The cognitive dissonance of Jewish life in America

Is the United States the next catastrophic chapter of Jewish diaspora history?
Joseph Kuttler upon his release from the IDF in 2016, conflicted between national allegiances.
Joseph Kuttler upon his release from the IDF in 2016, conflicted between national allegiances.

Imagine a market lined with stalls. Each stall is manned by a few members of a different Jewish community of the diaspora. The stalls contain beautiful renderings of far-off towns and cultures, both in distance and time. They span nearly the whole globe and all of the nearly two thousand years of exile from our homeland.

Model synagogues are built in all kinds of styles and structures. The synagogues’ exteriors reflect the architectural styles of the greater community in which they lived, or perhaps outside of which they lived. There are wood synagogues with high, multilayered roofs. Other synagogues have colorful onion domes.

If the insides of the synagogues had also been depicted in these models, they would likewise parallel the stylistic features of their regions. These interiors would differ from community to community, though less than the exteriors. You might find similar seating areas and platforms for the recitations by the cantors of their prayers, though perhaps the placement of such platforms would differ.

The outsides of the Torah scrolls themselves might have differed in that some might have been composed in the Ashkenazi tradition of a scroll outfitted with two wheels of wood, which can roll out in either direction. Over these Torahs are draped embroidered, protective quilts. Meanwhile, those Torahs built in the Sephardic custom would be housed in protective cylindrical cases, which stand upright. These too would be adorned by beautiful carvings and engravings, typically metallic in composition.

The one beautiful constant between the different communities would have been the words in the Torahs themselves, which would not have varied by even a single letter, no matter the time or place to which its community existed. This was the common thread that united all the communities, across all ages.

The market: Jewish history on display 

As we peruse the market, the stalls we pass begin to crumble behind us. The citizens of the first booth, the Roman Jews, arrive at their booth beleaguered. They are forced to slave away within the small booth and are sometimes tortured for sport. Whoever can escape the stall and move on to the nearest stall does so before he faces the same brutal fate as his fellows.

Proud Arabia Jews sit in their stall. They are known as eminent traders. However, a powerful prophet enters the stall, and, seeing them as evil, beheads them.

The citizens in the Spanish stall are forced to pour water over their heads, and if they don’t, they are waterboarded.

The Italian booth is so small and crowded it’s a wonder that anyone in it can breathe.

Next comes the Russian booth. The members of this booth look around confusedly as their fortunes change drastically from instant to instant, and then, before they can understand what’s happening, the booth combusts and turns to ash.

As we approach the German booth, we feel like this one will be different for some reason. The people here are so entrenched in their community that they barely even look Jewish. They served valiantly for the Fatherland in The Great War and proudly don the medals of this war on their chests. Yet the booth fills with gas, and nearly all the people sitting behind their table fall to the ground dead.

Somehow, despite our eyes itching and tearing so badly we can hardly see, we keep moving on through the market. We must be getting near the end.

Suddenly, in quick succession, the members of the Yemenite, Moroccan, Irani, Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese and Afghan contingents all flee their seats, as their booths are bombed and looted.

Throughout it all, after every booth is burned or gassed or bombed, there are at least a couple of survivors who are able to make their way to the next booth. The new booth seems safe and comforting. Eventually, they take a liking to the booth and figure that they’ll stay in the booth forever. Yet this booth too will burn, and, if they are the lucky ones, they will move on to yet another booth.

Finally, we reach the American booth. It is the largest and richest of all the previous booths. The people seated behind its table include a Supreme Court Justice, a Senator and a Hall of Famer. These people seem pretty happy and comfortable. They smile to us and wish us a good day as we head towards the exit. They seem to not mind the smoke gathering in the exhibition hall, nor the smell of blood.

A formidable building

As we walk outside, leaving the exhibition, feeling sick to our stomachs, our eyes are stunned by the glare of the sun. When our eyes accustom to the light, we look up, and see not a booth, but a formidable building, a familiar one, around which stands a gate, guarded by an armed soldier.

This building serves as our refuge. The members of the Ethiopian booth are airlifted to this building before any harm can come to them. The Russians escape here too before they are once again pogromed. The Germans come here, the French, the Yemenites, the Moroccans. Some come here before their booths are threatened: some Australians, some British, and, yes, even some Americans.

This building is, of course, called Israel. It is our home. Everyone who needs to be here to ensure their survival comes here. There are even some here who managed to never partake in the ritual of the diaspora, having survived here in small communities for thousands of years. These people help to show us the way.

Yet here we remain in our final booth, the United States of America, even as the lights are kept on for us in our home. Our home is not the safest of homes. Sometimes, it is attacked. Yet, for a people who have had little to no means of defense for thousands of years, having a standing army to defend our home means everything.

I drafted into this army and served as a paratrooper guarding our home for two and a half years. On a trip to visit my family in Baltimore while I was in the midst of my service, I had the distinct privilege to speak to a member of my synagogue, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor. He told me that seeing the Israeli flag flying on the wings of our Air Force planes gave him supreme comfort, knowing that never again could such an atrocity as the Holocaust occur.

America the dangerous 

And yet, while Israel has its own defense forces, it cannot protect every Jew in every place. Even the most astute observers of Jewish history still choose to live in America, even as Israel waits with open arms. Dara Horn, an eminent American-Jewish, or Jewish-American, writer, recently published a book titled People Love Dead Jews. In this book, she discusses how the world loves dead Jews like Anne Frank, who make people feel good about themselves and how they haven’t done anything so horrible as perpetrating a Holocaust-like genocide. Yet this same world often hates living Jews, or Jews who don’t spread the message that in spite of all the horrors done to Jews, “people are really good at heart.” They often enjoy making these Jews suffer. Horn displays a keen understanding of Jewish history and the troubles we have faced as a nation. She laments that she raises her children in a more dangerous America for Jews than the one she was raised in. And yet, she, just like me, still resides in America.

Human memory is fickle. During times of war, we forget what it was like to have lived in a world devoid of war. And in times of peace, we cannot imagine a war ever happening again.

I too am human. After completing my service in the Israeli Defense Forces, I immediately returned to America, where I have enjoyed the greater economic possibilities and lower cost of living for the last five years. During my army service, one of the things that helped me get through the long, cold nights of hiking with heavy weights was dreaming about one day buying a convertible and driving the open, sunny roads of America. When I returned home, I bought this convertible, whom I named Delores. Delores and I have crossed this beautiful country and back again at least five times. Delores is a Mustang, a car manufactured by Ford Motors, whose founder Henry Ford was a notorious American antisemite.

And yet, despite the Henry Fords of the country, America has for the most part been wonderful for Jews. However, this does not mean that it will forever continue to be wonderful, nor peaceful.

Because breaking into a new society after being chased out of an old one is so difficult, we do deserve to be cut some slack for cherishing the opportunity to take a moment to breathe. But to think that America will end differently for us than every other place has in our history, is the definition of cognitive dissonance. It would be wonderful if America were to remain peaceful, equal and democratic for all time. Yet, just like Rome and so many empires throughout history, America is destined to fall at some point, and when it falls, have no doubt that the Jews will take a large share of the blame.

The ultimate game-changer 

The difference between America and all the other stops on our journey of exile is Israel. We now have the choice to live in our own autonomous land, and yet we as American Jews still choose against this option.

Israel is the ultimate game-changer; it is the safeguard so many of our ancestors died wishing they had. I plan on moving back to Israel by the fall of this coming year, and the prolonging of my return is itself a practice in cognitive dissonance. However, I do have a few things left to do before my time in America is complete, among them visiting the final two states I have yet to reach, North Dakota and Alaska. Picking between desires is a hell of a thing, and, again, I am but a human.

Returning to Israel will not come without serious challenges, either for me or for anyone else moving there. Israel can be a difficult place to live. The middle-class struggles. Wages are decent, and there are jobs to be had, but the cost of living is quite high, as are taxes. Tel Aviv was rated as the most expensive city to live in the world this year by The Economist. There’s a common refrain that the best way to gain a fortune in Israel is to arrive with an even larger fortune.

Besides for confronting economic challenges when I return to Israel, I will also re-enlist in the reserves, rejoining my friends with whom I served as a paratrooper. Serving as a reservist is strenuous psychologically. When in the mandatory service, there is an understanding that your life could be at risk at any point if the country were to go to war, and you are mentally prepared for such an event. The reserves, meanwhile, demand the same thing from a soldier, but reservists are yanked out of the middle of their lives and thrust into war when the need arises.

One of my officers in the army was the commander of such a unit during the 2014 Gaza War. He commanded a team of sniper reservists. One of his soldiers was killed in the war. My officer had to, at the age of twenty-two, call up his soldier’s wife and inform her that her husband, the father of her two children, would not be returning. This fate can befall anyone in the reserves at nearly any point in their lives.

Yet serving in the reserves will be a privilege for me, as it is for my brother and so many of my friends who are reservists now. They are able to live full, uncompromising Jewish lives in a sovereign Jewish state in the land of our ancestors, and for this it is well worth the sacrifice and possible risk.

What is the end game?

Our state of cognitive dissonance will end. Its end might be forced on us, as it was to so many Jews throughout history, who discovered how their nation really felt about them. Or we can learn from history and ascertain what will possibly come for us. We are already seeing some of the signs. Synagogues are shot up. Jews are beaten in the street during times when Israel is at war with its neighbors.

We don’t even need to fully prognosticate how our nationalistic dreams will end this time. It might be some people on the right coming for us with ropes and torches in their white triangle hats. It might be some people on the left who proclaim that anti-Zionism isn’t antisemitism, thereby undermining the security of Jews both in Israel and abroad, by attacking our right to self-defense and self-determination.

What does matter is that we accept the distinct possibility that our time in this country might end. And, even if, G-d willing, America and its Jews prosper for all eternity, and we’re only looking over our shoulders as a reflex built over the millennia rather than from some real, credible threat, well, wouldn’t it be nice to at least look forward, rather than behind?

So, let us not wait until the booth is burning to flee this time. Let us soar freely and richly to our home, and let us be fruitful and multiply.

About the Author
Joseph "Yossi" Kuttler is an American Israeli Jew who served in the Israeli Defense Forces as a paratrooper. After completing his service, he returned to his birth country of America to work as a regenerative farmer and a timber-frame builder. His fiction has appeared in Mystery Weekly Magazine.
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