In her new book, Jessica Fishman gives us an intimate inside look at what happens to the best of our youth from abroad when they encounter Israel’s rigid, discriminatory, and cruel Jewish religious establishment.
It’s not pretty, yet the way she presents it is entertaining, engaging and humorous.
In the interest of full disclosure—I met Jessica shortly after she made Aliyah. She spent Rosh Hashana with us, going to services with my wife at her Conservative synagogue in Rehovot. (I was praying at a nearby Orthodox synagogue.)
I was impressed then, and I still am, with her idealism, courage and inner strength. She needed every one of those attributes to survive what she went through here.
“Chutzpah & High Heels: The Search for Love and Identity in the Holy Land” walks us through her experiences and interactions. Captivated by Israel’s charm on a summer trip, she was determined not only to make Aliyah, but to make a difference. She set her sights on the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s unit, intending to use her degree in journalism from Indiana University (my alma mater, too) to improve Israel’s image in world media.
The book flows neatly from situation to situation, with clever foreshadowing and apt descriptions of the people she encounters— from helpful friends to insensitive idiots. A Hebrew-speaking reader, however, will be put off somewhat by mistakes in transliterated words and expressions that could have been fixed by a bilingual editor.
Some of the difficulties she faced are the same ones most of us immigrants face—learning Hebrew, getting used to Israeli behavior, dealing with Israeli bureaucracy. Her description of repeatedly misusing a common Hebrew word in an unprintable way during a job interview is almost painfully funny.
Even when describing unpleasant situations, she writes with sardonic humor. She learns it’s better to be fired than to quit a bad job: “At work, I start acting like Peter Gibbons in ‘Office Space’. I show up late. I take long lunch breaks. I take an hour and a half to go through the newspapers in the morning. I take naps in the bathroom. I never gutted a fish on my desk, but that’s only because I’m a vegetarian.”
But all along, she had an additional issue. Her mother was converted by the Reform movement in the United States. Jessica knew she would not be recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate, run by ever-more-rigid ultra-Orthodox rabbis who do not accept Reform, Conservative, and even some Orthodox conversions as valid.
The conversion issue hangs like a dark, threatening cloud over the rest of the story.
Her goal to plant herself in the IDF spokesman’s office evoked ridicule from practically everyone, because it’s so hard to get in. I served in the unit as a reservist, but only because at the time I was a reporter/anchor at Israel Radio’s English language news service, and my mission was to keep the station on the air during wartime. I admit that I, too, doubted that Jessica could pull it off, but I kept my mouth shut.
Good thing, too. She worked the system, wrangled interviews with the right people and, after a difficult but often amusing basic training, she was accepted.
But she was immediately disappointed. Nothing comes easy in Israel, and this was a lesson in point. The main goal of her army duty appeared to be cleaning the office. “Cleaning and sitting bored in a closed-off room doesn’t make me feel more connected to Israel or my Jewish heritage,” she writes, adding that it makes her sick to her stomach, “but if I throw up here, they’ll just make me clean it up.”
Eventually she does move into a more useful position. Along the way she injures her knee and is examined by an abrasive, dismissive army doctor “who made Dr. House seem like Mr. Rogers.” She finally gets the surgery she needs by exploding on an army clerk—an accomplishment for a normally polite American immigrant still uncertain of her Hebrew.
But the centerpiece of the book is her relationship with the man she thought she wanted to marry. She describes in excruciating, gripping, and emotional detail the roller coaster of finally finding “the one,” only to discover that he won’t agree to marry her unless she converts to Judaism. She refuses, insisting that she’s already Jewish. He won’t budge, and neither will she, and the relationship ends.
It’s a personal indictment against Israel’s religious establishment, and she takes care to point out that the extremist rabbis here are excluding the majority of American Jews with their refusal to accept the liberal streams of the religion, asking how Israel can expect their support when Israel doesn’t recognize them as Jewish.
Dejected, depressed, and lonely, one of the most courageous, idealistic and Zionist youngsters I’ve ever known gives up and flies home. “I have nowhere to turn,” she writes. “Everyone I ever trusted here has betrayed me. Even though many people turn to religion for hope, religion has caused me to lose it.” That’s where her story ends, back in the United States, writing this book.
So imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that Jessica Fishman is back in Israel, working at a good job, living a good life, walking the same dog she adopted when she was here the first time.
But nothing has changed for her here. If anything, it’s getting worse. I probably could not get married here today. My parents were Holocaust survivors who escaped Germany with the clothes on their backs and brought no documents with them. My grandparents perished and have no graves. So I cannot prove that I’m Jewish to the satisfaction of these fanatics.
So I dread the day when my country betrays Jessica once again.