Some years ago, at the height of the second intifada, I escaped from the insanity in Israel for a week in the States. It felt discombobulating to be in the bucolic heaven of New York suburbia with the kids frolicking carefree on the lawn and no news reports slicing into the peace of the moment.
But they did relate, the Jews of the Diaspora. They had siblings in Tel Aviv, and family and friends in Jerusalem.
On Shabbat, the rabbi of a warm, inclusive synagogue exhorted his congregants to visit Israel davka then.
“When your mother is sick,” he said, “you don’t say ‘I’m too busy to go to her, the weather is bad, it’s not safe.’” He paused, letting the drama build. “Now the motherland is sick,” he added, sadly, “and we need to be there.”
Not many heeded the call.
I had reason to remember that incident recently as I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest wow-Wow-WOW! novel, Here I Am. The framing plot device is the dissolution of a marriage, ostensibly over some salacious extramarital text messages (c’mon, doesn’t he know about Delete?), but the real shock is Foer’s imaginary (but all-too horribly possible) devastating earthquake that totally wrecks the Holy Land.
Israel’s prime minister gets on the airwaves and makes a heartfelt appeal to the Jews of America to “come home and help.” Air space is opened up for a short period into the rubble, bureaucracy is slashed, planes are commandeered and sent to multiple destinations in the States to enable the projected million volunteers to flood in and start digging, or doctoring, or dispensing blankets.
Almost no one comes.
The book had a visceral effect on me. For days I did not want to drive into underground car parks in case they collapsed, and I shivered a bit in elevators, lest the doors get jammed in an avalanche of debris. But there is more: the sordid, avoidable divorce of protagonists Julia and Jacob mirrors the schism opening up between Diaspora Jews and us.
And it just might be our fault.
A half a century ago in South Africa my lovely, fair-minded father was the president of some important- sounding small-town Jewish committee. He came home one lunchtime, and over tuna salad and toast told us that our school, Theodor Herzl, could not accept a pupil whose mother had undergone a Reform conversion. My dad was torn; we agonized over the decision until after coffee was served. Today most of the kids at the Port Elizabeth Jewish school are black. Jews make up 5% of the student body, and I would imagine that many of those come from moms who received a Reform conversion.
What a waste of energy that angst was, in retrospect; what needless pain and distress it caused.
Now here’s the way I see it: a huge percentage of American Jews are Reform and Conservative. If we keep telling them that they don’t belong in our schools because their conversions aren’t kosher enough, and their synagogues aren’t really synagogues, and marriage by their rabbis doesn’t really count – well, if you were them, wouldn’t you think of divorcing us too? Never mind Reform – our august and pious rabbis are now even casting aspersions on Orthodox conversions performed in the States. Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, one of the prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the US, had two of his conversions annulled in Israel. Can we blame Jews there who say the hell with that? Some years ago I was embroiled in a frantic email exchange with Chandler Burr, American journalist and one-time perfume critic for The New York Times.
His novel You or Someone Like You spoke directly to my heart: his Jewish father and Christian mother were both Shakespeare lecturers, the discussions about being Jew-ish (like green-ish – not entirely green, just sort-of), Burr’s initial trip to Israel and his enthusiastic embracing of both the country and his faith in a Jerusalem yeshiva. Halfway through the book I wrote effusively to the writer, thanking him for his fragrant, sparkling prose. He replied that he hoped I’d enjoy it until the end.
The book turns nasty when Burr is unceremoniously booted out of the yeshiva after a chance remark about his mom reveals that he is more Jew-ish than Jewish. Shattered and lonely, he returns to America to deal with a multitude of issues. The upshot is that his mother hurls invective against the whole Jewish race, his father first leaves her to delve deeper into his religious roots, and then, in a 180-degree spin, also rejects Judaism and Jews. The tone becomes bitter and vicious as Burr savages Jews and everything they stand for.
I have those email bursts from 2009. The years have mellowed my approach; Burr turned against a people whom he believed to be his, and who rejected him.
I know this is complicated. I know we can’t start tampering wildly with age-old traditions and constraints. I know that if one believes God has the plan for everything, it’s impossible to tweak religious strictures at will.
And yet. Is it not insane that while some rabbis trawl the world to find tenuous links to Judaism in all sorts of tribes in obscure parts of China and India, advocating for their rights to be considered Jewish, other rabbis are alienating the most educated, powerful and clearly Jewish community in the world? Why are we letting this happen? I don’t presume to have any answers, but people more qualified than I, like the Tzohar rabbis, are working on it. Aliza Lavie, a religious Knesset member from Yesh Atid, spends much of her day coming up with solutions.
“Like in yoga, we have to find the center,” she suggests in her calm, rational way. “We need to assuage the great anger that many of American Jews feel toward us by being more sensitive and carrying through decisions like opening the Western Wall for all.”
Yesh Atid’s plan for religious tolerance would enable people who believe that riding a bus on Shabbat does not impact on their Jewishness to do so. Conversions would be kinder, kosher supervision less corrupt, and promises about compromises would be kept.
Today, according to Lavie, who has just returned from a tour of communities in America, many rabbis did not even mention Israel from the bima during the High Holy Days. The subject is becoming too fraught, and too aggravating. We don’t want a divorce from the Diaspora, do we? And we don’t want an earthquake to make us see how rocky our relationship has become.
Perhaps the answer is to vote for our future.
The writer lectures at Beit Berl and the IDC. firstname.lastname@example.org.