Culture, Identity, Israel, Justice, Religion

Wake-up call

If you had told me three years ago, when I first came to Israel, that I would be spending my Friday afternoons protesting in East Jerusalem, I never would have believed you. If you had told me that the behavior of this country and its residents was going to make it difficult for me to feel comfortable practicing Judaism, I would have believed you even less.
Since I started attending the weekly protests in Sheikh Jarrah, I’ve stopped going to shul on Friday night. In part, it’s logistics – I get home tired and sweaty at 6 or 6:30, and I want a break and a shower before dinner. Partially, though, it’s become uncomfortable for me. There’s something that Emily Schaeffer, an Israeli human rights lawyer who grew up in the Reform community outside of Boston, wrote once, which I increasingly feel in myself:
“Unless I’m with people who I am certain do not espouse Zionism or any form of oppression, I cannot comfortably honor the tradition, or even be sure I want to be part of it.”
Even in my struggle with Judaism itself, the past three years of studying gemara have oriented me toward the world through the lens of text and textual connections. So here’s the gezerah shavah I have to offer:
There is a liturgical similarity between Kabbalat Shabbat and the weekly protest. In L’cha Dodi, the line is “hitoreri, hitoreri, ki va orech kumi ori” – wake up, wake up, for your light has come, arise and shine. In the protest “liturgy,” one of the chants uses the same verb – “ezrachim lehitorer, hafascism kvar over” – residents, wake up, fascism has already passed (it works better in Hebrew).
I’ve been dwelling on those lines as representative of the tension that I’m feeling around typical religious practice (as opposed to, say, Heschel’s praying with his feet). To my mind, those who are awake are fighting for this country – for the rights of all of its residents and against the racism and injustice of its current policies. It feels somehow hypocritical to sit in shul and sing “wake up, wake up,” when I know that most of those around me aren’t going to do so. Some because they’re blinded by ideology, and many because they are only here for a year or so and they don’t put in the time or energy required to figure out what is happening outside of the beit midrash. The fact that Israelis are telling me they fear their country is becoming a military dictatorship would be beyond a shock to them – they wouldn’t have a context in which to place it.
Maybe I’m feeling more like a leftist Israeli. Traveling around this week with Kungfujew and friends, meeting a variety of folks on the Israeli left, and thinking about the relationship between the diaspora left and the Israeli left, I’m beginning to think that maybe at this point I have more in common with Israeli leftists than I do with the community from which I came. I’m drawn to those who devote their lives, day in and day out, to the work of trying to save this country from itself, and I want to help them.
Yesterday, after the border police officer finished shoving me, he said, partially to himself and partially to whomever was listening, “eizeh kef lihyot yehudi” – it’s such fun to be a Jew. I have a teacher who asks constantly what’s holding the Jewish people together, if anything. I certainly don’t see myself as a part of the same project as the kippah-wearing police officer who spends his Friday afternoon behaving violently toward me and the rest of the protesters.
A Palestinian friend of mine has taken to ending his talks to Jewish groups, and to answering the question of “so what should we do?”, by saying emphatically, “be Jewish!” Our community has a tradition of fighting for justice, at least in the US, and not only do I not think that the fight shouldn’t be put aside here, but that all the more so we need to continue to fight to create a Jewish state (whatever that means) of which we can be proud.

14 thoughts on “Wake-up call

  1. “It feels somehow hypocritcal to sit in shul and sing “wake up, wake up,” when I know that most of those around me aren’t going to do so.” You have no control over those people. Don’t let their form of Judaism get in the way of your own. Do what your Palestinian friend said and ‘be Jewish.’
    “Creating a Jewish state, whatever that means, of which we can be proud’ – that is the challenge and that is the goal.

  2. Agreed. My Uncle once told me that he vowed to never lay tefillin again after some Chabadnicks did somethingorother when trying to get him into the mitzvah tank. I always found this absurd. Why give the tradition over to those who corrupt it? Take it back, “be Jewish!”

  3. I stopped davening daily when I lived in Israel, for very similar reasons. If Judaism was what they were practicing, how could I follow the same traditions?
    Yasher koach, LT.

  4. Agree with Josh and Jonah. Maybe try to work hard to reclaim what you feel is a misrepresentation of your Judaism instead of rejecting it.
    On another note, you mention your lens of gemara study and text. One aspect of this study that amazes and inspires me is the ability of our tradition to hold conflicting narratives simultaneously. Even though Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed on how to light Hanukkah candles neither school decided that in light of the others ruling they would reject lighting Hanukah candles. Perhaps this is a model that might be meaningful to you as well.

  5. let me try to say it another way –
    I don’t see why praying with my feet, with a community with whom I identify, is any less of an authentic Jewish practice than attending shul, where I don’t have such a community.
    My most positive prayer experiences have almost always been about the community in which I was praying. Perhaps I’m just replacing one set of liturgy with another in a different set of circumstances.

  6. The Border Policeman probably comes from a shitty socioeconomic situation, in a town in Israel with bad schools and few options, and went into Magav because that’s where the army sends the fuckups. Once there, he probably got put into tons of high-pressure confrontational situations with Palestinians (or even settlers) that constitute the army’s dirty work, without being properly prepared to handle what he was faced with, and learned to react to pressure with violence. As a Jew and a leftist, should you:
    a) Publicly declare that you are not part of the same project as him, and make sure to identify “with people who I am certain do not espouse Zionism or any form of oppression”, or
    b) Feel responsible for the darker parts of our people? Like Hanoar Haoved’s project running seminars for Border Police units where they spend a week talking about conflict resolution and communication, and army statistics show massive reductions in violent incidents after the units go through these seminars.

  7. “we need to continue to fight to create a Jewish state (whatever that means) of which we can be proud.”
    This sounds kinda Zionist to me. Maybe you should avoid being in community with yourself?

  8. I applaud all of you for your personal fights for justice, but you must look at the root source of the problem-Judaism, which claims that the land is divinely promised. If you believe in Judaism, you cannot selectively discard this retrograde teaching. There is a solution and it is called ISLAM. By adopting ISLAM you will be able to join civilization and shame the remaining Jews

  9. Folks, “be Jewish” means cleave to your people’s traditions. Anyone on this blog (including the author himself) suggesting that the solution is to leave Judaism completely is advocating for a cop-out. “Be Jewish” means that Jew should use Judaism as the vehicle through which to be an example of ethical behavior in the world, not drop-out of organized Judaism and practice some hodge-podge of Jewish/American/pagan practices and rituals. “Being Jewish” also does not mean one has to seize a hill on the West Bank and say, “this is mine”. It means practicing all 613 commandments to the best of your ability. Let’s all of us Jews try that for a change!

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