Posted on | March 12, 2007 | By Ron Coleman | 112 Comments
One of the most troubling threads of discussion to emerge from this blog is the firm, virtually unanimous line of warning from Americans, particularly BT’s, who have chosen to make Israel their home — or those who, having made that decision once, concluded it was the wrong one for them, and have returned to their countries of origin. Having just come back from a trip to Israel, where I stayed in the largely North American enclave of Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph, I found this discussion particularly compelling. It is clear, based on my observations, discussions with American olim, and the majority of commentators here on this topic, that the cultural environment for North American BT’s who wish to find a place in Haredi life in Israel is brutally harsh. I can understand many reasons why this may be so. Some of them suggest rather harsh observations as well, and ones that we should learn from for our own sakes.
Fundamentally, American haredism and Israeli haredism bear largely superficial relations to each other. The differences are more fundamental than the similarities. You might object to this and insist that it is an overstatement; both kind of haredim, after all, are committed to scrupulous observance of halacha, including the cultural pressure points of tzenius and limud hatorah. But there are substantial populations withing the dati leumi camp, including those who consider themselves a sort of cross between haredim and datiim — chardal, they call themselves (Haredi Leumi — Nationalist Haredim) — who fit this description as well. Datiim also observe Shabbos and kashrus, all with varying degrees of stringency. Yes, non-hasidic haredim consider themselves in the same camp as hasidim; but probably not as many hasidim as they’d like to think agree.
But haredi society in Israel is so profoundly different from that of the group that uses the same name here (including hasidim to a large extent) that American olim have found it necessary to build their own camps. It is widely understood among Americans, and according to many it is daas torah, that Americans should live and learn mainly separately from Israelis, even in Israel. There are a number of very significant differences, and they don’t all have to do with hashkofah (outlook or philosophy).
One does: In Israeli haredi society (non-hasidic), men are simply not supposed to work for a living. Men learn. The “elite” includes everyone, except those who wish never to be regarded as fully frum. In America, by contrast, while there is a large and culturally very significant cadre of full-time learners, there is a place of honor at the table for the learned baalebos (“householder” or layman). This does not solve all our economic and social problems — witness the threads here about yeshiva tuition, for example — but it does mean we have a society in which the expectation of a man who is the head of a household being supported by others is not the default position. It is not an understatement to say that this is a profound difference between American and Israeli haredi society, and evidently men who learned in yeshiva for years, BT or otherwise, who get to Israel after having already left the beis medrash and begun to take personal and direct responsibility for their families’ sustenance, discover that they are at best second-class citizens in the eyes of Israeli haredim. This is regardless of their level of Torah knowledge, frumkeit and observance, and it is, from what I gather and from what I can project in my own case — because who does not visit Israel and muse of staying there? — demoralizing to say the least.
That is the easy one. The second main thrust of criticism that I have gleaned is far less amenable to interpretation as an artifact of idealism, and it is this: Haredi life in Israel is brutal. Some of this is the result of the first issue; where an entire social group lives on handouts, and insists that it is entitled to them by virtue of the spiritual benefit if bestows on those from whom it makes this demands, let us just say there will be… resistance. And gnawing, growing need. Corruption is almost inevitable. Every sort of tribal and clannish behavior is found and, unfortunately, rewarded by the system. Schools and seminaries become personal fiefdoms. The Israeli political system — recognized as one of the free world’s most corrupt — being largely the benefactor of an entire ethnic and cultural sector, inevitably leeches its crooked ethos into the soil from which even the most idealistic blooms grow. To an American, this is inevitable: Earthly sustenance disconnected from effort is contrary to the Protestant work ethic that every American, including orthodox Jews, believes in, even as we acknowledge abstractly that our work is only hishtadlus (a contribution of external effort) and that parnosah itself is awarded only by the grace of God. Here we say it; there, they live it. In fact they live it so profoundly there that they have political parties whose sole job is to press forward with enforcing the grace of God in the Knesset. It is inconceivable that American olim do not view this cynically, and that it chips away at their idealism.
(In a similar vein, Americans raised on concepts — however much observed more in the breach — of fair play and communal responsibility, the idea of living in a place and not contributing to its physical security, regardless of the spiritual station you assign yourself, is itself seen in largely unflattering terms — especially by many BTs. I cannot say, however, that I have observed this particular point to be one which has resulted in a large amount of American aliyah disfunction among haredim. Perhaps this is because of the widespread and reasonable observation that the Israeli political and philosophical hashkofah and utterly un-tzenius lifestyle that are part and parcel of military service are really so offensive to Torah values.)
Americans are told, or find out the hard way, that the system is “different” in Israel, and some of it is because of these profound structural differences. There are more. There is no question that despite the existence of chesed and tzedaka on phenomenal levels in Israeli society, there is a harshness in personal interrelations that simply does not comport with conception of Jewish middos that we learn about and try to inculcate in our children and ourselves. This Old World harshness, almost a certain brutality, is far more commonplace in Israel than in America.
This is not entirely surprising. In America, we go out of our way to avoid giving offense; making friends, being socially accepted by broad categories of persons, and even obsequiousness are considered ways to get ahead. One of our all-time biggest sellers is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. A recent article discussed how this book is being used in haredi communities here, such as hasidim, where such concepts are utterly foreign; but to Israelis, the promulgation of such ideas seems preposterous. Israelis joke about their style, but to fresh-scrubbed Americans, driving (it seems) to kill, assertive and widespread tobacco use, physical violence — all known phenomena in the Israel haredi world that cannot be blamed on exposure to the krum (gross) host culture — frankly seem abominable to North American eyes. To strangers, often lacking roots and native skills, such as language, the coldness and lack of outer warmth is more than off-putting. It can be a genuine challenge to religious inspiration, to say the least.
And finally, there is that issue of roots. I mentioned clannishness briefly. The English-language journalism, and the “reports” from the field in Israel, are clear: There is tremendous polarization along ethnic and “racial” lines among Jews in Israel, and these prejudices are very much alive among haredim. One recent article described an ehrliche (sincere) haredi parent’s attempt to enroll his child in a cheder, which was unsuccesful in cheder after cheder until he was given the advice to just plain lie about his children’s Sefardi grandparents on his mother’s side. We have Ashkenazi and Sefardi camps here, too, but I cannot fathom such a story in any but the most obscure communities, if then, in chutz l’aretz.
Undoubtedly, Israeli haredim are on the front lines of a very profound kulturkampf, a fight for the soul of the Jewish people that is being played out in very stark terms. But where there is war, there are uniforms — rigidly enforced; there are casualties — however regrettably; and there are atrocities — so to speak. Yes, I remain more than impressed — positively inspired — by the wellspring of enthusiasm and, yes, idealism by olim who have grown and blossomed and flourished in our eretz hakadosh. The growth of Torah to historically phenomenal levels can only be a sign of Heavenly approval. When I was in Israel, especially as I walked the streets of Jerusalem, I felt truly at home. Perhaps it is because I am a native New Yorker, but to me it is Jerusalem that I picture when I imagine, fantasize really, about living in Israel. But as my youthful enthusiasm gives way to reality and the acceptance of who and where I am, I have realized and learned that, unfortunately, there is almost no conceivable way I can be there, short of the miraculous Redemption, in the foreseeable future. What pains me most, though, is the realization that this fantasy, like so many others, can perhaps only be nurtured in the abstract, and that from what I have read, seen and heard, this love may well be unrequited.
We are, after all, in galus.