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Another divide: American versus Israeli Jewish culture

STANFORD --In the vast sweep of Jewish history, American Jews are "nothing exceptional," Israel Bartal, professor of Jewish history at Hebrew University in Israel, told his American audience. They are but yet another example of the "response to modernity by Jews exposed to European values and culture."

Nevertheless, Bartal and Steven Zipperstein, another professor of Jewish history who teaches at Stanford, contrasted their personal and national histories in two sessions of a conference on American Jewish culture held at Stanford May 14 and 15.

The only non-North American speaker at the conference, Bartal was asked to play the role of the "significant other" or "the other option" for Jewish culture as it approaches the millennium. He is currently on sabbatical at the University of Pennsylvania. Zipperstein, who directs the Jewish Studies Program at Stanford, gave a lecture on American Jewish literature that traced both the desire and discomfort with becoming homogenized Americans.

Like many American Jews, Bartal pointed out, he is from Eastern Europe and a citizen of a country composed of immigrants. "Even second- and third-generation Israelis like myself feel themselves as immigrants," he said.

Both American and Israeli Jews have invented new uses of historical texts, he said. "They have reshaped their traditions and managed to survive, at least to this point, the 20th century." For instance, Hanukkah has little to do with traditional Hanukkah in either country, he said. "We are dealing with some modern form described as continuity with the past."

Zipperstein, a third-generation American who came of age in the Cold War, belongs to a family that tried to break with the past. When asked by children and grandchildren about their native shtetl, his older relatives said Lohishn, their original village, was not in Russia but in Poland. They also said it had been obliterated shortly after his grandfather's exit in 1919 or 1920.

"Imagine my surprise," he wrote in a paper for the conference, "when later I glanced at a road map of Belarus and noticed Lohishn, just off a main strip of highway, a small place with little to distinguish it, according to a guidebook I soon consulted, but far from annihilated."

Zipperstein's Jewish American neighbors and family also banned a certain hometown woman from their circle after she took one of them to a picnic in Chicago's Griffith Park that turned out to be a Communist Party rally. In the Cold War era, Zipperstein said his relatives greeted his decision to study Russian in the '70s with "off-balanced remarks about Lee Harvey Oswald's penchant for Russian."

Bartal, on the other hand, grew up studying Russian and European culture in Israeli schools. He learned English with a British accent and said it "shall forever remain a second language." America was a foreign place, generally not studied at all in school and known only superficially through an occasional movie such as I Like Mike, about an American tourist who falls in love with an Israeli girl.

"Like most of my generation, America meant some members of the family, like my father's cousin who used to send us food in the '50s," he said.

In America, Zipperstein said, Jewish writers in the first half of the century painted pictures of Eastern Europe and Russia as lands of brutality and pogroms from which they escaped. Jews, he said, were even less likely to feel they had a homeland to return to in the Slavic world than Poles and other immigrant groups from the region.

Since the mid-1940s, however, in everything from restaurants to novels, Zipperstein said, Jewish America has taken a turn to "nostalgia - the use of Eastern Europe as a source pedigree, a self-reflexive yardstick for the successes and failures of contemporary American Jewish life as seen against the backdrop of the old world fixed in time, in a rarefied, obliterated place."

Using fiction as a window on perceptions of American Jews, Zipperstein said Fiddler on the Roof stands out for its enormous popularity in the 1950s. The play and movie took an earlier novel about an immigrant Jewish patriarch and changed him into the father of all, a "vague reminder of tradition," Zipperstein said, a man who shows himself as lovable and flexible, a man who in the words of the play's author, Richard Altman, "needs to change with the times."

Zipperstein said that the postwar suburbs were the first American places of residence where Jews were compelled to give much thought to the building of communal life.

"Earlier, in so-called areas of second settlement, Jews typically lived in urban neighborhoods that they dominated demographically as well as culturally," he said. In the suburbs, Eastern European Jewish life was "resurrected in some circles as a counterweight to America."

Other influences for nostalgia toward Eastern Europe, he said, probably included "the Holocaust, a heightened distance from Eastern Europe which rendered it less intrusive and, at the same time, more conducive to sentimentalization, the appearance of identity as a category on the American cultural scene, which shifted Jewish self-understanding considerably, redefining Jews as a group."

Despite the similarities Bartal sees between Israeli and American Jewish culture, Bartal also pointed to deep reasons for the different paths in their development.

Jewish traditions have been reshaped "spontaneously" by Jews in America, he said, whereas they have been reshaped in Palestine, since the early 1900s, with the political aim of creating a nation-state. That involved "uprooting God from Judaism" from the 1920s to the 1950s, and has meant attempts to relocate some "local or ethnic" Jewish cultures to the margins of mainstream Israeli culture. The American aim, on the other hand, was "to compromise within another culture."

American Jews are less knowledgeable of Jewish history and religion as a result, he said. They could perhaps benefit from a transfer of Jewishness from Israel.

Israel suffers from "excess Jewishness," he said, which makes it difficult for the majority of Israeli society to accept some of the values of Western democracy such as human and civil rights.

"There is a built-in contradiction between a Jewish and democratic state," he said. "We have to cope with it and come to grips with it."

The questions repeatedly asked of both cultures, he said, is whether they can survive ­ Can American Jewish culture survive what is for Jews abnormal freedom, and can Israeli culture survive what is abnormal statehood? The answer, he said he believes, is that American Jewish culture will survive because of freedom and Israeli Jewish culture will survive because of statehood.



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