it is natural to be introspective and pray for rain.

The holiday of light coincides with the shortest days of winter. Festivals and holidays fill the public sphere: costumes on Purim, empty streets and children on bicycles on Yom Kippur, standing silent at the sound of the memorial sirens, sukkot on every street, bonfires on Lag B’Omer, field trips that teach all about the land of Israel, songs played on the radio at 4:00 pm each day, Shabbat dinner with the parent, kindergarten children adorned with cardboard candles in celebration of Hanukah, schoolchildren planting trees in honor of Tu B’Shvat, plaid slippers, white button-down shirts, khaki army uniforms, blue shirts, ties worn by members of youth movements, and the quiet of every Shabbat afternoon.

The rhythm that emerges from all of this creates a sense of belonging, of home. A Hebrew citizen feels at home in the language, easily and naturally deciphering its cultural codes. She can ‘speak’ them. The Hebrew rhythm gives meaning and context, builds identity unconsciously, like a fish in water. This rhythm is almost like a living being – constantly developing and changing and being influenced and influencing others. It connects different communities to one another: Even the Haredi community recognizes the Israeli soundtrack, radio, television, and even the virtual world, and Arab citizens of Israel likewise are familiar with the calendrical customs and share much of the civic culture.

This rhythm is sign of the success of cultural Zionism. It is the realization of the vision of Ahad Ha’am, Bialik, and the members of Hovevei Zion who dreamed of establishing a Jewish spiritual-cultural center. They envisioned a totality of national life that would derive its identity from a Hebrew ethos: its language, its stories, its heroes, places, and times that are embedded in the spiritual treasures of the past – Tanakh, the Mishna, the Talmud, Kabbalah, Hasidism, folklore, poetry, and literature. With loyalty to the treasures of its past, the nation returning to its land would be able to revive and adapt its language and the value system that stems from its ancient sources to the values that are right for today.

Living in this rhythm causes the revitalized Jewish-Hebrew content to become an essential part of one’s existence, second nature, the carrier of identity. It easily connects Israelis to one another, and this is evident even when they go abroad.

Over the past few decades, the community of Israelis living abroad, specifically in North America, has grown tremendously and become soundly established. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of people who consider themselves ‘Israeli-Americans’. With the passage of time, this community is increasingly comprised of Israelis who are educated professionals; people who moved abroad for their jobs, or traveled to complete their education and remained; professionals who could not find appropriate employment when they sought to return to Israel; and entrepreneurs who extended their businesses and interests abroad. At times, it also includes individuals who became exasperated with the intensity of communal life in Israel. The identity challenge faced by Israeli-Americans bothers them, but also troubles the State of Israel. Both parties recognize the human capital that might be lost forever.

In this essay, I want to offer ways to preserve Hebrew-Israeli identity in the Diaspora and to establish a Hebraic cultural space in Jewish communities throughout the world, specifically the growing communities of Israeli Jews in the United States and Canada. The institutions that exist abroad have not been able to provide adequately for the unique needs and identity of the Israeli-American community, given that traditional Jewish religious identity and the institution of the synagogue do not reflect how this community defines its Jewishness. Surveys demonstrate that seventy percent of children of Israeli migrants give up or lose their identity within two generations.

The American Dream: Something is Missing

The silence becomes apparent only after a while. We are like the cartoon character who becomes frightened and falls only when he realizes that she has been walking on air. At first, Israelis abroad enjoy the anonymity and the privacy. We enjoy American calendar that marks holidays that are not personal or binding. We are happy to give up the compulsory news report every half-hour. We earn a reprieve from national ceremonies, from emotionally charged ‘issues’, from the need to always be representatives, to remember tragedies, to draw conclusions, to endanger our children, to pay high taxes, to engage in an ongoing struggle to establish our rights to the land, and determine the Jewish nature of the public domain.

For the first time in his life, an Israeli living in North America does not need to fully identify with his country. The American administration demands far less of its citizens, and it is easy to identify with its values: the yellow school bus that nostalgically recalls the naïve 1950s, the fire stations that represent local civilian heroes, big flags waving proudly, and the daily pledge of allegiance in educational institutions and at sporting events. The cumulative impact of these events over the course of an entire year is similar to what Israelis experience just in the single month of Tishrei. In America the public sphere will never feature a siren that demands an ominous moment of silence, nor a fast or midnight tours of holy sites ahead of the selihot prayers. The children’s education is entirely devoid of religious content. The melting pot is felt on the street, in the public schools, and on the subway, and we Israelis are happy to warm ourselves by its glow.

Only after a sufficient break from the rhythm do we begin to miss the familiar culture and long for these very things: For the Friday morning paper, with all its supplementary sections, for the sweetness of 4:00pm, for the charm of holiday eves, and the ability to understand all the subtleties.

It is not long before the younger generation lacks these memories and is devoid of nostalgia. Parents are shocked to realize that both they and their world, their language and their accent, are experienced by their children as a source of shame that is best forgotten, so that they might direct all their intellectual resources and talents towards developing an American accent, adapting a new dress code and different behaviors, and embracing an entirely different “rhythm.”

The challenge is indeed great.

An Israeli-American family that seeks to preserve its Jewish identity abroad has three primary options:

Join a synagogue. For a secular Israeli, joining an American synagogue is not a simple process. Fraught religion-state and secular-religious relationships in Israel generate hostility and alienation from religious institutions on the part of most secular Israelis. The secular Israeli educational system understands Judaism as a culture and left religious rite for religious schools, chose not to teach the Jewish prayer book. So When an Israeli enters an American synagogue, he does not speak its language. The communal encounter, if successful, will provide a sense of belonging and relieve cultural loneliness, but in comparison with the ‘Hebrew rhythm’, the synagogue is limited in the richness of its cultural offerings. It exists only in the confines of the synagogue, and for an Israeli, who is used to national-Jewish culture – it seems to be limited to religious interpretation only. The synagogue is usually directed by a rabbinic authority, and a secular Israeli is not used to respecting this either. Jewish secular culture in Israel prefers to exist without mediation. To accept a rabbinic figure in his life, an Israeli-American needs to establish a new cultural construct.

The most powerful significance of the synagogue is as a portal to the community. If an Israeli family befriends community members and establishes close ties with the community, the feelings of loneliness and emptiness are averted, and it is quite likely that both parents and children will successfully preserve their Jewish identity. The Jewish-American community generally expects Israelis to adopt their way of life, accepting Judaism as a ‘religion’ as is commonplace in America and participating in prayer services and religious events. Integrating into the synagogue community, then, is especially difficult, demanding great effort, primarily from the Israeli family.

Join the Israeli community. When Israelis meet one another, the relief is palpable. You can speak your mind naturally, relish conversing in Hebrew, and appreciate the less restrictive codes of behavior. At times though, at Israeli communal events – primarily in communities outside New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the hi-tech centers – there is a feeling that the community is ‘stuck’ in the era in which the community members last lived in Israel. The music, the food, and the politics are mostly nostalgic. There is virtually no significant contemporary culture. The sense of Israeli togetherness and affection is not connected to the daily American lives or professional realities of community members. It is somewhat regressive. It is nice to meet up with Israelis, much the same that it is pleasant to return to your parents’ home for Shabbat: a familiar and pleasant place to relax and unwind. It is like an old, worn out pair of slippers – comfortable, but you would never wear it to work.

Assimilation. There are two sides to assimilation. On the one hand, it represents successful integration, acceptance, and the widening of one’s cultural and spiritual world. On the flipside though, assimilation means being swallowed up and the loss of particular identity within the majority culture. Even in North America, a society that is predicated on immigrants and the melting pot ethos, there are unofficial social strata that go far beyond the official values of citizenship and equal rights for all. An Israeli living in Israel who is used to feeling like she represents the majority, bearing status that is self-evident, may feel an inexplicable coldness among Americans. American politeness will only exacerbate this feeling. Respectable, stable Israeli values (kibbutz, combat service, post-army trip to the Far East) are unknown here. A person who saw himself as successful in Tel Aviv will not necessarily be regarded as such in Washington. Climbing the ladder of social success in America is a long and arduous process. Immigrants are rarely afforded shortcuts. When integration does occur, it brings much beauty, depth, and loveliness in the dimensions of humanity, culture, and materialism. The American Dream is as relevant as ever.

The negative side of assimilation is the difficulty in preserving a particularistic identity in a society that at its core welcomes immigrants. A foreign accent is met with discomfort. There is a lot of encouragement, at times even aggressive, to become ‘American’ as quickly as possible. In this environment, it is extremely difficult to transmit a heritage that is not the culture of the masses to our children – to preserve the language, codes of conduct, ethics, and rituals. These things seem antiquated and bewilder a younger person who is trying to respond to the melting pot’s gracious invitation. Both the American school day and the American work day are significantly longer than their Israeli counterparts, and the family spends less time together over the course of the week. The younger generation quickly becomes comfortable in English, and – unless you really insist – they will stop answering you in Hebrew. The loss of Hebrew language marks the beginning of an unraveling identity. Without it, a child of a cultural minority has nothing to hold onto.

How to Establish an Independent Rhythm

The State of Israel recognizes the identity crisis facing Israeli-Americans and the large number of Israeli-Americans it loses each year. Vast resources are allocated towards ‘outreach’ efforts to bring Israeli Jews back to Judaism and the stronghold of Jewish communities. The lion’s share of this money funds the activities of emissaries from the national-religious sector to Jewish schools and Jewish communities. Chabad, whose Haredi-Hasidic orientation is a far cry from the spirit of the ‘Israeli rhythm’, also receives large amounts of money. Chabad is well known for their outreach activities, and the leaders of the State of Israel trust them with these resources. Most of the state’s efforts are directed then at building Jewish identity as religious identity, because they perceive that it is only the religious communities who successfully held on to their Jewish identity in the Diaspora. This perception is strengthened by statistics that prove that religious communities have the lowest rates of assimilation.

I disagree with the presumption that religion is the only possible Jewish existence. I see Judaism as a rich cultural identity, whole and full of value. I am troubled by the lack of confidence that our elected officials have in this concept, the ease with which they are willing to dismiss this wondrous phenomenon without a fight.

I want to set forth a number of possible courses of action, rooted in the understanding of Judaism as a cultural identity. These steps might be adopted by a group, by a community or an organization, or even by an individual family or person.

I crystallized these ideas through an ongoing dialogue with IAC, an umbrella organization for Israeli-Americans that conducts large biannual conventions and provides ongoing programming in thousands of Israeli centers. IAC’s staff and network of volunteers are partners in my mission. The Gevanim organization as well, established by the Jewish Federation of San Francisco, stands at the forefront of Hebrew and Israeli culture in North America. Friday night services, synagogue encounters, joint celebrations of Israeli holidays, as well as study and discussion groups are conducted in a growing number of communities. I learned a lot from them, and this article is part of a collaborative effort.

First Things First: Hebrew

Living in Hebrew, which is self-evident in Israel, is nothing short of a cultural miracle. A language that finds its origins in the second millennium BCE has regenerated, been revitalized, and facilitates rich expression of all aspects of modern, contemporary life. The Hebrew rhythm begins with one’s name, places, seasons, times of year, and extends to the institutions that serve our society, as well as the currency, legal proceedings, lullabies, and the language of love and dreams. It floods the present with a bounty of language replete with ancient-modern significance that resonates everywhere.

Language reaches the most intimate place in man, his thoughts, and deeply influences his identity. Language is not only vocabulary, but context, tone, and manner of speech; a treasury of images and connections to endless contexts in the past. In this way, we can see that Jewish cultural infrastructure anywhere, certainly in the Diaspora, is predicated on deep and complete knowledge of the Hebrew language. It is the key to feeling a sense of belonging and connection to ancient sources, and it is the medium for meaningful conversation with other Jews. The language creates a rhythm that enables an individual to envelop and treasure all of Jewish existence, even when he is surrounded by other cultures.

Israeli-Americans arrive in America with the essential resource that is actually rather obvious: They are all Hebrew speakers. The awareness of the importance of language, and the effort to preserve it and to speak it, becomes the key to preserving Hebrew-Israeli identity. Upon leaving Israel, the habitual listening to Hebrew radio broadcasts and television, Hebrew podcasts and Israeli theatre, is hardly self-evident. Actively engaging in these activities becomes cultural work. A person who can conduct meaningful conversations with others in Hebrew, composers and writers who continue to produce in Hebrew, and parents who work to preserve their kids ability to speak ‘up-to-date’ Hebrew, rooted in language renewal and enhanced with new Israeli children’s literature and theatre – will not lose the Hebrew rhythm. They will thus give themselves the most effective tool for cultural independence.

Non-religious Hebrew-Israeli Spaces

The Jewish Community Center, often characterized as a childcare facility and sports club, has expanded and changed much over the past two decades. A new understanding of the JCC as a place for ceremonies, holiday get-togethers, and events that mark important dates on the Jewish calendar, has the capacity to establish a new kind of cultural zone, not necessarily religious, that offers participants encounters and activities that are consistent with their worldview. Other venues, such as coffee shops, museums, theatres and even the streets themselves can function as a ‘pop-up zone’ for Jewish events. These public spaces can serve Israeli-Americans, as well as American Jews who feel that the synagogue does not provide for all their Jewish cultural needs. These get-togethers might include joint text-based study sessions, cultural performances, or discussions of important life questions. They have the capacity to enrich both communities and even create a new inclusive community, one that would not cause a community member to give up his previous community, but would give him a further dimension of belonging.

Israeli-American creative arts already exist: Maya Arad sketches Israeli life in Silicon Valley, Ruby Namdar describes a sacred, shrine-like vision in New York, and there are many others. This new cultural space is inspiring and fascinating. To my mind, it is the most advanced laboratory of Jewish identity that exists in the world today.

The Virtual Zone

The last decade has changed everything that we knew previously about ‘spaces’, and we Jewish educators at times have difficulty recognizing the potential of this new world. Israeli-Americans still default to Army Radio in their cars. Netflix and YouTube have made Israeli television accessible, and the Israeli Channel has been updated and allows one to see almost all of the shows that are available in Israel. Digital books are everywhere, and Amazon will happily deliver the latest Agi Mishol or Assaf Inbari book to your doorstep within a day. The gatekeepers of culture no longer determine the movement of culture. Israeli literature, music, poetry, and theatre can be consumed anytime, anywhere. That said, there is a need to become your own ‘content editor’ and adjust the material to the calendar, to lifecycle events and the distinct needs of each individual and family. A vast online resource of Israeli culture that reinvigorates Ahad Ha’am’s vision of a Jewish spiritual center in the land of Israel can provide daily material, as well as a cultural space that connects people and communities. It can serve Jewish day schools as well as afternoon Hebrew schools. It can be a place for artists and writers to connect with one another and join Jews all across the world in a common Hebrew space. Membership in a Jewish cultural virtual world circumvents many difficulties that alienate communities today. It is inexpensive, it is not bound by geographical location or time constraints, and it is readily accessible to anyone with a smartphone.

Torah Study

I have always believed that the Torah is the joint ground upon which Jews across the world can stand together. Contemporary Torah study renews the covenant of Mount Sinai each day. There are many different ways to continually engage with the primary sources – Tanakh, the Mishna and the Talmud – in addition to contemporary sources, such as literature, poetry, and similar creative works. An encounter that involves deep understanding, critical thinking, and unfettered, creative possibilities of interpretation, is a tool that deepens and enriches cultural identity. Learning with a study-partner, in small study groups, or with a community of learners creates a joint language, facilitates the clarification of concepts and morals, and generates energy for the entire community. The linguistic advantage that the Israelis have in their command of Hebrew is counterbalanced by the ritualism of their American Jewish counterparts and their ability to independently manage communal affairs. There are excellent teachers among both groups, and the Internet has the capacity to provide further learning opportunities, beyond the limitations of the past.

Cultural Centers

Alma , the home for Hebrew culture, was established in Tel Aviv in 1996. It is a cultural center that seeks to influence Israel’s socio-cultural discourse and creative output. Many years ago, I wrote a proposal to establish a network of Alma centers worldwide, inspired by the French cultural centers that are found around the world. These centers would be somewhat like the successful Chabad houses and Hillel houses on college campuses. ‘Bina’ established similar centers in India that are frequented by many visitors. If Jewish cultural centers would open in the cities with big population centers and offer cultural activities like Tikkun Leil Shavuot, Selihot, Pesah sedarim, Friday night services, ongoing lectures, workshops that relate to lifecycle events, birth and welcoming new babies into the world, wedding seminars, Bar and Bat Mitzvah encounters, presentations and discussions of contemporary Jewish-Israeli culture, and more – they would not only nourish the Israeli-American communities, but also become a meeting place for Americans who seek to deepen their understanding of Judaism as a culture. The cultural resources that would be developed in these centers could become a traveling exhibit or a series of lectures and performances that would enrich the entire Jewish world.

The success of Israeli identity is most apparent in the public sphere. Specifically, there – on the street, on the television screen, and in the educational system – the dream that lay dormant for two thousand years in a closed and insular community – the dream of a public sphere that is Jewish in its totality, that is confident and can also respectfully include non-Jews – is most apparent. In this sphere, time is Jewish, the language is Hebrew, and the amazing story is played out again and again.

These sweet and enjoyable elements are taken for granted, and they are not easy to pack when we relocate abroad. It is possible though. As a Jewish educator, I am excited to face this challenge.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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