It is time to acknowledge the self-evident fact that American Jews and Israeli Jews are not part of the same people
Nobody thinks that New York governor Andrew Cuomo and Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini are members of the same nation. The latter is Italian, the former, American. That being said, their great-grandfathers where undoubtedly members of one nation: they were all Italians. In most people’s minds there is an understanding that Salvini and Cuomo share a certain cultural heritage, but that’s where any commonality between them stops.
US Senator Chuck Schumer and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu are both Jews. Unlike in the case of Salvini and Cuomo, the implications of this statement go much further, though just how much is a matter of heated debate. In Israel, a majority of Jews sees in American Jews members of one nation, one people: the Jewish people. In America, some Jews consider themselves members of the same people as their Israeli counterparts and some do not, but it is fair to say that the Jewish hyphen, as in Jewish-American has a higher specific density, a deeper meaning than the myriad of other American hyphens, Italian-American included.
But is that really true? To properly answer that question, we must take a short trip back in time, perhaps to late 19th century Eastern Europe, a place in which the great grandparents of most American Jews as well as my own resided at the time. Who were these people? What were their defining characteristics? First, they were highly insular. There was no intermarriage to speak of. My DNA is 99.7% Ashkenazi Jewish and it is not uncommon to see Ashkenazi Jews with 100% pure DNA. These people all had Jewish first and last names. There were no Ivans or Vladimirs, or Kyrills, the equivalents of today’s Scots and Chucks; there were only Moishes and Avigdors, and Shimons. These people’s first language, the language they learned at their mother’s breasts was Yiddish, a mix of medieval High German and Hebrew, written in the Hebrew alphabet. Their Second language, at least for the boys, was Hebrew, which they learned in the “Heder”, a school for Jewish boys, which they started at the age of three.
One of the biggest and most unfortunate myths of the Zionist movement, one that it promoted because of its animus to the Jewish religion and because it simply wanted bragging rights, was the supposed revival of the “dead” Hebrew language, a language that was not used for two millennia. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, a truth which I witnessed with my own eyes as a small child.
When I was about ten years old, I lived with my parents in Kiev, then the capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, one of fifteen such republics that formed the Soviet Union. Both my grandfathers were killed in battle with the Nazis and my parents survived the Holocaust only because my grandmothers had accepted Stalin’s invitation to Jews in areas soon to be occupied by the Nazis to evacuate east all the way to Central Asia. Upon her return from Uzbekistan, my maternal grandmother Buzya (Bracha), a recent war widow, married a much older Jewish man, Efraim, a man who, being too old to fight, chose not to evacuate and witnessed his own wife Chaya and two teenage sons shot to death by Nazis in the middle of his town. He himself survived by hiding for four years in his Gentile lover’s hayloft.
Efraim had what we today would call PTSD, but he was a great step-granddad and I loved him dearly. My parents, especially my dad, became ardent Zionists after the Six Day War and when they took the plunge and submitted the papers required to leave the USSR, they began filling our house with contraband Hebrew textbooks. They knew no Yiddish, let alone Hebrew and the Hebrew alphabet was a total mystery to them. The books were illegal to possess in the USSR whose policy it was to suppress any signs of Jewish national revival, so possessing them was a pretty serious crime.
One of the memories that most lodged itself in the mind of my ten year old self was how one day Efraim, at that time already about 80 years old, but in perfect physical health and sharp as a tack, chanced upon one of these Hebrew language textbooks when visiting our apartment. Picking it up (it was a copy of a copy hand-stitched together from loose folios), he started rapid-fire reading the Hebrew sentences and did not stop until he finished the whole book. My father, who had little respect for my step granddad, was dumbfounded and so was I. “How do you know Hebrew?” my father exclaimed. Efraim looked rather nonchalant, “The rebbe in the heder taught me,” he said.
Hebrew, unlike Latin or Sanskrit, was never dead. It was very much alive, though it shifted usage from the language of the everyday to the language of liturgy and religious study. This shift had little to do with the diaspora; it started long before, in the first century BC, when Judea was awash with the lingua franca of Greek and Aramaic. By the fourth or fifth centuries AD, the transition was complete, but so was another, no less important transition.
In the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple by Rome in 70 AD, the ancient religion of Temple Judaism, with its pilgrimages and animal sacrifices gave birth to two successor religions, Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism, religions that are very much alive today. These two twins were far form identical. In fact, they represent two radically opposed visions of what to do now that the personal and collective sins of Israel, meaning the People of Israel, the Jews, can no longer be discharged by sacrificing to God in His temple.
Christians believed that their sins were discharged once and for all by the ultimate self-sacrifice of the man who they accepted as the Son of God and the Messiah, Jesus Christ and that all one had to do to partake in this forgiveness of sins and hence in life eternal was to accept Jesus as such. Followers of Rabbinical Judaism completely and utterly rejected this approach. In its stead, they created a religion that is in its core what we today would call a package of intellectual property. Whereas ancient Judaism was brick and mortar on a hill in Jerusalem, Rabbinical Judaism can very literally fit on a memory stick.
Of course practicing this new Judaism requires that one can read the contents of the memory stick, contents that are largely written in Hebrew. That being the case, the great Sages of the early post-Temple period created a network of study halls they called “congregation houses” or “synagogues” in the Greek. In these houses, there would be study, not worship, since no worship can take place outside of the Temple. The Sages further mandated that all Jewish males, upon reaching their Bar Mitzvah at the age of thirteen, could read the Torah, in public, leading the rest of the congregation. Anyone who has ever attempted such a reading knows how difficult it is to do. The Torah is written in rich and archaic Hebrew with no punctuation and hardly visible spaces between words. Crucially, it is written without Nikkud, which is a system of diacritical signs used to represent vowels or distinguish between alternative pronunciations of letters of the Hebrew alphabet (Wikipedia). One must be entirely proficient in Hebrew to read the Torah from a parchment scroll. Nearly all Jewish men throughout history and until modern times possessed this proficiency.
There are scholars who claim that the requirement that Jewish boys achieve the highest level of literacy in a language they didn’t even speak at home drove many lower-class Jews to Christianity; they simply could not afford to pay tuition or to spare their sons from helping in the fields or the family trade. Be it as it may, the Sages have undoubtedly created the most literate people in antiquity and through modern times.
The Jewish prayer book, the “arrangement” (Sidur) as it is called is almost entirely in the Hebrew, with some Aramaic mixed in. It is a fascinating work of literature, poetry, psychology, and historiography, a running commentary starting in the first century AD and going strong through the present time. In it, you will find the Kaddish, likely dating to the second century AD and the prayer for the wellbeing of the State of Israel, written in the 1960’s.
As someone who is fluent in both Hebrew and English, I can attest that the English translation of the Sidur bears little resemblance to the original. There are two reasons for this lack of translation fidelity: the first, is that Judaism is simply untranslatable. Judaism must be practiced in the holy language of the Hebrew using the Hebrew script. Removing the Hebrew from Rabbinical Judaism makes a mockery of the Sages’ original intent when they created the religion. Reading the Sidur in the English while parroting Hebrew words without understanding, which is what nearly all American Jews do nowadays is akin to visiting the Venetian Lagoon in Vegas and claiming that one has visited Venice. It is, in short, a mockery.
The second reason is that the translators of the Sidur, in their misguided attempt to create a sort of exalted religious language, relied on the one thing that they had access to: the English used in Christian prayers and Biblical translations. The usage of words like “the Lord” in the English side of the American Jewish prayer books reads to me not only wrong, but actually heretical and physically jarring. It is an assault against all that our ancestors stood for. It is simply unacceptable for a Jew.
Back when my great grandfathers and those of Senator Schumer lived not far from each other in Eastern Europe, had they had the chance to meet, they would immediately identify themselves as Jews by their clothing, their faces, their demeanor and proceeded to talk things over in Yiddish, though if they had to, they could carry a conversation in the Hebrew, albeit perhaps with some difficulty, as they would not have been accustomed to using that language outside of the Synagogue. In Synagogue, they would have been able to read and understand the prayer book in Hebrew and lead the congregation in reading from the Torah. These are all things that all male Jewish Israelis can do today, but is only true for an insignificant minority of American Jews, the one that is made up of Israeli expatriates and the ultra-Orthodox.
The Reformed and Conservative denominations of Judaism that have risen in the American exile and to which most American Jews belong, are a writ of divorce between Israeli and American Jews. These “Judaism-lite” versions defang our common heritage and seek to falsify our history. They do so by downplaying the role of the Hebrew language in the liturgy and by removing form the prayer book passages that relate to the longing to return home from exile, longing for Zion, and longing for revenge against the Gentiles for all the unimaginable slaughter that they have perpetrated against our people. What remains is a new-agey mumbo-jumbo, a social justice compote of two-faced derision for the intellectual inferiority of the Gentiles (especially the colored ones) and the satisfaction derived from virtue signaling on their behalf.
A century ago, in 1919, my great-grandparents and those of the American Jews now living, were one people. They practiced the same religion, they married only within their own ethnic group, they spoke the same language, they knew Hebrew, and they used the same prayer books. Most of all they knew that no place except for Israel can ever be their forever home. They knew that America, just like Poland was a place of exile.
Today, none of this is true. American Jews know neither Yiddish nor Hebrew and cannot follow the prayer service in its original language, the only language that makes it worth following. They do not seek to marry other Jews and most of them have given up on at least two of the foundational aspects of being Jewish: the people of Israel as a distinct ethnic group and the Land of Israel as its one and only homeland. American Jews today mistakenly think that America is somehow fundamentally different from Poland or from Germany or from any other place of exile. They have lost the Jewish perspective on things, a perspective that illuminates the indisputable fact that the Jews far predate not only America, but even the empire of antiquity upon whose example America was founded: Rome. American Jews have lost their sense of belonging to the Chosen People, the Eternal People, people who will be here long after the Mall in Washington DC resembles the ruins of the Roman Forum.
American Jews and Israeli Jews have nothing in common. We are not the same people, we do not practice the same religion, we share no values that really matter. It may be sad, but it is simply a fact. The Jewish-American hyphen may have been heftier than other hyphens for a brief moment in time, but now it is as weightless as the rest of them. Pasta, kielbasa, latkes, this is the fluff, this is the stuff American hyphens are made of and the Jewish one is no different.