Shuly Babitz
Connection from Afar: Israeli Culture from the US

Living Jews need love too

Photo by Shuly Babitz.
Photo by Shuly Babitz.

Dara Horn perplexed us back in the good old days of 2021 when she proclaimed that “People love dead Jews. Living Jews, not so much.” Despite the examples she detailed in the book, how many of us really felt “unloved” by society?

Back then, it was easier to feel distanced from rising anti-Semitism. Unless you were part of the community in Pittsburgh, Poway, or Colleyville, or shaking your head about it during a dinner conversation, most of us didn’t feel it personally. That’s why Horn’s catchy book title caught us off guard.

October 7th and its aftermath changed that. Whether it’s minor discomfort, slight concern, or heart-pounding fear, many American Jews do feel “unloved” by society these days. Anyone who knows a college-age student feels it. Anyone making their way down a city street or a social media feed feels it. It comes through the magazine covers proclaiming that “the golden age of American Jews is ending” and that Israel stands “alone.” Even professional associations have left too many feeling shocked and shaken.

What seemed like an exaggerated sentiment a couple of years ago feels spot on today. Like it or not, society now connects Jews worldwide to the events going on in Israel. And usually not in a good way.

How do we navigate that? What can we do to combat that uncomfortable feeling of being unloved? Here’s one answer: pride.

If others see us as connected to Israel, let’s own that connection. Be proud of it. To build that pride, we need to explore beyond the current headlines about Israel and learn what makes life in Israel so special. What makes it worth fighting for.

In previous posts, I’ve shared about experiencing Israeli life in ways that feel authentic and meaningful. Certainly being there is powerful, but not simple right now. Television shows and music are both widely accessible, and reflect the values essential to Israeli society, including family, diversity, and solidarity. These are great ways to build a connection to and pride in Israeli life, even without living there.

Stories are another way we can broaden our understanding of Israel from just a place that has conflicts with its neighbors to a vibrant society that is both beautiful and complicated. Israeli novelist and psychologist Ayelet Gundar-Goshen recently wrote that “stories were how I brought to life the worlds I was not brave enough to step into because they were too seductive – or too frightening.”

Stories can help us understand more about the lives Israelis led before their pictures got plastered on posters and magazine covers. They’re a window into a world outside of uniforms, helmets, and guns. Rather than pitying Israelis as “empty seats” at countless tables, let’s learn what their tables are like when those seats are filled.

There’s a wealth of Israeli literature available in English that can help us do just that. Here are a few examples of my favorite Israeli authors whose work is widely accessible to English-speaking audiences:

  • Ayelet Gundar-Goshen brings her lens as both a psychologist and a journalist to her novels. I could not put down Waking Lions, which examines the psychological price a respected Be’er Sheva neurosurgeon pays when he is able to hide a crime he knows he committed. She describes the abundant dust in Be’er Sheva as “a thin white layer, like the icing on a birthday cake no one wants,” and yet no one ever notices it. The unnoticed but ubiquitous dust is a clear metaphor for the doctor’s hidden, constant guilt. Her most recent novel, The Wolf Hunt, explores the experience of an Israeli family who relocates to San Francisco, and how that displacement affects a mother who suspects her son committed a crime.
  • Sarit Yishai-Levi spent most of her career as a journalist, and only published her first novel at age 65. The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem was a huge hit about fraught family relationships over several generations and against the backdrop of Jerusalem pre- and post-World War II. You can read the book or watch the Israeli series based on it on Netflix. Her most recent novel, The Woman Beyond the Sea, explores the impact of secrets, emotional damage, and forgiveness on the relationships between mothers and daughters.
  • Meir Shalev was born in 1948 and served in the Six Day War. One of my favorite novels, A Pigeon and a Boy, tells two interconnected stories about the search for belonging and the solace of feeling at home. One character learned to train homing pigeons as a boy and then used that skill as a soldier in the 1948 War of Independence. The other protagonist is a middle-aged tour guide who specializes in bird-watching trips. He grew up feeling fiercely connected to his mother and her emphasis on the importance of “feeling at home,” but as an adult, he is alienated from his wife and children. Shalev’s description of coming home as a child to a comforting meal stirs my own memories of the refuge and simple pleasures of childhood: “bread topped with soft cheese ‘spread oh so thin,’ and a hard-boiled egg … chopped parsley and tomato sliced so thin it was almost transparent … One had a bite to eat and was overcome with joy: we are home. From the hill, from the sea, from far away. That is what we love and what we know how to do.”
  • Ayelet Tzabari is part of a large family from Yemen but felt compelled to leave Israel to explore her identity and tackle childhood losses. Her memoir, The Art of Leaving, details her journey: from grappling with her father’s death when she was 9 to feeling empowered by Ofra Haza, a Yemeni woman who made it big in a culture where Ashkenazi Israelis dominated and Mizrachi Jews were too often on the sidelines. She struggles with the army’s rigid rules during her mandatory service, and then finds a semblance of freedom when she leaves for New York, then India, and then settles for a while in Canada. For Tzabari, unlike for Shalev, “home was transient, constantly shifting.” Ultimately, Tzabari returns to Israel. Her next book, a novel called Songs for the Brokenhearted, comes out this fall.

These authors, and there are so many others, share the stories of real Israeli life. These are the lives that were threatened on October 7th. The rest of the world doesn’t see much difference between diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews, even though insiders can detail those differences for days. Maybe it’s time to stop worrying about the differences and start loving what these “living Jews” are fighting for.

About the Author
Shuly Babitz is a writer and public affairs strategist. She lives with her husband and 4 children just outside Washington, D.C., though her two oldest daughters recently made Aliyah.
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