Schizophrenic: An American Zionist in Israel

The Jewish Agency, Nefesh B’Nefesh, Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and other organizations charged with convincing world Jewry that its destiny is intertwined with that of Israel fail to mention, on their glossy websites and in their slick public relations toolkits, the single greatest sacrifice one makes when embarking on an open-ended Zionist adventure: cultural DNA.

While some scientists maintain that culture is encoded in the genome, many more believe that language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts are learned characteristics and knowledge. Now, some people are naturally more amenable to imbibing exotic new cultural stimuli. These are the fortunate souls who don’t imbue their personal senses of self with local cultural references.

I hereby state that I have to date not reached this higher state of consciousness. Having lived in the Land of Milk and Honey for nearly a decade, I remain a staunch supporter of the Zionist enterprise. However, I also continue to be defined by cultural totems that are far removed, in time and space, from the Israel of the here and now.While some scientists maintain that culture is encoded in the genome, many more believe that language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts are learned characteristics and knowledge. Now, some people are naturally more amenable to imbibing exotic new cultural stimuli. These are the fortunate souls who don’t imbue their personal senses of self with local cultural references.

Eyal Golan is an incredibly popular Israeli singer who sings in the Mizrahi style. The national love affair between Israel and Golan is well into its second decade. To many, he is Israeli music.

Israeli singer Eyal Golan

Yet my MP3 collection features songs by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Oasis, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Nirvana, Simon & Garfunkel, Beck, John Denver, Guns ‘N’ Roses and REM, to name but a few.

I have burned close to 1,000 songs onto my device, and not a single one is by an Israeli artist.

Regarding sports, I used to watch Dodgers games, either at home or Dodger Stadium, at least three times a week when I lived in Los Angeles. But in Israel my knowledge of the local sports scene is actually zero. How can I become a fan of a team that doesn’t have a name? American immigrants with adult attention deficit disorder, such as yours truly, space out in a hurry. Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv basketball club? Why not just call them the Tel Aviv Lions?

Since we never bothered to replace the TV converter box that our daughter destroyed a few years back, I have no opinion of Israeli television. Shtisel, which takes place in an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood and tells the wildly complex narratives of a large Haredi family, is by all accounts must-see viewing.

Yet, here I go again, letting my finger click onto YouTube, where I inevitably will search out and find a biography of an American president, actor, musician or athlete to watch.

What kind of an Israeli am I?

Thing is, while listening to Buddy Holly, Radiohead or Credence Clearwater Revival, I also read the Israel daily newspapers, in Hebrew. I can count on two hands the amount of times I read the news, not sports or entertainment, section of the Los Angeles Times when I lived in southern California. And though I probably won’t be streaming Mossad 101 or Srugim anytime soon, I will be discussing Trump, Bibi, the peace process, Syria, Iran and the eternal Israeli real estate bubble, over a cup of Turkish coffee or pint of Belgian beer –  with a motley array of characters I call friends.

Being culturally schizophrenic means never quite feeling at home. Does that gnawing feeling of being an outsider make me a less than authentic Israeli? No, dear reader, feeling like a stranger in a strange land makes me little more and nothing less than an immigrant.

And both Israel and the United States have flourished because they have been nourished by so many cultures, traditions and peoples.

So, while I speak an imperfect Hebrew and stubbornly repeat obscure Seinfeld references, I also bring several gifts to my adopted homeland. Should I be able to somehow synthesize the best of my American traditions with the best of Israel’s culture, I will consider my Zionist excursion an abashed success.

 

 

View other stories by Gidon Ben-Zvi that have been published by J-Wire.

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