After years and years of prevarication ("You must admit, Israel is dangerous!" To which I reply, "more dangerous than LA or the Bronx??") recently two sets of my American cousins have come to visit. After a childhood in which numerous relatives would descend on us and expect us to give them the 5 star tour of my hometown, Washington, DC., I thought I was prepared for this task.
We are something of an odd family. My mother had two sisters and a brother, all older and all had been born in Russia. Her siblings married young, and had their children young, and Mother married late, and had me when she was 40, so I have nearly no other relative in the family who is my contemporary. This strange, sort of "split level" family tree, combined with our penchant for moving all over the world, means that we aren't a tight-knit bunch.
Sue, and her husband Rob, arrived first. Sue's father is my mother's older brother, but she's several years younger than I am, and because of family politics, I'd never met her before (or only once; we were unsure, not recognizing each other at all) I doubt they would ever have come to Israel except that Rob's niece was graduating from an Israeli university where she's an exchange student.
Commandeering my daughter's car, I took them for a day trip to the north, to the Crusader castle at Belvoir (Kochav Yarden) and to kibbutz Lavi, to lunch at the Pagoda, a very good Chinese restaurant on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and then drove them back to Jerusalem via Megiddo and the coastal road. The night before, picking them up at their hotel, I took them to the Sherover Promenade which overlooks the Old City, and had Rob make the "Shchecheyanu" blessing that is appropriate for having a new or unique experience, and then took them to the Kotel (Western Wall). The Wall at night is quite impressive, but I got the feeling that, for them, it was pretty much just a wall.
But they loved wandering through the Machaneh Yehuda open-air market, and seeing what a real kibbutz was like, even though I realized they had some difficulty in understanding why anyone would want to live in one (apart from the lovely landscaping). Rob told me he wasn't interested in historical places anywhere as near as much as seeing how people lived.
On their final day in Jerusalem I drove them to Masada, where we met up with more of Rob's family, including his married daughter. His son-in-law asked so many questions which showed he knew next to nothing about Jewish history that I asked Sue if he was Jewish (neither his name nor his appearance gave any hint). "Oh yes, " she said, "he's from quite an Orthodox home". What she meant by this was that he would go to the synagogue on Yom Kippur.
Then, just last week, the Los Angeles contingent arrived. There is a program, underwritten by American Jewish philanthropists in conjunction with the Israeli government, called "Birthright" which gives American Jewish teenagers a free, guided trip to Israel, lasting a week or so. That's how Lowell got here, several years ago. He's the exact contemporary of my son, but one generation further on, if you get my meaning. His mother Ellen's grandmother and my mother were sisters. He returned to the States so enthusiastic about Israel that he convinced the entire family to come on a visit.
They did it in style, taking a licensed tour guide with a van (there were a total of five persons, which made it impossible to stuff them all in my car) for most of the time. The guide must have had his work cut out, because they had even less knowledge of what they were being shown than my other cousins, and these cousins were interested in visiting all the de rigueur "places", like the Knesset, Yad Vashem and the Supreme Court building and rather obviously weren't all that keen on open air markets, etc.
It was nice, but tiring, and mildly depressing. I'm glad they came, and I'm glad I got to know them better. But if they are at all typical of the "average" American non-Orthodox Jew, and I think they are, I don't have a lot of hope for Jewish survival in the US for more than another couple of generations.
None of them could read Hebrew, not even enough for the prayers. None of them knew any of the traditional liturgy. None of them had more than the vaguest idea of Jewish history, either in the Land or worldwide. None of them knew what the Talmud consisted of (let alone had ever peeked inside one) nor of the commandments which are particular to Israel such as tithes, the sabbatical year, etc., or even many of the commandments at all. None keep kosher, for example. In other words, these very nice, intelligent people were entirely ignorant of their heritage, and quite happy to be so. It just doesn't have any relevance to them.
Long ago, my father predicted that while there would continue to be Jews in Russia, because of the persecution and anti-Semitism there, Israeli Jews would identify themselves more as Israelis than Jews, and that there would no longer be a Jewish community in the US because it would entirely assimilate. I fear he may be right, some day.
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