Slipping Seinfeld Into Ariel Sharon’s Speeches

From: Gregory Levey To: Shmuel Rosner Dear Shmuel, Perhaps one day you will write a book for your fellow Israelis about your time spent with us wacky North Americans dealing with our misguided ways. As a devoted fan of your … Read More

By / April 9, 2008

From: Gregory Levey

To: Shmuel Rosner

Dear Shmuel,

Perhaps one day you will write a book for your fellow Israelis about your time spent with us wacky North Americans dealing with our misguided ways. As a devoted fan of your journalism – most mornings your writing is the first thing I read – I certainly hope so.

But if you choose to write it as a personal memoir like mine, as opposed to as an anthropological study, I'm sure you will be reluctant to see yourself as a stand-in for all Israelis. Again, all I tried to do in Shut Up, I'm Talking is tell my own personal story: I applied for a part-time internship at the Israeli consulate in New York, and instead found myself catapulted to the Israeli UN Mission and Prime Minister's Office. It's not an experience likely to be repeated often by non-Israelis, and so I would see bending it to the needs of allegory as a dangerous proposition. Readers of my book can choose to take it however they want, but that isn't really my concern.

I was very glad to hear that you found Shut Up, I'm Talking funny, because if I were to categorize its intent as either "to amuse" or "to enlighten," it would certainly be the former. Being offered leftover salami from Ariel Sharon's lunch, being forced to run around with a gun with no safety lodged next to my crotch during a security course, and even trying to sneak Seinfeld references into the Prime Minister's speeches were experiences that were, above all else, comic. I'm glad to hear that you seem to think people might be able to learn something from my book, but I was mostly concerned with making them laugh.

But enough about Seinfeld and my crotch — let's get serious. I was surprised that you thought my suggestion that the cultural and the political are enmeshed was "almost outrageous," especially since I'm hardly the first to assert such a thing. My understanding, in fact, is that it's more or less a commonplace idea among cultural theorists. In any case, it's not a cause-and-effect principle, but a correlative one. The crazy driving of Israelis doesn't cause their government's policies, but the two may stem from the same underlying forces — the rapid pace of events in the Middle East that you mention and that I very quickly had to learn to deal with when I was writing speeches for Israel. As another example, the behavior of the person I refer to in my book as "the worst person I ever met" might not be unrelated to his country being in a constant state of war.

You contend that my doubts about the soundness of certain specific Israeli policies should not be trusted simply because I happened to mention them in the same breath as Canada and Switzerland, and that this might be a product of my Diaspora mentality. Comparable arguments might be made for China, Russia, the Palestinians, or anyone else, by the way, but maybe your reflexive rejection of a fairly common idea might actually shed some light on your own Israeliness (if we're going to play this somewhat tired game). That is, Israel most definitely has to deal with a uniquely dangerous situation, but this doesn't mean it's not part of the rest of the world.

Sometimes I worry that Israelis forget that.

But let's move forward, as you suggest. You ask if I think we should aspire to bridge the cultural gap between Israelis and American Jews and whether it can be done. Bridging the gap is obviously a noble desire, but I'm pessimistic about its feasibility. One of the most astounding triumphs of Israel — and there are, of course, a multitude — is that the country really has been able to create a new culture all its own. American Jews have to applaud that, but that doesn't mean that they can ever fully share in it.

I can't speak for anyone but myself, but some of the experiences I detail in Shut Up, I'm Talking definitely didn't help bridge my own cultural gap with Israel. Being punched at by Israeli cab drivers, waiting six weeks for a government committee to decide that I needed a cell phone in my position as "communications coordinator," and dealing with the understandably intense security apparatus made the cultural chasm seem vast.

By the way, Shmuel, let me give you a hearty congratulations on your recent B'nai Brith journalism award for your work on currents in American Jewry and its connection to Israel. It goes without saying that it was richly deserved. All best wishes, Gregory

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