Commentary Magazine

Notes Toward an Israeli Jewish Culture

Cancelled and current passports show that I have been in Israel 40 times since 1992, on visits lasting from several days to several months. In the future I will no longer have this secure record of entry and exit, since rather than stamping visitor passports, Israel border control has taken to issuing its visitors small identity cards that say “valid until” the same date three months later. This past June, when I was handed back my unstamped passport and told that I could keep—or return—my visitor’s card on leaving the country, my first thought was of the fashion in shaven heads among young men that seems more prevalent in Israel than elsewhere. Rather than suffer the indignity associated with balding, young Israelis tend to advertise their virility by preemptively shaving their heads.

Here’s the association: Back in October 2009, when I flew to Israel for the Second Presidential Conference, a large annual international gathering under the aegis of Shimon Peres, a hostess arrived at the plane to greet me and four fellow participants and usher us through customs. As she gathered up our passports, she said, “You don’t want them stamped, is that right?” One of the four nodded. The others were puzzled. I was irate. I knew that people traveling to some Arab and Muslim countries were denied entry or faced harassment if they had an Israeli stamp in their passport. Indeed, the man who had nodded explained he had been advised to make the request because he was soon to attend a conference in Riyadh. I knew Israel wanted to accommodate those who requested this disgraceful submission to Arab discrimination. But rather than use every means of persuasion to oppose this offense to international travel and to the Jewish people, here was a representative of Israel offering to submit to Arab aggression by obscuring evidence of this trip. I insisted on having my passport stamped, and after explaining the issue, so did the three others.

The panel to which I had been assigned at the conference allotted us seven minutes apiece to speak to the question, “Are we in the midst of a values crisis?” I used some of those minutes to address the crisis to which I had just been witness. The conference logo was the word tomorrow, with a little flower growing out of the t, accompanied by a message from our host, Shimon Peres: “I have learned that out of the greatest crises fascinating opportunities can emerge. Such opportunities are uncovered by those with a loving heart and an optimistic spirit.” I pointed out that though we participants had been supplied with free travel and accommodations (plus individually guided tours of Jerusalem on request), we were not even expected to respect the country’s legitimacy by having our passports stamped. I described the incident as a failure of moral self-confidence and a retreat from the political normalization that Israel claimed to have achieved. The casual way in which the offer had been made smacked, to me, of a craven heart and a defensive spirit.

So you see why, when I received my entry card in place of the stamp in my passport, I thought of the young men who confront baldness on their own terms. If no one gets a passport stamped, no one can refuse to get a passport stamped. Whether or not this was a reason for the innovation, it removed the indignity to which Israel was routinely subject. Although the stratagem by no means alleviates the standing insult of Arab attempts to delegitimate the Jewish state, it may be yet another example of Israeli entrepreneurship that derives, in turn, from the spirit of the Yiddish saying az men ken nisht ariber, muz men arunter—if you can’t climb over, you have to crawl under. Or, in its tougher version: If you can’t climb over, you have to climb over. But should we admire this example of Israel’s ingenuity or rue the habit of bending to malevolent treatment?

Psychiatry is uncertain about the genuineness of a condition known as the Jerusalem Syndrome—the phenomenon of otherwise normal persons acquiring self-aggrandized notions upon arriving in the city. Agnostic on that front, I have noticed in myself and many others a tendency to begin writing at the moment of arrival in Israel—letters, diaries, articles, and nowadays emails, tweets, and blog posts—as though the heightened drama of the country demanded heightened testimony from its visitors. The real and present dangers and the buoyant spirit of the country that confronts them keep me scribbling through this visit as they have done on all the others. Unlike the journalists, however, I am less interested in the novelties of “man bites dog” than in what connects modern Israel to the Jewish past and the Jewish future. It is hard to know when the present is accommodating the past and when tradition is giving way to something untried.

Though Jerusalem remains my home base during visits, I have lately been spending time in Tel Aviv, where between restaurant and café meals I occasionally pick up chicken dinner from a new kosher takeout run by a family from France. As far as I can determine, their menu is Polish, not unlike that of the Butcherie back in Brookline, Massachusetts, where Middle Eastern side dishes—hummus, baba ganoush, tabouli, Israeli salad—likewise supplement the East European starches. This growing French-Jewish presence alarms a lawyer friend who tells me he fears his city is becoming uncomfortably religious, but lest you jump to the wrong conclusion, he also happens to be planning his second son’s bar mitzvah—with a nonkosher caterer, to be sure.

The lawyer’s anxiety about the invasion of the frummies is the kind one might hear on the West Side of Los Angeles or the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and, indeed, in many respects Israel’s “progressive” elites bear a close resemblance to their American counterparts. Yet if one compares the analogous pressures of Jewishness in the two societies, its push and pull is stronger when applied in Israel, in Hebrew.

Trading jokes on these tensions, the New York-born Israeli writer Hillel Halkin submits this version of an oldie: A small-town Jew on his first trip to Warsaw spends the Sabbath with a notorious heretic to witness his apostasy at first hand. He is surprised to see the man and his family welcoming the Sabbath with the traditional candle lighting, songs, blessings, and customs generally. The meal is accompanied in Orthodox fashion by discussion of that week’s reading from the Torah. At its conclusion, those assembled recite the full grace after meals. Only at that point does the head of the household approach the sideboard and blow out the Sabbath candles—a prohibited act. “I don’t understand,” says the visitor. “If you are a heretic, why don’t you violate some more serious commandment, mix dairy with meat, eat pork, visit prostitutes?” The heretic smiles condescendingly: “Those are things any goy can do.” The trendy Tel Avivians might bridle at the comparison between themselves and this heretic, but they, too, sometimes seem to be rebelling against a tradition that is being honored in the breach.

A walk along the Tel Aviv beachfront on a Thursday morning is an idyll in mutual toleration. First to pass me is a contingent of helmeted adults on wheeled contraptions known as personal transporters, Zuzus in Israel, Segways elsewhere, guided by a leader calling out instructions—no doubt an attempt to drum up business for a mode of transportation that has not caught on. Some in the group wear jerseys like members of a team (Unholy Rollers?), but others seem bemused by their own folly, as though grown-ups had decided to return to childhood and try out their new toys.

Along designated bike paths I see every kind of wheeled conveyance: racers, motorcycles, rickety bicycles as old as their riders, a tandem bike with what look like boy and girl picnickers, and a solid two-wheeler with a child on the backseat. Among the parents with strollers on the main path is a group of young mothers in Orthodox dress taking their children to the “publicly authorized separate swimming zone” that is open to women on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday (to men on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). A little farther along the boardwalk is a gay beach without any posted designation, but in the approximate place where there might be a sign stands a booth advertising gay tours—an informal marker of what no one wants to seal off formally. Olympic-regulation swimming pools coexist here with public beaches, and as if on cue, over the loudspeaker of Café Landauer, founded in Berlin in 1919, transported to Palestine in the 1930s, and opened on this beach two years ago, the Beatles sing out, “All you need is love.”

My impression of improvement in relations between the avowedly secular and manifestly religious sectors of Israeli society is based on three kinds of evidence—recent changes in government policy, an explosion of collaborative grassroots projects, and “intermarriage” between different camps. The bride of such a romance that I witness firsthand is the most devout member of my extended family, religiously observant since her teens. As part of her pre-army and post-army service she joined a project in the Gilo section of Jerusalem called Beit Yisrael, a mixed religious-secular community that can best be described as an urban kibbutz. You can Google it, but the entry would not convey the dedicated quality of her work with children and teenagers who would elsewhere be labeled disadvantaged. She continues to live and work among them now that she attends university. An unapologetic idealist, she could not settle for a husband any less resolute or independent than herself.

Her intended—the Yiddish term is basherter, sometimes shortened to bashert—is the product of one of the most left-wing kibbutzim in the country, still Marxist in orientation despite its growing wealth. Religion is anathema. The young man was demonstratively not given a bar mitzvah, and when visiting Jerusalem his parents did not visit the Western Wall on the grounds that it was beyond the “Green Line,” part of the territory lost to Jordan in 1948 and regained during the Six-Day War. The extremism of this kind of leftism is akin to that of the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim who repudiate the impurity of the state of Israel in its entirety. So how did the Capulet meet the Montague, or what brings together a Shark and a Jet?

Between high school and army, he, like she, attended a mechina, or preparatory gap-year program where a mixed student body studies Judaism and Zionism and does directed voluntary work in the local community. Although his “secular” mechina did not include Jewish observance (unlike religiously oriented Beit Yisrael), it did offer the intellectual challenges of Jewish textual study and informed celebration of the Sabbath, Jewish festivals, and holy days. His delight in the Sabbath as he experienced it there, with its extended and undistracted conversation, prompted him to try to introduce the practice into his family on the kibbutz. When one of his mechina friends heard him describe its pleasures, she was powerfully reminded of my relative, her friend from high school, who speaks with similar passion about her religious community.

Anyone who meets the couple will appreciate their matchmaker’s intuition, but apart from the pleasure this union radiates, it makes me aware of an affinity I might otherwise not have noticed. Jewish religious life and the modern Zionist movement were both propelled by idealists who placed the needs of the community above their own. A century ago the founders of radical Zionist movements such as Hashomer Ha-Tzair—the Young Guard—claimed they were adopting egalitarian politics because the Judaism of their pious homes was not virtuous enough. So where better than in one another’s camps can the descendants of the pious and the pioneers find their potential partners in life? Most of his kibbutz attended the very joyous wedding where the bride and groom observed all the requirements of a traditional Jewish ceremony, each side supremely respectful of the sensibilities of the other—the observant and the Marxists expressing their national-political ideals through the harmony they were able to achieve. And let’s face it: Judaism is far more satisfying than Marxism when it comes to marking life’s milestones and the rhythms of time.

Though this marriage is merely anecdotal evidence of the rapprochement across the religious-secular divide, it was made possible by government- and privately supported program of mechinot (plural of mechina), of which there are now more than three dozen from northernmost Israel to the Negev, most of them pluralistic in outlook, a smaller number Orthodox in orientation. Just as many religiously affiliated American Jews spend their gap year between high school and university in Israel studying Jewish texts and getting to know the country, Israeli youth from determinedly secular or immigrant homes get their first mature exposure to Jewish sources in these engaged learning groups. The government of Israel was at first reluctant to endorse one-year deferrals, but the enthusiasm of the recruits who pass through the programs proved their civic value.

The mechina network is one of multiplying efforts throughout the country to draw together its different sectors into a more cohesive polity. For example, there are secular and religious parents dissatisfied with the school system that divides their children along those lines and who want greater integration for their children at the elementary and high school levels. They have been establishing new schools that run the gamut from simply using adjoining premises for a common schoolyard to providing a common curriculum for subjects like science and math and history with parallel classes for the teaching of Judaism and Jewish texts. The first religious-secular school was established in 1980 in Kfar Adumim, which was itself conceived and still functions as an explicitly heterogeneous rural community. The first such school in an urban setting, the Keshet (Rainbow) School in Jerusalem, was founded in 1995 to provide a “combined educational framework to religious and secular students.” Oversubscribed almost since its inception, Keshet never stops tweaking its parallel offerings to ensure that neither set of students is pedagogically or spiritually shortchanged; one challenge is providing a satisfying “secular” equivalent for the morning prayer of religiously observant students.

Creative examples of integration can be found in the network of towns and city councils that try to forge communities out of what would otherwise remain merely adjoining neighborhoods. One such town is Gan Yavne, within commuting distance of Tel Aviv, and attractive to young families that are either priced out of the big-city market or in want of “suburban” space. Founded in 1931, its population exploded in the last two decades from about 3,000 to 22,000, some of its earlier religious residents by now far outnumbered by Israelis with little or no Jewish education. Several years ago a small group of such “secular” Israelis, determined to create a strong local civic culture, began exploring new ways of marking traditional Jewish festivals and rites of passage. They formed a coalition of the willing that included the mayor, head of the community center, a local Sephardi rabbi, and volunteers who are required to provide a prescribed number of hours of service, and they began fashioning an Israeli Jewish culture.

It stands to reason that the originally fused religious and national components of the Jewish way of life, which became separated during the Christian Enlightenment in Europe, should now be reintegrated in a modern Jewish state. A mother on the Gan Yavne council led a campaign in the (secular) school her children attended to include preparation for a bar and bat mitzvah, which most students expected but which some of their parents could not provide out of ignorance or want. Some families obviously supplement these collective celebrations with private synagogue ceremonies, but for those that do not, the school teaches and marks the coming-of-age of a Jew.

The council’s most ambitious project is an annual town festival on the late spring holiday of Shavuot, which traditionally marks God’s granting of the Torah to the Jews at Sinai and is one of the three biblical pilgrimage festivals when Jews brought offerings to the Temple. In modern adaptation of those rites, infants born during the previous year are brought together for blessing by the rabbi and reception by the entire community; professional and amateur craftspeople and artists show and sell their recent wares; community groups perform; growers and chefs offer refreshment. Thousands turn out. By contrast, the winter festival of Chanukah is organized on a street-by-street basis; houses are volunteered and residents of each street visit one home every night for the lighting of the eight Chanukah candles—a little like Christmas caroling, but inside and with food.

Collaborative councils elsewhere in the country deal with divisions along different lines—as between Russian newcomers and older settlers in Upper Nazareth. A network of such communities under the name Nitzanim (buds) now shares resources and trades advice about the problems they face in common, such as the difference in weight between the obligatory requirements of observance on the one hand and voluntary adaptations to them on the other, which makes it hard to balance “religious” against “national” claims. If a rabbi is thought to be bending too far to accommodate his secular partners, he may lose his standing as well as his livelihood. No such consequence threatens the secular leaders, who may nonetheless resent having to yield to the requirements of the Orthodox on the grounds that the Orthodox cannot yield to them. These trials of local cooperation strengthen the capacity for civic forbearance and may offset the frustrations with democracy at the national level.

Consolidation of an Israeli Jewish culture ought to give pause to the American denominational movements that have been trying to establish their branches in Israel and attributing their lack of success to opposition by the local rabbinate. What makes sense in America may be less appropriate in Israel. The denominational distinctions that began in Europe took hold in America where Jews were considered a religious group. If identity is established through religion, and religious affiliation is determined through synagogue membership, it is wise to belong to the synagogue most closely aligned with your style and level of worship. No such denominational ladder of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, etc. formed in Arab lands—where Judaism, like Islam, blended categories of religion and ethnicity—and it may not suit a country that wants to transpose these categories into civic terms. Israelis may not be looking for different styles and levels of worship but rather for commonalities among those who do and do not worship.

As for what makes headlines, the present government of Israel has begun correcting an earlier lapse of political judgment that dates from the establishment of the Jewish state. Several hundred yeshiva students were then granted exemption from military service, and this exemption became enshrined as law of the land. One can readily understand and sympathize with Ben-Gurion’s need in 1947–48 for a broad national coalition that would include the rabbis who held out for these terms, and one can appreciate the moral argument of the religious sector for some latitude after the murder of almost its entire leadership in Europe. But it proved morally untenable to institutionalize an unequal burden of military service for citizens of a democratic polity, especially given the unrelenting importance in Israel of military service. This unfairness is now being addressed by a program to conscript young men from the so-called ultra-Orthodox sector into various sectors of the Israel Defense Forces. A law has been passed to that effect, and while it is not being implemented as quickly or smoothly as some would prefer, democracies sometimes work better when they cultivate patience as well as tolerance. Notably, as in the emergence of Israeli Jewish culture, the momentum is toward a more cohesive society.

Leftists among my Israeli colleagues credit my enthusiasm for these projects to a visitor’s removal from the tensions of everyday life. Shortly before my departure, one of them tries to refute my examples of civic cooperation with statistics about economic disparity, tales of corruption in government and of religious coercion, and the need to ride herd on several million Palestinian Arabs. We have had such debates before, but I am startled when she says she hopes that President Obama will force Israel into territorial concessions it would otherwise not make. Ignoring the contempt this shows for Israel’s democratic process, I remind her that in the summer of 2008 she had feared Obama’s election. My colleague bridles: “I said no such thing!” But having transcribed her words at the time, I quote them verbatim. She had said, “Do you really think it is possible that Americans will actually elect Barack Obama as their next president?”

As I repeat her words, I realize that I had transcribed the words but not the right music. She had been afraid not (as I assumed) that he could be elected but that he could not. She was asking me whether America was advanced enough, tolerant enough to elect this man for president! I had mistakenly attributed to her the political maturity she expects from Palestinians—the maturity to know what is in their best interests.

I am chastened by this reminder of my fallibility as I am sobered by the enmity surrounding Israel that strains the self-confidence of its citizenry. Time will judge between my colleague’s cynicism and my trust, and the outcome will depend on the belligerents as well as on the Israelis. For the moment, my notebook is packed with descriptions of budding experiments.

About the Author

Ruth R. Wisse is Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and a professor of comparative literature at Harvard University. Her most recent book is No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Library of Jewish Ideas, Princeton University Press). 

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