Israel Needs Muppets

Jewdar was all set to write a rave review of The Muppets. After all, the movie, co-penned by, and starring former Heeb coverboy Jason Segel, is an absosmurfly fabulous film. Three generations of the Jewdar family saw it, and all loved it. Segel, as always, gave a great performance, and as a writer, he’s two for two (he also co-scripted another Jewdar favorite, Forgetting Sarah Marshall). Moreover, Segel is a huge Muppets fan, and the film, beyond being a great movie, is a great Muppets movie (Full Disclosure, when Jewdar was a lad, he toted around a Muppets lunchbox for a couple of years).

So we were all set to praise The Muppets as the kind of movie that reminds you what kids’ movies could be, when we saw that Israel was making another ill-fated foray into the world of winning hearts and minds.

As regular readers know, Jewdar is not generally a big fan of Israeli PR efforts. By the looks of things, this isn’t about to change. In a new series of PSAs posted on various websites (as well as billboards in American cities with Israeli populations), the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption is trying to convince yordim (Israelis who emigrated) that if they don’t come back…well, bad things will happen.

While various American politicians and professional Jews are upset by the message of the spots, Jewdar is more annoyed by the medium, and what it suggests. In Yom Hazikaron, which shows an Israeli with an American boyfriend (unclear if he’s Jewish), the guy playing the “American Boyfriend” sounds like an Israeli playing an American trying to sound Israeli “Hey Daphna, now I get it, the candles, the music, you want to make the love, yes, chaticha?” As for Daphna, what’s her problem? I mean, great, I get it, it’s Yom Hazikaron, but can’t she tell her boyfriend what’s going on? The message at the end is basically “They’ll Always Remain Israeli. Their partners won’t always know what that means.” Uh, yeah, especially if Daphna won’t tell him what the hell is going on. So basically, the message of this is that if you’re an Israeli, and marry an American, he/she won’t always understand you. Guess what? If you’re an American and marry an American, your spouse won’t always understand you.  Not always understanding your partner seems to be a pretty essential part of being in a relationship, and is it really the job of the Israeli Ministry of Immigration and Absorption to be giving dating advice?

Evan that pales in comparison to “Before Chanuka Turns Into Christmas.” We’d give you a link to it, but the ministry, apparently responding to complaints that it’s a big Grinchy, seems to have taken it down. Two Israeli expats and their daughter are skyping with the grandparents back in Israel.  In the background of the grandparents’ home is a chanukiya.  The exchange pleasantries with the granddaughter, and then ask (all of this in Hebrew) if she knows what holiday it is, to which she replies merrily “Christmas.”  Parents look with dismay at each other, grandparents look with dismay at each other, cut to message “They will always remain Israeli.  Their children won’t.”

Now, let’s examine this–For a child who isn’t remaining Israeli, she seems to understand Hebrew pretty well.  More importantly, though, is that while the implication is that her ignorance is the fault of America.    Say what you will, but American Jews love them some Chanuka, and most of them will do something for it.  It’s the two Israeli parents who don’t seem to have a menorah, or to have bothered to tell their daughter about the Festival of Lights.  If anything, this ad says less about what Jewish kids will learn in American schools, than what they didn’t learn in Jewish schools.

Which brings me to the ultimate message.  Keep in mind, the message isn’t that in America, you kids won’t be Jewish, it’s that they won’t be Israeli.  Well, duh.  But last time I checked, Israel just happened to be the name of the Jewish State. The fact that the Israeli couple, educated in the Israeli schools, doesn’t have sufficient Jewish identity or interest makes one wonder what’s so great about being Israeli in the first place.  There used to be a time when students in the Israeli public school track actually learned about Judaism and Jewish culture.  Maybe Israel should be worrying less about whether or not Israelis make yerida, and more about what they take with them when they do.

Failing that, though, we have another recommendation.  If Israel insists on making any more of these spots, might we recommend hiring Jason Segel and the Muppets for the job? The scripts would certainly be better, and the characters would seem a lot more real.


What do you think?

About The Author


The Tel Aviv-born, Milwaukee-bred Jewdar has a bachelors' from the University of Wisconsin, a Masters from NYU, and an Honorable Discharge from the US Army, where he spent two years as an infantryman in the 101st Airborne Division. He's the co-author of "The Big Book of Jewish Conspiracies", the Humor Editor of Heeb Magazine, and a watcher of TV. Smarter than most funny people, funnier than most smart people, he lives on the Lower East Side with his wife and two sons.

5 Responses

  1. Daniella Ashkenazy

    What makes Israel “Jewish” is very different from American concepts of Jewishness.

    American Jewishness focuses (like Jewishness in the Diaspora as a whole) on synagogue-related and Jewish religious practices-related aspects of “being Jewish” (and food and wallowing in nostalgia for European Jewish culture that has litle to do with the American Jewish experience – a form of Jewishness my ex-brother-in-law, an American Jew,once labled “Hippotoptomis Judaism.”

    You look for the “Jewishness” in Israel in the wrong places: The pulpit is not in a synagogue, it is on the pages of the Hebrew weekend papers. Being Jewish in Israel is not only in the language we speak (Hebrew), it’s the plays being produced that deal in ethical issues (in Hebrew). Questioning and pilpul doesn’t take place in the synagogue in Israel; it take s place in relationships at all levels: Taking nothing for granted and questioning everything coupled with a disregard for ‘authority’ in the relationships between students-and pupils (from kindergarten to university) between bosses and employees, officers and soldiers, shop clerks and clients, and a host of other social interactions that reject hierarchical relationships and encourage real frank dialogue, access to people in all stations, the free flow of ideas and exchange of ideas is endemic to Israeli society. If Israel has an unwritten constituion, its First Amendment is the right to argue with your superiors and question everything you’re told. This is a very Jewish attribute and it is directly linked to the role of the rabbi in Judaism and his expectations that his students will question and argue with him about everything he says, the absence of monolithic Truths and a stubborn unwillingness to make due with the status quo (and yes, an emotion-filled ongoing ethical dialogue you won’t find in other countries, but since this takes place in Hebrew – you may not be aware at all that it is taking place.)

    Our Jewishness is admirably expressed in the “group orientation” one finds everywhere in Israel and the way Israelis bond and the way they build relationships: a need for community even among the most secular Jews, not just a strong family ethic. It is reflected in everything from the way Israelis protest, the way we buy wholesale, the structure of leisure time activities, even the way Israel was settled and is still settled (not by families, by groups forming communities first, then building together). I could write a book about this – not just a talkback (I’m a writer, in fact).

    Clearly, you haven’t a clue of what ‘being Israeli” is all about, and what is missing when an Israeli resides abroad. That fact is, American Jews and Israelis in America live in parallel universes in the way they express their Jewishness, even if they are married to one another.

    I say this as an American Jew who immigrated to Israel 43 years ago and lives that ‘other universe’ – the Israeli one.

  2. Jeff

    This is what comes of giving the Haredim a virtual hegemony. Israel deserves everything that is happening to it (internally, at any rate), and everything that is going to happen to it (e.g., bankruptcy within a generation).

    And they really can’t understand why secular Israelis are leaving?

  3. jewdar

    There’s nothing particularly Israeli (as opposed to anything else) about an emigre’s sense of longing for his/her culture and country. And I’m not sure what a long explanation into Israeli “questioning” has to do with this particularly crappy set of commercials (so crappy, in fact, that the Israel pulled one of them already). The fact is that Israel used to have a public school system that taught traditional Jewish culture. I know plenty of Israeli expats, some in my family, so I don’t really need a lecture on how Yordim behave (and for what it’s worth, I was born in Israel to two parents who lived there for most of the 1960’s). And while you may have the experience of being an oleh, I have the experience of teaching large number of children of yordim. Bottom line is that “Israeliness” will no more be transmitted in any meaningful way to the descendants of Yordim than “Italianness” or “Polishness” to the descendants of immigrants from those places. Judaism has stood the test of time, and a yored who celebrates chanuka can impart that to his kid; what’s the yored who doesn’t going to pass on?

  4. David

    I think these ads are/were great. I think the main issue at play here is what Israeliness means in terms of being Jewish. My cousins in Israel are all very secular but at the same time they feel very Jewish because they live in Israel. I’ve found that many yordim once they come to the US get more traditional because they literally have a Jewish void to fill. The ad is controversial however, and its obvious they have ruffled feathers because frankly, American Jews can’t swallow what the mirror that was held up to them showed. With the intermarriage rate only getting larger, it is becoming more and more clear that there is no future for secular Judaism in America. Period. Unless you become more observant or move to Israel, chances of a secular family being actually Jewish in 3 generations is slim to none.


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