California is a state, but it could almost be its own country; perhaps, as many
of the locals say – only half-kiddingly – its own planet. The most populous of
America’s 50 states, it has every kind of ethnic grouping, every kind of sensory
experience, every taste of topography and geography. You can ski on the
mountains of Big Bear, surf and scuba-dive on any one of the hundreds of beaches
along the coast, sip (kosher) wine in the Napa Valley and trek or tan in the
deserts of Mojave or Palm Springs. You can even stroll or boat along the canals
of Venice, built to mimic Italy’s famous city of the same
California is also a state of mind, an attitude, an
image. In one way or another, it all trickles down from that famous icon
in the hills, proclaiming the land below as the official home of Hollywood.
There is a glitter to this tinsel-town that pervades the very atmosphere; a
certain flair and flash like that of the ubiquitous paparazzi – ever on the
prowl for a shot of this or that star or starlet – which is part and parcel of
the Golden State’s character. You see it reflected in the amazingly
beautiful, sprawling homes of Santa Barbara, Carmel or Monterey and in the
multitude of pricey sports cars and Rolls-Royces that proudly cruise the
In California, the motto remains, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!”
And here, less is definitely not more.
Embedded within the confines of
California is the second- largest Jewish population in America, a total of one
million Jews, approximately 700,000 of whom reside in the greater Los Angeles
area. In many locales, Jews comprise the majority; magnificent Beverly Hills, in
fact, has the highest percentage of Jews of any incorporated city in the world
outside the Holy Land. The Jewish community is well-established and well-off,
with an impressive array of synagogues, Jewish schools and kosher restaurants of
every taste and type. The Pico-Robertson area of LA alone has more than 50
kosher eateries, from falafel to fine cuisine. There are mikvaot, an extensive
schedule of Torah classes held day and night and a dynamic group of devoted and
distinguished spiritual leaders.
My wife and I traveled to Los Angeles as
part of a delegation of Israeli rabbis and educators who are brought annually to
California to conduct a Shabbaton under the auspices of the local Religious
Zionist council. We arrived just in time for the annual Israel Day celebration,
where thousands of people attended numerous events in honor of Israel,
highlighted by an Israeli food festival and a series of concerts of Israeli
music headlined by Sarit Hadad. Posters publicizing the event lined the city’s
sidewalks; one of LA’s main streets was cordoned off to accommodate the throngs
of people attending. Speaking throughout the weekend to hundreds of adults and
young people at a dozen synagogues and schools, we were greatly impressed by the
warmth, friendship and genuine Ahavat Yisrael (love for fellow Jews) that
permeates this community.
But what most grabbed our attention was the
preponderance of Israelis, and “Israel-isms,” that continually confronted us.
There are perhaps as many as 150,000 expat Israelis living in southern
California, the largest such concentration outside Israel itself, making up a
community twice as large as my own home town of Ra’anana. (The exact
number of Israelis can only be estimated, since as many as 25% of LA’s Israelis
live in the state extra-legally, under the radar. But we won’t talk about that.)
Everywhere we went, we heard Hebrew being spoken. Israeli newspapers are
sold in local bookstores, with free copies offered on Fridays at corner
newsstands. Every imaginable Israeli product is available in the supermarkets,
and Israeli news is broadcast live in a hundred locations. I entered a
cafe for lunch only to be eagerly greeted by the owner, who asked me what I
thought about the prospect of new elections, a news bulletin on Israeli TV
having headlined the issue just minutes earlier.
And so I thought: What,
exactly, is going on here? Why are so many Israelis so drawn to Israeli food,
Israeli culture, Israeli politics and Israeli life, yet determined to live their
lives outside Israel? If they love Israel so much – and clearly they do – then
why do they leave in such staggering numbers, forming a “nation within a nation”
wherever they go? Why are they content with creating their own “little Tel
Aviv,” when the genuine “big Tel Aviv” is more than happy to have them?
short, why must they love Israel only from a distance?
THERE IS no question in
my mind that we are experiencing today the true Golden Age of Judaism. Forget
about Moorish Spain, where Jews were subservient to Muslims and could not walk
on the sidewalks alongside the locals or look them in the eye. Forget about
shtetl Europe, where pogroms and persecution were an everyday fact of life.
This, here and now, is the zenith of Diaspora Jewish history. Never before have
Jews been so free to pursue every opportunity and been so accepted by society at
large. This is particularly true of America, which once had quotas for Jews at
universities, clubs and in numerous professions, including, ironically, the
movie industry, which initially attempted to ban Jews from control. Now, the sky
is the limit.
Yet is Israel any less successful? Do we also not have vast
opportunities here for advancement in every field? Can one not also “live large”
in beautiful, well-developed communities across the land? Are our felafel and
humous bars not at least as tasty or authentic, are our beaches any less sunny?
If Jews around the world are enjoying record levels of prosperity, I suggest it
is happening precisely because Israel is so successful.
News flash: We
are no longer the poor cousin across the ocean.
In addition to the
Israeli presence, there are two other ethnic groups that most stand out on the
One is the Asian community, which gravitates to the state
like a magnet; the other is the Hispanic population, which now comprises a
majority of the residents of Los Angeles and several other cities in Mexifornia.
In the course of our visit, I asked several of these individuals if they would
ever be interested in returning to their countries of origin. They looked at me
with incredulous stares of disbelief, as if I was high on medical marijuana (a
local favorite): “What?! Return to China, or Japan? Or Mexico? Don’t be
ridiculous! Maybe to visit, but never, ever to live.”
Yet every Israeli
to whom I asked the same question, hesitated, or looked away. “Someday, of
course,” they said. “When I make my fortune.” “When the little ones get just a
bit bigger and start to date.” Deep down, the desire to come home is thankfully
still there; but pulling the trigger on the decision to return is oh, so very
And so, to all the Israelis currently in California – and
beyond; and by extension, to all the Jews of the United States (future Israelis,
hopefully!), I humbly offer this poem, entitled “Confessions of an American
We sit in our homes, safe and secure, watching the 6 o’clock news;
of the threats, and have no regrets, that we are American Jews.
were in Israel,” we say with assurance, “and not in the US of A,
We’d be at the
front, in the thick of the hunt, and be filled with dread and
Then we breathe a long breath as the news disappears and the
moments of anxiousness fade,
And we sigh with relief – imagine the grief! – if
with an Israeli we’d trade.
And we know, and we’re sure, that we’re much
better off in this land of wealth and couth,
But let’s think, my dear friend,
for perhaps, in the end, we may find we’ve eluded the truth.
to Egypt, where we first lived so well, as princes and privileged men;
seemed so fine – wasn’t Goshen divine? – could ever this opulence end?
came a Pharaoh, who knew not of us, who beat us and made of us slaves.
through two hundred years and billions of tears, he transformed our oasis to
And then there was Spain – the Golden Age? – when the Exile’s
curse seemed a lie;
But then, once again, with torture and pain, we were forced
to get out or to die.
Was it different in Germany, Poland or France,
where millions of Jews lived so well?
We built ornate shuls and wonderful
schools til Hitler turned Europe to Hell.
And so it has been, throughout
history, that the Exile appears so great;
Like the Venus fly-trap with its
sweet-smelling sap, we are caught, until it’s too late.
Then we cry out
to God, we admit our mistake, we ask Him to take us home.
Then things get
secure; suddenly, we‘re not so sure! It’s the Wandering Jew Syndrome.
lessons of history lie in plain sight; they’re there if you just care to
God has a way of making us pay when we try to ignore
So don’t pity Israel, don’t condescend. And don’t think you’ll
live while we die;
For when the smoke clears, and clarity appears, there is only
Am Yisrael Hai.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of
Ra’anana; www.rabbistewartweiss.com; firstname.lastname@example.org