Friday, December 17, 2010

Journalist explores the many faces of Israel

It's Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Today, let's visit the library and explore a book that offers and interesting look at the people, places and challenges of Israel.

Go to the bookstore and search for a book on Israel and what you'll probably find is a bloated essay on politics and war.

Donna Rosenthal, a veteran journalist with a hefty, impressive resume, thought there was a need for a book about Israelis – the people and the land. So she wrote one. "The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land" touches on the politics of the region, but focuses on ordinary and extraordinary people who call this tiny nation home.

The extraordinary include Gil Shwed, the Bill Gates of Israel, who took a simple software idea he cooked up in army intelligence in the early '90s and parlayed it into a company worth billions while amassing a personal fortune now estimated at $375 million. And Solomon Ezra, the first Ethiopian-born officer in the Israeli air force, who was instrumental in the dramatic and dangerous airlift of 14,324 Ethiopian Jews in a hush-hush project that the world came to know as Operation Solomon.

But Rosenthal spends most of her energy detailing the joys and struggles of dozens of "ordinary" Israelis – Jews, Arabs, Christians and others – simply trying to get by in a country dealing with double-digit inflation, massive unemployment, religious intolerance and, as Rosenthal so, ah, indelicately puts it, hookers and hash.

Dalia is one of the prostitutes Rosenthal profiles, a suntanned sabra in her late 30s who fell for a big-talking, small-time drug dealer in Jerusalem who drove a Mustang. Dalia said her life was pretty good until the Russian mafia showed up in the Holy Land. The thugs have taken over the streets and are part of the largest tidal wave of immigrants in Israeli history, one of the largest in the history of the world.

After Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's easing of long-standing travel restrictions in 1989, more than a million immigrants headed for Israel. The rapid and massive influx of these people – Russians now make up 20 percent of the entire nation – has changed the face of the country.

Rosenthal reports a number of towns and neighborhoods resemble Moscow on the Mediterranean. Hundreds of non-kosher supermarkets sell pork sausages, Russian-style breads, Georgian wine, salted fish, and dozens of varieties of vodka. In restaurants and nightclubs in towns like Ashdod and Ashkelon, she writes, Russian is the national language, not Hebrew or Arabic. The Russian problem is relatively new and frustrating.

The Haredim – ultra-Orthodox Jews who often look like extras out of "Yentl" or "Fiddler on the Roof" – have been causing problems since the Jewish state was created in 1948. "There is Jewish," Moshe Stein, a Haredi youngster, told Rosenthal. "Then there's Jewish-Jewish. We're Jewish-Jewish-Jewish."

The average Haredi family is poor with lots of children. They live on welfare because the father studies Torah instead of earning a living. Most don't own a television and never have been to a movie. And although their education is funded by the "Zionist" government, Haredi students are taught that establishing the state was a modern Jewish catastrophe because only God is allowed to restore Israel to its land.

There's more – one additional irritant that infuriates non-Orthodox Israelis. In a country that has universal conscription, most Haredim are exempt from military service.

"I know they resent us," Benjamin Stein, Moshe's father, tells Rosenthal. "With soldiers fighting terrorists, what I say to explain seems trite to the secular. . . . We believe our prayers can be as powerful as tanks and guns. . . . More of their sons would die if we didn't pray."

Rosenthal also writes about other diverse communities spilling across the country – Israeli Arabs and their love-hate relationship with the nation; the Ashkenazim and their historical ties to the land; Muslims struggling for equality; and Bedouins trying to hold onto the past. She doesn't lecture and never rants. She stands aside and listens.

So the portrait Rosenthal creates feels true, a blemished masterpiece of a nation filled with a mixture of colors and textures of a people moving forward slowly on a land inextricably linked to the past.

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