Home for the Holidays

Posted on Dec 18, 2014


As I was driving in Tel Aviv the other day, a commercial came on the radio that caused me to sit up and take notice. It featured “Ma’oz Tzur” sung to the tune of “Jingle Bells,” followed by a resonant male voice that asked the listener to imagine what might happen if Santa Claus lit Hanukkah candles this year. Many Israelis are making a similar move, the announcer continued, trading in German-made automobiles for Cadillacs: “Shouldn’t you think of joining them?”

I could not believe my ears—but this is Israel after all, where absolutely everything (in this case Santa Claus and the decision of what car to buy) can take on major significance. One takes the ever-present weight of Jewish history for granted in Jerusalem, a city that always seems weighed down with secular/religious and Israeli/Palestinian divides. But Tel Aviv prides itself on the achievement of what classical Zionists called “normalcy.” The city abounds in parks, high-tech firms, and high-rise apartment towers. All are softly lit by Tel Aviv’s lush winter sunshine. And then a radio ad puts “normalcy” to flight. Every little thing is connected to bigger things in the State of Israel, even in Tel Aviv; every election—like the one that will take place this March—can plausibly be described as a fateful choice that will determine Israel’s very existence.

This is a major part of the meaning attached to being a “secular” Israeli, and Hanukkah, as observed in Tel Aviv, offers a wonderful opportunity to think about that meaning and about the new kind of Judaism that is emerging here. A young professor, Israeli by birth and upbringing, told me the other day that he is now raising his family in the States and confronting the realization that “my children will not be Israeli ex-pats like me.” They would have to be American Jews, if their Judaism were to matter to them at all (he desperately hopes that it will matter a lot). And, he offered, “I have no idea what it means to be an American Jew.” Would he and his family have to join a synagogue? Raise the kids to be religious? Here in Tel Aviv, Jewishness requires neither of those things. It is as obvious, utterly taken-for-granted—and as different from Judaism in America—as it could be.

The form of Judaism on view here is certainly not religious in any traditional sense. I did a double-take of consternation a couple weeks ago when I saw ham and bacon on sale in a Jewish supermarket—a common sight at Safeway, of course, but not in Jerusalem, where I usually spend my time in Israel. Most of the cafes that abound in Tel Aviv are not kosher either. It is rare to see men wearing kippot on the street (chances are better on the Upper West Side). Synagogues, while numerous, are far from ubiquitous. Shabbat, too, has a very different feel. Food stores are open, though other shopping stops for the day. Bars and restaurants are jammed Friday night. The streets, with no busses running and many fewer cars than normal, are relatively quiet until sunset on Saturday. Shabbat is a time to visit with family, catch up on reading, perhaps go to the beach. Some people choose to go to shul. Shabbat here is not what it is in Jerusalem, but neither is it the same as Saturday in America.

That is the point, I think: the men and women who walked out to a sand dune north of Jaffa just over a century ago, with the aim of founding the world’s first Jewish city, have succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams—not just because hundreds of thousands of Jews now live in that city, but because those Tel Avivim inhabit a kind of Judaism that never existed before. I am not sure how viable this form of Judaism (let’s call it Tel Aviv) will prove, or how deep it goes into the self. I want neither to romanticize nor to dismiss it. Certainly, this mode of being Jewish does not seem to work for Israelis once they leave the Jewish homeland for places where Jews do not form the majority and Hebrew is not spoken all around. Nor does it seem to work at all for Diaspora Jews in North America and elsewhere. It requires the rich Jewish scene, the vibrant Hebrew language, the power of sheer day-to-day existence, of this place. Many Tel Avivim, of course, do not take advantage of the Jewish potential stored up in what Zionism has created. They settle for a Western (largely American) style of life that happens to be conducted in the Jewish homeland and in the Hebrew language. One can have good times in this great city, but perhaps—as in many great cities—at the cost of ignoring the poverty just a few blocks away. For others, though, a rich kind of Judaism has been created that is neither “religious” nor “secular.” Hanukkah points to three crucial elements of what that “more” might be.

First, awareness of history, which in this case is not the history of divine salvation or judgment but of Jewish human beings: the miracles performed by heroes and pioneers “in those days and in our time.” The hundreds of kids who gathered in the Tel Aviv port area for Hanukkah festivities the other evening sang songs like “Mi Yemalel,” celebrating Jewish victories and achievements. They also know, or soon will, about persecution, ghetto, and Holocaust. Commercials for Cadillacs will remind them why many Jews remain wary of German culture and German cars. They will learn that they are part of a worldwide people with a long history; that they are carrying on a story first told in the Bible. This history is present all around them. Yesterday, I heard a sing-song Hanukkah ditty on the radio with the words, “Hag sameah Hanukkah, am Yisra’el chai!” (“Happy Hanukkah Holiday! The people of Israel lives.”)

That is the key message of Israeli civil religion, in my view: the heart of Jewish commitment not just in Israel but for Jews around the world, and the second core element of Tel Aviv Judaism. Israelis find meaning, significance worth living and dying for, in the very fact of who and where they are. Continuing threats to Israel’s existence give that meaning reinforcement. Politicians exploit it shamelessly. Street life that elsewhere would be just that matters more here because it is Life and takes place on a Jewish street. Add the other elements of any culture—the arts, work-life, leisure-time pursuits, all of which take place here in the amazingly reborn Hebrew language. Mix in a generous dose of especially intense family relations, reflect on shared confrontation with army, bureaucracy, missiles, in-your-face fellow Israelis, and Jews from around the world, and one has a rich tapestry of Jewishness that, while hardly “religious,” is not without transcendence.

Finally, there is ethics. This morning I was watching Orly and Guy, a popular morning talk show, and found myself enthralled by a heated conversation over whether workers at a supermarket check-out counter might have been gossiping with one another rather than attending to customers because they are alienated from jobs that do not pay them a decent wage and employers who do not give them enough respect. Need I say that I have not heard such a discussion recently on American morning programs? Israelis, of course, have a long way to go in the area of social justice as of personal ethics, if they want their country to be an ethical “light unto the nations.” The distribution of wealth grows more and more unequal. Tens of thousands of African refugees crowd into south Tel Aviv. Palestinian Israelis suffer widespread discrimination. The health care system is severely underfunded. And yet there is so much good being done here, so much kindness and mutual concern, so many respects in which Israel is showing the way, “repairing the world” as Judaism wants Jews to do. This, too, is Tel Aviv.

I wish this form of Jewishness success, even as I hope more Israelis will take advantage of the somewhat different (but closely related) form of Jewishness, lately growing by leaps and bounds, that is neither Orthodox nor “secular” but Masorti, “traditional,” Conservative. I’m a Jew who loves the synagogue; thanks God daily for the opportunity to study Torah; cannot imagine life without Passover, Yom Kippur, and—perhaps Judaism’s greatest gift of all—Shabbat. I hope and trust that more and more Israelis will find ways not yet imagined of joining that set of commitments, shared with me and so many others, to the sort of Judaism unique to the Land of Israel. Just as my kind of Judaism, the kind we teach and model at JTS, is far more than “religious,” theirs is far more than “secular.” Our Judaisms meet in the space of Tel Aviv Hanukkah, knowing that great miracles have happened here of late, and more are yet to come.