Becom­ing Israeli: Nation­al Ideals & Every­day Life in the 1950s

Anat Hel­man

  • Review
By – April 6, 2015

How do you build a coun­try? Through pol­i­tics and gov­ern­men­tal poli­cies, or by the devel­op­ment of a nation­al cul­ture? Do nation­al ideals come from ide­o­log­i­cal dis­course, or are they cre­at­ed one step at a time through the way the cit­i­zens go about their dai­ly lives?

In this very engag­ing book, Anat Hel­man shows us how the pub­lic cul­ture cre­at­ed in Israel dur­ing the very vibrant, pro­tean 50s grew out of all these fac­tors, but par­tic­u­lar­ly through the encoun­ters and sen­si­bil­i­ties of the peo­ple dur­ing the young country’s first years of state­hood. With a care­ful hand and a sen­si­tive ear, she recre­ates for us the dai­ly prac­tices of Israel’s inhab­i­tants, recon­struct­ing both the large events and small details of every­day expe­ri­ences with equal focus.

Fol­low­ing ordi­nary Israelis as they lived their lives, she exam­ines the soci­ety they were cre­at­ing as they coped with the huge changes in the main­stream cul­ture, changes that result­ed from the nation­al effort to pro­vide groups of very diverse peo­ple with a homo­ge­neous nation­al identity.

She looks close­ly at the polit­i­cal author­i­ties whose aim it was to make Hebrew the nation­al lan­guage, and the lim­it­ed suc­cess they achieved. She also inves­ti­gates the effects of the abid­ing mil­i­tary pres­ence that col­ored everyone’s dai­ly life, and writes with col­or and cohe­sive­ness about com­mu­ni­ty life on the kib­butz. Through­out the book she keeps her eye on cul­ture, focus­ing on the depri­va­tion peo­ple were forced to accept through the neces­si­ty of rationing, and how they coped with the min­i­mal trans­porta­tion ser­vices avail­able to them. The result is a book that demon­strates how the stan­dards and rules put forth by the polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al lead­ers of Israel dur­ing the chaos of ear­ly state­hood were reshaped and reworked by the ordi­nary peo­ple who looked to them for guid­ance but by no means felt they need­ed to swal­low them whole. Whether plea­sures or hard­ships, the events and activ­i­ties that made up their every­day lives are described here in detail, and their sig­nif­i­cance is explained with clarity.

Hel­man writes with a hap­py meld­ing of aca­d­e­m­ic rig­or and a light, humor­ous touch, blend­ing her expe­ri­ence as a senior lec­tur­er at the Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty in Jerusalem with her very promi­nent human heart.

The book is part of the pres­ti­gious Shus­ter­man Series in Israel Stud­ies, which is known to pub­lish orig­i­nal schol­ar­ship of excep­tion­al sig­nif­i­cance on the his­to­ry of Zion­ism and the State of Israel.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

Discussion Questions