In a lovely article this week, we read about the experience of IDF soldiers who accompany the Birthright trips here in Israel. These soldiers are being confronted with issues in Jewish identity that they never faced in Israel. As they meet diaspora youth, they meet people who face very differnt Jewish choices on a daily basis. One soldier said:
"From my point of view, the program led me to understand that I am serving in the IDF for the Jews who don't live here. I never thought about that before,"
It is fascinating that whereas Diaspora youth are impressed here in Israel by the all encompassing environment of a country where everything and everyone (alomst) is Jewish, Israelis suffer from a situation in which it is easy to take things for granted.
My kids travelled to the U.S. some years ago and were shocked that one could not buy ice cream or confectionary just anywhere. They have never spent time where a kosher store is more than a block away! They really do not understand the notion of a non-Jewish culture that is not Arab (and potentially hostile.) And they are so used to being in an all envelopingculture, they would find a country elsewhere quite a challenge.
In certain ways, Israel has an advantage in this respect, but in other ways, living in a foreign culture has some up-sides too. After all, when we live in a diverse culture, we are constantly making choices: this I can eat, this I cannot. Now I will have to ask time off from work because it is a festival, because it is an early shabbat. (Halakhically observant) Jews are constantly making choices for the sake of Judaism. and there is some power in that. All Jews have to actively decide to marry a Jew, to socialise with Jews. And these decisions are like working a muscle. When you work a muscle, it gets stronger. When you constantly engage in these decisions, you excercise your Jewish muscles! You get stronger Jewishly. There are things that you are rejecting daily for the sake of your Judaism and all this can strenthen a person.
In that respect Israelis are frequently very unaware in the sense of individual identity of the notion of being a lone-Jew against the tide. They are so used to being a majorty culture. They often cannot distinguish between Jewish and Israeli! ... Just the other day when I was talking to my kids about my experiences prior to Aliya, my five-year-old said: "... but before you were Jewish ..." in other words, Israeli=Jewish. He doesn't understand the difference yet.
Some years ago , I performed a wedding for a couple where the groom was Israeli (7 generation in ISrael ...chiloni lemehadrin ... in his own words!) and the bride was from LA. He had been working in a computer firm in silicon valley and they had met. When they decided to marry she visited his family here in Israel, and he warned her: "Us Israelis have a tradition that on Friday night the family gets together and Mum likes candles and we say a prayer on the wine ..." she replied: "Yes! My family do that too in LA!" HE had NO IDEA that it was a Jewish thing. He thought it was an Israeli thing. And even if he somehow knew it, it was not a conscious thought. For him, he acted that way only in Israel. In the US he acted also like the majority culture.
(Another aspect of this is that secular Israelis that make Yerida frequently fail to associate with the Jewish community but for their own Israeli sub-culture. They don't quite understand where Judaism fits in as a personal commitment. They are used to experiencing Judaism solely as a national culture!)
So Israelis can learn from diaspora Jews about the more conscious living of identity, the micro choices that are made on a constant basis; the constant understanding and categorisation that this is "ours, Jewish, inside" and that is "theirs, outside, alien."