In Plain Language: From a distance

"For when the smoke clears, and clarity appears, there is only Am Yisrael Hai."

Yediot booth 370 (photo credit: Courtesy: Susie Weiss)
Yediot booth 370
(photo credit: Courtesy: Susie Weiss)
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 name.
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 roads.
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?
In 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 West Coast.
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 difficult.
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 Jew:”
We sit in our homes, safe and secure, watching the 6 o’clock news;
We hear of the threats, and have no regrets, that we are American Jews.
“If we 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 dismay.
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.
Think back to Egypt, where we first lived so well, as princes and privileged men;
It all seemed so fine – wasn’t Goshen divine? – could ever this opulence end?
And then came a Pharaoh, who knew not of us, who beat us and made of us slaves.
And through two hundred years and billions of tears, he transformed our oasis to graves.
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.
The lessons of history lie in plain sight; they’re there if you just care to see.
God has a way of making us pay when we try to ignore reality.
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;;