Do American Jews Really Want to Listen to Israelis?

In response to Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove: It’s up to U.S. Jews to make more of an effort to understand how Jewish identity in Israel is different from, but not lesser than, American Judaism.

A rabbi asks directions of a little boy. The boy tells him one route is "short and long” and the other is “long and short.”

The rabbi chose the “short and long” road to town, and when he arrived, found the approach to the town blocked by gardens and orchards at the end of the path. Returning to the boy, the rabbi asked why he had told him that the road was short.

In reply, the boy said he had also described the road as long, because being blocked at its end, it forces the walker to take a longer route. Ashamed, Rabbi Joshua ben Chanina praised the boy: “Praiseworthy are you, O Israel, for all of you are wise, from your old to your young!” (Talmud Bavli, Eruvin 53a).

To have a relationship, one must start a conversation willing to listen to what the other has to say, however unequal or asymmetric the parties in the conversation may appear to be. An authentic Jewish life can only be got at, says this story, through seeing the necessity of truly listening to others; without that ability to take in what others say and to be in conversation with them our path anywhere will always be blocked.

In a recent op-ed ("Do American Jews and Israelis have anything to talk about?"), Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove expresses his concern that secular Israelis are not part of the “Jewish conversation” or “stakeholders in Diaspora Jewry.” I suggest that when Cosgrove asks his Israeli "family": “Are any of your concerns mine? Or mine yours?” he might more profitably work instead to start by knowing what the concerns of Israelis are and then make them his own.

How educated is Cosgrove on what might be of concern to an Israeli now? How can he expect a similar level of knowledge and interest from Israelis towards American Jews if he is unwilling to even begin a conversation? A conversation must be started by someone and there is no reason American Jews can’t make the effort to learn about our Israeli counterparts.

An important start for a conversation is a shared language; for this, Hebrew fits the bill as the oldest and most important Jewish language. To be part of a global Jewish community, Jews outside of Israel need to make the effort to learn and speak it, enabling all Jews to have a more natural and fluid engagement in all manner of discussions.

But to have a conversation, there also needs to be a shared agenda. Perhaps the best way for Israelis and Americans to interact is through shared cultural activities that are infused with a Jewish character, creating an internal landscape held in common.

Rabbi Cosgrove could sponsor a singing community of Piyut North America, a group started in Israel to create awareness of these distinctive songs. Or, as we at the Pittsburgh Jewish Federation are doing with the Partnership2Gether women’s film project, show a movie to a group of Israelis and North Americans, and have a Skype discussion of the shared cinematic experience afterwards; I am looking forward to watching Israeli film director Michal Aviad’s "The Women Pioneers." He might invite one of the many Israeli composers, dancers, writers and artists sponsored by the Schusterman Visiting Artist program to come to his community and perform or teach. There are Israeli/American study groups on Skype too. The possibilities for connection of American and Israeli Jews over shared texts, values or experiences are manifold if the will is there.

Secular Jews in Israel are engaged with Judaism, but not in the way Rabbi Cosgrove might expect. On my recent trip to Israel, I met young people spending a year before army at mechina (preparatory) programs where both secular and religious Israelis volunteer together, take responsibility both for their own physical surroundings and in some cases the neighborhoods where they live and study texts together, often related to Jewish identity. These young people, approximately 3,000 a year at 46 institutions, agree to learn from each other and to cooperate; certainly they will become an important part of future Jewish conversations.

At Elul, a pluralistic study center in Jerusalem, I watched a class for a group of storytellers who study Jewish texts so that the stories they tell will be infused with these values. Alma in Tel Aviv, started by current MK Ruth Calderon, also offers workshops on Jewish texts to a variety of writers and artists, among other students. Those at both institutions find themselves fascinated with the depth and richness of the Jewish tradition, while remaining wholly secular.

I met with Dov Elbaum, a writer and teacher, who for many years had a Friday night television show where he discussed the Torah portion of the week with guests from a variety of backgrounds. Conservative (or Masorti, as they say in Israel) rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum has had great success attracting people to cultural programs both before and after the Sabbath at the Tachana Rishona, the old train station in Jerusalem. Both these figures reach many Jews of diverse religious backgrounds, and teach them on a level which is meaningful to them and interests them.

As a writer, I felt fortunate to be able to meet with and converse in both Hebrew and English with some of the most gifted of the younger generation of Israeli writers when I was there. We had “Jewish conversations,” as well as those about writing. I intentionally chose to meet writers from all backgrounds – religious, secular, datlash (religious in the past), Ethiopian, Moroccan, Iraqi, Ashkenazi, and Argentinian. All are very much engaged in issues of what Jewish literature is about.

When I arrived back in the States, after my trip, I did not receive the duffel bag I had checked with Turkish Airlines. On the subway, I perked up when I heard two young women speaking Hebrew. When one got off, I started a conversation in Hebrew with the remaining passenger, Shenhav, whose unusual name means “ivory.” She had just gotten to New York where her husband was starting an MBA program at Columbia and she was job-hunting; I told her I had written a novel and would soon be meeting with my literary agent. She asked my name so she would know it when my book comes out, and at our shared 116th street stop, she volunteered to help me carry all I had, three bags of books and a backpack, up the steep stairs to the street.

To me, a shared willingness to bear the load of Jewish books is being willing to be part of a shared fate. In the moments we dragged ourselves and my books up the stairs, I felt a continuation with the conversations I’d had about the Jewish bookshelf, the aron ha’sefarim ha’yehudi, with Jews of all stripes in Israel and hoped that I would keep finding both English and Hebrew speakers, secular and religious to continue with them. Starting conversations, and listening once they are started, is the best way to reach a destination I decided, carrying my books as I continued alone.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2014) and author of the novel Questioning Return (forthcoming). She is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in NYTimes.com, Slate.com, The Forward, the Jerusalem Report and the Jewish Review of Books among others. She has taught Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies, English literature and writing at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.

Dan Keinan