A new Israeli government has brought a renewed focus on repairing ties between Israel and the Diaspora.
Yair Lapid, a key part of the new coalition, has emphatically stated, “Jews from all streams, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, are our family. And family is always the most important relationship, and the one that needs to be worked on more than any other.”
An implementation of the Western Wall deal has been written into the coalition agreement. Repairing relations with the Democratic party, with which 71 percent of American Jews identify, is another priority of the new government.
And beyond politics, we have seen in recent months a complete reimagination of the Tel Aviv museum formerly known as the Diaspora Museum, which no longer feels like a series of exhibits on the historic creature known as the Jew of the Exile. It has been renamed Anu: The Museum of the Jewish People.
These important examples of a new approach toward Jewish life outside of Israel are manifesting throughout Israeli culture.
Recently, a documentary series on American Jewry, “The New Jew,” premiered on Kan 11, a public broadcaster in Israel.
The series is a journey through some of the most unexpected places in North America. From the “Backcountry Bayit” in Colorado to Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue to Rabbi Jamie Korngold (“the Adventure Rabbi”), the series explores real stories of American Jews who are dismantling old stereotypes of the Diaspora Jew.
More than a century ago, European Zionists like Hayim Nahman Bialik and A. D. Gordon imagined a “New Jew” — a Jew reforged by a life of exalted labor in the Land of Israel. They saw this as a corrective to the downtrodden Diaspora Jew — weak, pale, timid and afraid.
This New Jew would be strong, confident, courageous and utilitarian. By today’s cultural standards, the New Jew would look more like vintage Arnold Schwarzenegger than Woody Allen.
Thus, Israeli comedic and cultural personality Guri Alfi, producer of the four-part Kan 11 series, chose “The New Jew” as the title with a keen sense of irony. Alfi and his family spent a year in Los Angeles, resulting in his conception of an even new-er Jew thriving in America.
The great Jewish ideas that have flourished in the American Jewish community are far more represented now in Israeli Judaism than they were 26 years ago, the last time Israeli TV viewers saw something like this in Michael Karpin‘s three-part “Kerovim Rechokim” (a play on words meaning, roughly, “Distant Relatives”).
Pluralism, feminism, innovation and creativity in Jewish life are a byproduct of the hitchadshut Yehudit (Jewish renewal) phenomenon of the last three decades. And while distinctively Israeli beyond a doubt, the seeds of many such expressions were planted abroad.
In “The New Jew,” Alfi criss-crosses the United States, spending time with many different kinds of Jews and Jewish communities.
He meets Jews of color, some of whom have grown up Jewish and others who have converted. He has a bar mitzvah redux in the Rockies. He picks vegetables with young, idealistic, Jewish farmers who find holiness in the land outside of Israel. He visits a Jewish day school in New York, and searches for the American dream in Los Angeles’ large Persian Jewish community. He even goes on a date with the help of a Jewish dating app.
Along the way, the series confronts complex topics, such as intermarriage, antisemitism and growing feelings of alienation from Israel.
There are many important takeaways for both Israeli Jews and world Jewry.
Chief among them is that a “Jew-by-choice” is no longer just a euphemism to refer to a convert. The message of the series is that in America every Jew is a Jew-by-choice. To affiliate in any way with Jewish life is an active affirmation and a desire for connection with Jews and Judaism.
The message of the series is that in America every Jew is a Jew-by-choice.
At the turn of the 20th century, the New Jew was the mythic warrior-poet-farmer who worked the land and took up arms and in self-defense.
The New Jews left the degradation of the Diaspora behind, abandoned arcane rituals and reinvented themselves as free people in our Holy Land. If a century ago the New Jew was an oleh (Jewish immigrant to Israel) who chose strength and physical labor as a means of self-definition, the New Jew of today is an American Jew-by-choice who, through creativity and openness, chooses community, meaning and soulfulness.
Alfi concludes the series by saying, “What I take from this journey, despite the differences, is that we have more than a little to learn from the other.”
We couldn’t agree more.
Perhaps Israelis ought to explore the struggles and the uniqueness of the American Jewish community a bit more to shed light on our own story. (We are both olim from the U.S.)
At the same time, the American Jewish commitment to universalism threatens to create a Jewish identity that, while having much to contribute to the world at large, will give too little to the advancement of Jewish scholarship, production of new interpretations of Jewish texts and the creation of new Jewish culture that is in dialogue with the Jewish past.
When Alfi asks some Jewish fraternity brothers if they know the blessing over pizza, Israeli viewers will bristle (and Alfi erupts in laughter) when they spontaneously come up with “… asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu lehadlik ner shel, pizza!” (a play on the blessing for lighting candles.)
In contrast, Israeli Jews are nurtured by a thick Jewish culture in which Jewish texts, words and ideas enrich not only the religious sector but are found, as well, in contemporary music, art and poetry.
We feel that American Jews are in need of a greater measure of Jewish particularism that would anchor their universalist commitments in Jewish texts and tradition. But at the same time, Israeli Jews are in need of a universal vision that emerges from the most fundamental question of Israel’s larger purpose and broader mission.
Israeli Judaism can be enriched by the freedom to reshape and experiment with Jewish life in ways that are a given for American Jews.
American Judaism can be deepened by a closer relationship with Israel and Israelis, connection to the Hebrew language and Jewish texts, and more frequent encounters with Jewish culture — including this series, “The New Jew,” which will be available to stateside viewers in the fall.