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  • Writer's pictureJewish Examiner

The Jewish Deep Nation XIX: Intermittency and Its Excuses

For new readers: These submissions aim to show that Jewishness has been during the exile, and is all the more today in Israel, a nationhood—much in contrast to the religion-only model that characterizes the Enlightenment era up to the present day. The submissions deconstruct elements of Jewishness into national characteristics that Jewry sustained en bloc until its Western branch, and it alone, abandoned them. By seeing it this way, one may better understand many contemporary Jewish phenomena that don’t make sense otherwise—and even find a way to a more sustainable Diasporic Jewishness.

As I warned in Submission XVII (September 3), I had to suspend the Jewish Deep Nation project for a few weeks to cope with a surging regular workload, to celebrate and survive the Holidays, and to step out of Israel with my wife for a ten-day chillout. And where does one go for a perfect chill? to Iceland on the brink of an Arctic winter. Success guaranteed. And then an extended weekend in Amsterdam, chilling but in a different way.

Now I hope the resumed submissions will be weekly as before. Probably, however, they will be sporadic in content: insights or sources on this or that element of Jewish nationhood, to be used when circumstances allow the whole project to be assembled.

One of the themes presented in Submission XVIII for future treatment is about to get some treatment now. I expressed it thus:

“The Israeli ingathering of exiles: Is it working? (Yes, very quickly) Among whom is it working best? (among those who have the strongest sense of Jewish nationhood). Among whom is it working least? (those who have the weakest sense of Jewish nationhood, and yes, they are American Jews).”

Of all subgroups of American Jews who have a problematic relationship with Jewish nationhood, those who have settled in Israel are the last you’d expect to find. Each of them, by definition, has made one of the most radical moves a person can make: emigration/immigration. What’s more, they came to a destination country that defines itself as their home and backs this outlook in visible ways, including nearly automatic granting of citizenship.

Yet by anecdote and experience, you find abundant angst among American ‘olim years or even decades after their ‘aliya. It settles dispiritingly over those who have acculturated successfully in other overt ways. Something covert gnaws at them unrelentingly, and it’s not a craving for Oreo cookies, English-language media, or the New York Mets (this from one whose Mets credentials date back to 1962).

I venture to diagnose the matter as my project requires. American Jews who make ‘aliya, do well in Israel, and struggle with malaise are those who failed to cross the national chasm. You’ve heard, or heard of, some who profess Israeli nationalism explicitly and sometimes loudly. Even among some of them, nationhood -- the subtle, deep thing on which the project focuses -- remains American.

By saying this, I’ve just challenged thousands of ‘olim and maybe others. But I was provoked. It happened a couple of years ago on a Facebook for American ‘olim who used that platform to commiserate about low-paying jobs, the natives’ rude ways, and so on. And repeatedly they carped about the impossibility of mastering Hebrew. Difficulties, challenges, problems – very well. But no: impossibility. And its price: inability to attain social integration, communicate fluently with one’s children, etc.

Not being into Jewish nationhood back then, I thought I could help by counseling the group members against succumbing to the impossibility mindset. At whatever level of fluency they had, they could improve it. The language is quite accommodative and, who knows, one’s proficiency in it could even help one to deal with the rest, including making a living.

“If you mean I can become a translator,” a group member retorted, “the country is full of translators and there isn’t work for any of them. What’s more, ‘olim can’t really master Hebrew and within a year or two they lose their English, leaving themselves unfluent in any language.”

I state from four decades of experience that none of those statements is true. If the country had another twenty *good,* *real* translators, I’d be picking leftovers out of the trash for a living. ‘Olim can master Hebrew from the ulpan program onward. They can retain their English by meaning to.

Truth, however, comes in many packages, one of which is delivered to me anew in each morning’s prayer service and in the Sabbath and festival eve sanctifications. My problem in addressing the Facebook group was my inability to express it in secular terms until the nationhood bug bit me:

Nationhood is manifested in language. Perhaps they are inseparable. Both the Jewish sources and academic research concur. So yes, if you lose your fluency in one tongue without acquiring it in another, you’re in deep national angst. Accordingly, when American-Jewish ‘olim in Israel sense that they haven’t “made it,” as many plainly do, it is not about the uneven consistency of the cottage cheese or the government’s over-wingedness (Right or Left) but perhaps, or probably, their having got stuck part-way while crossing the transnational bridge.

There’s a precedent. The significant population of German Jews that reached Mandate Palestine in the 1930s exhibited the same syndrome: a difficult struggle with Hebrew and a sense, among themselves and among the mainstream, of not really belonging. German Jewry was also a collective that saw Germanness as its nationhood. Some among them blamed their acculturation problems on economic factors such as estrangement from the politically dominant socialist ethos. I don’t totally buy it. The commercial citrus growers of Netanya and the fledgling manufacturers of Tel Aviv at that time spurned socialism even more emphatically but totally considered themselves, and were totally considered, part of the national enterprise.

But I think there is something unique about America among nationhoods. There’s a conviction among lots of Americans that any proficiency in a foreign language is reserved for geniuses or freaks. As a student teacher, I challenged that before a class of fellow students by showing that collectively they possessed huge multilingual knowledge. Still, much of American Jewry has bought into the conventional wisdom. Consider “religious school” and bar-mitzva training that aspire at best to teach the pronunciation of the requisite Hebrew words without attention to the language as such. Historically and away from America, however, linguistic inhibition certainly isn’t a Jewish trait. From the Patriarchs to the Dutch Jews with whom I spent last Shabbat in Amsterdam, multilingualism among Jews -- proficiency in a Judeo-language and in a vernacular -- seems to be the norm if not something taken for granted.

Except, again, in America -- and, guess where, in certain social provinces in Israel.

Next week (but no promises): “marrying Jewish” as an obstacle to the Jewish national ingathering.

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