How Israel is viewed by diaspora Jewry as well as how Israel presents itself to the world are manifestations of a cultural schizophrenia that needs to be addressed. I recently attended a week-long arts institute sponsored by the Jewish Agency’s Strategic Innovations Fund and Makom Israel Engagement Network. Forty representatives from North American communities that are engaged with Israel on various levels were invited to Tel Aviv to learn about the Israel of the Israelis. Aside from all the historical, religious, archeological, commercial, gastronomical, and tourist attractions of Israel, there is also an indigenous Israeli culture to which non-Israelis are not exposed.
Israel today is very different from the mythologized Israel of my youth. It is no longer horas and debkas, tractors and Jaffa oranges, the Israel Philharmonic, "Sallah," or Agnon. Israel is brimming with a homegrown, vibrant, mature, and challenging culture. Novelists, playwrights, musicians, singers, political commentators, actors, comedians, artists, dancers, and writers are active providers of a cultural milieu that eludes most non-Israelis.
One of the discussions I had with Michael Dorf, founder of The Knitting Factory (a popular Lower East Side club that often features cutting-edge Jewish music) concerned the parallel bubbles of "Orthodox" music, Israeli music, and popular Jewish music. Each constituency rarely, if ever, knows of or listens to the artists from the other genre. Similarly when groups come to Tel Aviv they visit Rabin Square, the famous cemetery, Independence Hall, the shuk, and Bet HaTefutzot, the Museum of the Diaspora. Rarely do they spend more than a day there. They don’t go to the movies or to the clubs.
Granted that Hebrew fluency is a factor, but many outstanding Israeli authors’ works have been translated to English. This window to Israeli culture is rarely explored. Israeli theater is also available in translation. Israeli hip-hop does not need to be translated any more than the lyrics to contemporary American hip-hop. Israeli writers and humorists speak English, as do columnists, but they are rarely invited to speak to American audiences. Israeli dance does not require Hebrew competency, nor does art. Israeli films have subtitles. Why this disconnect?
I must admit that I am conflicted. My Israel has never been Tel Aviv. I suspect the same is true of most of my friends and co-religionists. Most Americans have never heard of Rami Kleinstein, Kobi Oz, Sayed Kashua, Gadi Taub, Jackie Levy, Motti Lerner, Dorit Rabinyan, Galila Ron-Feder, Eti Ankri, or Etgar Keret. My exposure to them and to others has generated deep soul-searching. Israel is the sum of its parts and we just take those parts with which we are most comfortable. To really understand Israel, we have to be exposed to Israeli culture. It may disturb us, it may not always be comfortable, and it may not reflect traditional Jewish cultural norms — but it is Israeli.
Grappling with this will not be easy. My rabbi will tell me not to waste my time. My literate Israeli friends will rush to share their favorite author. I am trying to get into the music of Dag Nachash and Teapacks. It’s a challenge on many levels. There is Israeli art just for art’s sake and there is much which is message laden. The Kobi Oz song "Push The Button," which was Israel’s entry in the Eurovision song contest, has generated a storm of controversy. Sitting in a club reminiscent of Greenwich Village in the ’60s, and listening to a newly Orthodox pop artist sing about the financial burdens facing everyday Israelis and then launch into a Arabic-flavored jazz scat, followed by her longing for the Holy Temple is a mind-bending experience.
Some communities bring in Israeli artists and plays regularly. There are many film festivals as well. We need to do more, especially with the opportunities that Israel@60 present. Israel@60 is a worldwide effort by the Jewish Agency to celebrate Israel’s 60th birthday next year. UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey will soon be rolling out its plans to enlist all of our community organizations in a massive birthday bash that may include 60 separate programs during the year culminating with a major concert.
We understand how we must support Israel, and we do, but building a relationship is a two-way street. There is so much that we as Americans do not understand nor appreciate about contemporary Israeli culture. There is much that Israel can do for us. Acknowledging this fact is a first step.