The life in Israel exchange
Herb Keinon is a veteran reporter for The Jerusalem Post. He has been at the paper since 1985, and has covered the diplomatic beat since 2000. Keinon has a BA in political science from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and an MA in Journalism from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. Originally from Denver, Keinon moved to Israel in 1981, is married with four children, and lives in Ma’ale Adumim.
The following exchange will focus on Keinon’s new book, French Fries in Pita: A Collection of Herb Keinon’s Columns on Life in Israel.
I must admit that this exchange is a tricky one to kick-off.
Unlike most of the books we normally discuss here, this one describes the life of its author. While our exchanges are normally dedicated to historical figures (like Sholem Aleichem or Rav Kook) or to big issues (like ‘intermarriage’ or ‘religion in Israel’), this one is basically about, well, you. So asking you to present your thesis or to tell us a bit about the hero of the book is not really an option…
But a few pages into your collection of very vividly written and enjoyable essays, a pretty clear theme does emerge – this is a book about the nuanced subtleties of being an American immigrant in Israel, about a foreigner learning the ways of a very unique (and sometimes quite crazy) land.
My question: was there a distinct agenda or general approach to Aliyah which guided you in editing this book? Is there ‘something you would like your readers to learn’ from all these amusing observations? (In other words, please present your thesis…)
Yes, Shmuel, there is an underlying theme to the columns that make up this book, and that is simply to keep it real, have realistic expectations, see Israel for what it is, and not what you imagined it would be, or wish it could be.
I’ve lived in Israel now for some 33 years, and truly believe that the secret to a “successful” aliya, the secret to staying here and actually enjoying it, is to accept the country as it is. Don’t have unrealistic expectations about the people or the place. Don’t think the country owes you anything for coming here. Don’t look at Israelis as caricatures who are only rude, loud and pushy.
For hundreds of years Jews placed Israel on a pedestal, created a construct in their mind of a perfect place that could in no way meet those expectations. As a result, when people move here and face the dirty, crowded, noisy reality, they are often disappointed. This is not the Israel of their dreams and imaginations.
And no it is not. It is a flesh and blood place with flesh and blood people full of quirks, but also full of charms. These columns are an attempt to describe both. This is not a Zionist polemic, but a collection of personal stories aiming to describe the small, real moments of life here; the small, real moments that make living here both appealing and meaningful.
It is also a book that looks at everyday life in Israel from the perspective of an immigrant. And I am an immigrant, and still feel like an immigrant, even though I’ve been here for most of my life.
As I wrote in the book’s introduction, being an immigrant is a designation – and a feeling – that lasts forever. There are some who come to Israel and try to become absorbed completely, become Israeli overnight. Others come and live in an immigrant cocoon.
I believe in the middle path – come, try to integrate as much as possible, but, again, always have realistic expectations. I come from America, with American sensitivities, an American accent, an American-born wife, American habits and tastes.
I am not going to “go native” overnight, or even over 30 years. I represent the generation of the wilderness. But my kids, well they are a different story – they are Israeli, through and through. And that overlap is the story this book tries to tell.
In the last round you mentioned how you still feel like an immigrant, even after more than 30 years in Israel. You stated that while “there are some who come to Israel and try to become absorbed completely” and “others come and live in an immigrant cocoon”, you “believe in the middle path”.
Now, immigrant cocoons – like the Russian one and the Ethiopian one – are clearly a very noticeable feature of Israeli society, and so is the country’s multitude of non-immigrant cocoons (the Arab and Haredi cocoons come to mind).
The group you come from – the Anglos – is a curious one in that regard. According to the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI), there are around 200,000 North Americans living in Israel. But while one does notice them it seems that if there is an Anglo immigrant cocoon in Israel it must be a relatively quiet one.
Is there an Anglo cocoon in Israel? To what extent do you see the large number of Anglo-Israeli olim as an actual community? If it is an actual community, what kind of impact has it had on life in Israel?
Yes, there is an Anglo cocoon in Israel, if one wants to live in it. There are neighborhoods in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Ra’anana, Efrat, Ma’ale Adumim, Hashmonaim and elsewhere where there is a high concentration of English-speakers living in close proximity. These are neighborhoods where you will find American products like root beer, Heinz ketchup and Ortega taco shells in the local grocery stores, and where some synagogues will feature regular Torah-classes in English. These are neighborhoods where Anglo immigrants can go to and find a very supportive environment of like-minded, and like-speaking, people.
And there is the rub. It is possible to land in these kinds of communities and never have to integrate into Israeli society, simply because there is no pressing need. You can get by in English, go to the doctor in English, spend money at the makolet (grocery store) in English, and socialize only with other English speakers.
In other words, you can live in Israel, without feeling a part of Israeli society – if you want to. If in the New York area there are neighborhoods where you can walk around and feel as if you are in Jerusalem, there are neighborhoods in Israel where you can walk around and feel as if you are in New York. Neither is natural.
I do not think that at the national level there is a well-defined North American immigrant community to speak of, since this community is so heterogeneous: Right, Left, haredi, religious Zionist, secular. At the local level, however, there are distinct Anglo communities. Go to any of the locales I listed above and you will find people talking about the Americaim (Americans) in their midst, just as they talk about the Russim (Russians) or Etiopim (Ethiopians). People are often defined by how others define them, and if you live here with a heavy American accent and distinct American ways and mannerisms, you will be pegged as one of the Americaim.
The impact of North Americans on Israeli society is also difficult to define, though it is there. While immigrants from the former Soviet Union, for instance, were instrumental in the Israeli high-tech revolution in the 1990s, it is difficult to point to one sphere and say, ‘Aaha, that is because of the American immigrants’.”
Which doesn’t mean they have not had an influence: they have. The North American immigrant influence has been felt everywhere from heightened consumerism, to a growing sense of environmentalism, to the campaign to end smoking in public spaces. But not all the efforts identified with American immigrants have succeeded: such as electoral reform, a five-day work week, or minor league baseball.
Interestingly, one area where immigrants from North America have been very under-represented is in the Knesset. Currently there is one American-born immigrant, Dov Lipman, and he is the first American born Knesset member in some 30 years. To understand just how little impact American-born olim have had in the Knesset, consider the following statistic: of 885 Knesset members in the state’s history, only four have been born in the USA.
Shmuel, you wrote that AACI put the number of North Americans living in Israel at some 200,000, which would meant about 2.5% of the entire population. In America, Jews make up roughly some 2% of the population. Although the percentages are similar, the impact of Jews on American society seems far greater than the impact of North American immigrants on Israeli society. The reasons for that go far beyond the scope of our dialogue, and would actually make for a fascinating doctoral thesis.
A recurring theme in your book is the things you and your family had to give up for your aliyah. There are several moments in which you realize that your children will not share many of the formative experiences you had growing up.
Curiously, at some point you humorously describe your conscious decision to show your kids the least appealing sides of America, out of the fear that they will want to move there:
Some folks let their kids watch sitcoms that show the sunny side of the US; we force our kids to watch the Thursday night movies on Jordan Television that focus on every possible ill burdening America… America we want our kids to see – the America they won’t want to move to.
Now, it seems that one of the main reasons for American Jews to immigrate to Israel is to ensure that their children lead more Jewish lives. But you could argue that one could enjoy a no less fulfilling Jewish communal experience in the US. As someone who wants his children to lead Jewish lives, do you think that moving to Israel really helps, or is the challenge a similar one anywhere you go?
I humbly submit that I made aliya at the best possible time in one’s life, right after college. I had no job, no money, no possessions. I was standing at the starting gates of “real life,” and did not have to give up much materially, simply because I did not have much materially.
What I discuss in the book is not having had to sacrifice possessions or a great career to make aliya – which some people do if they immigrate later in life – but rather giving up the non-tangibles, the things you grew up with: the family, the food, the sports, the customs, the things that are familiar.
And I don’t write about giving up little league baseball or Taco shells or Thanksgiving dinners as if these things were tremendous sacrifices, rather only to illustrate that the things that made up the landscape of my youth, will not make up the terrain of my kid’s formative years. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it just is, something that I try to illustrate.
I learned about Native Americans and Henry Hudson in my junior high school, my kids learned about the Rambam and Operation Nachshon. I don’t bewail the fact that they don’t know as much about Geronimo as I do, I just point it out because not having similar experiences to those of your children – and being nostalgic about the ones you did have – is definitely part of the immigrant fabric.
Regarding showing my kids the least attractive parts of America, that was obviously written tongue-in-cheek, my point being that if indeed we as immigrants want our kids to enjoy living here, it’s counterproductive to say – as many immigrants have a tendency to do at least in the early, difficult days of their aliya – how great everything was in America. Cleaner, bigger, more efficient, more polite, cheaper, more entertaining.
If parents say to their kids, “Well in America we could buy that for half price,” or “in America that would never happen,” or “things work in America,” then at a certain point the kids will say, “Hmm, if that’s true, what the heck are we doing here.” In our first exchange I said that a key to successful aliya is not to have unrealistic expectations about Israel. Another key is not to over idealize the Old Country.
And, as you rightly point out, one can live a very fulfilling Jewish life in America. But it is different, fundamentally different.
One of the reasons I moved here was, indeed, to raise Jewish kids here. To raise them where being Jewish is normal, natural. Where they can walk outside with a kippa without having to think about it, or go to schools where they don’t have to plead with the teacher to let them take off for Simhat Torah, or go to lunch with friends and order a hamburger just like them, not a fruit plate. I wanted them to be in a place where the rhythm of their life is set by a Jewish calendar, where they speak Hebrew, where they can unapologetically and unabashedly live their lives as Jews.
I see how I grew up as a proud Jew in America, and how my kids have grown up as proud Jews in Israel. And there is a difference – a difference in knowledge, in confidence, in perspective. And it’s a positive difference I have found worth the price of giving up Monday Night Football, Hot Tamales, and even monthly visits to the grandparents.