Too Much Jew

So, I’ve been spending my year studying at a liberal-Orthodox Yeshivah in Jerusalem. This was my first opportunity to celebrate the Chagim of Tishra’i in Israel. I was really looking forward to it, as I had been told that it was a special experience to be able to celebrate the holidays in a place where the whole society recognizes the holiday and where the natural phenomenon (in this case the harvest and the beginning of the rainy season) match the themes and prayers of the holidays. While the experience of walking in the streets on Yom Kippor and seeing zero cars, but hundreds of people dressed in white, or waking up in a succah to the first drops of rain for the season certainly added a nice touch to the holidays, mostly I was disappointed.
I realized that what was most disappointing was the pedestrian nature of the holidays in a culture where the dominant forces are Jewish. The holiday’s here just happen. Every friday shabbat comes, no matter what you do. The the siren goes off, traffic stops and unless you want to be a hermit, you’ve already accepted an invitation to someone’s dinner. Of course, it takes some effort. There is still the last minute scrambling, and the shabbat bride still needs to be received by the community, but the actions of Jewish life here require much less consciousness and deliberate action than in the wider world.
At home, in the glorious diaspora, Jewish belief, culture, and action stands at an oblique angle to dominant culture. Of course Judaism in any place is influenced by its host culture, but no matter how one chooses to “do Jewish” the process of making different choices and consciously creating a different meaning can provide some critical distance with which to engage and evaluate the host culture. This ability to be simultaneously inside and outside of western culture is one of the reasons I love being Jewish. It is also one of the gifts that Jewish culture can provide to the western world.
The dissonance between my own community, mythic-history, and meaningful symbols and those of the host culture also requires me to really work hard to make Judaism compelling and meaningful to me, and perhaps more significantly, to those around me. At home I need to investigate the possible meanings of the holidays and create communal experiences that will draw together a diverse community. This hard work helps me own the holiday as my own. I’m taking what others before me have thought and done, and re-fashioning it to make it relevant and compelling.
The ease of Jewish expression in Israel may explain why, for the most part, religious expression here is a yes or no question. Here you either participate, or you don’t. If you are a Jew, you are either Dati (religious) or Chiloni (secular). With some important exceptions, few communities are seriously reevaluating the possibilities of Jewish religious experience. Despite all the problems of movement politics in America, I’ve really come to value to tremendous diversity of options that exist there. Even more, I have come to value the space that is created for individuals and communities to fashion their own Jewish meaning. Because “normative Judaism” has a much weaker grip in America, all sorts of incredible possibilities spring up.
Despite ease and comfort of being a Jew in Israel, I’ll take the messy, hard, creative, exciting, reconfigured Judaism of the diaspora any-day.

11 thoughts on “Too Much Jew

  1. I’ll take the messy, hard, creative, exciting, reconfigured Judaism of the diaspora any-day.
    Word. This is a viewpoint too-rarely expressed, and I think it’s an important one. The Diaspora hasn’t always been easy, but I’d argue it’s been good for Judaism as a whole — and in order for Judaism to continue to grow, mature, and flourish, we need to continue to celebrate what’s great about Diaspora life.

  2. preach it on brother. though there are certainly legitimacy dilemmas in the US they are dwarfed by the binary in place in israel.

  3. I know what you mean, I went through this when I got to Israel, most do. In America you have to work at bbeing a Jew, you HAVE to go to shul to make it a jewish experience. In Israel It just sort of happens, you feel jewish just by breathing.
    But can you imagine what would happen if you worked at being Jewish in an environment where you don’t have to fight for the basics? Imagine fighting for far higher levels. You are feeling complacent because you are only used to the basics of Judiasm, what about the rest of it?

  4. and also, think about the reverse. think about how much HARDER you might have to work to be jewish if you moved somewhere even less jewish than my old home of new york. moving out to san francisco made being jewish difficult. and perhaps unsurprisingly, i’ve shifted gears and become a bit of a super-jew out here. because it’s necessary!
    sometimes i visit new york or LA and i see how (relatively) easy everyone has it, how many shabbat dinners you get invited to, how many judaica shops you have at your disposal, how many davvening options and i get jealous. but then i come back to my own minyan here, or to an event in the JCC here and it just tastes really really sweet because you know what a gamble it was to pull off the event, how hard the marketing people worked and how invested in every last little celebration everyone is. i think the farther you get away from the mothership the sweeter it tastes.
    that said, i’m EXHAUSTED and can’t wait to spend a month in israel! 🙂

  5. Huh?
    I’ve been in Israel over ten years and manage to get back to Canada about once a year, sometimes even on holidays too. I remember a ‘little’ difference from before making aliyah (secular) and even until now. Overseas, on shabbat and holidays, you count the minutes until the day is over (and I’m aware of the ‘two-day’ rule as well). You just can’t ‘do anything’ and you can’t wait until it’s out and you can do ‘something’. In Israel though, you just don’t want the day to end, even the more so if you’re in Jerusalem. Relaxing (or other spiritual pursuits) on Shabbat in Jerusalem is like relaxing at the beach or lakeside on vacation. Except here, it occurs over 60 days a year, I doubt many people get to spend that much time on vacation. On one hand, we really miss the two day weekend of diaspora, on the other hand, we don’t need it (though I wish we had it with a shorter work week (the one reason to live in France)).
    I don’t know why your environment takes ‘Judaism’ for granted, maybe you have to change your environment an find a new crowd. I know I did a few years back. And now I’m just coming off the most incredible month of tishrei holidays I’ve even experienced. If you’re having a hard time getting spiritual in Israel, then you’re not hanging with the right crowd at all.
    Anyway, three people before me are posted on chag (overseas or not), so that proves my first point.

  6. Sorry,
    I forgot the moral of the story.
    If you’re claiming that you feel more connected by the need to strive to make your spirituality overseas, think about the fact that in Israel, you don’t have to start from the bottom. Instead, you get to start higher up and get so much higher.
    The ease of Jewish expression…you are either Dati (religious) or Chiloni (secular)
    I can’t disagree with you more. A study I read last year reported that 97%!!! of ‘secular’ Israelis regularly have at least one family meal together on Shabbat and holidays. Given that, the spectrum of being ‘religious’ is so wide, it is impossible for claim to be homogeneous. I see that at my shul; the difference between those that enjoy Shabbat, and those that just see at as that different day of the week.

  7. Where you see ease as negative, leading to a lazy Jewish life, I see that naturally Jewish cycle of the week and year, etc, allowing us to move beyond simply living in “oblique angle to dominant culture” and discover who we REALLY are when we are no longer defined as just being different.
    I might also point out that the experience you are having is very Jerusalem centric. Go to Tel Aviv, Haifa, or a secular kibbutz and tell me if shabbat just comes, no matter what you do.
    I disagree fully with your finding that things are black and white religiously. Again though, you really have to leave Jerusalem to experice the spectrum, as this is a city great contrast.
    While yes, finding meals is easy, don’t be fooled, finding meaning is hard, no matter where you are.

  8. “finding meaning is hard, no matter where you are.”
    Yeah… And if you want it, the onus is on you to cultivate it.
    It’s really unfair/juvenile to expect it to come without engaging both God and the Community you’re holidaying with. They’re crucial.

  9. … what could be more “binary” than the visceral distinction between being a (perpetual) outsider and “fitting in”? It’s clear how most Jews – in America, and at most other way stations in the diaspora – have chosen to resolve that choice. They are no longer with us, no longer “enriched” by the cultural conflict…
    I suggest you look a bit more closely at Israeli society outside your carefully programmed foreign-student cocoon… Israel has allowed us to unpack, unfold, and explore entire aspects of Judaism that were forced into dormancy for centuries… with regard to actual religious practice, you are way off – the vast majority of Israelis who call themselves “secular” have a profile of knowledge, belief, and practice that puts even the affiliated minority of American Jewry to shame. And there is a broad range of approaches – again, made possible by the underlying stability of our own country.
    Your discomfort with being the norm is a sad, twisted relic of centuries of wandering. A sort of Self Hatred Lite.
    Like liberal Jews who insist that being Jewish is always about “challenging society’s moral norms” (well, no, it’s actually about obeying a very clear set of moral teachings, rather than being a perpetual rebel) or “standing up for the underdog” – even when the underdog is a barbaric Palestinian killing Jews.

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