Last Friday, when the sun went down in Los Angeles, the Jewish community came alive.
At Sinai Temple in Westwood, 2,000 people packed the sanctuary -- standing-room only -- to hear Elie Wiesel speak during Friday Night Live services as part of the temple's centennial celebration (see story on page 13). Afterward, hundreds of 20-somethings stayed for a special Q-and-A session with Oprah's favorite Holocaust author.
Not three blocks away, Israeli novelist Amos Oz held an overflow Shabbat evening crowd of 800 in his thrall as Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel's guest speaker.
I stopped in at two other synagogues that night: at Leo Baeck Temple, a Reform shul in Bel Air, a capacity crowd attended the usual, uplifting service, and on La Cienega Boulevard, at Conservative Temple Beth Am, 100 United Synagogue Youth from around California greeted Shabbat on the rooftop, a foretaste of raucous summer camp nights to camp.
On the way home -- you may have gathered that, yes, I drive on Shabbat -- I took Pico Boulevard, quiet but for the dozens of Orthodox Jews walking home from services.
That's just a few square miles of L.A. Jewry -- I never made it over the hill, or even to the hill, where hundreds flocked to services at Stephen S. Wise Temple.
There's only so much herring one Jew can eat, my grandfather used to say; it's hard to be two places at once.
You'd think by now the fact that Jewish life is lived so intensely in Los Angeles would cease to amaze me -- after all, this is the second largest Jewish population in the United States. But there remains such a constant wailing over the state of Jewish life that I occasionally have to wonder whether the worriers actually know any, um, Jews.
The latest round of "Oy Veying" was transatlantic. Two weeks ago, the profoundly talented Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua told an audience of American Jews in Washington, D.C., that Jewish life is experienced more completely in Israel than anywhere else.
There is, he said, "a fundamental boundary between Jewish identity in Israel and Jewish identity in the Diaspora."
The former, he argued, was richer, more meaningful and authentic, rooted in the land and language of the Jewish people. The latter, he said, led to an attenuated sense of Jewishness.
"I cannot keep my identity outside Israel," he said.
Outside Israel, Yehoshua argued, one wears one's Judaism like a coat that can be taken on or off. Inside Israel, one wears it like skin.
The remarks before the American Jewish Committee touched off a war of words among Israeli and American Jews. The Israeli daily Haaretz ran essays with supporting and competing views. Yehoshua apologized for the bluntness of his remarks in subsequent interviews, but held to them in a more refined way. It's an argument Yehoshua and a certain stream of Zionists has been making for years. And while I logically rebel against it, there's a part of me that understands Yehoshua.
Many years ago, I met him while he was on a speaking tour in Los Angeles. We stepped outside his Marina del Rey hotel so he could smoke his pipe. We spoke, in Hebrew, about how the feeling of one's Jewishness is of a different quality and intensity in Israel, where I had just been living, than in, say, Marina del Rey.
There was a bit of silence. He knocked the dottle from his bowl and turned to me.
"You have to come back," he said, then walked inside.
If there weren't a grain of truth in what he's still saying, people wouldn't be so upset. But there are other truths as well about Jewish identity: competing, confusing, contradicting ones that I have come to appreciate in the years since. Having lived in Israel, I can tell you the Jews there don't all walk about aglow with the flame of their Jewishness. Yehoshua's novels are populated with characters as spiritually bereft in Tel Aviv as Philip Roth's are in Newark.
As it happens, I do meet Israelis all the time who are leading rich Jewish lives -- they're in Los Angeles.
Diaspora just may be as important to the Jewish existence, and the Jewish psyche, as Zion. There is a practical aspect -- money and political support from outside Israel helped create and helps sustain the state -- as well as a more ethereal one. The power of being the landless outsider, some might argue, roots us in ideals.
"In the name of nationalism," wrote Douglas Rushkoff in "Nothing Sacred," "Jews abandon iconoclasm, the long-standing insight into the false idols of land-based peoples.... Zionism has become a mantra for Jews fighting against assimilation. But Judaism itself was formulated as a way of transcending the obsession with physical territory and focusing instead on the supremacy of time and the realm of ideas. What's more assimilated than rallying around a flag and fighting for a plot of land, just like everybody else?"
Yehoshua isn't saying that our existence depends on in-gathering -- he knows that argument falls flat in the face of 2,000 years of Jewish existence in exile. But he fails to appreciate the fact that so many of us live in the tension between his truth and Rushkoff's, belonging everywhere and nowhere, forever trying to be in two places at once.