Avid Editor's Insights

Myopic American Jewish Culture

Posted by Glezele Vayne on February 22, 2009


I am so sorry to report, American Jewish culture is in trouble, and some of it is being imported to Israel. Not much, thanks be, since it is mostly the faithful among us that are willing to risk it all to be, well…faithful and return home.

Around 80% of Jews in America (the non-orthodox component) consider their participation in Judaism to consist of proudly, even defiantly, eating lox & bagels on Sundays while their neighbors attend church, and watching Fiddler on the Roof at least once a year, while referring to it, quoting it and learning the dances depicted, or at least dutifully sending their kids to classes to learn those dances. And maybe even do a Fiddler on the Roof play, if they’re really ambitious.

In Fiddler on the Roof, Norman Jewison brought a touch of old Eastern Europe Jewish culture to us. Sholom Aleichem did so in his books, on which this movie is based. Not having actually lived through those times myself, I am unsure of the accuracy of this charming semi-tragic portrayal, but hey that’s showbiz. Really though, I enjoy Fiddler on the Roof and lox & bagels as much as the next Jew. Charming and delicious respectively. But, I don’t consider participation in these activities as equal to a Shabbos afternoon listening to a dvar Torah by a Talmid chocham.

And therein lies the problem. Most of American Jewry, while very proud of their heritage, know little to nothing about what it really means. They only know the stereotypes imposed on them by their enemies, and what popular culture tells them about Yiddishkeit. This then morphs into a Jewish community with little or no truly Jewish values, which thinks…that the values they do hold are indeed Jewish. No. They are non-Jewish values held by Jews. Misguided, unrealistic, painfully ignorant Jews. Then, these tragically disenfranchised Jews try and impose those non-Jewish values on the rest of us who’ve been taking our heritage very seriously all along.

More to the point, semi-Yiddishkeit movies and really yummy nosh are not the sum and substance of the Jewish worldview, nor will they assure our survival as a people.

I was inspired to kvetch about this sad state of affairs after some tag surfing. I ran across a post by Deb Reich at DesertPeace. In her post, where she is clearly longing for the messianic era, she has embedded the video below.

I think it is very telling on many levels that this particular section of the movie was used to illustrate Deb Reich’s point, which is “To Life!” Hey, we’re all for life. Well, most Westerner’s. I can’t really see it among fanatical Muslims myself, but maybe that’s just me.

The question can’t be reduced to just “Why can’t we all get along?” nor can the answer be reduced to “To Life!” I wish it were that simple, but — it’s just not.

So, getting back to the movie clip Deb Reich, or maybe Steve — who knows? chose to include, I have some questions for the reader to consider, some observations on my part that I ask you to indulge.

Are the Cossacks portrayed in this section of the film truly interested in Tevye and Lazer’s ” health” and living “together in peace”? I’m just asking because when this impressive Cossack sings so melodiously “May you both be favored with future of your choice”, well — he didn’t sell it to me. But Jewison, he was brilliant in letting us in on what is going on under the surface: Tevye and Lazer are doing their best to pay their proper respects, because to do otherwise is to invite some unpleasant reactions that might spoil the evening. But the guys are a little bit uptight. These Cossacks’ words aren’t matching up with their body language, and it’s all causing a bit of cognitive dissonance, the mixed message breaking through the inebriated euphoria.

We are all uneasy as we watch this scene, even while enjoying the singing and dancing.  Though we have benefit of hindsight to tell us otherwise — even as the history book sits in our lap open to the relevant pages — we are irrationally transported to the world of hope for Jewish/Russian peaceful co-existence. We’re hoping for a good outcome, but we know deep down — it is not to be.

When you look at the faces of the Cossacks, do you see men who are peace-loving? [At the 3:10 marker] Is the deathly pale red-headed Cossack inviting Tevye to dance with him as a man of equal standing, or is he demanding that Tevye participate?

Are the Cossacks politely joining in the celebration, or are we witnessing a deadly challenge to Jewish Anatevka? I see a lot of Yidden bumping into tables and chairs, scrambling to get out of the way. Do Tevye and Lazer look happy about the developing events? Or, are their faces those of men expressing their attempt to neutralize a potential threat?

So, yes…Tevye & company are celebrating life. But it seems obvious to me that the Cossacks have made their presence overwhelmingly known in order let these hapless, celebrating men know that they can’t ever really have anything of their own while in the Russian midst. Just fast forward to the wedding, and then the eventual expulsion of all Jews from Anatevka and you will know; the dance was not an invitation for friendship. It was the first volley. Portents of things to come.

In this clip, the Cossacks are demonstrating their overpowering presence, their physical prowess, their military might (Cossack uniforms, as opposed the shabby, but very individual — civilian clothing — of the Jewish celebrants). The stomping military boots send us their message. The wise, experienced hesitancy of Tevye et al, not quite knowing how to respond to the sham  “offer of friendship” without blowing their cover (that they know) is not lost on the audience either.

History informs us that Cossacks were not friendly to the Jewish community within their realm. Neither are Muslims who take their prophet’s life example seriously, friendly towards a Jewish presence anywhere in the world. Especially not in the G-d given, legally purchased, righteously-acquired-via-defensive wars — Land of Israel. To the devout Muslim, there is only one consolation to what they call the “Nakba” (tragedy) of the Jewish return to their homeland, as Shaik Nasrallah and others have stated repeatedly, “Let them gather to one place. Then we won’t have to chase them down all over the globe. We can kill them more easily that way.”

Don’t believe me? The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Look at history. Look at yesterday’s news!! Islamic fanatics murder each other over minor disputes of religious observance or interpretations. They certainly murder non-Muslims. They would love to get to Jews…especially Jews. Under a sharia state, we would not even be offered the option to convert or live as dhimmis.

Given the overwhelming faithfulness of most Jews to resist all forms of evangelization in the last 2000 years, they’re right not to offer it. It would be pointless, thank you. Just had to make it clear, I’m not lamenting that we’re not offered the choice to convert. I’m just pointing out exactly where we stand with the Islamo-fascists of our day.

The Imams who rail against us  are right. We are the eternal enemy of Islam, we are infidels and we wear that badge proudly. This is proof of the light within each Jewish soul, that still shines, wanting to do mitzvot and honor HKB”H,  the shallowness of current American Jewish culture notwithstanding. For this reason, we always bounce back.

Following are a few excerpts from Deb Reich’s post, the one that fits so well with the Fiddler on the Roof clip, and my responses. I could have refuted almost every single statement with something sensible. The post was an amazing agglomeration of Jewish values taken out of context and misapplied, Arab propaganda turned history, glaring naivete, and wishful thinking. I don’t have the time or the inclination to tackle the entire mess.

Deb, you write: “Most people will say I’m delusional; that’s okay.”

Ellie: As long as your delusions don’t become Israeli defense policy, which would involve a lot of dead Jews, a very high percentage being unarmed men, women and children, I agree, your delusions are okay.

Deb: “Speaking as an Israeli Jew, I say that we (Israeli Jews and our friends abroad) ought to embrace EVERYONE who wants to live here among us, so long as they truly love the land and have some reasonable claim to it. This would not include, say, tourists from Zanzibar or Antarctica…”

Ellie: Stop there: How many Jews who live in Israel are from Antarctica?? Your disingenuous use of exaggeration (or is it just plain dishonest immigration stats??) is entertaining. Makes good prose.  But it is an obfuscation of history. As many Jews in Israel have indigenous, familial, historic roots in the land going back 10 or 15 or more generations as Arabs claim. Certain lunatic Left Israeli professors notwithstanding (and their research is suspect) after the Jewish people were thrown out of their land by the Romans, we have never released our claim to the land. Theft of an entire land has no statute of limitations, and certainly not when these same people maintain a consistent significant presence in the land in spite of persecution, and it’s diaspora continues to state and re-state said claim at least 3 times a day, every day for the entire duration of the exile. That is a legal claim.

Most of the Arabs of Gaza immigrated there from Egypt in search of economic opportunity at about the same time as Jewish immigration was increasing. And the same goes for the rest of the Arab population of the area.

Deb: “- but would naturally include the Palestinians, whose claim to the land is (or ought to be) beyond dispute…”

Ellie: It is not beyond dispute. That is why there is a dispute right now.

Deb: “…and whose deep and enduring love for the land is richly evident to any observer not in a vegetative state.”

Ellie: I have no doubt that these people love the land. Who doesn’t love land?? What I am concerned about is the Muslim Arab unwillingness and inability to live side by side with Jews, or any non-Muslims for that matter. Checked the census for Christian Arabs in the region lately?? In Lebanon? There is a reason for the mass exodus on the part of Christians out of these regions.

Deb: “Time to ABANDON this insane strategy that we (any of us) can force people to love us, or anyhow accept us, by killing them!”

Ellie: I don’t think the objective of a defensive war (reference to the shelling for the last 7-8 years of Sderot, and more recently of Ashdod, Beer Sheva etc. etc. etc.) is to force the enemy to love us, but to force them to face how expensive is their continued belligerence.

Deb: “This is a blueprint for a SHARED LIFE. If it sounds crazy, just ask yourself: Which is crazier — rampant slaughter, or rampant cooperation? Rivers of blood, or the free flow of joint prosperity? Rampant mass cooperation could break out here tomorrow – and in a week or two, or maybe a month or two, we would feel like we have always believed in it.”

Ellie: Would that Hamas had your generosity of soul. Have you read their Charter lately? Until that is burned and abandoned as an ideology, maybe you should start that particular effort, but leave any kids with a relative in Israel.

Deb: “We Jews consider it rational and wonderful to rejoice in our emergence as a modern nation in the ancient homeland, after… not twenty years, not two hundred years, but two thousand years of exile!!”

Ellie: There you go, you admit it. Now continue reading. Muslims occupied Eretz Israel 700 years after our forced exhile.

Deb: “Yet the idea of repatriating all those homesick Palestinian families, exiled from their homes a mere 60 years ago, is considered delusional. Something there does not compute.”

Ellie: Cha-ching! You know what doesn’t compute? All the money the Arab nations owe the Sephardi Jews who fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs at about the same time. The difference between these two refugee populations, approximately the same size, fleeing during the same time period for the same reason (Arab leaders) is this: UNRWA was not involved in caring for the Jewish refugees. Fellow Jews were. And voila! No more Jewish refugees!! (Well, it wasn’t really as easy as “voila”, but we did it.) This begs the question: Why couldn’t the Arabs do that with their refugees?” The answer lies within UN documents still in existence, that you can refer to if you do your homework. The refugees were cynically, cruelly and forcibly kept in their camps and used as a PR weapon against Israel by Arab leaders.

Deb: “So think it over and let’s put the guns away for good.”

Ellie: Hamas first. Come on! You can do it guys!!! It’s easy. Deb says so.

Deb: “Choose life!!!”

Ellie: We have. You know Who first encouraged the Jewish people to “choose life” Deb? HKB”H. And He also encouraged us to defend ourselves when our very existence was being threatened. That is choosing life — the lives of ourselves, our mothers, fathers, grandmothers, children and granchildren. What’s more, HKB”H promised to be with us as our Protector and Defender as long as we honor Him by doing His mitzvot.

Now, I have a question for you: Have you listened to Hamas’ death chants lately?? Have you seen them teaching their children to do shahadah? It is they who say death is better than life, not we. And some Arab leaders are actually getting concerned about this, but not nearly enough of them. What Hamas does to the children of Gaza is child abuse, so if you really care about those families, work on getting rid of Hamas. The culture of death engulfing the Muslim world is the problem, not Israel’s right to live in peace.

There are a few problems with your plan, which briefly is — everyone tosses their weapons down, beginning with Israel, moves in together and starts getting along, throwing out old enmities and starting anew. I will name just a few off the top of my head:

  • Neither Fatah nor Hamas will do so. And if they do, the rest of the Arab world and other enemies of Israel, such as all those other alphabet soup terrorist groups dotting the landscape, along with Russia, Iran and a few other nations who have their own agendas, will work to create other “organizations” to replace them.
  • Your plan requires Israelis to engage in the same cognitive dissonance that Tevye and Lazer had the sense not  entertain for very long.
  • National memories of cruel aggression don’t just go away. Israelis have lost schoolchildren, mothers eating at pizzerias with their innocent babies in strollers, and yeshiva bochrim studying Torah.
  • Brainwashing, since infancy, to hate irrationally doesn’t just disappear because we wish it would.

My Israeli American friend, you may live in Israel, you may claim the illustrious and impressive heritage of your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel) — but if your post is any indication — the well you draw your wisdom from is shallow. Your enemies are counting on that. They will treat you like a princess until they have no more use for you. As soon as their purposes are served, they will drain that well, leaving you and any children you may have at the time to die of thirst, (chas v’shalom) while they watch and pass out candies. I hope it is not so, but like I said earlier, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

That is their plan. Ignore it at your peril.

So, go ahead, invite them in to your home. Go live with them. As for me, I am counting on the more experienced, well-read wisdom of fellow Israelis to thwart such suicidal, Pollyanish nonsense. It is I who choose life, rather than deadly delusions. Israel chooses life, not national suicide, without apology. We wisely choose the Jewish narrative, not the Islamo-fascist narrative, as the truth.

Good Shabbos.

Ellie Katz

Visit Schmoozing with Elya and Ellie Katz for more opinions on Israel, Judaism, jihadis and politics.

2 Responses to “Myopic American Jewish Culture”

  1. I agree. There really is a “crisis” amongst the non-observant Jewish youth. I fear this generation will largely assimilate as a result of simply believing that you do “Jewish things” because your “Jewish”.

    Without believing in Torah, and knowing that the mitzvos are not there simply for “tradition” is largely to blame.

    America is just too comfortable for Jewish youth, and assimilation is just too easy. The North American aliyah numbers are very low as a result of this as well.

  2. elyakatz said


    I’m glad you see my point. While I agree with much that you say, I also know that there have been eras within the Diaspora where Jews were relatively prosperous, well accepted and comfortable in their host countries. We used those times to improve our Yiddishkeit, not ignore it or run away from it.

    Given our varied history in all the countries where HKB”H has sent us, I’m not sure the prosperity, the comfort and the overall kindness of America can be cited as the problem. Rather, our reaction to all of those blessings is the problem. I don’t think we can only grow spiritually as a people when times are rough. That is simply HKB”H recourse when we try too hard to blend in to the cultures around us.

    I think our overall lack of priority on Jewish education in America is the problem. But that didn’t start here. The roots go back to the beginnings of the Haskalah. I’m not against all the tenets of the Haskalah, and many great Rabbanim were not against it. But some elements have taken us, as a people, astray.

    It’s all a refining process. Throughout our entire history as a people, some of us leave. That makes us all very sad. Those who leave are giving up their birthright. Some return. That encourages us. Some new people are added, really old souls if you ascribe to that particular teaching. If we have the correct views towards those who join us, then that too is a source of renewal, and encouragement.

    We still must speak up when we see so many amongst us simply falling away. We can’t passively allow ourselves to make mistakes because of some misguided notion of “fate”. All situations are put before us to test us, to refine us, to teach us. How we respond to the challenges within each generation is what it’s all about. We are not commanded to succeed. Success is already guaranteed. We are partners with HKB”H in the process. How many leave, who leaves, how many stay, who stays, how many beautiful old/new souls are added and who they are, we get to be a part of that process. As the world watches us grow, watches us learn to deal with each other as HKB”H wants us to deal with each other, they too learn, they gain light for their own lives.

    It’s a pretty good deal when you think about it. But no one said it would be easy.

    Be well.

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