Israel in Hawaii


If you ask someone’s opinion of Israel, they’ll probably think you’re talking about the Jewish State. But ask any Hawaiian, and their first association will be quite different: They’re likely to assume you mean Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.

Bumper stickers and t-shirts all over the island read, in big block letters, the simple word ISRAEL, or the truncated IZ. These are tributes to Kamakawiwo’ole (who was not Jewish), a former hoodlum who became one of the most celebrated, singers and ukulele players in Hawaii. Before Kamakawiwo’ole succumbed to weight-related illnesses (he was over 1,000 pounds at the time of his death in 1997), he brought Hawaiian traditional music back to the forefront of culture, and helped to popularize the then-dying Hawaiian language.

Israel’s name is far from the only Jewish contribution to Hawaiian culture. The novelist Allegra Goodman, an observant Jew, is from Hawaii, and her first book, Total Immersion, is a wry look at the ways in which Jews have assimilated–or not assimilated–into Hawaiian culture. And Linda Lingle, the previous governor of Hawaii (2002-2010), was both the first Jewish governor and the first woman governor of the state. To most Hawaiians, however, the Israelite closest to their hearts is a big man with a tiny ukulele.

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