Sunday, December 22, 2002

The Adventures of Tommy the Dinosaur or Not European, Not Eastern - Israeli, An Original and Unique Entity.
The intense tensions between different segments of Israeli society are copious. Rich and poor; Askenazi and Mizrahi; Jews and Arabs; religious and secular; right and left; center and periphery. A lot of people are afraid that all these problems are pulling us apart; that they are just too much for any one society to handle. They are so worried about all these problems that they can't see all the wonderful things that are happening here.

Tommy Lapid is one of a dying breed in Israel, with his admiration for European culture and mannerisms. Europhiles, some open like Tommy Lapid, others who think it but don't talk about it for fear of being seen as discriminative, have been temporarily strengthened by the large influx of Russian immigrants, some of whom are derisive of the Middle Eastern winds that blow here. But these winds continue to blow, regardless. Israeli popular culture is more Eastern than ever before.

Young Israelis are faced with the dilemma of the "bad" Europe that brought about the systematic extermination of the Jews during WWII and the "good" Europe with its philosophy, music, art and literature. But unlike Lapid's generation, youngsters today have multiple influences. Europe, with its perceived contempt for Israel, is no longer a default choice.

You may say I'm overly optimistic and that I am ignoring some unpleasant realities, but I truly believe that we are witnessing something exciting happening here, a slow but sure fusion of our rich cultural diversity. Unlike in the early years, Europe is no longer the main cultural axis around which everything revolves. Bish and myself are just one example of the many couples I know from different cultural backgrounds. I believe that, in a few generations, the question of Sephardi and Ashkenazi will be marginal. Most Israelis will be happy, healthy mongrels, like my girls. The result will be a whole new culture. No one can really prophesy what it will be like. It doesn't really matter, either, for it in itself will not be static, but a constantly transforming and developing entity, as is the nature of human society.

Which direction is this development taking right now?

Well, for one thing there is currently a lot of popular interest in Jewish roots and heritage. This is not necessarily a religious thing. Part of coming to terms with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin has been a growing secular movement of getting better acquainted with our Jewish traditional wisdom. Many organizations have sprung up that teach Judaism to secular adults without attempting to make them religious.

Another newish trend takes advantage of the fact that people are feeling more comfortable than ever before with their ethnic differences, within the framework of Israeli society, and not necessarily out of a place of protest (although some would want to exploit it to further such protest). The Yiddish theater is flourishing, and theatrical productions in Moroccan are very popular. And these are just two little examples.

I'm not sure where this is leading, but reconciliation with our past is surely the first step of moving forward.

Israeli pop music has become of late an interesting mixture of east and west. I find the current fad for releasing Mizrahi versions for old Israeli favorites particularly intriguing.

The widespread fascination in Israel for Eastern philosophies, and the firsthand experience of India and Thailand, by hundreds of thousands of young Israelis is sure to have an affect, too.

And then, of course, there's the American culture absorbed into our psyche through TV and music.

I believe we are right in the middle of a process of building our own unique identity. Unlike in the early years, this time it is not being pushed in any particular direction by an official ideology. It's just happening. I admit it's getting quite a lot of rather aggressive help from the electronic media. They're always eager to cash in on anything that seems popular. This will probably serve to slow down the process. People rapidly get fed up of what TV rams down their throat.

I think a lot of people of all kinds feel very threatened by this spontaneous change that is coming about (I wanted to call it a cultural revolution, but that term is rather loaded), without really being aware of what it is they are reacting too, so strongly. They're still stuck in old concepts.

People who complain incessantly about deprivation of the Mizrahim, for instance, can't stop Mizrahi youngsters from leaving the development towns that sadly can offer them little cultural or economic advancement and coming to Tel Aviv to change their destinies. A lot of the people I work with came to the Tel Aviv area from Tiberias, Sderot, Afula, Kiryat Shmona, to name but a few. They haven't waited for affirmative action. They have got on with their lives and many hold managerial posts. Their children are already growing up into a different reality than their parents experienced as children. In Mitzpe Ramon, I have met people who have returned to live in their hometown, strengthened and enriched from a few years away from it.

People, who continue to be stuck with their feelings of deprivation, cultural superiority or disappointment with the changing face of Israel, will forever feel uncomfortable in this whole new entity that is emerging. What can I say? That's their problem. You can't drink the empty half of the cup. You can dwell on it, be angry about it and let it pull you down into endless misery. But you can't drink it. It's your choice. Don't blame me for it.

Excuse me if I choose to enjoy the full half of the cup to the utmost.