Israeli to tell Tiburon congregants what his countrymen want solved

When American-born Stuart Schoffman is asked why he moved to Israel, his usual answer is "because I think I'm addicted to high drama."

A former screenwriter, he added, "In Hollywood, I made up dramatic stories. Here, I live one every day."

The New York-raised journalist and educator writes for the Jerusalem Report and teaches at the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University and in the Liberal Yeshivah program at Hebrew Union College. For several years, he has been serving on the Amuta board of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

He will be Tiburon Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar's scholar-in-residence during the weekend of Feb. 2 through Feb. 4, just before the Israeli election. He will deliver four lectures on different aspects of Israel, ranging from the historical to the political to the cultural.

Unlike that of many American immigrants to Israel, Schoffman's move to the Jewish state was not based on ideology, even though he grew up in a modern Orthodox, Zionist family, and his parents moved to Israel before he did.

He used a made-up word to describe his thought process about moving to Israel, saying he "ambivalated" about it for many years. "At various junctures I seriously considered it, but something always led me in a different direction," he said.

Then, in 1986, he made a short visit, and was introduced to "a typically Israeli woman from Sacramento." He moved to Israel two years later, at age 41.

Now his wife, Roberta Fahn Schoffman, is serving as an adviser on world Jewry to Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The Schoffmans have two children.

While the couple's integration into Israel could be viewed as an American aliyah success story, Schoffman said he is uncomfortable with the term "aliyah," which suggests that to move to Israel is to ascend. "I don't think I've gone to a higher place in the Jewish food chain because I live here," he said. "Although I do think that there is something very special about living the way my friends and I live, in a full-time, full-strength Jewish community, in which one never has to worry about being too Jewish or Jewish enough."

His experience in Los Angeles caused Schoffman to muse that "Hollywood and Jerusalem are the antipodes of modern Jewish dreaming."

Just as Hollywood represents the "ultimate American Jewish assimilationist fantasy," Schoffman said Israel is just the reverse, "the place you go to combat it." However, that's changed, he said.

"The Zionist ideologues who invented this country were often runaway yeshiva bochers and they were rebelling against a tradition that they, nonetheless, were greatly steeped in," he said. "Their cultural reference points were still clearly routed in Jewish texts and learning and tradition."

Several generations later, he said, that's no longer the case. "The level of familiarity with tradition in many sectors of society is now very low."

Schoffman called it a "defining myth" some Israelis still cling to, that they are superior to diaspora Jewry just by virtue of living in a Jewish state.

While he thinks there is some truth to that, he pointed out that what those same Israelis don't realize is that a diaspora Jew who may not be fluent in Hebrew but studies Torah or Talmud "can run rings around some of these sabras, Jewishly."

While Reform and Conservative Judaism are widely viewed as foreign transplants in Israel, Schoffman said most secular Israelis view them as a positive development, if only because they "are at the cutting edge of legal efforts to challenge the hegemony of the rabbinical establishment."

On the political front, Schoffman said that he believed Barak's reasons for "zigzagging" so much, which is the word commonly used to describe his behavior in Israel, was because he felt — as do most Israelis — disappointed and ambivalent.

"It's fine for the man on the street to be ambivalent but the leader is supposed to lead," he said.

On the one hand, there is the feeling of "what more do [the Palestinians] want? We offered so much; look at all the violence they've been fomenting," he said. "But on the other, we facetiously refer to them as 'our cousins.' We have to live with them, and we feel a closeness to them.

"The whole notion of the biblical right of the Jewish people to this land is certainly unassailable, but there's a whole other story going on," he continued. "That's the story that you can't just dismiss. We can't overpower them with brute force."

Despite Israelis' disappointment in Barak for not following through on several of his pre-election promises, such as drafting the fervently religious, Schoffman did compliment the prime minister for proceeding on one very important pledge.

"He said he was going to get us out of Lebanon, and he got us out."

Schoffman offered this in-a-nutshell analysis of the situation in Israel: "Everyone wants Moshiach now," he said. Calling his fellow Israelis a bunch of "de facto Chabadniks," he ticked off a list of problems plaguing Israeli society, and said the average Israeli wants them solved tomorrow, if not today.

"We've got Jews from 100 different countries, all traumatized by different chapters of Jewish history thrown together in one country," he said. "These things are incredibly complicated."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."