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November 11, 2013 10:30 am

California vs. Israel: The Grass May be Greener, But Not the Olives

avatar by Michael Widlanski

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Deir Hanna's old olive tree. Photo: Screenshot.

Deir Hanna's old olive tree in Israel. Photo: Screenshot.

Southern California’s olive trees are taller and emptier than olive trees anywhere in Israel, because the California authorities specially treat the trees. They do not bear fruit, but they look good.

You see the trees as you drive into the great malls like “Fashion Island” at Newport Beach, and they seem to symbolize a life-style and a culture.

They are a good metaphor for California and, most sadly,  for its Jews. Much of the California flora and fauna is  long on form but  short on content, displaying a kind of fruitless, rootless beauty that can be swept away by natural and unnatural disasters like a  forest fire or intermarriage.

“I have been here for more than ten years, and I love the weather. I am here for the weather,” says an Israeli who was once known as Reuven but is now named Robbie. He and his wife are sweet people, good people. They  cling to their Jewishness through periodic trips to the local Chabad offices, especially on Simhat Torah, when the Chabad rabbis and California’s teen-age Jews get drunk together.

They pretend to be spiritual while getting spirited.  Vodka is favored, but it is sometimes very hard to find kosher wine for Sabbath Kiddush.

Underneath the laughter, there is a real sadness  You know that you are in the kosher section of the local supermarket—Ralph’s or Albertson’s—because there is gefilte fish, or a hummus spread. This is alimentary Judaism not elementary Judaism, and it is spread very thin, as superficial as a California suntan.

“I am glad my children are girls, because even when they marry a non-Jew, at least the grand-children will still be Jewish,” an important Jewish activist and donor told me when I spoke to a gathering of local business-people and educators.  I also heard identical comments from three other “committed” Jews.

The Israelis here and the Sephardi-oriented Jews try to speak Hebrew to their children. They often do not send them to Jewish day schools because of the expense, while many of the Ashkenazi Jews send their kids to Jewish schools that specialize in teaching that God speaks with a Yiddish accent and dwells somewhere in the long strips of greasy kosher restaurants in Los Angeles.

Behold Pico, Roberston, and Fairfax, not Jerusalem, Tiberias, and Hebron.  Take off your shoes- not to respect the burning bush that is not consumed, but to dip your feet in  soft sinking sand on the beach.

There is tremendous natural beauty in the mountains of California, the Saddleback Mountains that caress the near-coastal communities of Irvine, Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, and Costa Del Mar, flowing down into the tempestuous and misnamed Pacific Ocean.

You can spot surfers in the foamy waters even on cold days, and the wave height here laughs at what Israelis see as a surf in their “sea”—the Mediterranean.

As we walk the cliffs overlooking Laguna Beach, we see Californians running and walking, enjoying nature, many parading with their babies—not children, but usually dogs, many in baby carriages. Some of the baby carriages carry twins and triplets – poodles, Chihuahuas, and other toy breeds for people who like to spend time showing off their  living toys.

Most California dog owners are fastidious cleaning up after their creatures, and Californians as a rule are very ecologically conscious, but they seem to leave Man out of the ecological equation. One sees and senses children a lot less than one does in Israel where many people complain that “life is the pits”  and where one can still spot a real pit in a real growing olive.

Dr. Widlanski  is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat, published by Threshold/Simon and Schuster. He teaches at Bar Ilan University and is Schusterman Visiting Professor at the University of California at Irvine for 2013-2014.

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  • Abbushuki

    Well spoken. But warnings for over 40 years have and conhtinue to fall on deaf ears. At the GA they spoke of programs for youth. They don’t get it: With no progeny liberal Judaism is the walking dead. They lost values of having children, marriage to Jews, Hebrew fluency, worship and identification with Judaism. Tikkunism does not require Judaism. Only the Orthodox will survive in 2 generations. It’s a fact that secular leaders cannot grasp. But they refuse to see the demographics on the wall. No Birthright or online marketing will cause today’s youth to have 4+ children. They now average under one per Jewish mother. Sad and irreversible.

  • Steve W

    You can’t sum up California based on the Northern folk. Jewish life is alive and well! Come look at Pico, La Brea, Encino etc.

    Just because you ventured to the elitist liberal turf doesn’t let you sum up everyone in the same bundle.

  • Shane B.

    Yes, Dr. Widlanski! Life is definitely not “the pits” in Israel. Now, how about getting some good Israeli olive oil produced by Jewish labor out to the store shelves in California. Or, some good olive-alef wisdom in a Jewish retreat for Californian Israelis at Bar Ilan U. Or a Jewish retreat on the value of chassidut, for professors of Bar Ilan, in Jerusalem. Or Tekoah…