Reborn Jews

Haim Watzman

This article was solicited last year by the Jewish Review of Books but got cut in favor of material on the summer protest movement. I forgot about it and just yesterday found it in my computer. I hope it will interest SoJo’s readers

I had two adoptive families in Kiryat Shmonah, Israel’s northernmost town, when I lived there for three months at the end of 1978. I was 22 years old, I’d just arrived in Israel, and I was attending the ulpan that, unbeknownst to me at the time, would not only teach me Hebrew but lead to my decision to make my life in this country.

Talmud study at Bina

The ulpan set me up with a middle-class family that lived in one of the relatively spacious apartments halfway up the mountain slope on which Kiryat Shmonah lay. The loquacious mother, in her early thirties, had a job with the city; the father, a square-shouldered, silent veteran of the Yom Kippur War, was a manager at one of the factories that were the town’s major employers. They were model scions of the country’s Ashkenazi, labor movement elite—generous, dedicated to family and country—and strangely un-Jewish to this green American newcomer. If I stopped by at lunchtime, when the family’s two small daughters came home from preschool, I’d be invited to partake of a square, if unexciting, chicken dinner. (They ate dinner at lunchtime, a practice then so universal in Israel that my wife, who grew up here, still calls the main meal of the day “lunch,” even though we eat it in the evening.) If I went by on Friday afternoon or Saturday afternoon I’d get the same freshly-cooked meal. On Friday nights they had omelets, finely-diced vegetable salad, and nine-percent white cheese. There was no wine and no ha-motzi blessing. They didn’t even fast on Yom Kippur.

On my own, I made friends with another family. These adoptive parents were a year older than I was and already had two children. Followers of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, the spiritual father of the settlement movement and of a newly assertive messianic and nationalist religious Zionism, they, like my other family, had come to Kiryat Shmonah to fulfill a Zionist ideal. Their midweek meals were catch-as-catch-can—father and mother ran from schoolteaching jobs to after-school religious study classes they held for neighborhood kids to meetings of the local chapter of the National Religious Party. But Friday nights were imbued with sanctity—and incredible European-Tunisian fusion cuisine. They went to services, made kiddush, washed their hands ritually, blessed the challah, sang Shabbat songs, discussed the weekly Torah portion, and packed large numbers of guests into their small living room.

Neither family’s week accorded with the Jewish week I knew from home. Back in Washington we didn’t keep kosher or observe the Sabbath prohibitions. But Friday nights were special meals, and holidays, observed with chosen customs, were imbued with religious and historical meaning and became deeply ingrained in my Jewish identity. Sometimes we even drove to services at Temple Israel.

Eager to get to know real Israelis of all kinds—and desperate for alternatives to the greasy and tasteless meals presented by the ulpan’s kitchen—I frequently invited myself over for weekend lunches with the first family and Friday night dinners with the second. But Israel seemed to be telling me that I had to make a choice between these two stark opposites. To be a mainstream Zionist, I had to shed Judaism. To be Jewish, I had to be Orthodox.

My own four children, presently clustered around the age I was when I first came to Israel, do not face this polar and polarizing decision. As chronicled by Yair Sheleg, a journalist and fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, Israelis have been getting more Jewish over the last two decades, and one of the results is the huge variety of religious and secular-Jewish experiences on offer. Within walking distance of our home in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood there are religious communities of all types—staid Ashkenazi, traditional Sephardi, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, New Age, and—South Jerusalem’s specialty—a plethora of what Sheleg called (in his previous book) Neo-Orthodox. These latter, like my own synagogue, Kehilat Yedidya, combine traditional halachic observance with egalitarianism, humanism, and various kinds of innovation. There’s a Chabad shul (isn’t there always?) and newly-religious Bratislaver Hasidim handing out booklets at the intersection past the gas station.

But also in our radius are Elul and Kolot, two organizations where religious and non-religious Israelis study Jewish texts together, and the Shalom Hartman Institute, which, among other things, has a program to train non-religious teachers to teach Jewish texts and content in secular schools. There are three schools that enroll both religious and non-religious students. And a few years ago the local secular elementary school, Ge’ulim (situated across the street from the state-sponsored religious elementary school) joined the Tali network, which enhances the standard and Jewishly-sterile secular curriculum with Jewish studies taught in a non-coercive and non-religious format. Just founded, if further afield, is the Jerusalem Yeshiva, one of a national network of secular yeshivot where atheist and agnostic Israelis study Talmud and Jewish philosophy without connection or obligation to Orthodox practice, Orthodox society, and Orthodox politics.

My children will probably not choose my brand of left-wing feminist halachic observance for themselves, but their only alternative to Orthodoxy is not, as it would have been three decades ago, turning their back on Jewish tradition, texts, and learning. That is a wonderful thing but, as Sheleg shows, like all wonderful things it has a problematic, dangerous side as well.

For The Jewish Renaissance in Israeli Society is divided, Jekyll-and-Hyde-like, into two halves. And it’s pretty clear where most of Sheleg’s sympathy lies. The first part of the book, “The Cultural Path: Seekers of Judaism,” is largely devoted to the ways in which secular Israelis—in particular the Ashkenazi and labor movement elite—have overcome their class’s allergy to anything that smacks of religion and begun to stake their own claim to Jewish heritage and classical texts. When the socialist Zionist pioneers who founded that elite came to Palestine, it was to establish an entirely new society and a new kind of Jew. Emerging, as most of them did, from the towns and cities of Eastern Europe, they viewed religion as primitive, a force that kept the Jews subordinate and submissive during centuries of exile. There were fields to be cleared and roads to pave, which were not jobs for scholars who spent their lives poring over arcane books and worrying about the minutiae of ritual. Unlike the Jews who moved west to England, France, and North America, the pioneers did not need religion as a crutch for maintaining their Jewish identities or their respectability in societies where churchgoing was a social norm and atheism a scandal. There was no fear of assimilation into the surrounding Arab society. So, to create the new Jew, Judaism could be cast off like a snakeskin too cramped to contain a mature organism. While these socialist pioneers were a minority, they became both rulers of and the reference group for the new state of Israel, with the power to impose their model actively through school curricula and the public space and passively via their social influence. To be a real Israeli and to get ahead in life, you had to do as they were doing at Kibbutz Ein Harod and in north Tel Aviv—which was, in traditional Jewish terms, nothing at all.

But this sterile form of Jewish identity began to fracture as the postwar world morphed into the post-ideological world. Tellingly, Sheleg dates the beginning of the secular cultural Jewish renaissance to 1989, the year that saw the founding of the first two institutions where non-religious Israelis could study the canonical Jewish texts in a framework that was not aimed at getting them to become Orthodox. One was Elul, mentioned above, where religious and non-religious Israelis study together; the second the midrasha, or seminary, at Oranim College, a teacher-training institution sponsored by the kibbutz movement, where there was not a kipah in sight.

In 1989, the First Intifada, which shocked Israelis into realizing that the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were not prepared to be their country’s hewers of wood and bearers of water, was in its second year. The youth of East Berlin, seemingly ungrateful for having been raised in a socialist paradise, knocked down the wall that separated them from freedom. Israelis were glued to their color television sets watching Dynasty, emblematic of the shallow, meaningless, materialistic American pop culture that was steamrollering the country. Kids didn’t want to read Alterman or Agnon any more, much less start up a new kibbutz. Some were even saying that they didn’t want to serve in the army.

Secular Israelis who were disturbed by these developments sought a new anchor for their identity. They saw that religious Zionist society was flourishing precisely because it had such an anchor. So they bravely claimed Judaism for themselves.

Sheleg chronicles how these first two initiatives blossomed into a network of institutions and learning communities—small groups of non-religious Jews who convened on a regular basis to peruse Jewish texts and discuss Jewish thought. (The most famous of these is probably that whose members include the poet Rivka Miriam and novelist David Grossman.) They plumbed Talmud, Midrash, and Maimonides to find stories and ideas with meaning for their lives, not to understand how to observe the commandments in the proper way.

Many of them came to feel that intellectual engagement was not enough—they wanted ritual as well. So some began to fashion marriage, bar and bat mitzvah, and funeral ceremonies that integrate liberal humanism and egalitarianism with tradition. They even established secular prayer groups whose members welcome the Sabbath together on Friday nights. There is now a seminary, Temurah, that ordains secular rabbis.

It’s important to emphasize, as Sheleg does, that the phenomenon differs fundamentally from Reform and Conservative Judaism, movements that have long had branches in Israel but which have never really caught on. The secular worshippers make no pretense of believing in God nor, for the most part, do they feel a need for an institutional structure or movement. They seek meaning, myth, and a Jewish discourse with a profound connection to their people’s history and literary masterpieces, not a relationship with the divine.

That same impetus has led to a profound metamorphosis of Israeli popular culture. Five years ago I turned on the radio and found myself listening to a new setting of Ana be-Khoah, my favorite Friday night piyyut—liturgical poem—performed by pop singers Ovadia Hamama and Ehud Banai. I liked it so much, and was so surprised to hear it on the radio, that I was moved nearly to tears. When I voiced my surprise to my kids, they told me that the song was at the top of the charts. Much of the Israeli pop music my kids listen to now takes its lyrics from piyyutim, such as Barry Sacharoff and Rea Mochiach’s album of songs based on the lyrics of Shlomo Ibn Gvirol, the eleventh-century Adalucian Hebrew poet. Once religious characters in contemporary Israeli fiction and film were largely restricted to unenlightened old people, cute or quaint Sephardim, or exotic beings that were like aliens from another planet. Today Shmuel Hasafri writes plays with three-dimensional characters who observe Shabbat, and a popular television show, Serugim, portrays real-life religious twenty-somethings who grapple with the complexities of living with halacha in modern society.

Sheleg sees all this as a very positive turn in Israeli society, one that is already working to bridge the gap between the religious and non-religious by giving them a common language and creating mutual respect and cooperation. But he notes its limitations: these new cultural Jews are still few; most of them belong to the Ashkenazi middle class; and most view Judaism as something to do in their spare time, a class a couple afternoons a week but not a way of life. Furthermore, the movement’s institutions are highly dependent on outside funding, most of it from the United States. The Madoff scam and economic crisis have already led to severe budget cuts at these organizations. And the Avi Chai Foundation is by far the largest funder behind the movement, providing budgets for a wide range of projects that include secular seminaries, tv shows like Serugim, and workshops to acquaint pop singers with traditional texts. But Avi Chai’s bylaws limit its help to a set number of years. Officially its money will stop in 2020, and that date may be moved up, Sheleg reports.

But, fundamentally, cultural Judaism’s major limitation is that it’s directed mostly to the head. It’s intellectual. While the seminaries, study groups, and secular prayer communities go also to the heart by creating communities and, in some cases, spurring social action, they don’t slake the soul.

It’s the thirsty Jewish soul that lies at the center of the second half of the book, “The Spiritual Path: Seekers of God.” This organ, invisible and unnecessary to science, nevertheless has hungers and desires that can be so intense as to overwhelm mere intestinal appetite and sexual libido. Souls yearn for God, and souls that have been repressed or denied may leap up to Him in dangerous ways.

The spiritual revival encompasses a wide range of phenomena—New Age communities ranging from Jewish Renewal-type, neo-Hasidic ecstatic worship groups to self-segregated mystics who integrate kabbalah and Eastern doctrines; Sephardim rediscovering their heritage in ways that range from adoption of ultra-Orthodoxy to the egalitarian Sephardi minyan that meets up the street from my house; Chabad; the Bratislavers handing out anti-masturbation pamphlets at the nearby intersection; the Hilltop Youth, who are mostly second-generation West Bank settlers who have set up wildcat outposts on Judean and Samarian peaks; and, most dangerously, cults like the one headed by Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburg, the racist American-born Chabadnik and author of a paean to Baruch Goldstein, the doctor from Kiryat Arba who machine-gunned Muslim worshipers in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994, killing 29 of them.

The needs of the spirit are no less crucial than the needs of the body and the mind, and are ignored at peril. At its best, the spiritual revival has offered channels for Israelis from both the non-religious and religious communities to fill their souls with song and to feel God as a force that motivates them in their personal lives and in their performance of His precepts—not just the ritual commandments, but also the social commandments of charity, justice, and respect for others. And it has been a gift for the Sephardi community, whose culture and heritage were too long looked down on by both the Ashkenazi secular elite and the religious community, both modern and ultra-Orthodox.

But the needs of the soul are so great that they all too often lead to extremes. Instead of joining their souls to their hearts and intellects, enthusiasts all too often cast their minds and flesh aside in the belief that spirit is all they need. They then become easy prey for cynical leaders who exploit their souls (and sometimes their bodies) and for messianic creeds that view Jews as superior to other human beings. The acolyte believes that he, or his rabbi, knows all, and when you know all, respecting other people’s opinions or trying to understand their views is not only a waste of time—it’s desecration. Other Jews have worth only as potential converts, and non-Jews are merely obstacles to God’s kingdom.

Sheleg tries to be evenhanded, but between the lines it’s clear that he’s a lot less sanguine about the new spiritual movement than he is about the new cultural Jews. If Israeli democracy, society, and culture are enriched by the cultural Jewish revival, they are threatened by parts of the spiritual revival.

Is it possible to square the circle and create a Jewish-Israeli milieu that can answer the needs of the intellect, the heart, and the soul, while disregarding none of them? Today’s Israelis are not the first to wonder. In the autumn of 1933, during the Jewish holiday season, one of the founding fathers of secular socialist Zionism visited Eastern Europe. Berl Katznelson, who had long since stopped believing in God and observing the commandments, was shocked to find Jews opening their stores on the holidays. The members of the pioneering labor youth movements disturbed him—they were ignorant, boorish, and had cast off Jewish culture and embraced Communist revolutionism and Freudian sexual obsession. The teenagers that most impressed him were the ones from Mizrahi, the religious Zionist youth movement—who, like their secular comrades, labored and prepared themselves for kibbutz life, but also knew Hebrew, prayed, and studied Jewish texts. The religious Zionist combination of soulwork, heartwork, brainwork, and physical labor remains an elusive goal that the religious Zionists themselves have seldom achieved.

My hope is that during my children’s generation the new Israeli Jews, both cultural and spiritual, will come together to create a pluralistic, democratic Jewish space in which Jewish texts, poetry, philosophy, myth, and the Jewish God (for those who seek Him) will be available, inspirational, loved, and needed by all. In that Israel, no one will have to choose between the weekday chicken dinner and the Friday night couscous. We’ll all sit around the same table.

1 thought on “Reborn Jews”

  1. Ever notice that in *100 Shirim Rishonim*, the illustrations accompanying the holiday songs are all of sterotypical, cartoony Orthodox Jews? And all the other illustrations are of mainstream kids?

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