Shabbat Goy: A Nigerian-ish Israeli among Jew-ish people

The distinction between Diaspora and Israeli Jews is one between equals – two nations both brought together and separated by a common language, to turn a phrase – rather than one defined by hierarchy. But where exactly are the lines drawn?

A Nigerian at shabbat dinner with Jews 521 (photo credit: Metro)
A Nigerian at shabbat dinner with Jews 521
(photo credit: Metro)
I’ve just spent a week among the Jewish people. Not you lot, evidently; you’re the ones busy building the land, turning barren desert into a flourishing oasis of democracy, enlightenment and hi-tech development in the Middle Eastern wilderness. Rather, I’m talking about the ones who live beyond the borders of this oft-maligned, oft-misunderstood country.
The ones who have a sentimental, emotional connection with the State of Israel but don’t actually live here. Diaspora Jews, you call them, often with a nod and a knowing wink. The Galut. The Jew-ish people, I’ve heard them called on occasion, as opposed to the Jewish people. I’ll stick with this distinction for the moment.
Is this a false dichotomy? Yes, but at the same time no. You guys are one people, but you’re not the same, both in their eyes and in yours. There’s nothing new in this, of course.
Remember when A.B. Yehoshua said a few years ago that a Jewish Israeli is not the same as a Jewish Frenchman? That a full Jewish life could only be had in the Jewish state? Which is to say, Jews outside the Jewish state are living a circumscribed version of the real thing. A Jew-ish life, one might paraphrase.
This caused a bit of a fuss. No surprise. The Diaspora does a lot on behalf of Israel, from philanthropy to advocacy. Look at it from their perspective: if I were expected to (1) pony up money for deserving Israeli causes on demand, and (2) defend the emotional Homeland against the slurs and calumnies poured onto it from a great height, the very least I’d expect is parity.
But that’s not the point. No one’s asked me to defend Israel against its enemies (quite sensibly, I might add).
I’m just curious about the distinction between Israel and the Galut, between Jewish and Jew-ish. Perhaps, I mused to myself at a point last week, it’s one between equals – two nations both brought together and separated by a common language, to turn a phrase – rather than one defined by hierarchy. But where exactly are the lines drawn? I spent much of the last week among Jew-ish people in England. (Jewish Book Week, since you ask.) As is the case when I spend any amount of time around Jewish – and, as I discovered, Jew-ish – people, I... um... let’s just say that I stand out a bit. And even though English Jews are as reticent and unassuming as their fellow nationals, at some point quite a few got round to asking the same sort of questions that I am asked in these parts: how did a godless Anglo-Nigerian wind up living in Tel Aviv? (An aside: my wife insists that I am more English than Nigerian. That is to say, that I am Nigerian-ish rather than Nigerian. I’m not at all sure that I agree with her, but it is nice to know that I’m not the only one preoccupied with nuances of identity. Or maybe it’s just that neither of us have anything better to do with our time.) I say that the questions are the same: correct, up to a point. It’s just that in England, a slight inflection in tone halfway through the question gives it an entirely different meaning.
In Israel: So, what is it like, living in Israel? In England: So, what is it like, living in Israel? Do you see the difference? I have a theory: the English Jews that I chatted with – the Jew-ish people that I chatted with – really wanted to know what it’s like to live in Israel.
They needed to know what it’s like to live in Israel. Not the broader meta-narrative, of course: Lord knows, anyone – Jew or non-Jew – is capable of deciding for themselves what it is like to live in Israel, given the obsessive amount of coverage this country receives in the international media. But as for the nuts and bolts, the incidental detail that shapes the bigger picture? Well, that’s another matter altogether.
They, my Jew-ish interlocutors, are not unfamiliar with the country, of course. Most grew up within the community, which preserves the ties between Diaspora and center.
Many have visited, spent time in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and the kibbutzim and the holy places and so on. But they have only seen the country with the eyes of a visitor. Yet, they’re expected to know about Israel. Whenever Israel pops up on the front pages of newspapers around the world – and this happens a lot, surprise surprise – people tend to look to them.
Won’t they explain, justify, defend or condemn, since they are Jewish? Or Jewish...
Indifference is not an option. But then, they have to talk about Israel with one hand tied behind their back. When they try to paint the complexities of real life in this country, they can only do so with a coarse paintbrush better suited for broad, unsubtle strokes.
This works both ways – either waving the good ol’ Blue and White over-enthusiastically, or wallowing in hypercritical castigation of the way things work in these parts.
Either way, I suspect that deep inside they know that they’re not playing with a full deck. But there isn’t much they can do about it. Concentrate on the positives and they get it in the neck for playing Pollyanna, or worse yet for being “Israel-Firsters”; stick to the negatives and they become “self-hating Jews.” It’s harder than it looks, being Jew-ish.
But this is all very heavy stuff, and I’m not one for deep thinking. In case you think I spent the whole week debating the subtleties of contemporary Jewish identity, l can assure you that I didn’t. In fact, I spent every free minute in Golders Green, stocking up on the everyday things that I can only afford in England, since there they retail at half the Israeli price.
Come to think of it, that probably says all one needs to know about what it is like to live in Israel today.