Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 15 December 2011

When Self-Reflection Hurts

Israel was criticzed recently for running a ham-handed advertising campaign that was meant to encourage yordim in the United States to consider returning home.  While the intent was noble, the final product was classic Israel - blunt.  The message was simple: Stay in America and your kid will wind up celebrating Chrismas with your shiksa spouse.  Return to Israel if you want to stay Jewish.
The reaction from the American Jewish community was understandable.  It was a histrionic cry of "How dare you portray American Jewish life like that!?"  Despite efforts to assure the American community that Israel does not think poorly of them, feathers on this side of the Atlantic are still ruffled.
Here's the problem: American Jewry needs to take a good look at itself because the caricatures in the ad campaign aren't far off the mark.
What is the rate of intermarriage amongst non-Orthodox Jews?  For how many years has it been far more likely that a Jewish young adult would married out than in?  What is the average level of Jewish knowledge amongst American Jews?  I'm not talking about all the cultural pap that gets served up in the non-Orthodox Jewish day school system.  How many know more Torah than just Uncle Yankel's Bible Stories?  How many can name the various components of a page of Talmud, much less read and understand them?
In truth the state of American Jewry is perilously pathetic.  Intermarriage is rife, ignorance of basic Judaism is pandemic.  What's more, consider the effect assimilation is having on the community.  Not thirty years ago there were six million Jews in the US.  Not forty years ago there were Jews in New York than in Israel.  According to the most recent population data we're down to four million Jews in the US and that's with an expansive definition that includes people who enjoy knishes and latkes but otherwise have no actual connection to the Jewish nation.  What's the real number?  Three and a half million?  Three?  And where did the rest go?
Yes, a chiloni lifestyle in Israel isn't the ideal Jewish one but it is very much better than a secular lifestyle in America.  The most disconnected Jew in Israel speaks Hebrew.  If the urge suddenly overcomes him tomorrow he can sit down and read the texts of his ancestors in the original.  He knows that life slows down on Friday night and Saturday, not Sundays.  His yearly rhythm is tied to the Jewish cycle of holidays, not the Chrisian one.  In short, he is ready to return while his American brother might not even know that there is something to return to.
So while the campaign was admitted offensive to Americans in that it engaged in the usual lack of subtlety that Israelis are famous for, its basic message was not incorrect.  The longer we remain in golus the weaker our connection with God and Torah grows even if we don't want to admit it.  This is something we should all definitely self-reflect on instead of dismissing what feels inconvenient to know.


Anonymous said...

Are things any different in Canada?

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

No, not really, but they didn't target us. Maybe they think we're also American?

Anonymous said...

Anyone who knows many yordim understands exactly what the message means. They don't even have the "antibodies" that native American Jews do for American assimilation.

I loved the ads, and so did my sabra kids. American Jews are so far from getting it that they think the ad is about them.

David said...

Well, a couple of points-- first, if it weren't for American Jewry (and America generally), there wouldn't be an Israel or any Jews left in that part of the Middle East. Second, I am uncomfortable with this constant carping about the need to shield ourselves from assimilation. We haven't got a monopoly on thought, so if our teachings aren't keeping people interested, perhaps the answer is not to deny them access to outside influence, but to update our teachings to the point where people find them more meaningful.

Friar Yid said...

I think you hit the nail on the head when comparing your average secular Israeli to your average secular US Jew. In short, the Israelis are convinced they're culturally superior, and the rest of us are unimpressed.

While having Hebrew be one's native language is a big plus, I remain unconvinced that having a Hebrew calendar, having Saturday be your lazy day instead of Sunday, or other minor "accomplishments" of secular Israeli culture are such significant accomplishments. They seem like pretty superficial issues to me.

My understanding is that most secular Israelis aren't super Jewishly literate, either. While some see the fact that the Israeli model is to hold up Orthodoxy as the only legitimate standard is good, I note that it also has the effect of providing an excuse for staying unengaged with Judaism.

At the end of the day, secular Israelis seem to have replaced Judaism with Zionism, which, I'm sorry, aren't equivalent. Being familiar (or indoctrinated) in a political ideology (or sub-ideology) is not necessarily synonymous as having a personal connection with a religious belief system, culture, or set of rituals, and it's particularly arrogant to think that merely by virtue of living in Israel, a person can "soak up" Jewish identity by osmosis in a way that is automatically superior than the way devoted and dedicated Jews in the Diaspora have been doing for thousands of years, mainly, through hard work and actually giving a damn.

The biggest achievement that you (and the Israeli government) note is that they're better at marrying Jews than your average US Jew. Whoop-dee-do. Sure, some of that is probably ideological, but it's probably just as much influenced by the demographics of the state and ridiculous marriage laws that essentially make intermarriage impossible. The fact that Israel is so insecure in its ideas of nationality and Jewishness that its citizens aren't allowed to marry whoever they like is hardly something to congratulate them over.

If it was the Orthodox who were pointing the finger at us, they'd at least have some valid religious points. For the secular Israeli government to do it, as if their model of cultural Jewish integrity or continuity is so wondrously fantastic makes it extra irritating.