Flip Side: Chutes and Ladders

Attitudes towards Anglo-Israelis have changed.

ruthie blum 88 (photo credit: )
ruthie blum 88
(photo credit: )
'Everybody dies; few people live," a man reads the inscription on his friend's T-shirt, nodding as though philosophically tickled. The ensuing conversation was one I would have loved to listen in on. Especially in this setting, where thousands of people had gathered - and paid good money - precisely for the purpose of living it up. But even the post-doctoral prowess in the art of eavesdropping I possess has its limits when loud music is in the air. Which it was throughout last weekend at Kibbutz Ginossar, venue of the Jacob's Ladder Festival. As much as I adore melodic Irish ballads and rock 'n' roll golden oldies, the performers I really came to see and hear at the annual song-fest were not the ones on stage. As usual at such events, the act that interests me most is that of the audience - though "participants" would be a better word for the simultaneously diverse and homogeneous Jacob's Ladder crowd. Diverse in age, background, religious stream and sexual orientation. Homogeneous in our being a bunch of Jews referred to by native Israelis as "Anglo-Saxons." In fact, if anything continues to unite us as a sector - other than being immigrants - it is our collective amazement and amusement at having been granted a goyish lineage upon departing the Diaspora and making aliya. Not wanting to appear as ingrates who look gift horses in the mouth, we learned to adjust and respond to the title by grinning, bearing and finally by succumbing to and adopting it. The trouble is that it comes with a hefty tithe. Not as prohibitive, perhaps, as that exacted from other, less fortunate "ethnic" groups. Those made up of people who left their countries of birth out of necessity, to become citizens of their ancient homeland. Unlike us, who did so out of insanity. Or by choice. Indeed, while Moroccans and Georgians and Ethiopians and Russians returning to their roots are prey to stereotyping which places them either in the low-class stratum of society - or in the cunning, criminal one - we enjoy a kind of elevated status. We are considered educated, affluent, law-abiding, socially responsible, politically active and punctual. Translated into Middle Eastern, this means that we are know-it-all, naive nudniks - easy to rook, entertaining to ridicule. The men and women who reprimand litterbugs in the street. And tattle on cafe-owners who allow smoking on their premises. People who preach to and pester you to death. In an annoying accent, no less. One that leaves little nuance-room for distinguishing between the Queen's and Queens English. Or between the lingo of Brighton or that of Brighton Beach. The accent of outsiders. Of tourists on a joy-ride. Temporary residents. One-night standers. Not permanent partners till death do us part. As a result, some of us gleaned early on that the only way we were going to be able to melt into this particular pot would be by keeping our traps tightly shut and our eyes wide open. Preferably perusing a page of Yediot or Ma'ariv. And we made a conscious decision to become Israeli - whatever that means - by whatever means it would take. First and foremost, of course, there was the vernacular to tackle. Learning to banter and bargain in fluent, fluid, idiomatic Hebrew - as any of us who'd read Pygmalion or watched My Fair Lady knew - was the crucial key to entry. It was certainly not the only rite of passage, however. Being able to be asked how much we earned (or about the cost of our shoes) without blushing was another. As was the ability to call out unabashedly from the back of a bus to demand that the driver open the door to let us out at our stop. And to take it in our stride when a stranger demanded to know why we weren't married yet. In other words, in order for us "Anglo Saxons" to ascend the ladder of acceptance in our new surroundings, we were going to have to climb down a few rungs, relinquishing in the process much of what we'd been raised to view as respectability. Yet it was the price we were willing to pay to be told by a Sabra: "You're an Anglo-Saxon? You sure don't seem like one." BUT A funny thing happened on the way to absorption: The ladder began to slide. The shift was so gradual that we barely noticed it. Or if we did, we attributed it more to our own personal perseverance in the face of our paradoxical plight than to a change in the cultural climate. Somewhere along the decades-long time-line, while we were still arduously adapting through mimicry, the rest of the populace altered its attitude. Suddenly, shopkeepers became more, rather than less, deferential at the sound of English in their stores. Suddenly, English slang was pervading all levels of spoken and written Hebrew. Suddenly, our Israeli-born children stopped shushing us outside their school building - proud, rather than ashamed, to be among the kids categorized as "native English-speakers" and placed in special English classes created for them. Suddenly, as if out of the blue, we were no longer on the outs. Anglos - as we came to abbreviate our dubious aristocratic title - were in. It therefore should not have come as such a great surprise to me to encounter so many native-born Israelis (and not only the offspring of English-speakers) at this year's ingathering of Anglo exiles along the Sea of Galilee. But it did. Not having been present at this would-be Woodstock-like happening for more than 10 years, I was immediately struck by the drastic difference in demographics, demonstrated prominently on both "dance-floor" and "dais." I was also zapped by the irony. How, I wondered, had it become hip here to hop to bagpipes? T-shirt wisdom has it that everybody dies. But few people live to see themselves emulated by members of a club they have spent the better part of their lives trying to join. ruthie@jpost.com