Alexandria in America
Herein lies our trouble. The more time goes by in which American Jews fail to get on the Israeli-civilization bus, the less qualified they become to say anything at all about who we are and what we should or shouldn’t do. The harsh truth is that any discourse that says “I love Israel, but I can’t stand Israelis,” “I love Israel, but could never live there,” “I love Israel, but can’t stand that horrible rabbinate, that horrible Lieberman, that horrible heat,” or, “I love Israel even though I don’t know Hebrew” — all these are variations of a single bizarre theme, a theme very different from what Jews used to be, a theme in which ignorance and love are seen as somehow compatible, in which what you’re loving isn’t really Israel at all, but your own saucy dreams. But there is a simple solution to all this, perhaps incomplete and sure to cause many American Jews to bristle — but frankly it is the only way forward if this peoplehood thing is going to work. It’s the 800-pound falafel ball sitting in the room.
Many people may not be aware of the flourishing Hebrew culture that once existed in America. This culture included poets (see e.g. Alan Mintz’s Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry); journals (Bi-Tzaron, Ha-Doar); and camps (Massad). Much of this activity was influenced by the Histadrut Ivrit of America. See the following description from this book:
It is one of the great tragedies of American Judaism that the knowledge of Hebrew has not been a priority for this community. If Argentinian Jews can acquire a high-level knowledge of Hebrew, why can’t a significant number of American Jews? For some discussion of this question see Hebrew in America: Perspectives and Prospects.
Hazony’s article is a good opportunity to post an article that has been sitting on my computer for some while. The late Gershon Shaked was an Israeli literary critic and after a sabbatical in America during the early 1980′s, he wrote a long missive about his time abroad. This article was published in the now defunct Jerusalem Quarterly and IMHO is still of great importance. In his article, Shaked compares American Judaism to the Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt of late anquity. Some discussion of his article can be found in Hebrew in America: Perspectives and Prospects.
For a recent discussion of a related issue, see Yehuda Kurtzer’s article, A.B. Yehoshua Should Pipe Down. A historical treatment of late antiquity can be found in the article “A Split Jewish Diaspora : Its Dramatic Consequences” by Aryeh Edrei and Doron Mendels. (part I, part II)