Where Yehuda Kurtzer’s well-worded smackdown of AB Yehoshua was, as they say in “the Land”, bamakom, my only quibble with Kurtzer is his telling AB to “pipe down”… It was a bit… well… I do not know. Strong. AB is entitled to say whatever he likes about Diaspora Jews. He is also entitled to receive a couple of cans of righteous whoopass from Kurtzer. That’s how civilized discourse works.
So when David Hazony penned his memo to American Jews, urging them to learn Hebrew, I, too, pondered telling him to shut up. Or, more appropriately: listom et ha’jora shelo… but that would be rude.
Instead, in the Kurtzerian mode, I will offer what hopes to be a more ad rem, or la’inyan rebuttal to the assertion that, to bridge the ever-widening gap, Diaspora Jews must learn Hebrew.
First, to the matter of Hazony himself. (Note: This is not the ad hominem attack portion of the program…) As an oleh, I had hoped that he would have a less wooden understanding of the Diaspora considering he was raised in it. However, from Hazony’s cartoonish portrayal of American Jews from the outset, one could say that, perhaps, his klita (absorption) into Israeli society (and the embrace of many of its stereotypic conceptions of the diaspora) was a complete success.
What, after all, should this son of Israel do with all those people who are not curious about the real Israel? All they want to talk about is rockets in Sderot, Mofaz and the haredim. Why don’t they know about Erev Tov with Guy Pinness or who broke out from the pack in Kochav Nolad or which government minister was being investigated for corruption? Why don’t they know that Israeli culture is vibrant and hip? Don’t they want to hear about the Israeli zeitgeist? Nope. Not one person seemingly does, according to Hazony, all they want to hear about are subjects that:
were either never that interesting to most Israelis, those that became obviated by events, or those that had their moment in the sun and then were lost to the public eye.
So I girded my loins for yet another round of “Scold the Diaspora Jew”, delivered by a knowing (naturalized) Israeli who, from his side of the gap, is more than happy to tell us on the other side how we should behave differently. Fine. Game on. (Just as long as we can return the favour… but I digress…)
In a nutshell, here is what Diaspora Jews are doing wrong: We are not consuming enough Israeli culture.
And how do we rectify this problem? Learn Hebrew!
Because, Hazony asserts, if we do not get on the “Israeli-civilization bus” (which requires fluent Hebrew), then
the less qualified they become to say anything at all about who we are and what we should or shouldn’t do.
Incidentally, the “they” in the previous sentence is referring to Diaspora Jews, and the “we” refers to Hazony and the Israelis in case you were wondering… (Upon rereading the quote, I wondered: Were “we” ever qualified enough to say anything, re: Israel that “we” can now become even less qualified to say? Hmm…)
Hazony goes on to present Diasporaniks with an ultimatum: Either love Israel completely, including the embrace of every unpalatable aspect of Israeli society, or love a “saucy dream”. (Perhaps I am overstating the love-it-or-leave-itness of Hazony’s statement – but not by much.) And the simple way to transcend the dreamy sauciness is the “800-pound falafel ball sitting in the room”: learning Hebrew. Because, I suddenly realized, learning Hebrew has the potential to make the Rabbinate’s hatred of liberal Judaism, Lieberman’s racism, etc. etc. all magically disappear – and then everyone, Diasporaniks of all shapes and stripes, can love Israel for the perfect sparkly unicorn that she is!!! (…Except that I already speak Hebrew and the not-so-nice aspects of Israel have not become, like frosted Lucky Charms, magically delicious… [frown] Perhaps I am oversimplifying…)
I do not think Hazony should be grateful (which is how he regards the Diaspora-Israel dynamic – either you make demands or be grateful) – but I do think that perhaps, sitting in Israel, he might take a bit more pause before demanding that Jewish educators everywhere revise the American Jewish educational agenda. He goes on to say that, perhaps, this demand is not really so outlandish at all.
And, in fact, it is not. In the Greater Toronto Area, practically every Jewish day school is dedicated to Hebrew language instruction. There are almost a half-dozen schools that are dedicated to teaching all Jewish subjects Ivrit b’Ivrit. This is a tremendous achievement and a powerful statement about the priorities of Toronto’s Jewish community.
But there is a difference between developing a working knowledge of Hebrew which Hazony advocates and being fluent which is what you really need if you are going to ride on the Israeli-civilization bus – and not sit in the back of it. But to do the latter well requires a lot more time and will inevitably come at the expense of other subjects, skills and experiences. (You can fill in the blank here on your own: “More Hebrew immersion time, means less of _________ .”)
So perhaps day schools, the potential flagships of the Jewish community’s fleet of the future (if they could be accessible without destroying the Jewish middle class in the process), should stop enculturating North American Jews and make Israelis-in-absentia…? Wouldn’t David Hazony be proud of us then!
Sadly, day schools cannot do both nor should they. For starters, the last time I checked, North American day schools were located in North America. They should probably focus on teaching young Jews how to be Jewish in North America first – but I could be wrong about this one…
The challenges facing the viability of North American Judaism cannot be solved by learning Hebrew. (I wish it was that easy…) Similarly, the gap between North America and Israel cannot be surmounted by watching more Arutz HaYisraeli on cable.
The substantive issues that threaten viability or widen the gap have nothing to do with language barriers. (Some of them have to do with concrete barriers, but that is a post for another, less toxic time.) For Hazony to reduce everything to a hunch and a wagging finger is classical Zionism at its worst. I thought we were done with shlilat hagolah (negation of the Diaspora) with Yosef Haim Brenner and Micha Josef Berdyczewski – but I guess not. Khaval, David. Khaval me’od…