Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Shtetl Judaism

October 12, 2010

Yesterday we had a class with Avital, our volunteer coordinator who also knows every single thing in the world there is to know, about the history of Yafo. It was really interesting in and of itself, but it made me think about one specific thing that had been bothering me but I hadn’t been able to really put my finger on before.

She showed us this postcard that was a Zionist advertisement geared at Eastern European Jews back in the day. Here is a link to the image. In case it’s too small to see the details, here is what’s happening: In the left hand corner is a seated Jewish man, hunched over, with yarmulke and peyes, caged in with barbed wire. Standing over him is some sort of angel whose arms and wings are pointing across the postcard. On the right hand side is the image of an upright man farming and working his land in front of the setting sun. In the bottom corner, right across from the barbed wire, are stalks of wheat.

We talked about how this postcard is encouraging you to not only come to Israel, but to slough off your shtetl identity and burdens and become a strong farmer. You are supposed to get rid of your culture of oppression and fear, cast off everything Eastern Europe, and the diaspora, has done to you and become one with the land, as you “once were.”

We also talked about how 2.4 million Jews left Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1914, and while 2 million of them came to America, about 75,000 of them came to Israel and became the first wave of Aliya. The Jews who came to America did not slough off their shtetl identities. They lived in Jewish areas of Jewish cities, and basically had a smaller, less dangerous version of what they had in Eastern Europe. The Yiddish, the culture of kvetching and kvelling stayed strong. Not so, however, for those that came to Israel. They moved to the Middle East, became farmers or what have you, and their identities completely changed. Jews in Israel are not diaspora Jews, they have not clung to their Eastern European pasts (those with Eastern European pasts) the way American Jews have.

And I think this where a lot of the Jewish culture shock comes from. The Eastern European shtetl identity is one of the defining factors of my Jewish identity. The Bulbus song is, I think, the best example of that kind of Judaism there is. But for Jews here, that’s not really how it goes. It’s a very different type of Judaism, and I think this lack of shared history and culture is a major reason.

I’ve also seen this change in the languages. I realized about a week ago that Hebrew is not nearly as fun or funny a language as Yiddish. Learning Hebrew is like learning French or Chinese – interesting, and relevant because I’m living here, but nothing I feel very connected to. But learning Yiddish, oh yeah, that was the language of my people. Yiddish I felt, and still feel, very connected to, in a way I never will with Hebrew. And Yiddish is so Jewish! And by that, of course, I mean Eastern European shtetl Jewish. My favorite example: in Yiddish, there are 5 acceptable answers to the question “how are you,” which range from the equivalents of “SUPER GREAT” to “you’re better of not knowing, I’d rather be dead.” When we learned them, my teacher told us that there is never an appropriate occasion to say the “super great” one; it can always be worse, and you should never be that happy. It’s best to just go with the middle one, which is rather like “ehh.” That, to me, is so hilarious because it is so Jewish. They don’t have hilarious stuff like that in Hebrew.

The intentional casting off of shtetl-ness and oppression has served to create a culture of Judaism here in Israel that is completely different from any kind of Judaism I’ve ever experienced. In Israel, Jews call us “Diaspora Jews.” They differentiate themselves from all other Jews, because we are still in diaspora and they are not; they are “home,” they are “back,” they have “returned,” they have “come up to the Land of Israel” (which is the actual definition of “making Aliya,” by the way.) They are different from us. No kidding.

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