Stations of the Six-Pointed Star
The two greatest Jewish inventions of the 20th century are, to my mind at least, Hollywood and Israel.
Yes, there were individual Jews whose genius shaped the past century — Freud, Marx, Einstein and, of course, Bob Dylan — but Hollywood and Israel are two enterprises a great many Jews built collectively.
One big difference, of course, is that while Jewish enterprise created Hollywood, it wasn’t, like Israel, a Jewish enterprise. But both these grand inventions have two things in common.
One is Jewish writers. We all know about the importance of Jewish writers in Hollywood — we wouldn’t have “Porky’s 3” or “Halloween 4” without them.
But Israel also was birthed in the mind of a Jewish writer. It began as an idea, and then as a series of essays, then some books by a fine journalist and mediocre playwright named Theodor Herzl. Last year at UCLA, the great Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua said he always wondered what would have happened if Herzl had been a better playwright.
The other commonality is that both Hollywood and Israel provided a means of refuge from the real world. Jews founded Hollywood to help the world escape reality; they founded Israel to help Jews escape the world.
Thus, 60 years ago this week, the State of Israel came into being to provide a refuge for the Jewish people.
So, how’s that working out?
For one, it’s clear the idea of Israel as refuge has evolved over the past six decades. In 1948, Israel was the place Jews could go to recover from the last Holocaust and the place from where they could defend themselves against the next one.
To this day, many — if not most — Jews hold to the belief that Israel’s prime importance is as a kind of safety zone if or when things start to go south on us again.
But for American Jews, who make up the bulk of the Diaspora, this Panic Room Zionism is a hard sell. We may still feel that Israel is a place of refuge, but reality, whether we acknowledge it or not, argues against this.
Our life here is more stable and secure than that of Jews in Israel. Many more Jews leave Israel to come here than leave America to settle there. We also know, without actually saying it out loud, that Israel is only safe so long as America is. If the situation worsens for Jews in America, it won’t bode well for Israel, either, because Israel depends on America’s support.
If Israel is no longer our physical refuge, it is nevertheless a kind of psychological and spiritual refuge, a place we American Jews can escape to in our minds. Instead of becoming, as its founders hoped it would, our final destination, it is has become one more station on our pilgrimage of spiritual growth.
And this holds true at every phase of life. For young Jewish men and women, in college or just out, Israel is a place to visit for emotional and intellectual growth, and even, perhaps, to explore their sexuality. It is but a chapter in the bildungsroman of Jewish life, where you can deepen your youthful soul in an ancient land.
When we reach middle age, Israel also holds a powerful psychic allure. Not long ago, in the same week, a major Hollywood producer and a prominent politician each confided to me that they constantly toy with the idea of chucking it all to go and live in Israel — just drop everything and go.
They won’t. They’re too old to pick oranges, and anyway, in Israel, Jews no longer pick oranges — they import cheap Asian or Eastern European labor to do it.
But the idea is that Israel can give meaning to your life. That you can renew your aging soul in a new country.
Retirees dream of going there to make those golden years useful, to make a statement, to finally put their bodies where for so many years their mouths and their money had been.
And finally, many elderly American Jews dream of going there when they die, to rest, so to speak, until the messiah arrives and from where, as the Talmud promises, one’s soul “will rise directly through the gates of heaven.”
It is very difficult to find statistics on the number of American Jews who go to Israel to be buried. I suspect because it’s much higher than the number who go there to live.
It is a great gift to have a home away from home, to know there is a place, to quote Robert Frost, where if you have to go there, they have to take you in. Sixty years on, Israel has become the “Cheers” of the American Jewish soul. Go there, even for a visit, and you will find, inexplicably, it is more like home than home.
None of this is to take away from what Israelis have achieved, what a remarkable, accomplished society they have built against debilitating odds. I’m not talking about them; I’m talking about us.
The reality is, we Jews in Los Angeles don’t need Israel to live, to survive. But 60 years on, when we search our hearts and souls, we need it to thrive.