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American Jews and Israelis Need to Learn How to Speak the Same Love Languages

To avoid a painful divorce, advice from a classic work of pop psychology

Yakir Englander
August 18, 2023

Tablet Magazine

Tablet Magazine

One of the most amazing—and underrated—scenes in Fiddler on the Roof is the one when Tevye turns to Golde, his wife, and asks her a strange question: “Do you love me?”

Golde is bewildered. “Do I what?” she replies. A short dialogue ensues. Tevye gets upset. But Golde won’t back down. “Do I love you?” she replies. “For 25 years, I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow. After 25 years, why talk about love right now?”

I thought about that bit recently as I was sitting in many workshops trying to facilitate a conversation between Israelis and American Jews. There was shouting. There were tears. There was passion. The discussion didn’t sound like a debate between two sides of a conflict; it sounded like an argument between two lovers who’ve been together so long they don’t even know what they’re arguing about.

And so, if these two groups—the two largest concentrations of Jews in the world today—want to kiss and make up rather than find themselves filing for divorce, they need to learn how to talk about their love. Luckily for them, a 30-year-old work of popular psychology can give them all the tools they need.

It’s called The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate, by Gary Chapman. According to Chapman, there are five distinct ways to express love: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving and giving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. So while Golde, say, was all in on acts of service, poor Tevye was clamoring for a few words of affirmation. It’s not that they didn’t love each other; it’s just that they spoke different love languages.

So do Israelis and American Jews.

What language of love do Israelis speak? It’s straightforward. They speak two of them: the language of gifts and acts of service. The State of Israel regards itself as a refuge and a national home for Jews from anywhere (acts of service). As official policy, its gates are open to Jews seeking to settle there, regardless of their origin. And this open-door policy conveys, with varying degrees of explicitness, the message that Jews in the Diaspora should consider their sense of belonging and safety anywhere but in Israel as temporary or false. The Jewish myth we recite every year on Passover, “In every generation, they rise against us to destroy us,” only reinforces this narrative.

In the context of this covenant, Israel expects Jews in the Diaspora, especially in the United States, to express their unconditional support in the name of national solidarity. This can be in the form of economic support (gifts), whether by donating through civic organizations and private initiatives or by influencing government policy; or it can be in the form of political support, public identification with the Israeli narrative, and vigorous lobbying activity in the highest echelons of American leadership (acts of service).

Those expectations, increasingly, rub American Jews the wrong way. While many American Jews, particularly younger ones, have grown more critical of Israel’s policies, they have also been seeking new ways of expressing their love—ways that are more consistent with their current leanings and values. Hundreds if not thousands of American Jewish leaders are still traveling to Israel each year to take in various programs because they are eager to learn about Israeli society and encounter the mosaic of voices within it. Israel Studies departments are thriving with diverse scholarship. Thousands if not tens of thousands remain deeply immersed in Israeli culture and politics and can speak about the goings-on in Israel with depth and sophistication. These examples aren’t merely inspiring—they’re an expression of love by quality time, pure and simple.

But the love, alas, is unrequited, because while for American Jews, “quality time” means caring and knowing much about the other culture—visiting the land, watching the TV shows, bothering to keep up with the current events—Israelis never respond in kind. When they come to New York for a visit, they rush to Macy’s, not to the local Reform temple. They never bother reading Roth, Heschel, or Bellow, say, because to them, Jewish literature means Oz and Grossman. On more than one occasion I’ve encountered more curiosity about the Jewish way of life in America from non-Jewish Americans than from Israeli Jews. I find that truly troubling.

Can new love languages flourish between these two communities? As someone who comes from one and now lives in the other, I believe the answer depends largely on Israel’s willingness to open up to its sister community in the United States and embrace it along with the changes that the latter has embraced. As I see it, there are two necessary conditions. The first is that Israel recognizes that its familiar language of love that has been ingrained for decades is no longer as relevant to significant segments of American Jewry. From this, the second condition arises, which is the recognition of the existence of other languages of love—those that already exist, and those that are yet to emerge.

So far, this hasn’t been the case. Instead of seeking to become aware of America’s rich diversity and embracing it despite the beautiful differences, the religious leadership in Israel often dismisses its American counterpart as “non-Jewish.” The Jewish community in America includes Reform streams whose customs and religious practices—especially when it comes to the choice of leadership—are considered illegitimate by the rabbinic establishment in Israel. The ordination of women as rabbis is often met with harsh criticism from the rabbinate. Moreover, young Jewish American women who express their wish to read from the Torah at the Western Wall or visit (physical touch) holy sites in Israel as Jews will often encounter rejection and even scorn; they will learn that their Judaism is flawed or unreal because it’s patrilineal or because female Jews are prohibited from reading the Torah out loud in public. Israel promises to defend their bodies in times of emergency but at the same time rejects their Judaism.

The Five Love Languages theory reminds us that humans experience and express love in different ways. Sometimes a language that was appropriate at a certain moment or stage in life is not necessarily appropriate at another moment or stage, and insisting on it can lead to a frustrating situation in which the other side is unable to express love according to their ability and desire.

Just asked Golde and Tevye: As I watched these two quibble on-screen, I felt a strong need to reach out and remind them that they could rest assured—they loved each other, but they loved each other in different ways and therefore had a hard time to experience their partner love. All they needed was the willingness to listen and attune themselves to each other’s signs. The same is true for Israelis and American Jews.

Dr. Yakir Englander is the Senior National Director of Leadership programs at the Israeli-American Council. He also teaches at the AJR (a rabbinical school) in New York. His recent book is: The Male Body in Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Theology, 2022.