Accompanying a brief Partnership 2000 mission of Israelis to our partner community in the northeast, what do I notice about America?
Green. From the first sighting of land as we descend, to the cab ride from the airport, to urban parks, suburban lawns, rural roadsides, the overwhelming feeling is of lush foliage everywhere, of an environment dominated by photosynthetic hyperactivity. I've never been to the rain forest, but coming from Israel, North America is it.
Big. Everything is on a grand scale. Huge trucks. SUVs. Endless expanses of asphalt parking lots. Gigantic supermarkets. Airports. Highway interchanges. Pears. Bananas. Cold drinks. Malls. Lawns. Tract homes. I feel like a Lilliputian in Brobdingnag.
Plenty. So many choices. So many discount shoe stores. So many long-distance phone companies. So many breakfast cereals. And then there is the pet food aisle, where American capitalism almost seems to be parodying itself.
Trivial. An overwhelming flood of radio stations, magazines, TV channels, celebrities, fads - empty of content - yet about which so many people seem to care so very much.
Civilized. Leaving aside the undercurrents of racism, violence, and the huge gap between ostentatious wealth and deadening poverty, everyone is so nice. Complain that the meat was tough and get double your money back at the supermarket. The single file line at the bus stop makes us Israelis stop and stare in disbelief. The customer is always right (except, maybe, at the bank). Have a nice day!
Commitment: yes, we know there is never enough money, and that the challenges of assimilation and mixed marriage are daunting; but look at the multimillion dollar synagogues; the JCCs that operate cradle-to-grave 24-7; the plethora of acronyms, each representing an organization that gathers a particular cross section of the community; the rich variety of forms of Jewish religious expression, coexisting in harmony (albeit an uneasy one); and all this the product of voluntary contributions and volunteer manpower, all this despite all the competing pressures and temptations of American life.
Uneasiness: Why, I am continually challenged, can't Israel do a better job of public relations? - as though the problem is one of spin, and the real enemy is CNN - if they would just tell the truth, everything would be all right. And then I find myself skimming the New York Times, hoping, together with my North American Jewish hosts, that Israel wont be mentioned today, praying for another Chinese provocation or Bush gaffe to occupy CNN. Whatever the complex reality of Israel and its policies and behaviors, its image as an innocent David under attack by benighted Goliaths seems to me to be crucial to the self-image of North American Jews and to their concerns about their own image in American society. And I wonder: perhaps the turning inward, the emphasis on renewal, spirituality, and healing, so evident in the North American Jewish community, are a reaction to the fading of the myth of Perfect Israel; perhaps the pendulum is swinging from ethnic/nationalistic/secular to personal/religious Jewish identification.
Endless possibility: there is nothing you cannot be; no combination is off limits. Yuppie orthodox, spiritual reform, hippy conservative, high church reform, BJ neo-hassidic, humanist, Habad, gay - and these can be combined with any life style or location or political outlook, yielding a true identity marketplace, a dazzling kaleidoscope of individualized choices.
I guess it seems easy to be Jew in America - and hard to be a Jew in America. Just like here.