Embracing immigranthood in the Israeli ‘cholent pot’

Certain features are common to the experience of virtually every immigrant. Immigration is almost always motivated by persecution or economic distress, always seeks lands of greater opportunity and freedom, and always entails a process of dislocation, disorientation, readjustment, and eventual integration.

Because immigration is one of the most traumatic human experiences, immigrants tend to stick together. Upon arrival on the shores of a foreign country, often alone and penniless, immigrants tend to seek out fellow immigrants from the same region – the Yiddish word is landsmen – to for community, camaraderie, and assistance. In time, immigrant communities form mutual benefit societies. Among Jews emigrating from Eastern Europe, these mutual benefit societies were known as landmanschaftn.

Aliyah, Jewish immigration to Israel, despite its added connotations of pilgrimage, fulfillment of centuries of yearning, and “ascent”, is no different. The vast majority of olim since the founding of the State of Israel have come for the same reasons that people everywhere migrate: not ideology or politics, but escape from very real dangers and distresses. Part of Israel’s raison d’etre is to be a safe haven for Jews everywhere. It has been the Jewish homeland in the sense of Robert Frost’s definition of a home: “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you.”

Consequently, Israel has also had its fair share of immigrant aid organizations. Although immigrant absorption warrants its own government ministry, individual immigrant communities have nevertheless organize themselves socially, geographically, and even politically; the third-largest party in the Knesset  began as a political “home” for Russian immigrants. On a different scale, if one were to visit southern Tel Aviv today (an activity that I highly recommend), one would encounter new landsmanschaftn (or however one says that in Arabic or Tigrinya) among its Sudanese and Eritrean migrants.

The instrument of organization for Jewish immigrants to Israel has often been the synagogue. Set up to allow diverse immigrant groups to worship according to familiar rites, these synagogues occupied an important role in the social lives of these olim. One can still find basements and bomb shelters retrofitted to accommodate small synagogues that worship according to the custom of diverse communities, from Afghanistan to Yemen.

In some respects, immigrants from Western, primarily English-speaking countries are different. For the most part, we do not come to Israel to find economic opportunity and freedom from persecution. We enjoyed these liberties in our native lands and often even experience a dip in standard of living upon making the largely ideologically or religiously motivated move to Israel.

Yet the relative affluence and ideology-driven motivation of Anglo olim tends to mask the fact that, in most respects, we are immigrants like any other, and our experiences resemble those of immigrants everywhere. We, too, undergo a traumatic period of disorientation and even regret before adjusting to the new reality. We, too, tend to stick with fellow English-speaking immigrants for a generation, recognizing that, like our grandparents before us, we are immigrants in a foreign country, and we depend on the mutual assistance of fellow English-speakers – our landsmen.

We even have our own landmanschaftn. A far cry from the shabby storefronts and tenement basements that served our grandparents and even the bomb-shelters and tin-roofed trailers that have served immigrant communities in Israel, English-speaking olim tend to construct big, beautiful synagogues in the relatively affluent neighborhoods where we settle. These synagogues – these gilded landsmanschaftn – serve as much more than a place to pray; they are, or aspire to be, the centers of these immigrant communities and the hubs of our mutual benefit societies.

Of course, living amongst landsmen will invite accusations of wanting to remain in an “English-speaking bubble” or of not even trying to integrate into Israeli society. It does no good to point out that nobody is maligned for living in Russian or Amharic-speaking bubbles, or that Moroccan and Iraqi Jews tended to stick together for the first generation as well.

We can try to ignore the naysayers, but it’s hard. Instead, we can learn to embrace our status as immigrants, as outsiders who will never fully break in. We need not jettison the wonderful things about our native lands that they told us to check at the door when we arrived here. It’s not just baseball and customer service. We are used to a whole different level of openness andrespect across political, religious, and ethnic lines. We come from a society that was built from the bottom up, not the top down, and therefore tend to have a different attitude on the proper relationship between private and governmental initiative. The list goes on. If it means that we’ll be accused of not integrating or of being obnoxious Americans (even the Australians among us) – so be it!

Yet even as we proudly inhabit our “American bubble”, we sincerely hope that our children will have no need for one. The goal of immigration is, ultimately, integration into the host society. A successful landsmanschaft has a short life span. We may be resigned to the fact embrace the fact that we will never fully acculturate but still want to ensure that our children integrate fully.

Nevertheless, we can aspire toward integration for ourselves and our children while still retaining the best parts of our heritage from the “old country.” More than that – that heritage can to contribute to Israeli society. Rather than letting others tell us to stop being so “American”, perhaps we should start telling them to be a little bit more so.

For several decades, Israeli society aspired toward a “melting pot” ideal, in which foreigners (especially Mizrahim) were expected to quickly assimilate into the ideal of the Israeli “new Jew” and lose whatever cultural distinctiveness they brought from abroad. This was the goal of the old Mapainik ethos of republicanism (“mamlakhtiyut“). Fortunately, like most exercises in social engineering, the experiment failed.

Yet if it is not a melting pot, Israeli society hopefully will not turn out to be a “salad bowl”, in which each ingredient remains indifferent to and unaffected by the elements around it. Here’s hoping that Israeli society turns out to be a cholent pot, in which each ingredient retains its identity even as it adds and absorbs flavor, scent, and texture from every other ingredient.

It is this “cholent pot” model of maintaining distinctiveness while contributing to, and being affected by, all other elements of Israeli society that gives us hope that we (and especially our children) can make a positive contribution, informed largely by the values we imported from the “old country”, in our new home.

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This article appeared, in modified form, last year at Ynet and eJewish Philanthropy.

About the Author
Elli Fischer is a writer and translator from Baltimore and living in Modiin. His articles have appeared in Commentary, the Jewish Review of Books, the New York Jewish Week, Jewish Ideas Daily, Jewish Action, Jerusalem Post, the Intermountain Jewish News, and elsewhere, and been featured on Arts & Letters Daily and RealClearReligion, among others. He has rabbinical ordination from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and enjoys having ADD.