Monday, September 25, 2006

Feeling Connected

The newspapers were full of "the year in review" articles. I skipped most of them - I don't need to read about what a tough year we have had in Israel. There was one article which I enjoyed very much, though, and made me feel hopeful on this Rosh HaShana.

Makor Rishon had an article about a survey sponsored by the paper and the Gesher ("Bridge") organization (an organization which tries to bridge the gaps between the religious and secular communities in Israel). The survey asked questions about Israelis' observance of certain mitzvot (religious commandments) and some of the answers were surprising.

We are used to getting our information about what happens in Israel from the mainstream media, and we also make assumptions about the day-to-day life of the "average" Israeli from this same source. So many of us have the impression from the secular, elite press that most Israelis want nothing to do with religion. This survey showed that this is not true. Many Israelis may not be what we call religious, but they do have a connection to Judaism, and it shows up in their actions.

The least surprising statistic was about strict Sabbath observance - not using electrical appliances on Shabbat. 31.8% do not turn on the electricity on the Sabbath, which roughly corresponds to the number of people who label themselves religious in this country. But this number doubles when people are asked if they say Kiddush on Shabbat (the blessing over the wine said at the meal) to 62.6%. This means that a majority of Israelis have at least one Sabbath meal with their families every week, where they take part in the ritual of Kiddush. I remember when we went to Eilat and spent a Sabbath in the hotel. Friday night there were quite a few tables where chiloni men, putting napkins on their heads (no extra kippot available) would say Kiddush for their families, their kids waiting eagerly for a sip of Abba's wine.

This connection that the average Israeli feels to Judaism is not only in the "family oriented" mitzvot. 70.8% of Israelis say they fast on Yom Kippur. 61.8% say they keep kosher - and the breakdown of this statistic is also very interesting. 92.6% of people who call themselves "traditional" keep kosher, and 25.3% of those who call themselves "secular". I wasn't surprised at the numbers in terms of the masorati (traditional) group - but I was amazed that a quarter of secular Israelis keep kosher.

One of the brightest bits of news in this survey was the fact that in terms of age, more young people keep the mitzvot than the older people (which is the direct opposite of what is happening in America and the Diaspora).

My observant readers will probably understand my positive emotional reaction to this article, but I would guess that my non-observant readers may be either puzzled or a bit uncomfortable. A dominant theme in the western, secular culture is the idea of live and let live, and the need to respect others, even if different from you. I grew up that way, as do most Americans, and I firmly believe that this is the way to go. At the same time, when I became an observant Jew, I absorbed another dominant idea from Judaism that "Kol Yisrael areivim zeh l'zeh" - "Every Jew is responsible for one another". This not only means that we are one big family, and that we have to worry about the physical well being of other Jews, but that we have to worry about the spiritual well being of other Jews also. Being an observant Jew means believing that if all of the Jews keep the Torah, than the Messiah will come - utopia. This is our national Jewish agenda. How do I then believe in live-and-let-live and this agenda at the same time? Aren't they contradictory?

I reconcile these two ideas by what I choose to do, and how I choose to do it - while not ignoring the emotional component.

In terms of my personal actions, I try to provide information to those who are looking for it on observant Judaism (especially here on the blog). I also try hard to be a positive example. Nothing "sells" Judaism more than an observant Jew who is truly a mensch (and nothing infuriates me more than someone who is dressed up like an observant Jew but whose actions are worthy of contempt). But I think that what is more crucial is how I do these things. I try, at least, not to mix up these actions with too much "one-upmanship". The problem with Jews, especially in Israel, is that we all think we know the "right way" - and we are not shy about expressing this. Since we all know the "right way", then it is natural for us to try to convince everyone else to do exactly what we do, in exactly the same way. This of course is mixed up with a lot of negative characteristics like arrogance and insensitivity.

So why don't all Jews follow this line? Why are there so many people out there who make it their life's work to try to convince other Jews to be observant - and many who think that it is their goal in life is to legislate it? Why isn't "live and let live" more dominant than "kol Yisrael areivim zeh l'zeh"?

Here I can't convince you intellectually, I can just share with you the fact that it is an emotional thing. It hurts us when other Jews don't keep the mitzvot.

To illustrate this I will tell you a short anecdote from when I was newly observant. I started keeping the mitzvot when I was a senior in high school, and after I graduated I went to study at Stern College for Women (part of Yeshiva University). When I came home on semester break, I spent Shabbat at home, and caught up with the news of what was happening at my old school with my brother. He was not observant at the time (that came a bit later). He was describing to me some of the renovations that they were doing at my high school, and I was a bit puzzled. Wanting to make it clear for me, he reached out to take a pencil in order to draw me a map. Without thinking, I grabbed his hand, and said "no, you don't have to do that. It is ok, I understand." I did not make an intellectual decision that it would be a bad thing for my brother to write and therefore break the laws of the Sabbath for my benefit - I had a split second emotional reaction. It hurts, so I stopped him from doing it.

A lot of the problems between the religious and non-religious in Israel comes from the fact that our relationship is seen superficially, as a sort of competition. When someone takes off his kippa it is seen as a "win" for one team and a loss for the other, and when someone becomes observant it is the opposite. But the relationship is truly much deeper than that - and those of us who are observant really feel that we are part of the same family.

This is why I was so happy to read this article. I like and respect other Jews the way they are now, and I don't need everyone else to be at exactly the same place I am. But if feels good to know that a lot more Jews are "within shouting distance" than I had thought in the past.


Blogger aliyah06 said...

Great post!

Can't believe the newspapers--I used to ride the "8" to ulpan every morning, and oftentimes saw a young woman who could be defined by her clothing as 'chiloni' but SHE was the one reciting Tehillim as we rode.....and during the chagim, I went next door to borrow something from my supposedly-chiloni neighbors and saw them gearing up for the second night of Rosh Hashonah AND they had lit a Yahrzeit candle so they could light candles from it!

I, too, have seen contemptible behavior from Jews dressed in 'observant' or even hareidi dress.

I've decided that in Israel, one cannot tell the degree of a person's religious commitment from a particular dress code at all.

And along those lines, a carload of young Arab women hailed me to ask directions. I explained that I was new here, a student, and spoke very little Hebrew or Arabic and did not know where the place they sought was located. The driver assured me it was all right, they'd ask someone else, and then wished me a good day, adding "B"H"...

For all of Israel's supposed problems, I have seen a tremendous amount of goodwill from individuals all across the religious/secular, Jewish/Moslem/Christian spectrums which supposedly divide us. I suspect they divide our politicians and policy-wonks more than they divide each of us individually.

12:05 PM, September 25, 2006  
Blogger Jack Steiner said...

I had a split second emotional reaction. It hurts, so I stopped him from doing it.

So here is a question for you. When an evangelical Xtian tells you that it hurts them to think that you are going to hell how do you respond?

6:06 PM, September 25, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i loved this post.
in israel we don't grow up on "live and let live" we grow up on "win or die" so every confrontation is a lot harsher.
about being emotionally hurt when secular people break the religous laws - i think that is very very important that they (we) should be able to do so, or else the matter of free will, freely choosing to obey God's will is denied them.religous coercion is the worst possible thing that could happen to judaism.
after all, i'm sure you too had a choice, didn't you?

and finally - drop by my blog - i just wrote about these things from a secular viewpoint and it reads almost like an answer to this post!

8:24 PM, September 25, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jack, it's different because christianity is a whole other religion and so they don't know what we need. Where as observant Jews know that Jews need Torah to nurish their soul and connect to Hashem. And since we Jews are responsible for our Jewish brothers and sisters, we need to help them learn more about their heritage

8:55 PM, September 25, 2006  
Blogger Jack Steiner said...


But they would respond with something similar. They might tell you that they are sad because because they know that if you just opened your heart you would see and feel.

To a certain extent, kiruv is kiruv. They offer a different flavor, but it is still kiruv.

There was a time in my life when I considered myself an atheist, a time when I thought that I would go BT and my current place in which I believe wholeheartedly in Hashem, but am not so sure about the infallibility of Torah. I am sure that sounds like a contradiction, but it is not and truth be told I am pretty happy.

1:25 AM, September 26, 2006  
Blogger Jack Steiner said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:25 AM, September 26, 2006  
Blogger westbankmama said...

aliyah06- it's really true here, you can't judge people solely on their dress

jack - I would take the Xtian at their word - they probably do feel hurt. This doesn't mean that I have to do what they want me to do! My expressing that it hurts me was not an attempt at a guilt trip - noone has to become religious so that I will feel better! At the same time I think it is important to know that we are all connected.

jerusalemjoe - I agree with you wholeheartedly that religious coercion is wrong - but many people have a different view about what constitutes "coercion". Not having non-kosher meat in the supermarket to me is perfectly acceptable, and not having the buses run on Shabbat is also acceptable to me - but some would call that coercion.

malka - I agree with you too - but this all has to be done with sensitivity and especially humility.

jack - I know a lot of people who are holding where you are.

9:21 AM, September 26, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would respond to the xtian that I understand their concern but I have my own religion. --
When a Jew shows concern for another Jew though, it's because we're responsible for one another and should help each other in a nice, gentle way.
It may be that the xtian cares too, but they should concentrate on helping their own people's spiritual needs instead of going after others.

12:00 AM, September 27, 2006  
Blogger Gail said...

Wonderful post.

5:01 AM, September 27, 2006  
Blogger tafka PP said...

My observant readers will probably understand my positive emotional reaction to this article, but I would guess that my non-observant readers may be either puzzled or a bit uncomfortable.

I'm somewhere in between, and as such feel somewhere in between.

Malka- Christianity sees the whole of humanity as "their own people"

3:08 PM, September 27, 2006  
Blogger bec said...

this is such an amazing post. it's true, we cannot tell where a person stands based on dress. especially true here in the US, where in some situations, observant jews might replace a kipah with a cap (or nothing and tuck their tzitzis into their pockets) and then one day you realize that you're all part of the same "club." i think we just have to remember to be tolerant of all jews and know that we may not all do everything alike, but we are all ultimately from the same family.

12:29 AM, September 28, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was such a pleasure to read. Thank you!

Nothing "sells" Judaism more than an observant Jew who is truly a mensch (and nothing infuriates me more than someone who is dressed up like an observant Jew but whose actions are worthy of contempt). -- So true.

2:54 AM, September 28, 2006  
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