Interview with Jerry Isaak-Shapiro by Aubrey Hess (2006)

Where were you and how long were you there? Could you give me some general background about you experiences?

I’ve been to Israel and have lived in Israel a number of times, but this most recent time was in June ‘01 to July ’03, and that coincided with one of the worst times of the current uprisings. Are you familiar with the term “Intifada?”

“Intifada” in Arabic is loosely translated to “uprising.” Israelis most often refer to the crisis as “matsav,” which literally means “the situation.” It’s kind of an all-purpose term, somewhat de-politicized. When you refer to the “matsav,” you can refer to the situation whether you’re on the left or the right or in the center. I was there those two years with my family, my wife and two children. I was on a fellowship, a post doctorate fellowship in Jewish education. The difference between this program and others, the other times I was in Israel, was that the other times I was either leading a program or participating in one. Here, I lived in a normative Israeli neighborhood. The children went to schools; we’d give them a stipend or allowance. It was as if we were living normal lives, not student life, or program director life.

That sounds very interesting. How does you family react to living in different places?

My wife has also lived and traveled in Israel before that. The interesting thing is we’ve never been in Israel before at the same time. Till that time our children hadn’t lived, or even frankly traveled much. We lived in California for a time and had taken some amount of trips, but nothing international. So that was the first time they traveled. Our daughter is nine now and our son sixteen, but at the time we went, that was when our son was ten, eleven, twelve, and our daughter was five, six, and seven.

One of the questions that kind of fundamentally comes up when we read different pieces or have visitors to the class to speak about their experiences is: what does it mean to you to be Israeli? This is just a fundamental question about faith, culture, and everything that it entails.

You know, it’s complicated. To sum it up is hard; you can spend a lot of time talking about this. For me, Israel is the nexus of faith, Jewish faith and all three monotheistic faiths, history, culture, and Zionism. For me, Zionism is the same as any other national liberation movement. In the late 19th century, it was politicized, but there has always been a deep and profound place for Israel in Jewish liturgy and Jewish poetry and Jewish pop culture or the millennia, so all that comes together there. In addition, Israel in the 20th century is a living, breathing laboratory. It’s the only place in the world where Jews are a majority. That’s huge. Being a very small minority in a very large majority culture, one doesn’t even know how that feels until one is out of that and is in that mirror image. Do you know who Richard Pryor is?

I’ve heard of him before.


African American comedian – passed away about a year or so ago, I thought he was brilliant in the late ‘60s, mostly ‘70s. He was one of the first African American comics who used the “n” word internally and called the other blacks that name. He did it for shock value, but he also did it as a way of connecting. It was a big part of his act, and he got slammed for it by a lot of people. He had a bit in ‘74, ‘75 at one of his live concerts that I thought was really profound. He went to Africa for the first time, and he got off the plane expecting to see, you know, “n” everywhere, and he said he saw only strong, proud black people. You know, one carrying bags, one in a suit, one the president of the bank. And when I heard this bit for the first time, I thought, “I’ll be damned, he’s talking about Zionism and he doesn’t know it.” That’s how a lot of American Jews feel. They may not articulate it in the same way, but for the first time they’re going to a country not exclusively of Jews or run by Jews or for Jews, but where the majority are Jews there. All shapes and sizes and stripes and types. It’s another thing that North American, or Western Jews, live a certain kind of almost homogeneous culture. So in Israel, there are African Jews and Asian Jews and Latino Jews. There are ultra Orthodox, Secular, there are different cultures of Jews. Those who fled from the former Soviet Union, those from Argentina, those from France, so it’s a place where there’s great commonality and great difference. And the impact is profound on someone who’s only lived in this country. I want to make sure that at least for me, I’m not saying this is a bad place, this is far from it, the country has offered and provided the most amount of freedom and liberty for Jews in the two millennia since exile. But it’s profoundly different.

I have a number of friends that do a lot of interfaith work, and friends who are very serious church-going Catholics. We talk about theology all the time. They go to our Seders, and we go to mass with them, and they said because we’re really close and honest with each other – “you guys, the Jewish community,” (or you guys personally, meaning my wife and I), “are just so crazed about anti-Semitism, interrelations, or intermarriage, so what.” We told them that is easy for them to say. As soon as there are sixty or seventy million Jews in this country, then we won’t worry about every single family, but since there’s only 5.5 million here, maybe 50 million around the world, you count differently. So when you get to a place that’s the only place where you’re in the majority, you see it differently. The other part is that with majority comes responsibility.

It’s also the place where I wrote a piece about Jewish maturation. Jewish maturation comes alive in Israel. We can allow ourselves to be communally adolescent in other countries. It doesn’t mean we don’t take part in citizenship, doesn’t mean we don’t vote or have responsibilities here individually, but as a collective, Israel is the only place we get to take charge of the police, the courts, the army. So with all that comes great responsibility, like what you are going to do and what kind of constitution are you going to develop, how you’re going to treat minorities. All that comes together in Israel. It’s a very different place for Jews.

Going along with what you were talking about, a lot of the class focuses on something hard to avoid when talking about Israel and all the changes that have taken place over the past 50 years -especially, the conflict. We took a large chunk out of the middle of the class to study literature from both sides, what would you want other people to know about the conflict?

It’s far more complicated than saying “both sides.” Israel is part of a large Middle East. There are religious and sectarian conflicts; there are geographic, ethnic, tribal conflicts. It’s far more than now, God love the States, but they whittle it down to the simplest equation today, and newscasts of thirty-second sound bites. It’s more than just Israelis and Palestinians. That’s all by way of preface. Literature – where to start? I hate to say this, but you also start not just here and now or the last fifty years to really get a grasp of the Middle East. I’m a historian technically, so it’s a big deal to me. You don’t do history really well in the States. People have short attention spans, and we think history is a big deal here if it goes back fifty years or a hundred years. Growing up on the West coast, we didn’t have a sense of civil wars being part of history. We lived in DC for a while, and people in the South, etc. are attached to the Civil War and the Revolutionary War, but at the end of the day, it still only goes back about a hundred years. If you live in Europe history is important to about five hundred years, but in Asia, and the Middle East, thousands of years is just as vital today as it was then. On the one hand, that can trap you because people in the Middle East talk about conflicts and wars that go back before the Middle Ages and you want to think, “let’s get over it.” On the other hand, you can’t dismiss it because it informs everything. Forget about Israel, talk about Lebanon or Egypt or Syria or Iraq or Iran. Iranians talk about Persian history going back thousands and thousands of years ago, and they talk about celebrating holidays that are not Iranian holidays. So, where do you start? You have to get a grasp of history. For Israel and the Middle East, Zionism comes with the Palestinians. You have to have a sense of why choose your cache of land, and I hate to say, but you really have to talk about Jewish history and Jewish monarchy and a sense of Jewish sovereignty and autonomy. It goes back to 2,500 years. Then, you have to get a grasp of what exile meant when a people was exiled from their sovereignty and autonomy when under the Greeks and Romans they had a semi-autonomous state. When they were kicked out and exiled, what that meant was being a pariah without state. For 1,000 years or more, power was determined by land ownership, by temporal power, so that the people was a collective people, but didn’t have land or ownership. What did they have? Were they given any rights at all? Then there needs to be some talk about anti-Semitism. Innate church anti-Semitism and ethnic anti-Semitism. How Jews were not just deprived of land, but were shunted off from class citizenship. Then looking at the return to Israel, there’s always been a connection to the land and a longing to go back. What that meant to Jews around the world was immense. It was called the “in-gathering of the exiles.” So how do you do that? You look at literature and poetry. There are pieces in Jewish prayer that go back to 1500, 1200, sometimes more. There are prayers that traditional Jews, observant Jews, say every day for hundreds of years and more about the return to Jerusalem. So here they are scattered, no political entity, and a religious minority in Europe and other places, scattered about the world. Yet they are praying every day to either return to Jerusalem or for things like Jewish holidays. They’re tied to agricultural cycles, and a lot of people in the states don’t realize that. There are religious and agricultural reasons for every holiday. When we pray traditionally for rain or for dew or for crops, it has nothing to do with where we live at the time, but has everything to do with the climate in Jerusalem at the time. So here in Cleveland, there are these God-awful winters. In spring, where it could still be snowing, you’re praying for dew on the ground or earlier on for rainfall. We have a holiday for the birthday of the trees in February, and our daughter who’s lived in California and Jerusalem said, “What are we doing this for? We’re supposed to be planting trees and it’s ten degrees out there.” It doesn’t matter. It happens to be the tree-planting season in Israel. So all this stuff about Israel has been absolutely ingrained both religiously and culturally. To get a grasp of the Jewish connection to the land, you have to have that kind of background. Then I would look at some poetry too, not just liturgy. There is some beautiful poetry about connections to the land. My minor in graduate school was Arab Nationalism, so I’m fairly familiar with Arab poetry and Arab literature. I know the Qu’ran. There are some amazing things about the connection to the land. One of the tragedies is that Islam and Judaism are far more similar to each other than either is to Christianity in the way the religions are structured, and in the way they are seen in the world outlook. A lot of early Islam was predicated on Judaism. Jews face Jerusalem when they pray. Muslims began facing Jerusalem and then switched it to Mecca. Afterwards, when Jews would convert, observant Jews would eat the kosher meat. Muslims observe “halal,” which is a different way their meat is slaughtered, and observant Muslims will go to kosher restaurants. There are so many similarities that Muhammad and those who followed him predicated on Judaism. So one thing, I would look at both of their bodies of literature, and most importantly look at where they converge and where the similarities are.

I had a question similar to that, kind of following along with this, we’ve been reading poetry by Darwish and Amichai, and I wondered what some of the most important work that has been done is in your opinion, literature wise.

Take a look at the poetry of Judah Halevi. Modern, or contemporary, I would look at Amos Oz, or in poetry even better is Yehuda Amichai. Beautiful poetry, poignant, also has to do with Jewish return. Jewish return has a lot to do with the Holocaust and a return to life and sovereignty. This has to do with a return from out of the ashes and being reborn.

One of the things I was wondering was about the people you have shared your experiences with. I know you said you’ve taken you family with you, but what about your friends, acquaintances, or colleagues at work? What sorts of stories do you share together and how does that impact your relationships with other people?

I try to give people a sense of the real normal daily life. How Israel is unique. It is interesting in the states because we are so myopic. We have such a narrow view on how people live outside the country, about how people live outside the Midwest. California is a little bit more cosmopolitan, international, as are Florida and New York, but the middle of the country is the middle of the country, so it’s somewhat isolated, a little bit insular. Fewer people have traveled abroad, from what I’ve seen. So one is just to give a sense of the similarities. People in other countries have newscasts where they have anchors behind the desks, and their newscast looks the same except they are speaking a different language. People wear jeans, people listen to the same kind of pop music, and they work on the same laptops and have iPods. So at least now when you travel, you can see yourself in other cultures, and yet obviously they’re very very different. You’ve probably seen McDonalds all around the world, but that’s not the same as saying they act like us. So what I try to do is give people a sense of what daily life is like there. It is very similar, and very very different. The difference in Israel is that it is run on a Jewish clock and calendar irrespective of levels of religiosity. There are secular Jews who will say “good Sabbath,” the traditional Friday greeting even if they’re not observant, that’s just a normative greeting. I also try and give a sense that people have a highly involved political citizenry. Voting levels are far high than they are in the states. People are tuned into newspapers in a different way, news in a different way, political parties in a different way. I try to give a sense of that. It’s also, not just Israel, but it’s part of being in the Mediterranean climate. It’s far more informal. Nowadays you see people in suits, as opposed to 20 years or so ago. People are in cafes now, there is more of a neighborhood feel in the cities. It’s absolutely different than the Midwest; there are large lots and houses, wide streets. I try and give people a sense of what it means to live in a very different kind of world.

I know that a few speakers we have had come in have mentioned the wall, roadblocks, and checkpoints Palestinians have to go through in Israel. I wonder what your encounters have been with Palestinians and how that has changed your view about the other side of the conflict.

When we lived in Jerusalem during those three years, the first year, there was nearly a bombing almost every week. Many weeks there were two or three – not at military checkpoints and not against soldiers. I’m talking about supermarkets and ATMs, movie theatres and shopping centers. We got there about three weeks before 9/11, so we got there in August. When March of ‘02 arrived, there was a bombing in Jerusalem, specifically every day in March until Passover began that year in the first week of April. There was a horrific bombing in a hotel at a wedding reception; a suicide bombing killed twenty or thirty people. After that time, the military went into the areas of the West Bank in great force. That gave the impetus towards the idea of a separation wall, building a wall faster, higher, and deeper. There’s part of me frankly, that’s bothered by a separation wall, but I can also tell you on a very personal level our lives and the lives of people who were living there at the same time and still are were made safer by checkpoints and by a wall. One of the difficulties is Palestinian leadership not being able to control a very small minority, and I believe it’s a very small minority who aren’t fighting for land, they’re fighting to irradiate Israel. And in the debates, I used to be in relations and politics; I would hear about one land and two peoples and how to do this. All the Palestinians wanted was to gain back the territories that were Israel’s fault after ‘67. I’m assuming you know some of the history. The PLO was founded in ‘64, so the ‘67 War was the war in which Israel fought a pre-emptive defensive war, and gained those territories. If the whole thing was about gaining those back, then why was there a Palestinian liberation organization founded in ‘64 to be used before the war. There is an element in Palestinian/Arab politics, small I hope, that is determined not to see Israel period. The President of Iran, which is not an Arab country, it’s a Muslim country, is very clear about wiping Israel off the map. And he’s not alone there. It doesn’t take paranoia to know that there are enemies there. You can see that profiling is more open there as opposed to the United States. I feel that the Israeli airlines are safer, and security in the U.S. sometimes feels like a joke. So though security is more intrusive, it is a different kind of world. Despite this though, there is a greater freedom than you would imagine, it’s not as black and white as you would think.

How does your culture impact how you help shape the lives of the students under your guidance at the Agnon school?

We teach the students that Israel is the central pillar of formation, of faith. There are some places that take their 8th graders on trips to Israel, and we encourage staff and students to get to Israel for the connection. Connection to the homeland is important because you should never feel divorced from your country. There is history and connectedness there to Jewish faith.

Do you feel there is a possibility of peace?

(Here tape runs out – annotated notes to follow)

Offense is not a bad thing.

Believes there can be two states, and that the solution does not lie in a one state solution. Most of the struggle will have to do with Jerusalem because it is such a central historical, cultural, and religious place.

There have been opportunities to create two states, but lines have been drawn, especially in ’47. No victorious power in wars of the past will give the West Bank or Golan back. Political leaders believe they are doing the right thing.

Eventually, there will need to be a Palestinian state, but it will have to be something that is handled cautiously.


The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.

-M. Scott Peck

The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is not a subject that I have spent much time thinking about before enrolling in this class. Most of the time, during the school year, I worry about grades, running, and other matters that go away after a few months or weeks. Everything I worry about resolves itself in short periods of time. I took Israeli/Palestinian Literature in hopes of learning about a subject that I had little knowledge about. I took the course because I thought it would expand my worldview and teach me to pay attention to situations that have lasted for years. Not everything we have learned in class makes me comfortable, and often I am challenged to search for the answers posed by the authors in the books we have read or by people in the class or even the speakers we have had. This project was another challenge for me. It is not always easy to step out of our own lives and enter into someone else’s. It is not always easy to ask questions because you can never be sure of the answers. However, to search for answers to what it means to be from a different culture, what it means to have lived outside of the sheltered Mid-West, you have to find world views different from your own.

For my project, I interviewed Jerry Isaak Shapiro (Jerry) from the Agnon School in University Heights. He has been to Jerusalem several times over the course of his life and has lived there as well. Jerry is married and has two children. His wife has lived in Israel, and they have lived in California and Washington D.C. as well. After meeting Jerry, I was immediately put at ease. I found Jerry to be highly educated, personable, and informative. The interview began with some very broad questions, and the answers Jerry gave required me to think about how there are answers to the conflict among the people of the University Heights community.

One of the first things that I noticed upon reflecting on the interview was that Jerry echoed many of the themes we have outlined in the course. The first was the connection to the land. Israel is the nexus faith for him. It is the homeland. Although the Jewish people have been exiled various times throughout history, they still feel that Jerusalem and Israel are their homes. One of the main things that struck me was how he kept outlining the fact that Israel is the only place in the world where there is a Jewish majority and how important that is to them. I never thought about it in the terms he uses although some of the Israeli literature alludes to this fact. We have talked about what it means to occupy the territory, and I was reminded of The Lemon Tree and how Dahlia began to view peace as a responsibility. Jerry talked about the responsibility that comes with being the majority of a state, of how exile has shaped the Jewish people. Now that they have their homeland, it is symbolic and a very personal aspect of their everyday lives. One of the most striking things he mentioned was how since there are only about 50-60 million Jews worldwide, they worry about individual families, and he worries about their people being connected worldwide. Israel is the place that connects them.

Another aspect of the course that was reflected in the interview was how people are stereotyped into “the other.” The theme of the Western world compacting the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, or shaping it in negative light came to the forefront several times. Jerry mentioned how often the news in the Middle East is packed into thirty second clips because the people of the U.S. tend to have short attention spans. They want things condensed. This type of media excludes room for full exploration of other cultures. Like Jerry said, the people of Israel wear jeans, the have iPods, their newscasts are the same as ours only they are in a different language. I enjoyed that he tries to show people Israel and Jerusalem in a way that they can experience what daily life is like for people over there. As much as it can sound fantastical, such as the bombings he described, it has common ground with our daily lives here. Although I mention the orientalism of the West, Jerry also touched on the orientalism that exists in Israel as well. He implied several times that profiling happens there because of the bombings. And although he regrets that the wall and the checkpoints are in place, they exist because people do not feel safe. In some ways, it seems that seeing people as “the other” cannot be totally avoided due to experience.

The theme of two people occupying one land was something else that has been discussed in regards to Israeli/Palestinian literature. The histories of the Israelis and the Palestinians are intertwined. They go back thousands of years. As Jerry pointed out, even the Jewish religion and the Muslim religion have more in common than one would first assume. Some of the practices of the Muslim religion are rooted in Jewish tradition. And aside from faith traditions, there are the claims each side makes to the land, as well as the blood that has been shed over the land by both sides.

Although much of what was talked about in the interview corresponded with what we have talked about in class, there were some things that I learned that we had never talked about or that were not exactly as we had described them to be. The first of these was the sense I got about the Israeli view of the wall and the checkpoints. Jerry was very clear about how he felt about security in Jerusalem. From the bombings he described and the period he spent in Jerusalem, I can understand how he felt a real threat to his family and safety. It was interesting to see how he regretted the need for the wall, but felt that it was needed at the same time. The conflict is not as black and white as some of the poetry we have read implies. I could see some of the conflicting emotions in Jerry like when we read “And My Brother Was Silent.” You have to question the validity of utilizing the wall and the checkpoints, but realize that there are people that do not want the Israeli state to exist.

One thing that I felt the literature left out was tied to something Jerry said about the Jewish faith. He said that it is tied to the seasons, and that it revolves heavily around what goes on in the city of Jerusalem. I wish that some of the literature had explained that more thoroughly. One of the anecdotes I liked was how he told me about his daughter and the way she didn’t understand why they were celebrating the festival of the trees in Cleveland when it was ten degrees outside. Information like that would help ground the sense of history and ownership the Israelis have about having their homeland.

As an interviewer, it is always interesting to see what comes of the questions you put forth. One of the things I always wonder about is if I am going to be able to go into the interview informed enough to ask intelligent questions. Conducting an interview forces you to step outside of your own life and start searching for truer answers than the ones you have. It is not always an easy task, and as I said before, Jerry put me at ease and was very knowledgeable.

I put the quote by M. Scott Peck at the beginning of the paper because it seems to tie into what I learned from the interview. Jerry kept illustrating the immensity of the situation. I found his critique of the American sense of history fascinating. I believe it is important for people to see his outline of history, as well as his anecdote about Richard Pryor. It shows how despite the discomfort people feel about “the other” or the occupation, they can step outside of their “ruts” and search for answers that will be satisfactory. I also felt that the conversation he described where his Catholic friends tried to critique the Jewish faith was important. It showed how exile has affected the Jewish people profoundly. They worry about their solidarity and the continuation of their faith. They want to be connected to their land and have a place to belong. The interview with Jerry really challenged me because I encountered a new perspective and was affected on a personal level because I could see how important spreading knowledge was to Jerry. He really feels a responsibility to the community around him to educate people about his faith and the way his experiences have affected his life. It is not always easy, and sometimes it appears that the work goes unnoticed, but I get the sense that more often than not, Jerry helps people step out of their worldview for a time to a place where they can find truer answers.