Talk Amongst Yourselves

In the second or third wave of Saturday Night Live, Mike Myers posed as Linda Richman, who had a TV show called: Coffee Talk with Linda. Linda was wont to choke up and say, “Oy, I’m so faklempt, please, talk amongst yourselves.”

I was reminded of these skits when I attended two events in the last week. The first was KeepOlim, a tour of stand up comedy in English, aimed at raising funds for struggling olim, mostly from America. The second was a panel discussion of the new book Becoming Israeli, edited by Akiva Gersh, that took place at the trendy Nocturno Bar and Restaurant in Jerusalem.

In both cases American olim huddled together to tell their stories, laugh at themselves and their adopted country, and come to grips with the pervasive question: “what am I doing here.” There were plenty of faklempt moments. For a subject that is almost taboo, especially in US Jewish Institutions, but also in Israeli circles dependent on not alienating their sources of finance, it seemed like aliya was surfacing from under the suffocating drivel about Jewish “identity” and “peoplehood,” that passes as serious Jewish action these days.

But when at the Nocturno panel I raised the issue of are we talking amongst ourselves, the moderator, Sarah Tuttle Singer, showed discomfort. I was asking whether Becoming Israeli would be exposed, perhaps in movie form, to American Jews at AIPAC Meetings, J Street meetings, and in every Hebrew School, Men’s Club, Sisterhood and Jewish golf club in the US. Tuttle’s response was, “we’re all writing, blogging and doing the best we can.”

The next day I began reading the book, which is comprised of 40 short essays by olim, describing their experiences. Anybody who has made aliya can almost recite the chapters without reading them. Nonetheless, their being put down in black and white is a worthwhile testimony. But the question is, are we talking amongst ourselves.

In his foreword to the book, Yossi Klein Halevy presents his own answer to “what am I doing here,” taking almost all my words out of my mouth, including the quip that the best reason to move to Israel is so you don’t have to vacation there. At one point, he says, “I realized that I should stop preaching aliya to my American friends.” Again, I couldn’t have said it better.

But there is a big difference between preaching and exposing. If Becoming Israeli ends up being read mostly by people who have already made aliya, and does not become accessible to American Jews who have either never heard of it or dismiss it as a real life option, it will be nice coffee talk as we continue to talk amongst ourselves.

Halevy mentioned during the panel his frustration at not being part of the mainstream social and political discussions in Israel. The issue of difficulties with functioning in Hebrew came up often during the panel. But Russian olim managed to become central to public debate and public policy in Israel without speaking the language. That’s because there were one million of them.

So let’s hope that Becoming Israeli-the Sequel, which one of the panelists hoped would one day appear, will not be discussed ten years from amongst ourselves. Let’s hope the funny, poignant, human panelists from Nocturno will appear at Binyanei Haumah, because only it can hold a small portion of olim who came by choice.

About the Author
David Chinitz is Professor of Health Policy and Management at the Braun School of Public Health, Hebrew University-Hadassah