Yoram Dori, strategic adviser to President Shimon Peres, is a regular visitor to many diaspora communities, and sends this exclusive report of his experiences with one group of aging Israeli expats who – despite the years which made for an increasingly tenuous relationship with the Jewish homeland – find they are still moved by an iconic 60s-era Sabra pop song.
Following is his bittersweet account of Israeli life in one Miami-Dade County enclave, Aventura.
"My Rona" is the most played song at weddings in Israel, in my opinion, like at a recent affair I attended. There, a group of older Israelis rocked the dance floor, shaking a leg and then some, moving to the bouncy rhythm of Israeli Arab singer and fiddle player Samir Shukri's serenade, רונה שלי - My Rona (see video).
The song, which was played at deafening volume at the affair, has long become a middle eastern-tinged golden oldie, and a crowd-pleasing staple of local wedding bands.
The melody would again echo in my ears in coming days, but in a totally different, and thoroughly ironic, setting.
The dance floor scene played out at the expansive nuptials of close friends, just prior to my flight to the States, on a visit on behalf of the Jewish Federation of Greater Miami, and blessed by President Peres. Among other goals, the visit was intended to disburse funds amounting to some $15 billion collected by federation for use both in the US and in Israel.
During the visit, I met with good friend Dana, who, in years past worked with the Labor Party during my tenure as its chairman.
Dana now lives in Aventura, near Miami, where she found the love of her life, and settled into a Israeli expatriate's flamingo sunset, physically far from the Land, but close to its heart.
After my arrival, we conducted a brief tour of the cafes along Miami's southern coast, a charming bustling area, best known for its appeareance films and numerous television shows like CSI Miami.
Along the boardwark, we stopped at the dramatic outdoor Holocaust Memorial sculpture. While I don't care for it, personally, no one who sees it can can deny its amazing power, or remain indifferent to its awful tableaux of children and mothers as they are consumed in a massive whirlwind, seeming all too realistic, too agonized. I am convinced that any human being standing there wpould have felt like he was in Auschwitz. Along the perimeter are the names of thousands of victims.
It takes time to recover from visiting such a difficult site. And the huge gap between the frozen images of the horrors of the Holocaust and the skimpy bathing suits sauntering along the promenade next to the beach; the cafes and street performers made it all even more difficult to digest.
When we arrived at our next destination, Aventura, my host asked me if I would like to see "little Israel." Perhaps an odd request, considering the previous stop.
We stopped at off a shopping center and coffee shop. At a local supermarket, many of the signs were written in Hebrew, and, inside, many of the male shoppers were wearing yarmulkes.
Well, I thought, 'bit of an exaggeration to refer to this as “little Israel."'
But then we passed by the market and reached a cafe-lined plaza furnished with plastic patio chairs and tables, at which sat dozens of mostly middle-aged men and women, chatting and drinking coffee from cardboard cups.
Nearby was a small stage, with lighting and a sound system. As we walked up, the singer opened his set with "My Rona," immediately recalling the scene at the pre-flight wedding.
And, as in Israel, the moment he struck up the tune, dozens of people got up and began to sing along, and shake their bodies to the middle eastern rhythms. All of them knew the words; all of them waved their hands in the air, singing, “Rona, my Rona...”
Turns out that 70-something Israelis know how to shake it like 30-somethings back in Israel.
Feeling like an amateur anthropologist, I asked some of the dancers where they lived.
Curiously, no one volunteered a Miami-area address. No Boca Raton. No Aventura, No North Miami and no Miami Beach. Rather, they said they hailed from Blue and White locales like Ramat Amidar, Petach Tikva, Kfar Saba, and Haifa.
As to their professions – same thing. One said he was the first Israeli wrestler, another worked for Israel Electric Corporation, another was a driver for Egged.
Again, all of the answers only referred to Israel; not a word about living in Florida – a phenomenon that left me with decidedly mixed feelings.
Frankly, it felt lousy to see people, retirees, who could easily return to live in Israel.
For some, their kids and grandchildren lived a several hour plane flight away, and with whom they meet no more than two or three times a year, so the argument for staying in the States in order to “be close to the kids” didn't hold water.
Their children, now in their 30s, were completely Americanized and, in any case, live far away from their parents. They could hold the Passover and Rosh Hashanah festive meals after a 10-hour international flight just as easily as five and a half hour domestic jaunt; the time difference is minor.
If you want to feel so Israeli, why not simply be in Israel?
Here in Aventura I learned that someone who walks like an Israeli, speaks like an Israeli, dances like an Israeli, and sings like an Israeli – isn't necessarily Israeli.
For me, an Israeli is one who lives in Israel. Period.
It turns out that just as there is a Jewish diaspora, there is an Israeli diaspora – which in most cases remain disconnected.
As a counterweight to my disappointment, however, was the fact that even after 50 years abroad and thousands of miles away from Israel, there are hundreds of thousands who still feel Israeli. Ok, so their accent has faded a bit; they lack the contemporary Hebrew words. But they mostly talk with their children and grandchildren in Hebrew, and that's something that still connects the second and third generation of yordim to Israel.
For the parallel generation of Jews born in the United States, Israel is much more remote.
At least we have not lost them completely.
When I left the group, I realized that “My Rona” belongs not only to be, but to any Israeli – wherever he may be.
“My Rona” belongs to us. All of us.The Jewish Agency for Israel, with its far flung network of emissaries and projects fostering Jewish life and Aliyah, is deeply involved with Israelis living abroad. Some of them, who have lived far from Israel for decades, find themselves in personal and communal circumstances which make preserving Israeli culture, let alone Judaic tradition and practice, difficult.