My attitude to the presence of Israelis in New York has evolved.
When I was young, I would hear Hebrew on the street and feel the poignancy of yeridah, of Jewish Israelis “descending” to live in the diaspora.
Then I went through my international stage. If I — a passionate lover of Israel who has traveled there countless times — do not choose to live there, why shouldn’t Israelis have the free choice to do the same? And who am I to grieve hypocritically about it?
Later, in my ever-amplifying fascination with Hebrew, I was thrilled. Hebrew — a global language, an ancient-modern tongue miraculously awakened when so many languages are dying daily — is on the sidewalks of my city and now in charter schools. Millions of people speak Hebrew, the only successfully revived language in history.
Now I’ve reached the wisdom stage. As we bewail the assimilation of American Jewry and our lack of Hebrew literacy, here in the U.S. are hundreds of thousands of Israelis who know Hebrew, a gift that even those of us committed to the finest day school education struggle to bequeath our children.
If we had a critical mass of Hebrew speakers and readers among native-born American Jews, our education and Jewish identity would be transformed. (Israelis in America: Be sure that at least one parent speaks Hebrew at home, so that your children will feel at ease in Israel and be a new kind of American Jew.)
No matter how adamantly secular some of them are, Americans who grew up in Israel have the Jewish calendar in their DNA. They know the rhythm of the Jewish year — with its festivities and rituals bound to the land and to nature, such as Tu b’Shvat, the birthday of the trees, and sefirat ha-omer, the counting of the days between Pesach and Shavuot that is only an arcane reference for many American Jews.
Most Israelis among us have served in the army and have given two or three years to a purpose larger than themselves, which our children are not asked to do.
They have a story, and, however complicated it is in our ever-more complex era, they know what it is. Their country is far newer, the equivalent of 1843 in the lifespan of America. Many of them are old enough to have known people from the generation who founded Israel, built the country’s institutions, fought for her, celebrated and grieved with her. They participated in a society that, in spite of brutal, devastating and constant headlines, considers itself among the happiest in the world.
And they bear with a unique mixture of trauma and pride one of the two narratives of disruption and loss that shaped most of Israel’s people: the Shoah or the expulsion from Arab lands.
Of course, I am not advocating that trauma is necessary for the construction of identity. Nor am I asking Israelis to come to America in order to save us.
What I am saying is: They’re here.
They bring us incomparable riches we have not yet nearly understood. They are a gateway to worldwide Jewish peoplehood and culture, to the nimble capacity of Jews to reinvent themselves wherever they live and to contribute to their society from their strengths.
Israelis in America understand from their birthplace and upbringing that we Jews are global, that we come not only from Eastern Europe but from Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Iran, Iraq and India. They have the music of those Jewries in their ears, because they grew up in a radio culture that broadcast it continually, and in a country where community and a shared set of songs were far more intrinsic to childhood and adolescence than they are in the United States.
Eva Heinstein directs Piyut North America, a project that brings the treasures of global Jewish music and devotional practice to the United States. She notes that “there is a growing and influential community of Israeli musicians in Boston, New York, the Bay area and other cities. They come to the U.S. to study at top conservatories and universities, and then stay to join established Israeli artists in music inflected with Arabic modes, klezmer idioms and Andalusian rhythms — an organic part of their soundscape.”
Heinstein observes, “These musicians bring a different kind of Judaism to the North American community, one that is innately multicultural and open to the world.”
Dan Nadel is an Israeli musician who performs the music of Sepharad and accompanies spiritual communities and synagogues in the Northeast. “Everybody knows about Israeli entrepreneurship, risk taking, and trying fresh ideas,” he says. “Many of us come from very diverse backgrounds. Making connections across genres feels natural.”
The New York regional director of the Israeli-American Council (IAC), Yehudit Feinstein-Mentesh, was the founder of the group Israelis in Brooklyn. Supported by Rabbi Andy Bachman, who until recently led Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, she and Dan Nadel built a participatory Israeli Friday night family program that exploded in attendance from an expected 50-80 people to over 400 people a month.
To their surprise, they attracted many American Jews, drawn by the beauty of the music of Piyut and the authenticity of communal singing in Hebrew.
“I was shocked when Jewish Americans joined us,” Feinstein-Mentesh says. “At first we thought we needed to sing in English. But they said, ‘You don’t need to be us. We come to be closer to you.’”
Feinstein-Mentesh speaks eloquently about her hopes for her own family and Israelis who live in the U.S. She says it was when she came to America that she learned about ritual, synagogue life and Jewish community. “Then, when we started Israelis in Brooklyn, we needed to create Israeli rituals, to understand: What does an Israeli Shabbat mean in New York?”
Now, the IAC’s Friday night family program, Shishi Israeli, is “a way for young Israeli families to feel closer to home and to fall in love with Israel again.
“At the end of the day,” she says, “we’re one people. But we can lose that connection. When we find rituals that are relevant to the second generation here but bring Israel and Hebrew to the fore, we also rejuvenate the bond between Israelis and American Jews.”
We are living in a culture of unprecedented fluidity. For many of us, our Jewishness is not a precise replica of our parents or our childhood. All the more reason to embrace Israelis who are making their lives in America. They offer us a 21st-century opportunity to press the “refresh” button on the gorgeous, enduring traditions of our people in our ever-more-diverse community.
Nessa Rapoport is senior program officer at the Charles H. Revson Foundation, which supports Piyut North America.