Do American Jews have a homeland?
The concept of a distant Homeland Away From Home remains a crucial if often overlooked pillar of the American Dream - this idea of the Old Sod, the hardscrabble but earnest, effortlessly authentic cultural treasure of an Old Country from which we arose, and which, we want to believe, helps to make us what we are.
Do the Jews of North America need Israel? And if they do, what, exactly, is it that they need?
For one thing, a homeland.
When author A.B. Yehoshua detonated debate over the world's two principal Jewish communities, he primed the fuse with the concept of moledet, whose English equivalent, though anemically simplistic by comparison, is the word homeland.
The concept of moledet stalks Israelis from birth, driving some to heroism and many to distraction. It can inspire, infuriate. It can instill faith and it can get you killed. It can stop a nation in its tracks, and make its finest children want to leave. It can be ridiculed, exalted, held high as legend, exploded as myth. But it cannot be ignored.
Except in America. For many Americans, certainly for many Americans Jews, the very word "homeland" has been robbed of much of its meaning, hijacked by the White House, whose use of Homeland Security has taken on the Plot Against America sheen of user-friendly fascism.
Moreover, geopolitics, prosperity and liberalism being what they are, it has now been well over half a century since American Jews turned out in appreciable numbers to volunteer to defend the land of their birth in the armed forces.
Thus it truly should have come as no surprise that when the American Jewish Committee held a symposium on the future of the Jewish people, and when that symposium was held on Yom Hazikaron, Israel's Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, and when Yehoshua asked that the occasion be marked with a moment of silence, the program went on as planned - no silence, no hitch.
At the same time, the concept of a distant Homeland Away From Home remains a crucial if often overlooked pillar of the American Dream - this idea of the Old Sod, the hardscrabble but earnest, effortlessly authentic cultural treasure of an Old Country from which we arose, and which, we want to believe, helps to make us what we are.
In the eyes of many, whatever their ancestry, it is the Old Country that sets us apart in the great maw of contemporary American homogeneity.
For North American Jews, the question of the Old Country was long a no-brainer. It was the shtetl, the Eastern European Pale of Settlement, the Yiddish-laced fount of borsht belt culture, of both Shalom Aleichem and Fiddler on the Roof, the source of what Americans learned to identify as Jewish food, Jewish humor, the Jewish mind, the Jewish heart.
But time moves faster and farther in America than in most places. The generation that spoke Yiddish gave way to the generation that understood it but refused to speak it, and then to the present generation, which seems to be split between those who wish they spoke it more than the non-Jew on the street does, and those who couldn't care less if no one did.
Increasingly, as the grandparent generation of "authentic Jews" were now Americans rather than their own parents, the Europeans, the Old Neighborhood itself took on the role of the Old Country - witness Brooklyn, and parts of the Bronx and New Jersey, points of reference for many New York-area natives now resident in Orange County and Indiana, and for such citizens of the world as Woody Allen and Philip Roth.
In fact, it is only recently that a different Old Country has come to take its place in the American Jewish soul. Israel is still, in fact, a new country, a new culture, but it is beginning to fill to a remarkable extent the needs of American Jews for the genuine Old Sod.
A new generation of North American Jews whose native-born roots go back three or more generations now looks to Israel for precisely those elements of authenticity and all-embracing Jewish culture of which Yehoshua spoke.
And there is another element, one that may yet play the key role in forging a true bridge between Israelis and American Jews: the very large, very different group of first-generation North American Jews now coming of age - tens of thousands of young adults who are the children of thousands and thousands of immigrant Israelis.
These are the children of the Israelis who had nurtured an American Dream of their own: no more going to the army, no stratospheric taxes, no dying for your country, and, for a lucky few, gold in the streets.
After generations of parallel development, the American and Israeli Jewish communities remain to a large degree mirror opposites, unable to see the other except as caricature.
To this day, many Israelis are unable even to begin to understand American Jews' complaint of alienation. Alienation is, after all, virtually impossible in a nation where talk is free and frank to a fault, privacy limited, and everyone barely one degree of separation away from every event on the news. In fact, it may be said that many Israelis come to America to enjoy, for once, a bit of what alienation has to offer.
But keep your eyes on the remarkable generation of what used to be called b'nei yordim, the children of those who "went down" to America. Their problems of Jewish identity are among the most complex and difficult anywhere. But this group may well also pave the way for a new relationship between two communities which, until now, have never really known each other at all.
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