Tuvia Tenenbom, The Lies They Tell: A Journey through America

, October 16, 2017

Tuvia Tenenbom, The Lies They Tell: A Journey through America, Jerusalem:  Gefen Publishing House Ltd., 2017, 406 pp.

Journalist, author and theater director Tuvia Tenenbom undertook a journey, mainly by car, throughout the United States during 2015 and 2016. His travels took place at the start of the primaries of the Democratic and Republican parties and the preparations for the elections of the President in November 2016. Like his earlier works, such as Catch the Jew! which covers his trip throughout Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), The Lies They Tell is a chatty and highly readable travelogue. The reader often finds himself or herself nodding, smiling or even laughing hysterically. Tenenbom’s format remains that of brief interviews, consisting mainly of several questions and answers about political, social and personal topics with the different people whom he encounters on his travels, and general observations following these meetings. He intersperses his narrative with photographs of himself with his interlocutors or photographs of the people whom he interviews.

The Lies They Tell also includes lively descriptions of landscapes, gatherings, church and synagogue services, Indian (currently referred to as “Native American”) reservations, cities, towns, events, such as rodeos, and conferences. Tenenbom mingles with rich and poor, liberal and conservative, men and women, Black [Afro-American] and White and young and old people. While he usually lets his generally affable, occasionally odd, and sometimes hypocritical characters have their say, it is the author who emerges as the star of The Lies They Tell. In fact, the repetition of the questions and the photographs contribute to showcasing Tenenbom and his opinions. In addition, he laughs at his own foibles, such as his choice of cars or his clumsy efforts at mastering slot machines in casinos. Whatever the situation, he knows how to tell a good story and to capture the reader’s imagination. Every adventure whets the appetite, and one regrets that his journey and the book actually come to an end.

His whimsical style notwithstanding, Tenenbom presents the following sobering conclusions about the state of things in America in 2015-2016. They range from the mundane to the profound and may be summarized as follows: Car travel is enjoyable and the American roads are liberating. Public transportation is often non-existent or inadequate. The U.S. is a country of incredibly magnificent mountains, canyons, lakes, rivers, and farmlands. The food in most restaurants is mediocre, and the coffee is terrible. Many Americans are fascinated with owning (and shooting) guns, cars and Harley-Davidson motorcycles [Hogs], and the public has a fixation against smoking. Tenenbom humorously relates how he often lights his cigarettes in fetid alcoves near gloomy office buildings or even on a traffic island in Honolulu – the only places where smoking is permitted. Apparently, many Americans are practicing Christians of different denominations, and the author visits Black churches, Quaker meetings, mega-churches and the Mormon shrines in Utah.

On a deeper level, most people are outwardly friendly but often painfully superficial. For example, they avoid revealing their real political opinions or affiliation or whom they voted for in the previous election. According to the author, this reticence reflects a fear of telling the truth that is astonishing in a democracy and possibly may be attributed to the current tyranny of political correctness. Perhaps, it also stems from the breezy insincerity which characterizes much of American life. Many of Tenenbom’s interviewees are somewhat inarticulate and seem to have a limited vocabulary.

The author expresses his surprise that most Americans are patriotic and maintain that it is a privilege to be an American, despite the fact that many of his interviewees live in relative poverty in the slums of the inner cities, Indian reservations, and decaying small towns and rural communities. In fact, the book eloquently describes the vast underclass of America, – Black, White, Native American, Hispanic, – and its predicament of poverty, broken families, drug addiction, alcoholism, unemployment, gangs, violence, murder and homelessness. Tenenbom is astonished that many Americans of all classes are so proud of their country and of being American, despite their country’s foreign military interventions and the yawning gap between the rich and the poor.  Perhaps the fact that the author came to the U.S. several decades ago from Israel, a democracy, contributes to his lack of understanding of Americans’ love of their country. The author seems to forget that many Americans come from families whose ancestors left countries where they suffered political and religious persecution, dictatorships, wars and dire poverty to the point of starvation. Hence, the pride and patriotism of the protagonists in his book. Similarly, even poor Americans are far more prosperous and free than citizens of most Arab, African, South American and even some East European countries. Furthermore, not all American military interventions have been unfortunate. The U.S. saved Europe, defeated Japan in World War II and prevented South Korea from sharing the dire fate of Communist North Korea. While a journalist such as Tenenbom cannot be expected to have a historical perspective, it may have been useful regarding several of his observations.

According to Tenenbom, some of “the lies” that Americans tell come from ignorance of their own and other peoples’ histories and a willful blindness toward racism and antisemitism that remain prevalent in different sectors of society. For example, he frequently asks whether one supports Israel or the Palestinians. Many of those who are pro-Palestinian (and some who are pro-Israel) know almost nothing about the Arab-Israel conflict.  Likewise, the subject of climate change evokes many foolish remarks on the part of various Americans interviewed in the book.

Furthermore, Tenenbom points out that Americans display denial and obfuscation regarding racism and antisemitism, thereby revealing a type of hypocrisy. For instance, the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit does not mention Ford’s foul antisemitism and his support for anti-Jewish publications, such as the newspaper, The Dearborn Independent which serialized The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. When asked by visitors, the polite staff at the Museum graciously show them to their website which has nothing about this salient feature of Henry Ford’s life and work. Another “lie” notes the Black church (the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church) in Charleston, South Carolina, which does not permit the enrollment of White members, – even those who expressed profound sympathy,  contributed generously to the church, and joined Bible study classes after the murderous massacre by White supremacist Dylan Roof in June 2015.  Similarly, Tenenbom regards Black expressions of anger at White policemen for killing young Black men who apparently have not committed any crime and their silence regarding the far greater number of Blacks killed by other Blacks in gangland violence as blatant hypocrisy. The book is replete with many more examples of this type. Indeed, the title, The Lies They Tell, refers to the numerous manifestations of this mindset.

Israel and American Jews are of particular interest to the author. Here, Tenenbom’s observations are often valid but distressing. He describes the phenomenon of “intersectionality,” without calling it by its name. “Intersectionality” is the term in current academic jargon for the mandatory linkage between all supposed “progressive” causes. For example, if one supports climate change, then one must also favor the Palestinians, despite ignorance about both issues or the fact that they are completely unrelated. His masterful descriptions of the Quaker meeting and the Berkeley campus highlight this “intersectionality.” And the opposite is true as well. Those who are not fanatics about climate change are pro-Israel. Many among them are devout Christians.

Tenenbom is particularly critical of American Jewry. He points out that, as a group, Jews generally are insecure and, above all, want to be loved and recognized. This characterizes both conservatives and liberals in the Jewish community – from the rabbis prominent at the large CUFI (Christians United for Israel) Conference in Washington to a Jewish dialogue in St. Paul, Minnesota devoted to expunging alleged Jewish racism against Blacks. On that occasion, a Black woman vented her wrath at Israel and the Jews for their ingrained prejudice against Blacks. The Jewish audience applauds. In this case, Tenenbom sharply castigates the Jews for excessive self-criticism, lack of self-respect, and even self-hatred, which are particularly striking because Blacks never hold similar gatherings in their communities devoted to dealing with eliminating their own antisemitism. While the author is generally correct, it must be noted that Jewish events on combatting racism also may be occasions for “virtue-signaling,” where Jews publicly congratulate themselves for talking about racism, while implying that other groups do not, thereby highlighting their own virtue and the others’ shortcomings. The fact that Jews are so willing to put up with those who express unfounded criticism against them and against the Jewish state occurs in his conversations with Jewish students on the Berkeley campus in California. They suffer in silence.

The Lies They Tell mentions the phenomenon of vanishing and waning Jewish communities, such as Montgomery, Alabama, where the older generation dedicated itself to civil rights for Blacks and still discusses its alleged racism! Tenenbom attends a Yom Kippur service in affluent and liberal Aspen, Colorado, which is dull and devoid of young people. The decline of communities and the lack of affiliation among many Jews, especially adults under forty, has been noted in the recent Pew Survey and other sociological studies. Among the reasons for the present situation are:  the ignorance of Judaism and Jewish history; the openness of American society (hence the high rate of intermarriage); the focus on financial success and careers above all else; the lack of a sense of Jewish peoplehood, as opposed to religion as a personal preference; and the fact that being an active, affiliated Jew is demanding, expensive and requires real commitment, not a fleeting impulse or whim.

Tenenbom goes further. Besides pointing out that the type of Judaism in the synagogues (such as in Aspen) lacks authenticity and has no appeal, he continuously and correctly argues that many rabbis, leaders and organizations, and therefore, rank-and-file Jews, have prioritized the causes of others above their own survival – particularly civil rights for Blacks, inclusion of refugees, climate change (and at present, their campaign against President Trump). In fact, some younger Jews have gone so far as to favor the Palestinian cause and promote the destruction of the Jewish state. (One of them shouts down the author.) According to Tenenbom, such suicidal impulses exist in all American ethnic groups – alcoholic, indolent Indians on reservations; violent Black street gangs; and gun-besotted White young men and women. The author, however, does not discuss Orthodox communities which seem to be thriving. In conclusion, despite the humor and wit of The Lies They Tell, Tuvia Tenenbom clearly conveys a pessimistic outlook regarding the future of American Jewry and the position of Israel in the United States. His book is timely and worthwhile reading for anyone concerned with many of the social issues which find expression in contemporary American life. Above all, The Lies they Tell is an excellent and entertaining read.

About Rivkah Fishman-Duker

Rivkah Fishman-Duker is a Lecturer Emerita in Ancient Jewish History at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem.