Friday, June 20, 2008

Between Clark Kent & Superman: Israel's view of Diaspora

I don’t go to bars that often and am forced to queue outside even less. But the 10 minutes outside Villa Sokolov last Thursday did provide an opportunity to successfully test out a theory that’s been doing the rounds - that putting on your best English accent immediately gets you through the chaotic crowds and into the bar.

I suppose it's based on the assumption that foreigners spend more money and add a certain sophisticated spice to proceedings. I'm surprised the bars haven’t yet noticed their mistake.

It reminded me of another time last March when a friend and I tried to get into the Israel - Estonia football match. Arriving at half time to a half empty stadium with two season tickets but for different gates, we were denied entry… until we switched into our mother tongue.

Suddenly, as fast as Garinim guzzling fans in Ramat Gan could shout ‘sit down,' we were waived into the stands accompanied by smiles and smatterings of pidgin English.

Being a Diaspora Jew hasn’t always provided such a direct route into high rise Israeli society. A major aspect of traditional Zionism was negating the Diaspora experience and its powerlessness. Zionism rejected the ‘concealing and cowering’ Jews of Chaim Bialik's ‘City of Slaughter’ in favor of the suntanned swimming Sabra admiringly mentioned in Amos Oz’s childhood memoirs.

It’s as if Zionism created a kind of binary existence; Israel good, Diaspora bad.

This theme was picked up at last month’s International Writers Festival in Jerusalem that I attended with my parents. Discussing the difference between ‘Jews’ and ‘Israelis’ with Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer, Israeli writer Etgar Keret humorously echoed Bialik’s poem explaining whenever he eats at ‘Jewish’ restaurants he fears a Cossack will come in and rape his wife!

He also admitted that he left high school knowing every European town in which a pogrom took place but without realizing Kafka was Jewish.

Keret’s comments were made in jest. But they are indicative of a specific mindset – that the Diaspora experience was wholly negative; one pogrom after another leading to the Shoah.

There's no question that many aspects of Diaspora living were not good for the Jews. Keret wondered whether the reason so many creators of comic book superheroes in the late 1930s were Jewish was indicative of the tension in their lives; the nerdy alter ego who ultimately saved the world reflected Jewish frustration of wanting to be heroic while ultimately lacking any political or military power.

Yet it’s also clear that ignoring Jewish society spanning two millennia – from the Babylonian Talmud through Spain's golden age and Poland's pre war intellectuals to the Jewlicious creativity of the Modern US Heebrew Tribe – overlooks central aspects of what it means to be Jewish.

These thoughts didn't go through my head as Dov and I sat on ‘The Villa’ couches watching those who had chosen Israel over ‘Galut’ unsuccessfully try and pick up Israeli girls.

But I did wonder whether it was possible to break the binariness, to simultaneously appreciate the positive and negative aspects of Jewish life both inside and outside Israel; to recognize both Kafka and Kishniev;

And to find something inbetween the Clark Kentesque Jewish nerd early Zionism spurned and the modern day Superman post Zionist Tel Aviv bars embrace.

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