Our dear friends, X and Y, recently concluded a visit with us here in Israel. They spent entire days out pounding the pavement, seeing the sights, and enjoying free-flowing kosher cuisine. At night, Y blogged assiduously about their adventures to keep friends and family up to date.
One friend commented on one of Y’s posts about how it must feel to live as a Jew in the Jewish State. She wrote, “I’d love to read an analysis of the differences between modern Diaspora and Israeli Judaism, and what it means to people to not have to think of themselves as different, what effect that has. …I just keep thinking how nice it would be and yet how different to be normative like that.” Truer words were never spoke. I’d like to take a stab at addressing this comment, if I may.
Modern Diaspora v. Israeli Judaism
Judaism is Judaism wherever you go, but of course that’s not entirely true. In America (the only Diaspora Jewish community of which I have direct experience) the choices are more limited in terms of kashrut, eating out, schooling, and basic Jewish services. Jewish communities are islands plunked down in a sea of non-Jews, and Jews in America in some sense lead double lives, living and working among non-Jews during the work week, and on Shabbat being transformed into Yidn. Jews undergo the same pressure as their non-Jewish neighbors of trying to make ends meet, save for college for their kids and retirement for themselves, except Jews have the added expenses of day school education, pricey kosher food, and real estate within an eruv (usually in an urban area and always valued higher than when there is no eruv). America is a Jewish democracy, with communities governing themselves on a national and local level and not possessing the power to delegitimize one another. American Jews have always been fiercely independent and suspicious of attempts to rein them in to any particular standard, which is one reason why America has refused to appoint a chief rabbi as many other Diaspora communities have done.
Living in Israel is in many ways a complete departure from Diaspora life. The non-Jews (for the most part) have vanished when one gets off the plane at Ben-Gurion, and the challenge of living together as Jews really begins. The presence of the Rabbanut in the government here is a mixed blessing: Nearly all of inhabited Israel is within an eruv, and there is no need to check every Friday afternoon to see if it’s up; mikvaot are more numerous here, dotted throughout cities rather than in one central location; all hotels and major supermarkets have kosher supervision; and kosher food is sold everywhere, though the maze of hechshers on food and restaurants and the politics and greed that go into the process (which also exist in the Diaspora) can be mind-boggling. But the Rabbanut’s governmental power also gives it the authority to determine the definition of a Jew for the purposes of basic status and life cycle events in the country, and to control the courts which determine the outcomes of divorce and conversion cases (not always to the benefit of those involved).
My favorite aspects of Jewish life in Israel as opposed to that in the Diaspora are these:
1) Jewish education is everywhere, and there are many more choices in terms of special needs education, single sex v. co-ed, and religious outlook.
2) Psak halachah in some ways is more lenient here, for example relaxing kashrut restrictions for Ashkenazim during Pesach, or permitting freer use of dishwashers for meat and dairy dishes.
3) While salaries are notoriously low in Israel, the expenses that exist for Jews in the Diaspora are usually reduced here for things like schooling, university, and communal Jewish services (eruv, mikvah, shul membership).
4) Most of the people who hate Jews live OUTSIDE our borders rather than next door to us. When Israel has to go to war with such people, there is usually not too much doubt about why.
5) By necessity, Jews in the Diaspora must care what their non-Jewish neighbors think of them. (This is part of the raison d’etre for the Jewish Community Relations Council.) Here, what other people think of us may hurt our feelings, or deny us membership in some organizations, or restrict travel for a few high-profile military or government figures, but in general we are more insulated here from some of the negative feelings others have toward Jews and Israelis.
I grew up hearing about Israel, but few of my relatives had been here, and I never really heard stories about it. One of our rabbis when I was growing up had fought in Israel’s War of Independence before moving to the U.S., and his wife, my Sunday school teacher, spoke frequently about Israel as a miracle. But both miracles and the abstractness of a Jewish State meant little to me at the time.
So I think back to my first days and weeks in Israel in 1996. I wasn’t Jewish according to Jewish law, but I had made up my mind to identify with the Jewish half of my family and was here for some remedial education, so in essence I was beginning to see things through Jewish eyes. The first thing to strike me about being here was the fact that there really was a Jewish State, with its own money, language, and government. That in itself was amazing.
And as I spent more time here, the pace of life and the fact that Jewish holidays were THE holidays the country celebrated was another revelation. In my mind, I had imagined that Jewish holidays would be celebrated, but that the Christian ones would be acknowledged in some way (the way things operate, in reverse, in the U.S.). But as Christmas approached, the shop windows carried no sign of the impending Feast of the Nativity (I was never in Jaffa, for example, where many of the Arabs are Christians), work and play proceeded as normal, and on Christmas Day, I had a job interview in Jerusalem, then called to wish my family a Merry Christmas from the central bus station in Beer Sheva on my way home. (The only Christmas decorations to be found in Israel, I was informed, were available before Sukkot, as sukkah decorations.)
Not only does life here boogie to a Jewish rhythm, but it is totally unapologetic about doing so. If people come here from Christian countries to live, they know what goes on elsewhere in late December; the rest just don’t care. Israel has its own customs for its (many more) holidays. The High Holidays are observed by nearly everyone, though while some are in shul davening on Yom Kippur, others are making a bee-line for the DVD rental store and buying their kids new bikes to ride on the deserted streets during the quietest day of the year. During Sukkot, there are sukkahs on every religious family’s balcony, in addition to those built in public parks, public squares and on sidewalks to accommodate religious restaurant patrons. From Sukkot to Chanukah, the malls and streets are lined with stands selling jelly doughnuts (a Sephardi/Israeli Chanukah tradition) and chanukiot (9-branched menorahs). When the almond trees begin to blossom in February, kids sing about Tu B’Shvat (Jewish Arbor Day), people plant trees, and the malls once again are lined with stalls selling the fruit of (last year’s) trees—dried fruits and nuts. Purim sees people of all ages dressing up, having parties, and in some cases, traveling from a Purim celebration in one city to another on Shushan Purim (the day after Purim, when the holiday is celebrated in cities that were walled during the time the events in Persia took place) to enjoy two days of madness. Before Pesach, homeowners and storekeepers alike clear out their hametz (leavened products). Most restaurants close down for the holiday, but hotels and some enterprising restauranteurs kasher their establishments and cater to the KFP crowd. In spring, the national holidays roll around, with schools and schoolchildren providing programming for Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) which people take time off from work and ulpan to attend; the nation freezes for two minutes (including all road and street traffic) on Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) to remember the fallen in Israel’s wars and terror attacks; and disposable barbecue grills are sold everywhere in advance of Yom HaAtzma’ut (Independence Day) when everyone drives out to a park, forest, field, or (I’ve heard) even the highway medians and enjoys an outdoor cookout. Shavuot sees a supplement in the newspapers (Hebrew in the Hebrew press, English in the Jerusalem Post) with dairy recipes, sponsored by the Tnuva dairy company. (Of course, since this is the Jewish State, there is a higher-than-normal incidence of lactose intolerance in the population, so recipes for parve cheesecake flutter over online community chat lists. God bless Tofutti!) The summer slows down (except for a couple of fasts), and whereas the South (particularly Eilat) is a popular holiday destination in the winter, the North and its forests and streams become a popular camping vacation spot during the hottest months.
It must have been a heady experience for Jews to come here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and get to carve out what a modern Jewish State would look like. Living in America, when I would occasionally vent my frustration to my mother about what short shrift Jewish holidays were given to Jewish kids growing up in middle America, she would always reply matter-of-factly, “The Christians were here first.” Leaving aside the Native Americans and Thomas Jefferson’s views on religion in a democracy, that observation never left me as I grew from childhood to adulthood. I had the feeling that my only choice in Christian America was to like it or leave it, and once I had experienced life in Israel, was left no alternative but to leave it. Because here, it was the Jews who were first. When the Jews came here, there was no Christianity, no Islam. (And no UN or United States, either.) This is the one place in the world that was created and exists by, about, and for the Jews. Yes, the world still likes to bully us on a national level, as they did on a personal and societal level when we lived in their lands; but here, we stand together against them, no longer dispersed, no longer helpless, no longer alone.
There’s no place like home.