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Who’s More Jewish?

This past summer in Israel, on a long walk to a friend’s house for Shabbat dinner, I passed groups of young people hanging around street corners. Looking through the lit windows of Germantown’s cafes, I saw numerous individuals sitting alone at tables. This was Jerusalem, not secular Tel Aviv.

What had happened to the family Friday night dinner ubiquitous just a generation ago? What had happened to alienate almost an entire generation from the core of its Jewish roots?

The early Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’Am once quipped, more than the Jewish people kept the Shabbat, Shabbat kept the Jewish people. He, of all the founding fathers of the Jewish State, understood that without living Jewish culture, the Jewish soul of the Jewish State would be in jeopardy.


That is why A.B. Yehoshua‘s comments last week at the American Jewish Committee conference, and his subsequent apology, somewhat miss the point. He reiterated the classic Zionist position that Jewish life outside Israel is untenable: that Jews ultimately cannot maintain their Jewish identity in the Diaspora. If he were simply talking about assimilation through intermarriage, he might be right. After all, it is much more likely that one Jew will marry another in Israel rather than in any of our United States. However, merely living in Israel not longer guarantees that the home a young couple builds will be Jewish in more than name. Even Israeli Jews have become choosing Jews, and they are choosing in greater and greater numbers not to observe even the traditions their secular grandparents had kept, such as gathering for family dinner on Friday nights.


This is not to say that Israel is devoid of Jewish life. Thank God, Israel has not yet become, as Ben Gurion wished it, simply a nation like all others. Until one experiences Hanukkah in Israel, with its menorahs in every window and town square, one cannot really grasp the significance of living a Jewish life in a Jewish State.

Government offices are closed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, instead of Christmas and Easter, and the country goes wild over Purim. But is that all there is to proving that Jewish life can only be fully lived in Israel?

The early Zionists believed that Israel would be the fountainhead of a renaissance of Jewish culture–art, literature, philosophy, music, a new secularlized spirituality. While the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and authors like Yehoshua and S.Y. Agnon are testaments to the accomplishments of that vision, a vibrant Jewish culture has also thrived in the Disapora, particularly here in America.


Who’s to say who is more Jewish? We certainly are all one family, caring and concerned for each other. Perhaps the simple answer remains the truest: that we continue to need each other. Each of us–Israeli and Diaspora Jews–carries but a little piece of the story, the vision, the revelation of what it means to be Jewish and it is only by sharing what we each carry that we can be whole.

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Fritz Voll

posted May 19, 2006 at 6:17 pm

And where would the Christian-Jewish dialogue be without the Jewish diaspora? I doubt that the churches would have taken responsibility for their supersessionism and its terrible consequesnces for the Jewish people over 2000 years if they had not found Jews in their neighborhoods open to talk with them. The Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel alone would never have brought the Christian community to the state in which it finds itself only since the 1960s. As a liberal Christian I would dread the idea that all Jews made aliah. I think that Jews in the diaspora have been able to be more a “light to the nations” than present-day Israel is able to be as a “nation like any other.”

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Esther Nash

posted May 22, 2006 at 7:37 am

Asking “Who are better Jews, Israelis or Americans” is like asking, “Who are better Christians…Methodists or Episcopalians? (Or substitute any other Christian Denomination). It’s a very dangerous question to ask–because each group is happy to be where they are, and do what they do. And why is it a dangerous question? Because religious conflict, (of whatever kind), has caused more bloodshed, anguish, family breakups, and yes, even ulcers, than just about anything else throughout history! My cousin lives in Israel. He has said that, if he didn’t listen to the radio or TV, he wouldn’t have been aware of the Gregorian New Year’s taking place! To North American ears, this is very narrow thinking. It also makes truth of anti-semitic thinking that Jews are concerned with Judaism only. If being a “better” Jew means immersing one’s self in Judaism only, then, yes, my cousin and other Israelis like him are better Jews we freer-thinking North Americans. But is this really good? I am not at all religious, myself. My form of Judaism is to be as good a person as I can, and thus stop anti-semitic attitudes in their tracks. I am curious about everything, and consider nothing forbidden except hurting other people, mentally or physically. I enjoy my freedom, and also enjoy knowing that my example may show Jews as they really are…just people…to others. Judaism to me is a religion — not a nationality! — and I respect it as I do every other. (P.S. Isn’t it interesting that 3 times as many people leave Israel as make Aliah?)

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posted May 22, 2006 at 8:09 am

An Addendum to the above: Many second-generation US immigrant children, such as my wonderful father, developed ulcers because they wanted to be good children to their parents, and make their parents happy by being good Jews, (or good Armenians, or whatever other immigrant group) — and yet, also have their own lives, and participate fully in the freedom which America allows. This ulcer kept my father out of W.W. II, (though he reported for induction and did not think it should have kept him out) — but later developed into cancer and killed him at the age of 64. For myself, I developed an illness at the age of 4, which the doctors said I might outgrow during puberty. But the same conflicts — to be a good Jew or be a good American, (and especially a Hebrew Teacher’s rhetorical question: “If the US and Israel went to war, which side would you be on?”), used up so much of my energy, that I still have that illness today! I may not have lost it in any event…but the narrow-minded attitudes in Hebrew School, and of Judaism itself, sure didn’t help! And they say that God doesn’t want any human sacrifices? Maybe He doesn’t….but Judaism sure seems to want them! (P.S.: Why, until very recently, did Israel tax even the reparations given to Holocaust survivors? This seems even more unfair than what Judaism did to my father and to me!)

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posted May 22, 2006 at 11:57 am

The question itself belies an ignorance of Judaism. Judaism is relevant outside Israel, and inside Israel. Not everything done here (Israel) can be done there, but in general, it’s still relevant. And then there’s the Talmud Ketubot 110, which encourages in very strong language, a Jew to live in Eretz Yisrael.

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Nason Goldstein

posted May 30, 2006 at 3:10 am

Modern day Judaism is an endagered species in Israel. If there will be modern Jews, they will be in the diaspora.

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posted June 21, 2006 at 1:32 pm

BS”D Who is a Jew is very easy to determine. One who binds themself to the Jewish people and lives as a Jew IS a Jew. The rest is all merely local custom. Jewish identity has three witnesses: 1. The Jewish person themself. 2. The rest of the Jewish people. 3. The ultimate Author of Torah Who defines Jewish life therein. Jewish identity has nothing to do with: 1. Nation of residence (including the State of Israel) 2. Local Custom and Laws (including locally defined “heresies,” manner of dress, language, or ethnicity/race/people of origin.) 3. Any definitionn of “Who is a Jew” by ANY person or entity OTHER than the above-defined three witnesses.

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Naim Peress

posted June 28, 2006 at 2:01 pm

I wholeheartedly agree with you. I do not think Diaspora Jews should have feel inferior to Israelis and there should be no feeling of superiority by either side. Israelis and Diaspora Jews have much to contribute. Perhaps you’d like to see what I thought about Mr. Yehoshua’s comments at Naim Peress

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