Combating an Israeli-American identity crisis


A year after Irit Bar-Netzer arrived in Los Angeles from Israel, she had her first son. That was 37 years ago, and that’s when the dilemma began.

“I wondered back then: How am I going to raise my children? As Israelis? Americans? Who is going to help us raise our kids? We didn’t have Grandma and Grandpa around. What’s going to happen to their identity?” 

It was by no means a new dilemma, however — in some ways, not even to her. As a daughter of Holocaust survivors, Bar-Netzer remembered how she felt growing up in Israel as a child of immigrant parents who didn’t speak Hebrew very well. 

“The children used to laugh at us because we spoke Hungarian and not Hebrew,” she said. Still, she ended up speaking Hebrew to her first son in America because, she said, “It was easier and natural for us.”

Bar-Netzer, a psychologist who has worked with children for years, related this story during an Oct. 11 seminar at Temple Judea in Tarzana that was sponsored by Ma Koreh, a project of Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) that is spending the next year providing lectures to Israeli parents. Conducted in Hebrew, the intimate gathering — the first in a series — was attended by 16 parents of young children and featured Bar-Netzer and child psychologist Ernest Katz. 

BJE Associate Director Phil Liff-Grieff said, “We want Israeli-American families to connect better through the organized Jewish community. We want them to understand that it is a tool in their toolbox for raising their kids here.”

The program is funded by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles and is done in cooperation with the Israeli-American Council and Sifriyat Pijama B’America, which provides books written in Hebrew to young children. 

Although many of the parents at the recent event said they insist on speaking Hebrew to their children, they wondered if that’s enough to keep their kids “Israeli” and how important it is to send their kids to private schools in order to maintain their Jewish-Israeli identities. And while many agreed that not all aspects of Israeli characteristics are welcomed, they do want their kids to maintain some of the values and traditions they were raised on. (The famous Israeli chutzpah was not one of them, according to participants.) 

One father of a 4-year-old described the problem like this: “When my daughter asks me, ‘Am I an Israeli?’ I am confused. I don’t know what to answer her. I do want her to take the good things from both cultures: the Israeli and the American — because there are good things and bad things in each culture — but how do I do that?”

His wife, who was born in Israel and moved to the United States with her parents when she was 8, said she experienced the issue herself as a child. 

“Throughout my childhood, my parents spoke to me in English and I know they meant well, but today I know it was wrong. I never knew what I was. Israeli? American? Americans always thought that I’m an Israeli and Israelis thought I’m an American, so I was confused about my identity, and I don’t want my kids to go through that as well.”

Not that simply speaking a certain language solves the problem.

One mother of three said she insists on speaking with her children in Hebrew, even though they often answer in English. “I struggle with it every day,” she said. “Each time I speak to my son in Hebrew, he says, ‘I was born here. I’m an American. It won’t help you.’ It’s a constant conflict. How do you deal with that?”

Bar-Netzer said she believes part of the parents’ challenge is not only their children’s identities, but also their own.

“The conflict is huge, and you need to think what is right for your child,” she said. “You have decided to come here and raise him here; now you have to decide what’s important for you and what will be best for him. The fact that you had come here ready to listen and discuss it means that the subject is important to you and your children will benefit from that. When I came here, 38 years ago, there was no such discussion on how to raise Israeli children.”

While Bar-Netzer and Katz didn’t offer answers to the many issues the parents raised during the 1 1/2-hour meeting, they suggested that parents make a list of what is important for them and what’s important for their kids. 

“Learn to listen to your children and see what they need. You should send your children a clear message. That is the most important thing. You don’t want to confuse them by questioning their own identity,” Bar-Netzer said. “As long as it’s good and right to you as parents, it will be good for your children as well.”


UPDATE [10/19/15]: This article has been changed from its original form to protect the names of parents at the event.

Book Review: Tools to fight terror: big dreams, good friends


“Prisoners: A Muslim & a Jew Across the Middle East Divide,” by Jeff Goldberg (Knopf, $25).

The full title of Jeffrey Goldberg’s new book, “Prisoners: A Muslim & a Jew Across the Middle East Divide,” immediately conjures up notions of a Pinteresque power struggle between two people. Yet “Prisoners” is far from the tale of sadomasochism and role reversal of Pinter plays like “The Night Porter” or screenplays like “The Servant.” Goldberg was a military policeman at Ketziot, an Israeli prison, where he and Rafiq, one of the inmates, developed a friendship that never truly revolved around power dynamics. Their relationship began because Goldberg recognized a “stillness” and a shared sense of irony in Rafiq.

Despite the tragedy of the Middle East and the moral dilemmas facing Goldberg as an Israeli soldier at a prison, Goldberg lightens the memoir with that irony and, at times, belly-chortling humor. For instance, in the wake of the massacre of two Israeli reservists, Goldberg describes being held captive by a terrorist cell in Gaza, where he defends his usage of the word “lynching” by saying to his captors, “Well, that was Ramallah…. What do you expect?”

He then writes, “Jokes at the expense of the West Bank usually go over well in Gaza. Not this one, however.”

Goldberg, who will appear in a public conversation with author and essayist Jack Miles on Oct. 18 at the Skirball Cultural Center, finds that, unlike American Jews, Israelis seem to lack a sense of humor.

That is not his only criticism of both Israelis and Palestinians.

After a bus explosion that killed three Jewish children, he says to a follower of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’ founder, that the Sheik’s “preternaturally calm” statement that Israel “was created in defiance of God’s will” is “pathetic.” He also admits to being disillusioned by the kibbutzniks at Mishmar Ha Emek (where I must disclose I met the author many years ago), when they tell him not to clean three feet of coagulated hatchling droppings and blood in the chicken coop. They are saving that job for Arabs.

Goldberg has spent the past 15 years writing primarily about terrorists, yet in an interview from his home in Washington, D.C., where he is a correspondent for The New Yorker, Goldberg dismissed the notion that his work is so dangerous:

“The murder of Danny Pearl is the tragic, horrible exception, not the rule. All terrorists believe they’re doing something good and useful. Most of these groups are happy to explain themselves to people.”

In spite of his obvious courage, Goldberg writes in the book, “I am not brave, in the fuller meaning of the word.”

He says that, as a military policeman, “I should have done more to try to change things I didn’t like,” instead of being a “get-along, go-along kind of guy.”

Yet, more than once, he defied his fellow soldiers, as well as his commanding officer, whom he remembers as one of the dumbest Jews he ever met, by allowing the prisoners to shower in the kitchen and by restraining a guard from beating a helpless inmate.

Goldberg recently won the Anti-Defamation League’s Daniel Pearl Award and goes so far as to suggest that being Jewish has benefited him in his dealings with terrorists.

“I’ve always found it to my advantage. I use my Jewishness as a tool.”

He adds, “There’s an attraction-repulsion quality to these encounters.

Anti-Semites spend most of their time thinking about Jews; they spend more time thinking about Jews than Jews do.”

Goldberg’s interest in Zionism may have been sparked as a boy in the Long Island town of Malverne, where he was subjected to games of “Jew Penny.” Catholic boys, primarily Irish ones, would throw pennies at him and force him to pick them up.

If he didn’t stoop to retrieve the coins, they would throw nickels and dimes at him. Either way, he would be beaten. Goldberg felt that fighting wasn’t in his wiring, and he never actually defended himself until an African American friend told him to hit one Irish boy back. Even though his tormentor left him alone afterward, the wounds remained.

In “Prisoners,” he characterizes his upbringing this way: “I didn’t like the dog’s life of the Diaspora. We were a whipped and boneless people.”

By the end of the book, though, Goldberg, who immigrated to Israel in the late 1980s, has returned to America, a country he praises.

“If America had not taken in my ancestors three generations ago, we wouldn’t exist,” he says, pointing out, “Nothing makes you more patriotic as an American than spending three weeks in Pakistan. America with all its flaws is still a wonderful idea.”

Likewise, he found that though Israel may not be a utopia, its prisons, which he says “were not nice places, especially in the first uprising,” are far more humane than those in the rest of the world. At a time when prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have been tortured and denied habeas corpus, Goldberg argues that the prisons in the West Bank and Gaza “became worse for Palestinians when Palestinians were running them than when the Israelis were running them.”

He states without hesitation that the “baroque cruelty” and “sexually charged sadism” of Abu Ghraib did not and could not happen in Israeli prisons.

While Goldberg works on a book on Judah Maccabee for Schocken and Nextbook’s “Jewish Encounters” series, he remains hopeful about the Middle East. He bookends “Prisoners” with references to the story of Isaac and Ishmael, both sons of Abraham, who join hands in burying their father. As Goldberg writes, “This might be the single-most hopeful image in all the Bible, a palliative against the despair that has seeped into all of us.”

Jeffrey Goldberg will appear in a conversation with Jack Miles at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, on Wed., Oct. 18, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, call (866) 468-3399.

Finding Deeper Truths in Fiction — the Best About Israel


In recent weeks, many of us “Diaspora Jews” kept ourselves neck-deep in news from the Middle East: jumping out of bed to check the front page, keeping the television on all night, refreshing Web sites for the latest headlines. Of course, our routine paled in comparison to many Israelis, who were dashing into bomb shelters, being forced from their homes, arranging funerals. Still, it was a change, part of our anxiety-propelled, bottomless need for information.

But information does not necessarily breed understanding. This is especially true for us who are here and not there, and the distance is a complicating factor. Even those who have planted themselves firmly on one side or another of the political spectrum have been struck by new, different, often uncomfortable thoughts. (“How can I accept the killing of innocent Lebanese civilians, even by Israel?” one asks, while another wonders whether he should up the ante of his support by joining the Israeli army.) Behind these questions is the desire to get a better hold on the exact contours of one’s individual relationship to the State of Israel — not necessarily by figuring out one’s politics as much as by plumbing one’s emotional connection.

The answers to these questions cannot be found on CNN (thankfully). For this, we might be more successfully aided by fiction. One should read Israeli writers, of course — Agnon, Amichai, A.B. Yehoshua, Aharon Appelfeld, Orly Castel-Bloom, Etgar Keret. But the more appropriate template may come from fellow Americans, writers who, by exploring the Diaspora Jew’s relationship to Israel, have gone down this road before.

One of the best of these books is “The Counterlife,” Philip Roth’s 1986 masterpiece. Less a linear tale than five riffs revolving around the same set of characters, the book acts as a kind of narrative kaleidoscope on Jewish identity; with each slight shift of perspective, a whole new picture emerges (think “Sliding Doors,” but smarter). The structure is designed to put the author’s famed alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, face to face with characters who challenge his identity as a Jew — vis-?-vis signature Roth topics (sex, family, psychoanalysis, sex, assimilation, sex) as well as broader ones: the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and, most evocatively here, Israel. Nathan’s good, moderate, American values are challenged — from his resistance to religious ritual and distaste for the political right (“We do not wish to crush the Arab,” a settler leader explains, “we simply will not allow him to crush us”), to his subtle romanticization of Israeli life.

“Whenever I meet you American-Jewish intellectuals,” says his friend Shuki, a wearied Israeli journalist, “with your non-Jewish wives and your good Jewish brains, well-bred, smooth, soft-spoken men, educated men who know how to order in a good restaurant, and to appreciate a good wine, and to listen courteously to another point of view, I think exactly that: We are the excitable, ghettoized, jittery little Jews of the Diaspora, and you are the Jews with all the confidence and cultivation that comes of feeling at home where you are.”
The book is not exclusively about Israel, but those were the sections that moved me. And they are what I’ve found myself rereading over the past weeks.

“The Counterlife” is only one of many, many books about Israel by Americans — from “Yehuda” (1931) by Meyer Levin to “Exodus” (1958) by Leon Uris to “Light Years” (2005) by Tamar Stein (see sidebar). Perhaps it is this kind of reading that can begin to provoke understanding of the conflict a continent away. l

To push fiction as a complement to the newspaper, the television and the Internet in our quest for information and understanding about Israel, we asked readers to help us create a list of the best novels and short stories about Israel written by Diaspora authors:

  • “Yehuda” by Meyer Levin: Based on the author’s own experiences, this book is the first known novel depicting life set on a kibbutz in then-Palestine of 1931 (1931).
  • “Exodus” by Leon Uris: A detailed account of the transition from the ill-treatment of Jews in Europe to the founding of Israel sets up a fictional background for political arguments on issues of the 19th and 20th centuries (1958).
  • “A Weave of Women” by E.M. Broner: A group of very different women band together to save a shelter for wayward Jewish girls (and learn a lesson or two in politics, when they change its official name to “Home for Jewish Future Homemakers”). “Life’s contradictions live throughout this novel,” wrote one reviewer (1978).
  • “Preparing for Sabbath” by Nessa Rapoport: A young woman’s spiritual quest, set in Jerusalem (1981).
  • “The Hope” by Herman Wouk: An epic novel about Israel’s fight for statehood. The author delves into the personal lives of the dramatis personae, including Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and Anwar Sadat (1993).
  • “Operation Shylock: A Confession” by Philip Roth: An impostor, calling himself “Philip Roth,” causes a furor in Israel by advocating “Diasporism,” the polar opposite of Zionism, encouraging Israelis to return to Eastern Europe (1993).
  • “The Jewish War” by Tova Reich: A radically religious, polygamous man, Jerry Goldberg transforms from a mere social worker in the Bronx to a terrorist leader of a group of American Jews in Israel who secede a portion of the West Bank to form their own nation in this satire (1995).
  • “From a Sealed Room” by Rachel Kadish: The lives of a young woman from New York, a Holocaust survivor and an Israeli housewife intersect (1998).
  • “Damascus Gate” by Robert Stone: A journalist in Jerusalem, reared both Jewish and Christian, feels devoid of a true sense of identity, despite the fact that he is surrounded by some of the most devoutly religious peoples in the world. “The characters in ‘Damascus Gate’ may be ‘God-struck,'” wrote Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, “they may dream insistently of a better world, but like so many Stone characters, they end up captives of history and their own very human illusions” (1998).
  • “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” by Nathan Englander: “A debut collection of nine stories that explore the condition of being Jewish with an often hallucinatory, epigrammatic eloquence that is, as advertised, reminiscent of the fiction of Isaac Singer, Saul Bellow, and especially Bernard Malamud,” noted Kirkus (1999).
  • “The Family Orchard” by Eve Nomi: Spanning six generations, this epic follows the lives of one family grounded in Jerusalem (2000).
  • “House of Guilt” by Robert Rosenberg: Police detective Avram Cohen goes on a hunt to find a tycoon’s wayward son, with his search leading him right into the heart of the West Bank (2000).
  • “Strange Fire” by Melvin Bukiet: A dark comedy about a speechwriter for the Israeli prime minister (2001).
  • “Crimes of the City” by Robert Rosenberg: Police detective Avram Cohen must track down the killer of two nuns in Jerusalem while contending with a host of religious and political tensions (2001).
  • “The Ascent of Eli Israel” by Jon Papernick: In seven modern-day stories, the scene is established in Israel, and the plots are mostly driven to underscore hypocrisy, touching on cultural tensions and war (2002).
  • “Quiet Street” by Zelda Popkin and Jeremy A. Popkin: A woman living in the suburbs of Jerusalem must come to terms with reality as she watches her 18-year-old daughter take on the role of soldier instead of farmer (2002).
  • “Seven Blessings” by Ruchama King: Set in an Orthodox community in Jerusalem. King has been described by writer Wendy Shalit as “a writer who writes about a devout lifestyle that she actually lives” (2003).
  • “The Dialogues of Time and Entropy” by Aryeh Lev Stollman: “An expert weaver, Stollman brings together themes of religion, science, and love into an emotional whole,” noted Kirkus (2003).
  • “Welcome to Heavenly Heights” by Risa Miller: A cohort of Jews from the United States ventures to the West Bank to build a new community, but their settlement becomes a primary target of violence (2003).
  • “The Butcher’s Theater” by Jonathan Kellerman: A chief inspector of police who is also a Yemenite Jew begins work on a case involving the death of an Arab woman. After a second killing occurs, the inspector bears witness as Jewish-Arab conflicts ensue (2003).
  • “Ten Thousand Lovers” by Edeet Ravel: A novel, set in the 1970s, about the relationship between a Canadian √©migr√© and an army interrogator. “The tragedy here is both anticipated and inevitable,” said Booklist, “but the textured personal story rises above its political context like a melody soaring beyond the steady rhythm pulsing below it” (2003).
  • “An Hour in Paradise” by Joan Leegant: This collection of 10 short stories covers a breadth of characters — from the secular to Orthodox, young to old — through whom Leegant poses questions about faith, love and change (2003).
  • “The Place Will Comfort You” by Naama Goldstein: In this collection of short stories, American Jews make aliyah and Israelis immigrate to America (2004).
  • “Faith for Beginners” by Aaron Hamburger: An American Jewish family teeters on the edge of collapse. In a last resort, they travel to Israel on a package tour with a mission to reinvigorate their spirituality (2005).
  • “The Task of This Translator” by Todd Hasak-Lowy: According to Publisher’s Weekly, “Hasak-Lowy artfully reveals layers of personal and national identity,” including one story about an Israeli ex-journalist working in the cafe at Yad Vashem who clashes with an American businessman over a stale pastry (2005).
  • “The Covenant” by Naomi Ragen: Set in 2002, a pregnant Israeli woman, her husband and their child are abducted by Hamas (2004).
  • “Light Years” by Tammar Stein: A 20-year-old woman leaves Israel for college in the United States after her boyfriend is killed by a suicide bomber in a Tel Aviv restaurant (2005).

— Compiled by Elisha Sauers

Article reprinted courtesy The Forward

Where the Action Is


These are threeexperiences that have made me most hate being Jewish:

1. Living, in Jerusalem’s Old City, among smugOrthodox holy-rollers, who are armored in their American-extractedmoney, their path cleared by the blood spilled by generations ofmostly secular Israelis, strutting around the clean square stones,spouting why God loves them best — Country Club conquerors throwingtheir shadows on simmering Arab shopkeepers.

2. When the cowardly among our people say, “Idon’t agree with the murder of Rabin, but I honor and understand themurderer’s motivation,” and I mull over what that portends for therest of us down the line.

3. The first time the word Hitler passed over my5-year-old son’s pink, plump, innocent lips.

These are five experiences during which I’vemost loved being Jewish:

1. Landing in Bombay for a five-month ramble andnearly vomiting out my soul at my first drink of that writhing,scab-faced, leprous smog-choked swarm, and then calling a number fromthe Jewish Travel Guide and finding myself, that first night, at aclean Shabbat table, singing familiar songs — a total stranger,totally welcome.

2. Witnessing the passion, intelligence andvariety of the congregants during the rousing Q&A sessionfollowing Shabbat morning services at my new shul.

3. When I bring in Shabbat with my family.

4. When I married my beautiful wife under aJerusalem sky.

5. Reading Jewish fairy tales to my son atnight.

These are my extreme love and hate moments; mostof the rest of my life, I’m Mr. In Between.

Never, ever, have I been a self-hating Jew. I havesome strong feelings about other Jews, but I’ve always felt glad andfortunate to be part of the tradition. I don’t say “proud” — a termthat has always struck me as a numbing Jewish cliché. I see”proud” as a way of sitting on the shoulders of others and callingoneself a giant. They tried to make me “proud” of being a Jew inHebrew School by pointing to Sandy Koufax. In yeshiva, they tried tomake me proud of being a Jew by retelling of how Ramban kickedCatholic ass in medieval disputations. Admirable fellows both, butI’m too much a child of America to take credit for theaccomplishments of others.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t say I am thoroughlya self-loving Jew either. Whenever I jolt awake with a Holocaustdream; whenever I dwell on the loving memorial to Baruch Goldstein(and wonder what that portends for the rest of us non-zealots);whenever I remember holding that phone in my hand during the Scudraids on Haifa and my brother, there, saying, “Adam, I have to go putthe bubble over the crib and get the baby down to the bomb shelter”– I wish I could cut and run and set up a surf shop in the furthestcorner of New Zealand.

Like most people, I have both positive andnegative feelings about the Jewish claim on my life. But unlike manyof them, and unlike myself for many years, I am committed to notallowing these conflicting feelings to cancel themselves out into adeadening indifference.

Nor will I give in to the temptation to settleinto one extreme or the other. In all corners of Jewish life andhistory, the admirable and the reprehensible live side by side,beginning to end — and clinging to one side without the other hasdone me no good in the past. It takes too much effort to sustainagainst the empirical evidence. It is a kind of lie, closing down, aforfeit.

I have a friend, for example, who says that hewill have nothing to do with Jewish experience anymore, maybe evenskipping his son’s bar mitzvah, because his big Los Angeles synagogueoffered no support — didn’t even call — when his parents diedsuddenly.

As for me, my dashed hopes in what Orthodoxypromised it would give my 21-year-old self led to a disappointmentand bitterness that has caused me to be absent in my Jewish life for14 years.

At the other extreme, I know people who thinkJudaism is so much the cat’s meow, did you hear that Buddha learnedfrom our sages, that Krishna is a derivative bastardization of Hashem– don’t even ask how the Egyptians designed the pyramids, much lessthe Mayans. For these myopics, everything good came from us (andaren’t we proud!). Everything bad comes from outside influences.Those nasty goyim.

It has been my experience that both of theseextremes are very comfortable, the way a mule in blinders iscomfortable. The scope of vision is narrowed. The possibility ofupset, diminished.

Me? Right now, I want to be upset. In between iswhere the action is. Being in between is the opportunity forheightened experience. Because I listen to all kinds of music, I can.

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