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Israeli vs. American Jewish Culture

Israel has very much its own culture which can be distilled down to a fusion of the Middle East and the West. Food wise it’s shnitzels, shakshuka, shawarma, felafel, and chicken soup. Likewise it’s manifested in the works of mainstream Israeli pop artists with subtle distinct Mizrahi influences. The TV programs and YouTube personalities also have that international influence, pretty much copycat American reality shows with a discernible undercurrent of an Israeli culture which isn’t just a mishmash of Ashkenaz and Sephardic, it’s a mix of so many Jewish cultures not really pronounced in any way in the Diaspora. Greek, Turkish, Italian, and Kurdish Jews are just a small sampling of ethnicities which don’t fit into the mainstream Ashkenaz or Sephardic cultures and don’t consider themselves to be part of either.

Nothing brings this home more than Israel’s national holidays which will be celebrated this month. When you live in Israel you’re not necessarily inspired by Chareidim and Arabs working together; it’s nothing unusual in the everyday landscape of the country. A simple walk through the old city of Jerusalem will bear testimony to ultra religious Jews, Muslims, and Christians all hurrying along to their chosen places of worship.

While in America there’s an Ashkenormative Jewish culture with Yiddish words being adopted into English, and bagels and cream cheese and matzoh ball soup being served in delis, the Israeli experience is a different one altogether. The words adopted into Hebrew are exclusively English and Arabic. The Jewish customs of the land take the position of Sephardic Jews, with the majority of secular Israelis eating kitniyot on Pesach.

So for the extremely broad question of what constitutes Israeli, I’ll try to answer as best as I can. It’s a curriculum which includes Tanach as well as a strong emphasis on your family’s personal history in elementary school social studies. It’s Hebraic last names which only formed in the last century, like Carmi, Harel, and Geffen. It’s having a second column in every teacher’s attendance book to differentiate whether the child is a boy or a girl, because Israeli names are mostly gender neutral. 

It is being ingrained to stand up straight and in absolute silence twice a year, on Yom Hazikaron and Yom Hashoah. It’s the candle each child is given for Yom Hashoah together with the name of a child their age who was tragically murdered. It’s the ceremony every public school has which commemorates alumni of said school who were killed in active duty, defending their homeland. Many of these schools were founded during British rule and continue to thrive and flourish today under current Israeli sovereignty. It’s to understand that although many restaurants will still be open on Yom Hashoah, on Yom Hazikaron the entire nation is in mourning, and its impact is felt so much more intensely, highlighting recently bereaved families.

It’s the constant internal fights between left wing and right wing politics, underscoring that although Israel is a Jewish state, a quarter of its inhabitants aren’t. It’s the fundamental paradox of being both Jewish and democratic, with the ironic twist of Tel Aviv having one of the largest pride parades in Israel while simultaneously delegating all facets of personal milestones to the religious rabbinate, ensuring that only the most conservative approaches will prevail. 

In short it’s meeting up with your friends for shakshuka at the shuk to discuss the fadicha that happened to you as a result of a fashla at work. It’s to celebrate with a mesibat shichrur when you finish your army service. It’s to go to a Yishai Ribo or a Chanan Ben Ari concert, two religious artists who managed to break through the religious secular divide and appeal to all audiences. It’s the celebrities who are only known in your country but you’re nonetheless slightly obsessed with them, which includes names like reality star Jacqui Azulai and music producer Jordi. 

American Jewish culture can stand on its own feet and be completely devoid of any Zionist ideology. It can incorporate shlemazel and shlemiel into everyday linguistics and proudly host Pesach seders for all the gentiles in the neighborhood. Israeli culture on the other hand, has that added depth of wishing your neighbors Ramadan Kareem even while they mourn Naqba and you celebrate Yom Haatzmaut on the very same day. It’s the Arab nurse at Shaarei Tzedek excitedly sharing with you where she took shelter when the bombing sirens went off. It’s the Israeli biker who does deliveries to East Jerusalem where there are no formal addresses, just official descriptions like across from the gas station or behind the large green dumpster. It’s celebrating both Mimouna and Eid al Fitr over the same Arabic cuisine while undoubtedly claiming that it’s all part of your exclusive thousand year old traditions which have come to somehow symbolize your Israeli nationality.

About the Author
Chava Berman Kaplan grew up in Los Angeles, CA in an orthodox community in the La Brea Fairfax neighborhood. She moved to Israel in her early twenties, first residing in Jerusalem, then Bet Shemesh, and now in Holon. She has two children, ages twelve and ten, who study in a mamlachti school in Holon. She works as an English teacher and has always enjoyed writing as a hobby.
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