Wednesday, August 26, 2009

It's Complicated

How is it possible that it is so easy to be Jewish here, and so complicated too?

Easy, and beautiful, and fun. Even the “secular” folks say “Shabbat Shalom” to you as you walk to shul on Friday night. There’s a shul on every corner, one for every “flavour” of Jew, not-yet-Jew, tourist, citizen; one for every kind of davenning you want: Reform neo-Chasidic, Reform classic, Reform-American, Reform-Carlebach yababababidibim; Conservadox, Conservative-American style, Conservative-European; Orthodox-lite, Orthodox-egalitarian, Orthodox-Brooklyn, modern and not-so-modern Orthodox, Orthodox-Carlebach yababababidibim, frum Orthodox, really frum Orthodox and even frummer Orthodox; over-the-top frum and out-of-this-world frum. Blessings come spontaneously: when we finish buying new dishes in the Machane Yehuda market we get an outpouring and heartfelt blessing not over the dishes, but over our being here. The cook at the soup kitchen where we volunteer doesn’t bother learning our names, he just calls each one “my righteous one.” Young people daven their morning prayers freely, without embarrassment, on the public bus going downtown. Friday night is quiet, and everyone finds a family to be with. Saturday night is one big boisterous party, and Israelis stay up really late. “I won’t be able to do this till much later” is translated into Hebrew as “after the holidays” (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, that is.) The newscaster uses the expression “a word to the wise is sufficient” straight from its Talmudic source—in Aramaic.

Difficult, and sometimes ugly, and exhausting. Two gay teenagers are murdered in a “safe haven” community centre in Tel Aviv and while the “hip” shul I go to on Friday night makes a whole big deal out of it with readings and prayers and outreach to the LGBT community in Jerusalem, the “hip” synagogue I go to on Saturday morning doesn’t say a word. A story on the news reports that not only do we now have gender segregated buses in the religious community, (women in the back—just like in the good old days in Selma, Alabama where blacks had to sit in the back and that was actually legal) but there is now one neighborhood with gender separated sidewalks. Yes, you read that right—gender separated sidewalks. (I wish tourists would stop going to the “quaint” religious neighborhoods where such practices will soon become common.)

Even though there is a shul on every corner, I quickly discover that they all have politics just like back home—it was easier to be an unknowing tourist here, for sure. I find myself growing tired of the constant “G-d sent you to me” or “G-d sent me this idea” or “G-d made sure I did this” from the wide-eyed and bushy-tailed newly religious (baaley teshuva) keeners, and I find myself angry at the growing number of times I’ve been missionized by Jews for Jesus who find fertile ground in this spiritually complex place. And yes, this is the country where 50 Rabbis and Kabbalists circled over Israel in a chartered airplane blowing shofarot and praying against swine flu. "The aim of the flight was to stop the pandemic so people will stop dying from it," Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri was quoted as saying. And just this week posters went up around the Central Bus Station letting us know that the internet equals cancer in gematria (Jewish numerology.) Gotta love it.

And yet, and yet, and yet...the weather! (Sunny with a chance of more sunny.) The beauty of the land- green sprouting out of desert, the lush flowers, walking past olive trees, pomegranate trees and lemon trees in the middle of the city. The sense of spontaneity of Israelis (no one plans far in advance, and people just “pop” over for a visit. And you can usually get tickets to a concert the night of.) The encounters with people from every corner of the globe. (Its a really different Jerusalem from 20 years ago when there wasn’t a black, Thai, or Chinese face. Now you can get injera, the Ethiopian bread, in the market, and see Thai kids in army uniforms and kipot.) The easy relationships with our Arab neighbors (we live near Abu Tor, a mixed neighborhood) even through all the politics. The immense number of groups working for peace, for interfaith understanding, for Arab-Jewish reconciliation, for the environment, for social justice, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, “rescuing” food. The fact that just about every Israeli volunteers for something and the society is still more “we” than “me.” That people talk about their society, question it, examine it, reflect a lot on how to make it better; that everyone cares enough to have an opinion— even I you don’t agree with it. (When the news comes on, the bus drivers turn up the volume and everyone quiets down to listen.) That the first few seats on the bus don’t just say “Leave these seats for those who need” but have a verse from the Torah that commands you to give up your seat. (“Thou shalt rise before the grey-haired person.”) That there are now lots of joint religious-secular clubs and even one school. That there is more than one Arab-Jewish neighborhood and school. And, personally, the liberation from having to explain/label myself all the time (“I’m a trans-denominational observant liberal religiously right-wing politically left-wing Jewish feminist vegetarian”—yeah, yeah, those are a dime a dozen here. We get it.) And the intensity of life here—but, we also don't like that one. It's complicated. That's a favourite word of Israelis, we're learning. Zeh Mi-su-bach.


  1. Rav Elyse,
    I love your blog! What a wonderful opportunity for those of us all the way in Toronto (and who haven't been to Israel in many years)to have a peak into life in Jerusalem of 2009. It is making me ache for Israel. I love your description of the "every kind of davening" offered there, that is hilarious! I am also shocked by your report of the
    "gender segregated buses". I had heard about this but did not believe it. What is their halachic justification for such action?
    I appreciate both the beauty and complexity that you present. I look forward to your future blogs.
    Hilary Moore

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  3. R Elyse, please! Women in the back, just like blacks in Alabma? Ouch! You don't have to agree with gender-separate buses (I don't either), but the reason for them is not male supremacy! You certainly remember that the halachic literature for centuries has discouraged mixing of the sexes, mainly to prevent men from watching women and having all kinds of daydreams about them. Think what you wish about it, that's the reason, there's no women-bashing to it.
    Some of us wish to keep Jewish tradition in a way different from yours. As long as we don't tell you what to do, why not accept and respect us?
    Daniel Barth

  4. elyse... read all three of your blogs together after following the link in todays weekly kolel study... and will definitely return... i greatly enjoyed all three but the most recent warmed my heart the most and brought back memories of our wonderful trip almost a year and a half ago (is the soup kitchen you mention the same one we went to?)... and more recently memories of the amazing trip we had in may when we were fortunate enough with g-d's help to witness and participate in our daughter avital's wedding... having a child marry in israel was almost as exciting as marrying there (which i did as well)... i think you are doing an amazing thing with your family and i wish you a year of growth, learning and most of all love... of israel and each other... love... debbie meron

  5. Hi Elyse,
    My mom (Debbie Meron) forwarded your blog to me and I really enjoyed reading it. As an American who made aliya 5 years ago, I can relate to many of your mixed feelings about various aspects of the country and society, while still loving Israel with all my heart. However, I did want to point out what I view as an inaccuracy in this post. You mention the ease of finding a shul for every type of Jew and every kind of prayer, which based on my knowledge and experience here, is simply not true. The overwhelming majority of synagogues in Israel are orthodox or more and more and more orthodox. Although there are some reform and conservative synagogues of various styles, they are very few in number, particularly outside of Jerusalem. Many of the reform or conservative communities do not even have an actual synagogue and pray in a school or other public building since the government will not provide building permits for these unrecognized forms of Judaism. This is an issue which is very frustrating, and close to my heart. I believe that the more that people (including your readers) become knowledgable about this discrimination, the more likely it is that there may one day be a change in policy and public opinion here.
    (As an aside, my mother mentioned my recent wedding here in Israel, which was an absolutely wonderful experience, but which was also somewhat negatively affected by the fact that everything had to be done in accordance with Orthodox regulation for the wedding to be recognized by the State).
    Enjoy your stay here in Israel and Shana Tova!
    Avital Meron Akrish