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Michael Oren: My Generation

Under an unseasonably hot winter sun, several hundred mourners gathered recently for the funeral of Stuart Schoffman. Scholar, screenwriter, translator of David Grossman, A.B. Yehoshua, Aharon Appelfeld, and Meir Shalev, Stuart was born in Brooklyn, the son of a renowned Hebraist, and attended Flatbush Yeshiva. He went on to earn degrees at Harvard and Yale, to report for Fortune and Time magazine, and then to Hollywood where he wrote the screenplay for the action film The Finest Hour, starring Rob Lowe.

Among Israel’s Anglo-Saxi—English-speaking—community, though, Stuart was best remembered as a columnist for The Jerusalem Report. Once considered the premier English-language Israeli journal, the Report produced such preeminent writers as David Horovitz, Ze’ev Chafets, and Yossi Klein Halevi. Beginning in 1990 and for 17 years afterward, Stuart wrote passionately about culture, politics, and his agonizing battle with cancer that contributed to his death at age 74.

Now at the funeral, his wife, Roberta, and their two children, Dani and Rafi, joined with Stuart’s friends and admirers, many of them native-born Israelis but most of them Anglo-Saxim. The majority had, like me, immigrated to Israel in the often-dark years after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. We arrived with virtually nothing and went on to serve in the IDF, to build careers as journalists, lawyers, educators, and businesspeople, to raise children and later care for grandchildren. Now, graying and notably stooped, we stand at the cusp of old age. Glancing around the gravesite, I couldn’t help asking myself what exactly had brought us here? Who had we been as young people? Wide-eyed idealists? Diehard adventurers? Pioneers? What distinguished our generation of olim—new immigrants to Israel—from any other, I wondered, and what legacy might we possibly leave behind?

The Israel we came to was radically different from the high-tech, socially electric, and culinarily sublime country of today. It was, rather, a low-to-middle class, largely agrarian, and underdeveloped backwater. This was the Israel that had just seen Yasir Arafat, holster visible on his hip, get a standing ovation from the U.N. General Assembly which went on to equate Zionism with racism. This was the Israel whose citizens could not visit China, India, the 12-state Soviet Bloc, or the 20 African countries that severed ties with us after the 1974 Arab oil embargo. This was the Israel which the president of the United States threatened to sanction unless it relinquished part of the occupied Sinai to Egypt, an Israel boycotted by Burger King, Pepsi, and Pizza Hut, along with almost all Japanese car makers. And this was an Israel virtually devoid of nightlife or decent restaurants, reliant on kerosene stoves for central heating and a single TV channel for news, and severely lacking in civility, as we Americans understood it back then.

Making aliyah was difficult, and not only because of the absence of a Nefesh b’Nefesh, the organization that enables new immigrants to perform in a single hour the bureaucratic acrobatics that once took us years to complete. Moreover, few North Americans were willing to move from an exceptionally affluent society to a markedly poorer one, as well as from an environment of almost total security to one of daily danger. Not only were we still at war with all 21 Arab states, but large-scale terrorist attacks—in Ma’alot, Kiryat Shmona, and on the Coast Road—had become commonplace. Military service was considered de rigueur, even for olim nearing 30, and the few hundred immigrant soldiers received none of the benefits, from fresh socks to Purim baskets, given to the more than 8,000 Lone Soldiers serving today.

America was distant, not only culturally and economically, but logistically, too. Direct flights were almost unheard of and a single telephone call—usually made from a public booth with a bag of metal tokens, asimonim—could cost as much as $100. Visits back to the States were rare and routinely made with near-empty suitcases that returned brimming with Cheerios, tuna fish, toilet paper, and other Anglo-Saxi essentials.

But one of the hardest challenges facing olim was the attitude of the native-born Israelis. While respectful of the olim who fled persecution from Eastern Europe and Iran, the sabras, as they called themselves, were suspicious and even disdainful of those who left America’s paradise for Israel’s embattled ghetto. Doing so, they reasoned, was deranged. Their typical reaction to us was, “ma, hishtagata?” What, have you lost your mind?

And yet, we came. College-educated and pampered (by Israeli standards), we resettled a country that was overwhelmingly blue collar and toughened by hardships. The nationwide unity that had helped Israel prevail through the 1967 Six-Day War and the subsequent War of Attrition was rapidly unraveling as the right-wing Greater Israel Movement faced off with Peace Now. The olim I met in my Jerusalem absorption center, most of them refugees, were often disoriented and bitter. The Americans, by contrast, were generally upbeat, even while struggling to adapt. We came to Israel not in spite of its hazards and international isolation, but because of them, to defend the state and, if possible, improve it. We were energized, uplifted and, above all, grateful.

Were we mad? Still drugged from the 1960s? No, we were merely the products of a unique moment in Jewish history, the liberal, mostly Democratic Party-voting children of parents who had either grown up in America’s Great Depression or, in Europe, survived the Holocaust. Many of our fathers had fought in World War II. And yet silently, we were ashamed. Besetting us was the sense that American Jews had done nothing to save the 6 million, that they played stickball and danced the jitterbug while their people burned in Auschwitz. Though Israel’s victory in 1967 arguably gave American Jewry the courage for the first time to talk publicly about the Holocaust, it also held up our parents’ passivity to Israel’s lightning thrust.

The victory similarly animated the effort to free the Soviet Jews. They, too, responded to Israel’s triumph by taking on the Communist authorities and demanding to make aliyah. Some, such as Natan Sharanky and Ida Nudel, were sentenced to the gulag. Suddenly, American Jews became aware that 3 million of their co-religionists were basically imprisoned, forbidden to learn Hebrew or declare their support for Israel. How could we, residents of the freest country in history, not exercise the right denied to Soviet Jews? How could we remain in our coddled American lives while Nudel, Sharansky, and so many other modern Jewish heroes, labored and froze in Siberia? How could we stay in a country which, although far less brutally than the Soviet Union, did not fully accept us as Jews?

This was certainly the sense that many of us had, that the term “American Jew” was at some level an oxymoron. That was the message of our most prominent writers—Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, and Saul Bellow—who wrestled with their bifurcated identities. This was the last moment in our history when American Jews were considered a distinguishable ethnic group. Jews, alone, ate rock-hard bagels and lox, alone listened to comic folk singer Allan Sherman, and frequented the borscht belt resorts. At the same time, there were no Jewish astronauts, TV anchormen, or characters on sitcoms. The Watergate tapes revealed, though to no one’s astonishment, that President Nixon was a Jew-hater, and while the Ivy League universities were for the first time admitting large numbers of Jews, restricted clubs and neighborhoods survived. So, too, did antisemitic organizations such as the John Birch Society and the American Independent Party. The bombing of my synagogue in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1971, was attributed to the Ku Klux Klan.

Yet along with the guilt, the sense of alienness, and the constant threats, young American Jews were exposed to a kaleidoscope of personalities and ideas. These ranged from Shlomo Carlebach to Meir Kahane—from free love to radical resistance—and from the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Reform Rabbi Richard Hirsch and the Conservative Chavurah movement. In any given week, one could protest for Soviet Jewish freedom as well as against the Vietnam War. Coming of age in the late ’60s and early ’70s meant being infused with a sense of activism and personal mission that a small but ardent group of American Jews would bring with them to Israel.

No wonder, then, that so many of us were not content with merely moving. Instead, we embraced Israel’s vibrant civil society, volunteering for left- and right-wing causes, for environment protection groups, and emergency medical services. We settled not only in Judea and Samaria, but in the Galilee and the Negev. Though no statistics are available, I would wager that the voting rate among my American Israeli peers is far above the 70% national average, closer to 100%.

For all this advocacy, though, the majority of American olim never fully integrated into Israeli society. Though some rose to senior positions in the diplomatic and intelligence corps, few became totally proficient in Hebrew. A high proportion of us married other Anglo-Saxim and socialized largely with other English speakers. Abjuring Israel’s purely secular society, we recreated our own religious communities, whether Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. We remained devoted to the NFL and our favorite baseball teams, rocked to Springsteen and the Grateful Dead, and celebrated both Thanksgiving and July Fourth. Along with The Jerusalem Report, we read The Jerusalem Post, the Haaretz English edition, and, more recently, the Times of Israel, watched ILTV and i24 News. The Jews who were once an ethnicity in America became an American ethnicity in Israel.

And we had children. Like most first-generation immigrants to Israel, the American olim rejoiced in seeing their kids grow up in a sovereign Jewish state, bilingual but speaking unaccented Hebrew, and going through the classic Israeli stages from youth movement to military service to chupa. Some of our grandchildren would barely know English. We knew happiness but also the horror of wars and serial terrorist attacks and the nagging thought that our families were paying the price of our Zionist dream.

We were a hardy bunch, the less than 30% of American olim who stuck it out and didn’t return to the United States. We put up with endless bureaucracy, yawning cultural gaps, national crises, and standards of living often remote from what we might have enjoyed in America. We lived to see large segments of the American Jewish community, particularly young liberals, grow distant from Israel, and view it largely through the lens of the Palestinian issue. Materially, we received very little—certainly no well-paying tech jobs—but enriched our lives with meaning. We were, and to a large extent remain, grateful.

That gratitude was evident at Stuart Schoffman’s funeral. Along with sadness, the mourners were bound by a sense of accomplishment, that we, like Stuart and others of our generation, had in some small way contributed to building this nation. We had sacrificed but ultimately for goals greater than ourselves.

That, I believe, will be our legacy. Wide-eyed, adventurous, and perhaps even prophetic, we chose to link our destiny to Israel’s and to endure whatever that entailed. We emigrated from America yet somehow never left—neither in life nor, apparently, in death. Around the fresh grave, we gathered and fulfilled one of Stuart’s final requests. Together, we sang The City of New Orleans, composed by Steve Goodman and recorded by Arlo Guthrie, both American Jews, in 1972. Everyone knew the words.

Michael Oren

Photo: The late writer Stuart Schoffman, who emigrated to Israel in the dark years after the Yom Kippur War