Creative people in the Jewish world’s two major population centers, Israel and the US, engage with each other and display great interest in the other Jewish geographic and cultural space.
As noted in JPPI’s Annual Assessment last year (2018), many contemporary American Jewish writers are intensively concerned with Israel, and their works reflect a sense of connection and familiarity with the country. Here, mention should be made of the literary “grandfather” of today’s American Jewish writers: Phillip Roth (1933-2018). Roth died last year, and though he did not, as many had expected, win a Nobel Prize, no one would dispute his literary greatness or the profound influence he had on American Jewish culture. Roth depicted the formative experience of his generation – second-generation Americans brought up with a sense of Jewish chosenness, but also with the desire to integrate, even assimilate, in American society, even at the price of their Jewish identity. He translated this ambivalence into a condemnation of the conservative Jewish establishment’s hypocrisy. Roth also wrote about Israel, thereby paving the way for today’s American Jewish writers, who have made Israel a major focus of their work. The current wave of writing about Israel reflects an intimacy that never existed before in American Jewish letters. And Israeli authors, for their part, are making use of American spaces as they explore issues of Israeliness and Jewishness.
The series Autonomies (2018), created by Yonatan Indursky and Ori Elon of Shtisel fame, was televised in Israel this past year. Autonomies depicts an alternate reality in which, following a bloody civil war, Jerusalem is separated from the rest of Israel as an autonomous Haredi entity. The series opens with a shocking discovery: the granddaughter of Jerusalem’s rabbi and leader was switched at birth with an infant born to secular parents who has grown up non-religious in Tel Aviv. The discovery leads to the girl’s abduction and to outbreaks of violence between the two Jewish national entities.
It is easy to draw parallels between Autonomies and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a 2007 novel by American-Jewish author Michael Chabon. Although Autonomies does not take place on American soil, the similarities are notable and engender a cross-continental Jewish cultural dialogue. In many respects The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Autonomies are complementary works. They both engage with burning Jewish issues such as the nature of Jewish nationalism, and Jewish religious extremism, in Israel and outside it.
As noted, in an earlier article5 JPPI looked at American-Jewish writing about Israel and Israel’s positioning as a central geographic space in novels by American-Jewish authors, such as Nicole Krauss, Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran-Foer, and others. There is a flip side to the coin: Israeli writing about the United States. Several Israeli novels with an American focus (set primarily in New York) have been published in recent years. These include: Isra Isle (Isralsland) (2005) by Nava Semel; Matan Hermoni’s Hebrew Publishing Company (2011); At a Distance (2018) by Vered Kellner; The Ruined House (2013) by Ruby Namdar; and All the Rivers (2014) by Dorit Rabinyan.
All the Rivers depicts an impossible love affair between Liat, an Israeli Jew, and Hilmi, a Palestinian Arab. Love blossoms and flourishes in New York City, and only there can the Israeli protagonist maintain her Jewish and Israeli identity while also accommodating a love that would be inconceivable in Israel. A different kind of tension characterizes The Ruined House 6: a tension between American-Jewish New York and Israel – both today’s Israel and the ancient kingdom. Despite the differing plot lines, both novels treat New York as a space that is both Jewish and an alternative to Israel. Within this alternative Jewish space, Jewishness and Israeliness are re-examined.
A different perspective on the American-Jewish and Israeli relationship is offered by the series A Very Important Man (Shirly Moshaioff, 2018). This Israeli drama is based on the life of Yehuda Levi as a young and very successful Israeli actor. During the second season of the series, Levi leaves Israel to try his luck in Hollywood and seek international stardom. A Very Important Man looks at the cultural differences between the two societies – Israeli improvisation versus American rigidity. When Levi encounters Elli, an Israeli expat who has become more American than the Americans, the cultural differences are transposed onto their relationship. Thus, the series also touches on a major issue in the relationship between American Jews and Israel. The encounter between individuals and communities from both sides of the Atlantic is also an encounter between two exceedingly different cultural worlds, which cannot always be effectively bridged by Jewish identity.