And So Ahad HaAm Said……Public Jewish Culture: Davka Something Israel got Right

So it is 6:00 am and I am in my car freezing while driving to the Jerusalem Pool on Emek Rafaiim Street. The pool is not exactly a mikveh, but what won’t I do to surround myself with a bunch of old naked guys kibitzing in Yiddish, Russian and Hebrew in a locker room on a cold Jerusalem morning. And as I am driving to the pool, I turn on the radio and lo and behold it is the Kriy’at Sh’ma prayer being read by the radio announcer. And it is both kitsch and moving at the same time; and it is probably the reason why I live in Israel.

I know that in the larger Jewish world we are obsessed about the on- going saga and struggle for a sovereign Jewish state. Clearly Jewish sovereignty, which is the ability for the Jewish people to control their own political destiny, should not be taken lightly. And the only reason that any of us are here (or that I can go to a pool on a cold Jerusalem morning) is because every day, 24 hours a day, we have our young people serving as soldiers surrounding this country and making sure that we are safe. Books, articles, commentaries, documentaries, radio shows etc concerning Israel are primarily obsessed about one thing- our ability to survive. And if we aren’t focusing about the struggle for survival and sovereignty; then we are wrestling inside and outside with the idea of “ethical sovereignty.” Ethical sovereignty” –meaning now that the Jewish people are back in their land, can we justify the way we came back?  And if we aren’t ruminating about the origins of the Jewish State, we are pondering how we can justify our behavior as a Jewish state in light of some very difficult situations, if not difficult neighbors.

These are important questions and worth our perpetual Machlakot l’Shem Shamayim- Arguments for the Sake of Heaven (we hope). However I often feel that there is an elephant in the room, an elephant in the conversation regarding Israel. And that is because there is so much more to Israel than just the realm of sovereignty, and/or the conflict. In fact most of the time that Israel is the topic of conversation, we tend to forget about what it was we were fighting for in the first place and we miss what we actually have here. Don’t get me wrong – I am grateful to Herzl and political Zionism and I take being a Jew in the Jewish state as a historical privilege and at times I am amazed at living in the Third Jewish Common Wealth. And I know this as I am on my way to the pool.  I also think about my own kid on these mornings who is in the army on a base down in the desert next to the Egyptian border. Nevertheless it sometimes astounds me that for so many people, both inside and outside Israel, we miss time and time again – the elephant –and that elephant is one of the more remarkable achievements of the Zionist revolution (there…I said it…the word…Zionist).  One of the main benefits of living here and in fact visiting here, is that this is a country like no other because simply said…the public culture is Jewish.

I first learned about the power an importance of public culture from my friend and teacher Michael Brooks at the University Michigan Hillel. Michael wrote this definition about Public Culture seventeen years ago in “Sh’ma-A Journal of Jewish Responsibility” and his definition still resonates with me today:

“Public culture is that rich and complex matrix of things, both substantive and symbolic, which informs our understanding of what membership means. It is the fabric upon which all of us sit but which few of us are consciously aware and it shapes our feelings about whether we want to be connected in the first place.”

Israel is a public culture that is Jewish, and that alone is one of the miracles of the Jewish state “but which few of us are consciously aware.” In fact when the public culture is so successful it often makes it more difficult to define. Somewhat like living in Ann Arbor, MI, where no one would dare ask you, “why are you going to the football game?,” because going  to the football game it is just what you do in Ann Arbor, MI. Here in Israel no one would ask you, “why are you running around the supermarket like a nut late Thursday night or why are you racing around like a madman on Friday after noon?”- Getting ready for Shabbat is just what everyone does. Defining Public culture can be illusive. However over ten years of living in Israel there have been more moments than I can recount when a type of Heschelian awe has over took me and the Jewish public culture that takes place here has simply amazed me about the place I call home.

The idea of Israel and Jewish public culture first dawned on me during a linguistic incident. Years ago, when I was a rabbinic student in Jeru­salem, a friend of mine, a sabra who was serving in the army, claimed to me that he was Jewish because he spoke Hebrew, served in the Jewish army, and lived in the Jewish land —and that was enough. I was always pointing out that he was completely ignoring the religious component of our identity. One day, as we sat in his kitchen, we saw a long line of ants crawling on the floor. I immediately said, “What is this, a stampede?” That word, stampede, was my first instinct, having grown up with cowboy TV shows (apparently my inner narrative is that of a cowboy…a cowboy from Long Island that is…. ). However what did my friend, the anti-religious Israeli say? “Ma zeh, Yitzitat Mitzrayim?”“What is this, the Exodus of Egypt?” It was then I realized that even the most chiluni (secular) Israeli is far more connected to Jewish religious tradition than we often realize.

Biblical Hebrew metaphors are just part of our daily life and they seem to roll off of our tongues in the oddest places. In Israel the Hebrew Bible just doesn’t take place in the synagogue or the Beit Midrash, it happens everywhere. Like the morning I was driving my oldest daughter to school (she was in 5th grade at the time) and on the radio the news was reporting about a scandal in the Knesset (what’s new) and the phrase they used was “Aitzat Achi TofelThe Advice of Achi Tofel.  Achitofel was a counselor who deserted King David (Psalm. 41:9; 55:12-14) and espoused the cause of Absalom (2 Samuel 15:12) and my daughter without missing a beat said – oh that’s from Sefer Shmuel – the Book of Samuel, and I nearly crashed the car. There is a wonderful synergy here in Israel where we take the holy and bring it into the mundane. There are other events which just make me smile. Like when you see the basketball team -Maccabee Tel Aviv play against the National basketball team from Greece on Hannukah and the snack food at the arena during half time is jelly donuts. It is like when my second oldest daughter was in the play “The Sound of Music” and the nuns sang in Hebrew – that was when I definitely knew I was in a Jewish country. It is like when my son plays me an Israeli heavy metal band (I hate heavy metal) and the chorus is Avinu Malkenu (seriously).

Whether it is theater, cinema or literature the context is a Jewish one, and not forced, but organic. Even the comedy movie Zohi Sdom, about Sodom and Gamora, begs knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, otherwise it is not funny. From the rhythm of the work week and school week that starts on Sunday to the nightly news, “Jewishness is the fabric upon which all of us sit.”  Even when you enter the country as you walk out of the baggage claim, you pass through two small walls of cascading water, symbolizing you have crossed the Red Sea and are entering the land of Israel. Simply said, being Jewish is in the details of everyday life. And because it is the dominant culture, even people who are not Jewish cannot help but soak in Jewish culture. Our Arab cousins (they also call us cousins in Arabic) speak beautiful Hebrew and better than many Zionists. The Arabs in Israel know most of our customs and traditions. In fact I actually had an argument with an Arab man in the supermarket about whether something was Kosher for Passover or not, and he knew the Halacha (Jewish law) better than I did. The issue here is that the more time one spends in Israel the more time one can soak up this Jewish culture that surrounds them and “it shapes our feelings about whether we want to be connected in the first place,”  and over time most people want to be connected.

It sometimes strikes me as ironic that the two most difficult issues in Israel, sovereignty and religion, have captured our attention more than any other. Maybe because there is so much work to be done in these areas.  Coming back home after two thousand years of exile we have absolutely no idea about the role of religion and state. Actually we do have ideas, but thousands of different ones. Do you run the electric company on Shabbat? Do buses run on Shabbat? Which buses? Who is a Jew? And who is a rabbi? Let’s face it it’s a mess.

Davka the religious aspects of the Jewish state did not bring me here nor do they keep me here. Nor am I always crazy about the political realities. I am not particularly militant but everyone in my family knows the importance of serving in the army. And I could not imagine living in a country where I would not be willing to be a part of that country’s national defense. The lessons of Jewish power and powerlessness are part of who we are when living in this country. And granted it is easier to be ethical when you are powerless, and of course the real test of ethics comes each and every day now that we actually have real power.

I understand the importance of Herzl, Ben Gurion, The Rav Kook (who I could live without); however if you ask me Ahad Ha Am may have gotten it right. And in the words of this prophet of cultural Zionism (oops I said that the “Z” word again) “Only through national culture for its own sake can a Jewish state be established in such a way that it will correspond to the will and the needs of the Jewish people.” And it is this aspect of a national Jewish culture that is consistently undervalued but it is really one of the best things we have going for us in the Jewish state and it is the best reason for living and/or visiting here. When you are in Israel you are surrounded 24 hours a day by Jewish time and Jewish space and this is like no other place, except for maybe Jewish summer camp for 2 months a year. Here public space is Jewish space. And Jewish public culture is davka something Israel got right.

And as I am thinking about all of this as I am driving early in the morning to my Jerusalem pool. The word for pool in Hebrew is Breicha which sounds like Bracha -the Hebrew word for blessing…as in the blessing of the Sh’ma prayer. And so I go from Bracha to Breicha – recontextualizing the holy into the mundane.  What can I say, here…even the pool is Jewish.


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3 Responses to And So Ahad HaAm Said……Public Jewish Culture: Davka Something Israel got Right

  1. Debbie Wilfond says:

    You drive to the Jerusalem pool??!! It’s practically in your backyard…

  2. Debbie Wilfond says:

    Nice blog :-)

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