The eminent philosopher Yogi Berra said that when you come to a fork in the road, take it.
On a recent family holiday to the United States, I did just that. With such mundane pressures as job, bills and traffic not currently weighing me down like heaping sacks of three-day-old fish, I set about answering a question that at one time or other has niggled at most parents whose children are Israeli, yet who themselves were raised in the United States:
How would living in the United States change my children?
Ultimately, it’s the Jewish thing. Not the religious aspect, mind you. I have four siblings who live in and around Los Angeles. Three of these siblings have very young children, at or around the ages of my two baby girls. Living in the freest nation ever conceived, my brothers and sisters have an impressive range of religious and educational alternatives to choose from. As the children approach kindergarten age, my siblings and their spouses will be able to weigh the options and decide on traditional Chabad, trendy Reform or every possible variant in between.
Living in Los Angeles, my little nieces and nephews will undoubtedly be the beneficiaries of first rate Jewish teachers once they begin their educational journey.
Except that their Jewishness will inexorably be defined as but a sliver of their essence. This I think is the most problematic aspect of raising children outside of Israel.
Israel is a nation defined and molded by a single religion, Judaism. In the United States, Judaism is little more than just another religion, another lifestyle choice. As such, Jewish parents in the United States have a much greater challenge than their Israeli counterparts in conveying an all-consuming sense of Jewish identity to their progeny.
The way Israelis view Judaism is inconceivable anywhere but inside of Israel. From the Bronze Age until very recently, Judaism was perceived as much more than just a set of holidays, songs and religious practices. Up until the Enlightenment of the 18th Century Judaism intertwined the day-to-day work of living by a certain moral code with a fervent desire for national liberation.
Nation. It’s this sense of common destiny that separates Israeli Jews from American Jews. The majority of Jewish men and women who live in the United States identify as Americans who happen to be Jewish. No doubt that American Jews, like most other Americans, feel a strong sense of nationhood, as members of the Constitutional Republic of the United States.
With Judaism sheared of its nationalistic character, the American Jewish experience is akin to that of Amish Americans. As such, the connection most American Jews have with Israel is tangential at best.
How many ‘American Israelis’ have you met?
And so, returning to the thought experiment I conducted while my family visited loved ones in Los Angeles and Chicago, how would my children be affected by being raised outside of Israel?
Well, as is the nature of deep reflection embarked on while surrounded by a roving pack of American and Israeli baby cousins, the trancelike state I was in ended rather abruptly, before any ironclad conclusions could be reached.
Yet regardless of where their life trajectories lead, my daughters are being raised to equate being Jewish not only with religion, dietary laws, a strange language and the Passover Seder but to the core of their being.
I can only hope that they are able to wear the burdens of Jewish nationhood lightly, with grace and a healthy dollop of humor.
View other essays by Gidon Ben-Zvi that have appeared in UWI here.