America has long served as the world’s cultural trendsetter. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Israel.
Although English is a second language in Israel, this fact fails to convey the extent of America’s infiltration into Israeli society. It is not that you can get by without speaking Hebrew; indeed, it is difficult to embrace the society without speaking Hebrew. But English idioms have become commonplace in Israeli speech—and not just the “ya” endings of yesteryear (“televizya,” “protektsiya”). Listen to any Israeli speak—be it an ordinary citizen or a media personality—and he will sprinkle his sentences with words or phrases like “why not,” “time,” “time out,” “so what,” “OK,” “chance,” “conflict” (pronounced “con-FLICT,” plural “con-FLICT-im”), not to mention technical terms like “Internet,” “e-mail,” “fax,” “high-definition” and literally hundreds of other words, all of which are transliterated into Hebrew in the press. No doubt this is partly the influence of globalization, here known, of course, as “globalizatzya.”
Rather than grasp for a Hebrew word, it is often easier to just say it in English, with the occasional conversionary suffixes. Preparing for a public speech a few weeks ago, I looked up the word “speculative.” I need not have; the Hebrew is “speculativi.” Occasionally, the pronunciations and etymologies are humorous. Liat Collins, who writes a language column in The Jerusalem Post, reported an argument she had had with her commander in the army many years ago, who gave her an “ool-ti-mah-tum,” claiming it was a Hebrew word and correcting her (she is British) when she insisted on pronouncing it “UL-ti-mah-tum.”
As an aside, part of me wishes that “Saturday” would enter the Israeli lexicon in order to avoid hearing such non sequiturs as “On Shabbat, we drove to the Galil for a picnic.” Another part of me feels that at least use of the word “Shabbat” helps keep the idea of Shabbat alive, even if it is not observed properly.
The most amusing illustration of American influence that I have seen is “Halailah,” Israel’s The Tonight Show. “From Kikar Dizengoff in Tel Avivvvvv, it’s Halailah—starring Lior Schleiiiiiiiiin!” It is rank mimicry of the late night talk shows in America—featuring the host, the monologue (I never would have thought that Asarah B’Tevet could be mined for comic material!), the set—complete with the desk, the backdrop of Tel Aviv (instead of New York City or Hollywood), the sofa chairs, the band and the banter with the bandleader.
Certainly, the culture as it is has little general appeal to the more traditional elements in society. Religious Jews are blessed with a plethora of shiurim—every night of the week, and on an immense variety of topics—in almost every community in the country. But it is very difficult to combat a cultural behemoth like the United States. The revolution against Greek culture that occurred during the Second Temple era began right here in Modiin. Yet, it is worth recalling that despite the Chanukah victory, less than 100 years later, Simon the Maccabee’s own great-grandsons, who bore the fine Greek names Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, fought each other for the throne and self-destructed.
A country with its own culture shapes its own destiny, and develops a strong sense of national pride. American culture may be dominant in the world, but, in truth, it is scarcely felt in countries like Russia or China, each of which has a rich cultural tradition of its own. An indigenous Israeli culture exists, but it is overwhelmed by America’s. Israelis write books, yet the bookstores are mainly filled with Hebrew translations of American best sellers. In time and given the right circumstances, Israel will surely develop a culture that is uniquely Jewish and that touches the mind, heart and soul. It is part of building a state, liberating the Jewish spirit from centuries of exile and shaping the national character that will engender “a kingdom of priests and a holy people.”