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Heights of contradiction: American and Israeli Jews' complicated relationship

Photo / Israel Eshed

Todd Pitock's travels through Israel reveal the true differences between American and Israeli Jews. 

If you tell Americans you’re going to the Golan Heights they think you’re taking your life into your hands. It doesn’t matter if you say that inside Israel it’s been the quietest, safest place for more than 40 years. They’re set on the idea. The place only gets mentioned alongside worrisome words like “annexation,” “international recognition,” “UN troops,” and formulations about “land for peace,” a quaint phrase that dates to the period before the greater region fell to pieces like a Byzantine mosaic.

The manner in which I almost did fall prey to harm better illustrates the reality.

It was 1:00 on Shabbat. All I’d had to eat was an egg early in the morning. It hadn’t occurred to me that nothing would be open. I arrived at a kibbutz guesthouse to learn that I’d needed to bring my own food. No food? No problem. They would serve breakfast in the morning. Morning? From 8:00 a.m. That was, uh, still 19 hours from now. There was also a place that might be open 30 kilometres away.

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“Wait a minute,” I said. “There’s no food? Nothing?”  

“We don’t offer food on Shabbat,” the woman holding down reception told me, “out of respect for the religious.”

“I’m pretty sure the religious rest on Shabbat,” I told her. “I wasn’t aware that they also fast.”

“I’m not religious,” she said. I handed her back the keys. I got in the car but saw another issue, a near-empty tank. My wife is always on me about not filling up until it’s an emergency, and I’m sincere when I promise to listen to her next time. I took a wrong turn. Given how few roads are in the Golan it’s actually a hard mistake to make. I drove along some bands of asphalt alongside the Jordanian border and eventually past vineyards, groves, ranches, ruins, and memorials to soldiers who died re-taking the land in 1973 after the Syrian army rolled in to re-take the land they lost in 1967.

Near Katsrin I found a gas station, and bought a bag of Bissli. Original flavour. I have no idea what that flavour actually is, and I think I like it because it transports me to my days as a 20-year-old volunteer on Kibbutz Haogen.           

At 2:30 I pulled into Merom Golan, another kibbutz with a guest house. They had one room left but check-in on Shabbat was 6:00. It would be a short stay but a larger room, so I’d have to pay more. I asked about food.

 “You’re in luck,” the receptionist said. “Our restaurant is open.”

“Oh, thank God for good luck!”

“They open at 7:30.”

“7:30? Until when?”

“To be honest, not for that long. Until people aren’t ordering. We don’t have many people.”

“But you told me you’re sold out.”

“We have a bus group arriving. They will start at 7:00 and when they’re done the restaurant will close.”           

“They’ll start at 7:00 and the restaurant opens at 7:30?”           


“And it’ll close—“         

“Around then, to be honest.”

“So for me, it’ll open at 7:30 and close at about 7:30?”            

“I’m afraid so.”

I knew I could get a good lunch in a Druse village. No Shabbat there! When I started out in the morning, travelling alone from Tel Aviv, I hadn’t planned to drive halfway to Damascus, but I was almost there at this point anyway. I scarfed down the rest of the bag of Bissli. Between that and the Danny Robas song on the radio, I passed a few amiable moments revisiting the late 1980s and was probably driving at a speed to match my ferocious appetite, when suddenly I had to brake on the nostalgia to avoid crashing into eternity. A man on a horse, in a 10-gallon hat and cowboy boots, like he’d just galloped in from Wyoming, crossed in front of me. If he’d really been from Wyoming, he would have tipped his hat.

But he wasn’t. He was an Israeli. So he just carried on, and I continued on for lunch in Ma’asedeh.

Photo / Israel Eshed
I lived in Israel for almost two years in my early-middle 20s. Although I enjoyed it I was never really serious about staying. But my affection never abated, and I never visit without some misgivings about having left. My Hebrew is meh. I understand enough to know what people are talking about without knowing exactly what they’re saying. In a week, which is about how long an American travels – no eight weeks in Thailand for us! – my brain tills enough vocabulary for me to speak in complete if error-ridden sentences, just in time to go home. It’s not that Hebrew is hard. It’s that Israelis are difficult. Their help is not helpful. “It’s okay, you can speak English,” they say when I speak Hebrew.

Most of the time they’re not being accommodating. Nor are they being impatient, the way a French person will cut you off because he can’t bear to witness you molest his sublime language. An Israeli does it to show you he can speak English.

Israelis love Americans. Yet, admiration and contempt comingle like gin and tonic. Israelis seem to think they know a lot more and are a great deal smarter than the “average" American. There are no “average" Israelis, only typical Israelis. It’s a nuanced difference, possibly a consequence of being a nation of little darlings of Jewish mothers. He could have gone to Harvard Medical School on a full scholarship, but he really just preferred to drive a taxi in Bat Yam. As long as he’s happy.  

One evening, I found myself at a little ranch with a magical view of the Galilee. The place belonged to a friend of a friend who was looking to develop the property into a luxury resort. It’s in the Jewish DNA to make money in real estate. Even in Philadelphia most of the real estate people are Jews, and for that matter usually Israelis. On the ranch, we drank Goldstar beer and munched on roasted almonds, and it would have been perfect until suddenly, like a match being struck, the guy got all worked up. The problem was Franklin Roosevelt. Franklin Delano Fucking Roosevelt and, of course, the Jews. Everyone is against us, he said, and began to count off on his fingers all of Israel’s fair-weathered friends. “The Breetish, the Germanim, the French. Even the Americans. Even the Americans! And I am pro-Americans! They didn’t save us from the Holocaust. They went to Roosevelt and said, ‘Bomb Auschwitz! Bomb the crematoria. Bomb the trains to Auschwitz. But he wouldn’t do it, not even the train lines! Why? Because he didn’t want a million Jews coming into America. They hate us too. And I tell you, I am pro-American!”

I nodded and waited for the flame in him to extinguish itself. I mean, seriously, for god's sake. I’d had a splendid day, the stars were out, and I didn’t feel like spending time hearing about all of Israel’s real and imagined enemies, definitely a top-three favourite subject of a typical Israeli.

He finally stopped to ask a question. What did I do? I’m a journalist, I said. He had a great idea for a story – to write about him.

Photo / Israel Eshed
The next day I met up with my friend Israel Eshed. We met a couple of years ago when I signed up for the first Golan Ultra Marathon, which got curtailed to ten kilometres from a hundred due to heavy rain. We went hiking on the Golan Trail, which he created. Israel is a lovely guy, a really fine spirit. He was born in Poland in 1955, the child of Holocaust survivors. He enlisted in the army just in time for the Yom Kippur War, then settled in the Golan and helped found Eliad, a moshav named for Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy killed in Syria in 1965. He and his wife, Orna, a highly respected biologist at the Technion, built a house surrounded by grapefruit and orange trees and raised horses. They raised three children. Life was good, and things flourished for them as it did for the Golan generally, until 1995 when Orna fought her first war with cancer. But ten years later it re-invaded their happiness again, and this time she did not survive. That’s when Israel started whacking the Golan Trail, a two-year endeavour to find his way through the high grass and thorns of grief. When he was done, the 120-kilometre route ran from Mount Hermon to the southern edge of the Kinneret.     

Now, he looks like a man who used to be lean and athletic until he discovered gustatory delights, and it was a lot of work and not enough fun at this stage of the game to stay lean. But he’s still active. When we met he wore a faded shirt that said, “This body climbed Mt. Washington.” It also climbed, among others, Mount Ranier and Mount Blanc, and traversed the Grand Canyon three times. I mentioned my friend Lior in Tel Aviv, the editor of some Israeli magazine, who planned to climb Ranier without training.

“Typical Israeli,” Israel said.

We wanted to go hiking again, so I followed him in my rented Hyundai to leave a car in the spot where we’d eventually finish, and then we drove to where we’d start, and set off.

Wildflowers filled in spaces between olive trees and cactuses, and burning bushes of wild mustard. Sunlight glazed the surface of the Kinneret, the Galilee, its fame so disproportionate to its size. In America, we’d call it a lake, somewhat like the Jordan River, which we’d call a stream. 

We came to a ruin, a half-collapsed rectangle of a building from the 1880s. It had been the centre for a group of families from Safed. (The explanation was in Hebrew on both sides. It was supposed to be Hebrew on one side and English on the other, but the printer duplicated the same Hebrew text on both sides. Typical Israeli.) They settled by a spring and in due course many of them died from sicknesses, because if you think about it, what else could possibly happen living in an isolated place with frosty winters and malarial summers, and no medicine. Back then you toughed it out or you died. In 1920, during one of the Arab-Jewish flare-ups, the ones who toughed it out, all but a mother and son whose last name was Bernstein, were murdered. Later, Arabs settled in the area.

“Can you imagine living here?” I said. “I bet they didn’t even have Wifi.”  

We gingerly negotiated our way back down a slope to avoid a sticky weed shaped like spearmint that pricked and burned. The tough bastards who once lived here, and the Arabs who came after that, probably just walked on it and didn’t even notice.

An Israeli volunteer harvests Shiraz grapes for the Assaf Winery in the Golan Heights. Photo / Getty Images
At Eliad, Israel’s friend Alon had a big house with a crazy long and beautiful dinner table made from two single planks of a eucalyptus tree. Alon was on his way to help a couple new to the community build their house. They had given all their money to a contractor to build it, and the contractor, a Jewish thief, absconded. Now, the members of Eliad were donating their labour to build the house. And they had gotten outside help, too. Six people from the old German Democratic Republic had shown up to work, too. They were working for free, very hard, dusk to dawn.

“How did they know the story?”

“They are, how do you say it, messianic Jews, and they love Israel. They heard what happened and they came to help. There was a group before them. They’re halfway between Jews and Christians. Wonderful people!”

Not such wonderful people were terrorizing and killing one another a short distance away. That’s the border with Syria. The last time there was an actual war here was 1973. Eliad set up a field hospital, where they treated wounded Syrian soldiers. One of them managed to communicate coordinates to his comrades and the field hospital was mortared. A memorial marks the spot where doctors, nurses and medics were killed. At the time, the Al-Nusra Front, the local Al Qaeda affiliate, moved in, and ISIS was also busy hunting for real estate.  

We sat outside Chateau Golan, the boutique winery on the edge of Eliad, and sipped wine.  

“Can you hear fighting?” I asked Itzhak Ribak, the winery’s owner.

“At one time we heard a lot. But not lately.”

“Does it make you nervous?”     

“No. Right now they’re fighting each other. We wish both sides much success!”

For the moment that conflict could be on Jupiter. We were about to enter another. Or not. Israel said he liked French reds. The winemaker, Uri Chetz, who learned his craft during six years in Oregon after a career as an IDF pilot, asked which he liked best. Israel said, “Chablis.”

“There are no reds in Chablis,” Uri said, smirking. “That’s why I asked you, to see if you knew.”

“They make reds in Chablis,” Israel insisted.

“No, they don’t. They don’t even grow grapes for red.”  

In America correcting someone so forwardly would be considered a symptom of what psychologists call an impulse control problem. An American would say, “I didn’t know they grew reds in Chablis! I thought they only grew chardonnay grapes and made very dry white wines…” and then through an accretion of detail the American would demonstrate that the person was mistaken, if not a complete ignoramus. An Israeli uses words and tone, and is as subtle as a grenade followed by a finishing spray of an M-1. Wow, what a goddamn moron you must be, reds in Chablis! Holy mackerel, and I’m sitting here talking to you yet.

We all get to the same place, just on different routes.   

But here was another difference between us. It’s that the American, having been politely corrected, feels foolish and bitter, while the Israeli, having just had his front teeth bashed in, shrugs and knocks back another glass of wine.  There’s a war on down the road waged by genocidal lunatics, and another one, no doubt, coming in a few years to a theatre near here, and right now the sun’s shining and it’s a beautiful afternoon sipping wine, so who really gives a toss what they grow in Chablis?

Purim is celebrated with a huge street party in Tel Aviv, where people get dressed up. Photo / Getty Images

Israel would run into people he knows whether he was in the Negev or Nebraska. It was truly remarkable. He got pulled over in America's Great Plains, and the officer told him he was a farmer. Israel was a farmer, and he remembered an old joke. An Israeli asks an American how big his farm is. "Put it this way," the American says, "I can get on my tractor and drive all day and not reach the end of my  property." The Israeli says, "I think I had the same model of tractor." The officer let Israel go.

Now I was to get on the road, and another friend of Israel's suggested the best route, because everyone in Israel has an opinion on the best route. I should cross the northern side of the Kinneret until I got to Migdal, and there pick up Road 6 by the Golani Junction. “It’ll save you 20 minutes,” he said. For that, and to go back a different route than I’d come, I went his way, and made good time, until it all slowed to a crawl approaching Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv is a marvellous city – at least when you’re not sitting in traffic. Its magic is lost on first-time American visitors, who will say it’s like Miami, or Manhattan, though they tend to mean it’s a lesser version. In reality it is only superficially like either one. Its charms aren’t obvious. It’s grungy. No building owner knows what a power washer is. There are too many street cats. The hotels on the waterfront are atrocious. There’s a fondness for gauche, loud restaurants whose food and service can’t possibly justify the outlandish prices that Israelis can only afford if they have some business in America. But there’s a certain human spirit that all the dark and godly spirituality of Jerusalem can’t touch. “I lived in San Francisco for two years,” a Tel Avivit told me. “But it was too boring.”

Now, it was Purim. There is no day of the year that quite illustrates the difference between Israeli and American Jews. In most of America, meaning among the 90% who are not Orthodox, Purim is a children’s holiday, if your children are still doing time in the American-Jewish penal system known as Hebrew school. After that it isn’t observed much. In Israel, people take the commandment to be silly, happy and drunk on Purim with great seriousness.

“You must drink!” my brother-in-law’s girlfriend ordered me. “It’s a mitzvah!” She was a datlashit, a woman who left her strict religious upbringing, chain-smoked and went shopping on Shabbat, but still held fast to this.

Streets were closed off for parties. People weaved in crowds in front of cars on main thoroughfares. I saw a parking spot on Ben-Gurion Street and took it, and caught a public mini-bus on Ben Yehuda.

There’s a certain irony that Purim is such a hit in Israel. In some respects, it’s the ultimate triumph of Jews in the Diaspora. The Jews in Persia thrive until an evil demagogue emerges determined to exterminate them. The story features intermarriage and cross-mingling, even in the royal court, and thank God, too, because that’s how the plot is foiled, and the denouement, which almost all Jews ignore, has king giving the would-be victims, the Jews, free reign to take things into their own hands, and the Persians who threatened them get, as it were, nuked themselves – 75,000 of them. 

One thing almost all Jews, Israeli or Diaspora, share in common is that we don’t tend to dwell on the last part. It’s not the point of the story and we’re not sure how it squares with our self-image. Anyway, all’s well that ends well, and well, don’t be a buzz kill — pass the whisky! I suspect most American Jews don’t observe just out of inertia, not ideology, and because half the time it inconveniently falls in the middle of the work week, and who can afford another break; and that Israeli Jews do observe, not from ideology but for the costumes and the booze, and because half the time it falls very conveniently in the middle of the work week, who doesn’t like a hafsaka?

I was meeting some Israeli friends at a pub called Shishko by the Great Synagogue. It had drawn a crowd of hundreds. The pub, I mean, not the synagogue. Men were dressed as women, women as cartoon characters. One guy stumbling around, or maybe he was trying to dance, was Pope Francis. I looked for one of my friend’s distinctive shaven dome but couldn’t find him. It was covered by a pirate’s cap.  

I saw Lior, the magazine editor. He was scruffy. This is the style now, three- to five-day growths, like Yasir Arafat. Of course it’s not in homage to that Great Friend of the Jews, nor is it just here. It’s a global look, and everyone in the world who hasn’t made an actual religious issue of facial hair looks like everyone else. In America it’s mostly people of a certain age, under-35, and people who fool themselves into thinking they look younger than they do, or insist they always had this look, all the way back to Miami Vice in the 1980s. In Israel scruffy has grown like weeds all the way to age 55 or so. “Gillette is suffering,” Lior said, like a financial advisor warning me off buying shares. I’m not entirely sure why, because the other Israeli look is the clean cranium, and I’d think, even with all the permanently defoliated skulls that are no longer in need of a razor’s edge, the surface of the total head has to be bigger than a beard.

We had some beers. Shishko’s proprietor poured shots of whisky into plastic thimbles that the servers distributed on trays.

“What a fucking Jew!” Lior shouted at me over the band. “A real fucking Jew!” This would be mortifying in America, but here it was affectionate, the way some black people greet others with a word no one isn't black should ever say.

There’s a certain ease, even as a stranger, surrounded by so many fucking Jews, even though so many of them look to me like they’re from rural Indiana or some point on the Spice Route. In America, I’m a Jew. A lot of well-meaning Americans avoid using the word “Jew.” There’s a widely held notion that “Jew” is anti-Semitic and it’s correct only to say a person “is Jewish,” or in the awkward formulation of my Irish Catholic friend, Pat, “of the Jewish faith.” They’re being polite.

When the topic of Israel comes up, at least if it’s not in connection with Netanyahu or the Palestinians, it’s not because they know I have a personal connection. It’s more that they seem to think that as a Jew that’s my real country. It’s not exactly anti-Semitism. There’s no ill feeling in it. It’s an assumption, and the same one Israelis themselves often make, that somehow there’s something artificial or unfulfilled about a Jew in the galut, the Exile, meaning not in the Land of Israel. The same galut, mind you, that so many Israeli Jews are eager to thrive in.

In Israel, my otherness flips around. The sameness is both greater than and less than the difference. Or maybe it isn’t.

“In Romania, I was a dirty Jew,” the line goes, “and when I came to Israel I became a Romanian thief.”

Unless an American Jew isn’t wearing something to show he’s obviously religious, the typical Israeli, even the most secular one, assumes he is completely ignorant about Judaism. At Shishko someone asked if I was Jewish and when I said yes, he asked if I knew what a bar mitzvah is. Regrettably, I just said yes. I should have said no and kept querying him, and at the end said, “Wait, you mean you do this to children? I thought we were talking about cats!”

The conversation only bothered me when I thought about it later. I am not sure if we Jews, so bound up with one another and yet so different, arranged in a kind of hierarchy, are brothers, or just cousins moving ineluctably toward a point of mutual non-familiarity.  

It’s complicated, but how could be otherwise?