I didn’t fully appreciate the diversity of Israeli Jews until I made aliyah. Yes, I had visited on trips, but you don’t get to know people with the same degree of depth. One of the things I love about American Jewry is the cultural cohesion and unity. And one of the things I love about Israeli Judaism is how incredibly diverse it is.
Last week, I was in Jerusalem. My friend and I went to a Thai restaurant. We were joking around with the guy behind the counter. Turns out, he’s a half Kurdish half Moroccan Jew. We joked about him finding us a fourth person so we could all go on a double date. He said he’d be happy to take us to a Kurdish restaurant down the street and then taught me some Kurdish. Right, my Jewish Thai restaurant waiter offered to teach me the Kurdish his grandparents say around the dinner table. Chew on that one for a while.
This past weekend, I hung out with a bunch of vegan hippie Jews at a commune in Tel Aviv. As they munched on lentils and drank home-brewed Kombucha with shouts of “lechaim”, I met a half Norwegian half Persian Jewish filmmaker. Yes, both halves are Jewish. Apparently, her grandparents on either side only spoke their native language (Norwegian and Judeo-Persian), so they couldn’t communicate with each other! Luckily, this talented young woman speaks both Norwegian and Farsi and even spent two years living in Norway.
Today I hung out in Bnei Brak. While I was buying some books and music, I befriended the two salesmen. One, who looked quite clearly Ashkenazi, was a Vizhnitzer Hasid and a Yiddish speaker. We had fun shmoozing a bisl in the mamaloshn. Turns out, he also understands Dutch- his mother’s family is from the Netherlands. Oh and his father was born in Switzerland, where his parents were working for the Jewish Agency. For people who know the politics of Hasidim and Zionism, take a moment to digest that one for a bit.
The other Hasid in the store looked more tan skinned, so I mistakenly assumed he was Mizrachi (there are Mizrachi Hasidim). Turns out, he’s just like me- an Ashkenazi Jew who kept his Middle Eastern complexion even in the Diaspora 😉 . Guess there isn’t just one “Ashkenazi look” after all. Now brace yourselves for a real kicker. His family made aliyah…from Mauritius. Right, so basically his family escaped the Nazis but the British refused to let them into Mandatory Palestine. So they sent them to a bunch of islands in the Indian Ocean. To this day, his family likes to tell stories of what it was like there.
I could literally go on and on with examples- my friend who is half Serbian half Moroccan and works at a Kosher Georgian restaurant, my half Iraqi half Ashkenazi female rabbi, my half Italian half Ashkenazi friend married to a Cherokee Jew! The diversity here is endless. If your image of Israel is that everyone looks like Andy Samberg, you’re in for a major shock. And I’m saying this as someone who would very much like a country of Andy Sambergs- what a cute Jewish boy!!
Israel is an incredible fusion of hundreds of Jewish cultures from around the world, preserved for 2,000 years and reuniting and reconfiguring meaning. I definitely miss my American Yiddishkeit, a force that unites the 90% of American Jews who are Ashkenazi with a shared humor, cuisine, and dialect. The good part about Israel is that in the absence of a unifying Judaism, there is the freedom to mix and match. It’s truly a place where no one can say, as someone told me on a temple trip in 5th grade: “you don’t look Jewish.”