Do the people of Israel live in a movie?

As a visitor in Israel, her Diaspora Jewish perspective can provide an important reality check

There is a popular expression in Hebrew: Lichyot B’Seret. Literally translated, “to live in a movie”, it means to be delusional or to live in an alternate reality.

To demonstrate, you might use it in a sentence like this: “Joe’s left his job to start a start-up. His entire business plan is to ask rich friends to buy his product…Chai B’Seret.” It’s a harsh expression, but in the right context it can quickly sum up everything you want to say about a person whose thinking is way off base.

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My husband, two boys, and I are spending this year in Tel Aviv. We have gone from Brooklyn to Bavli, a neighborhood in North Tel Aviv, with Park HaYarkon along its northern border. Our kids are newly enrolled in Israeli public schools.

A new Israeli family we met, with kids in both our older and younger sons’ grades, has been especially gracious to us. They invited us for Shabbat dinner the first week we arrived. Touched by their invitation, I wanted to bring a thoughtful hostess gift. Being Facebook friends with the wife and having noted all her “likes” of modern home decor, I went to a ceramics cooperative in Neve Tzedek (a trendy and charming neighborhood in South Tel Aviv) to pick out a small gift.

Once there, I quickly became engrossed in all the amazing ceramic art on display. One ceramicist had replicated Tel Aviv’s classic Bauhaus buildings as miniature ceramic structures, complete with the political graffiti found on buildings all over Israel.

One of her little buildings, for example, was plastered with a photo of Theodore Herzl spray painted with the graffiti message: “If you don’t want it, you don’t need it” — an underachiever’s inversion of Herzl’s famous quote “If you will it, it is no dream.”

On a second Bauhaus building, the ceramicist reproduced an image of a large typeface sign reading “Am Yisrael Chai,” underneath which a graffiti artist sprayed the word “B’Seret.” By adding “B’Seret” to the typeface sign, the graffiti altered the meaning of “Am Yisrael Chai” from the traditional rallying cry, “the nation of Israel lives!” to the highly cynical ,”the nation of Israel lives … in an alternate reality.”

I was holding the “Am Yisrael Chai B’Seret” piece when the shopkeeper asked me what I thought of the artist’s work. I said I really appreciated the juxtaposition of Tel Aviv’s elegant Bauhaus architecture with the grit of its street art, but I was troubled by the “Am Yisrael Chai B’Seret.”

I tried to explain this to the shopkeeper. I said the sentiment seemed extreme to me. I’d expect to see a “Netanyahu ‘Chai B’Seret’” or “the Settlers ‘Chai B’Seret’” — but Am Yisrael, the entire Jewish people? The Jewish people as a whole are deluded? What did that even mean? Deluded in the belief in a Jewish state? Deluded in the belief in a Jewish nation? In Jewishness itself?

As if to underscore the self-evidence of it, the shopkeeper, suggesting I was naïve, asked how long I had been living in Israel. “’Am Yisrael’ is a right-wing political term”, she said. “It’s nationalistic…People who are politically enlightened ‘cringe’”, she reported, “when they hear the term ‘Am Yisrael.’”

In a country where the worst fate is to be considered a “frier” (a sucker), I could not let the accusation of naiveté linger. True, I had not known that “Am Yisrael” is a term the Israeli right-wing clings to (of course, as always happens, once pointed out I began to see it over and over, see Naftali Bennett’s pre-Sukkot Facebook post: “Shanah Tovah Am Yisrael”). But as a strongly identified Diaspora Jew, someone rooted in day schools, Jewish camps, synagogues, and pro-Israel advocacy organizations, I know my “Am Yisrael Chai”. I know that it has nothing to do with Israeli political factions or one’s position on land-for-peace or nuclear deals. “Am Yisrael Chai” speaks of something older, fundamental and apolitical — the literal survival of the Jewish people across history.

I know “Am Yisrael Chai” as the anthem of March of the Living and other educational trips to Poland to witness the vestiges of the Holocaust and rejoice in the Jewish People’s survival.

I remember singing “Am Yisrael Chai” as a kid at a gathering for ex-Soviet Jews in Chicago where it represented the three words that my Jewish community and the newly arrived Russian immigrants had in common.

More recently, I remember watching a YouTube video of young soldiers singing “Am Yisrael Chai” as they prepared to enter Gaza to defend Israel in the summer of 2014. The State of Israel itself, perhaps more than anything else, is an expression of Am Yisrael Chai.

I said some of this to the shopkeeper; she was mostly dismissive. She was focused on conveying how intolerable it is to live here under right-wing rule, why so many Israelis choose to live outside of Israel, why total disillusion with the State is a natural and rationale result of living in Israel for too long.

I was still holding the “Am Yisrael Chai B’Seret” Bauhaus replica. She asked me if I wanted to buy it. I said, “No, thank you.” She looked at me like the whole conversation had gone over my head.

While I might normally walk away from such an encounter feeling like I didn’t get the local slang, like I was out of sync with “the real Israel” — in this case I didn’t. Here, my being an outsider from the Diaspora — America — where Jewish identity is distinct from national identity, is what I brought to the discussion. I realized that my experience as a minority is the lens through which I appreciate “Am Yisrael Chai”.

I resolved to myself that the graffiti on the Bauhaus replica makes no sense. If “Am Yisrael Chai” is a delusion, we ourselves do not exist. And as I walk out of the shop, I wonder whether I, the foreigner, paradoxically feel more at home in Israel than those who understand “Am Yisrael Chai” in only the immediate context of a political slogan, so alienated that they want to leave.

In the Diaspora, it is tempting to look to Israel for all the answers to Jewish questions. Sitting in Tel Aviv, it appears that some of those answers may as yet reside in the Diaspora. We are lucky to have both.

About the Author
Shelley Klein is spending this year in Tel Aviv with her family. She recently completed her tenure as Executive Director of Congregation Beth Elohim (CBE) in Park Slope, Brooklyn. In prior years, she was the National Director of Programs for Hadassah. Shelley received a JD from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a BA in Politics from Brandeis University. Shelley’s permanent home is in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
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