29 July 2010

Nathan Gets Up

                                                            (photo credit:  Nathan, by R. Altstein)
"Listen, I want you to know that I'd go--I mean, for what it's worth."

Nathan was talking again.

Go where?  I asked.

"Tel Aviv, Israel, I hear Bat Yam is up and coming these days.  But *there.*  The heat this summer has finally convinced me that as Frost said, ' From what I've tasted of desire I hold with those who favor fire.'

Wow, I said.  I know you get up onto the counter to see what consomptibles may be there for the picking; but the poetry shelf--that's another matter, boy.

"Desperate times call for desperate measures, dude."

Fair enough.  This was our first chance to really talk since my return from Israel last week so I was up for a chat.

"It's not about the heat.  That I can handle and frankly, when you're covered in black fur like I am and carrying a few extra pounds, I think I can stake some claim to certain resiliency that you can't even touch.  And frankly, the floors there I hear are more comfortable in the heat.  Your rugs annoy me and the hardwood isn't doing it for me anymore.  But this conversation isn't about comfort, it's about it's opposite.  I've been doing a lot of thinking and reading--especially trying to wrap my mind around much of the internal squabbling as Israel finds a way forward.  One of the conclusions I've recently reached relates to what I think we all have to admit to a certain degree is the failure of the Jewish left and liberal American Jews to truly embrace Zionism."

The dog had a thesis.  I settled in.

"For years people have been decrying Israel's rightward shift and *blaming* it in part on an influx of Right Wing Jews from the States and Russia.  Maybe.  But the way I see it, while the Right made Aliyah a real value in their Jewish communities, the Left chose the comfort of the Diaspora as more validating of their plural identities, their bourgeois values of material aspiration, and their more assimilated Jewish outlook.  Both views are valid--don't get me wrong--it's just that one concludes that the place of individual and communal Jewish realization is in the historic Land of Israel.  Here in the States you're all realizing yourself as Americans.  Kol Hakavod.  More power to you.  But then you relate to Israel from a distance--funding civil society projects; support progressive synagogues; working for a two-state solution--creating important partnerships and relationships but fundamentally remaining at a distance.  That distance seems to grow greater and greater each day.  It concerns me deeply."

Nathan--this is an old argument.  Surely if you're up and about, perusing the bookshelves, you are familiar with this tension and trope since the dawn of Zionism.

"I'll cop to that," he continued.  "I guess there are two things that gnaw at me."

He winked.

"First, I'm quite familiar with how hard it sometimes to convince people to do the most basic things--light Shabbat candles; learn to read Hebrew; give to a Jewish charity.  For generations, these expressions were the life blood of our people.  There were in our DNA, as it were.  Now, much of organized Jewish life is predicated on the thesis that any elective decision to do anything Jewish is heralded as a monumental victory for Jewish continuity.  It's a rather silly economy of scale, no?  I understand, on a certain level, why some communities move away from language and particularity of expression and plow their energy and resources into values education--since, one could argue, what you do is what you are, ultimately.  As long as you're feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and providing shelter for the homeless, who cares what language it's in?  In Israel on the other hand, you have a full immersion in a Jewish culture so that you are freed up to simply do, as a Jew.  It's a qualitatively different engagement, as you know Mr. I Like To Walk Around in Jewish Cemeteries.  The Sudanese kitchen worker in South Tel Aviv; the Filipina home health-care aids; the Bedouin; and yes, the Palestinians--are all opportunities of engaging the broader culture through the lens of Jewish values.  In America, you can dress it up in an educational program and call it "Jewish values" but we all know that concern for the plurality in American democracy is an American value, not a Jewish value.  So ikar for me is, tuchis oyfn tisch, you want to put your Jewish values into civic democratic action, you gotta move."

That's a ridiculous argument, I told him.  Generations of American Jews and American Jewish leaders have built an entire civilization on the intersection of Jewish values and American democratic values.  The contributions to the greater good is undeniable and one of the greatest success stories of an immigrant culture in the history of diaspora migrations.

"Right--and how many of these young Jews under 40 know the existence--not to mention the difference between--Ahad Ha'am and Louis Brandeis?  Jordan Farmar, Ryan Braun, Jon Stewart, Larry David, now Amare Stoudemire.  A people this doesn't make."

Ok, pal.  Ok.  But you're kind of getting off track, no?  What's really bothering you?

"Number Two on my Gnaw List.  My fervent belief that the debate about Israel isn't a debate about Israel but it's a debate about the Jews.  A Pakistani can walk into a marketplace and blow himself, killing 57 people, and the world moves on.  But any death of a Jew or a Palestinian in this conflict captures the attention and imagination of the world for days and weeks on end.  I'm okay with that--nothing new there in 3000 years of Jewish history.  My point is..."

Nathan, old man, that's not changing anytime soon and it certainly won't change simply by moving to Israel.

"Maybe.  But at least you won't to spend so much time *explaining* and you can just work on it.  Two states, one state, human rights, equal rights, water rights, religious pluralism, civil marriage, no lack of what to do.  That's a big difference, isn't it?"

It is, pal.  It is.

"So when are you going back?" he asked.

Likely December, I told him.  More teaching, more educating, more explaining.  I can't wait!

"Take me with you," he pleaded.

But Nathan, I told him, it's the rainy season in the winter and we both know what a pain you are in the rain.

"Yeah, that's a water dog for you.  Trying to deny my essentialness in my element, eh?  I see your point.  Typical American Jew.  You can take the dog out of the water..."

Down, boy.

"Aliyah means up--I'm shifting the paradigm."

Good point.

1 comment:

Larry Kaufman said...

Arf arf. (That's an affirmative bark, as opposed to bow wow, which might be negative or alarmist.)

But I think a case can be made that pluralism is not strictly an American value - eilu v'eilu, Hillel and Shammai are entrenched in the Jewish value system.

And any differentiation between the two value systems must acknowledge the indebtedness of the American value system to the Jewish value system.