My Love and Not So Like Relationship with Orthodox Israel

This is a guest post by Leora Goldblatt, a junior at University of Wisconsin – Madison studying Communications (rhetoric) and Middle Eastern Studies. She is originally from Minnetonka, Minnesota but is currently studying abroad for the year in Jerusalem at Hebrew University.  Follow her online on her “Hi from the Holyland” blog.

There’s a question that we all know. The one that without fail comes up in every discussion of identity. The one every Jew living in American has most likely heard at least once in their life.

“Are you an American Jew or a Jewish American?”

Essentially, this question asks us, which part of your identity do you put first? Which aspect do you value more? Which culture defines you the most?

Living in Israel the past three months has shown me this question is not necessarily reflective of our own feelings, but rather the context we find ourselves in and how that compares to another context. In Israel, my Judaism is rarely seen as a definitive mark, much like many Christians in America. It is my Americanism that defines me here, in relation to the rest of the population. In America, however, it is my Judaism that defines me, that sets me apart.

But what I have come to realize is that my Judaism itself, the way I practice and relate to the religion, is really defined by my American identity. My Judaism is based on American values: diversity, individualism, and the ability to choose. Most of us as Jews living in America pick and choose what aspects of Judaism we like and want to keep. We look to alternative means to get people involved and find spirituality. Individuals practice how they want.

Israel, however, is different. Judaism in Israel is generally based on the most extreme observance: no public transportation Shabbat, many restaurants are kosher in order to stay in business, Jewish holidays are observed everywhere, and weddings preformed in Israel must be Orthodox weddings. It’s difficult to pick and choose your religion here, it’s really all or nothing: orthodox or secular.

To most Americans this seems extreme, even for a religious country. It seems infringing to have most things up to par with the highest level of observance. Even many Israelis aren’t too fond of the Orthodox community in Israel.

But what many Jews fail to realize is that the Israeli Orthodox community is what sustains not only Israel as a Jewish state, but also American Jewry.

You can’t have one without the other. They are the yin to our yang.

Judaism has evolved over the years in America and many different branches have emerged, each taking different things and leaving out others. Yet, it is the Biblical and Halachic Judaism from which these sects were built. Without these roots of more observant Judaism, where would our Judaism be now? The answer is I honestly don’t know. But one thing to remember is that without roots, what are the branches? Detached, from the trunk and from one another.

Similarly, the Orthodox needs the secular community just as much, because without the branches, the tree is nothing but a stump. The secular or less observant Jewish community keeps the Jewish people connected to the rest of the world. It establishes good relations with other religions, races, and communities. It allows for a sense of diplomacy for the Jewish people so the Jews can assimilate and be part of the world society. With globalization, it is impossible to live the shtetl life anymore, wrapped up in the self-contained communities that Jews once lived in. The Jews need ambassadors, and the secular Jewish Community provides that in Israel, as well as their own communities and home countries all over the world. Both sides allow the Jews to flourish, to grow, and to be a religion of beauty.

Recently, however, there has been a growing rift, especially between American Jews and Israel. The Israeli government paid for advertisements aired on American Television in areas with large Israeli and Jewish populations. These ads showed Israelis living in America with either children or boyfriends who were not culturally Israeli. They showed scenes of Americanized children who chose English over Hebrew, and Christmas over Channukah, and boyfriends who mistook Yizkor candles for romance. At the end, there was a call for these Israelis living in America to return to Israel.

These ads were not well received. And while many Americans took offense to these ads, I think we have to understand that it was not meant to be a blow to American Jews. Instead, we can see it simply as Israel wanting to retain citizens and realizing the need for people to stay in Israel. If anything, we should be complimented by the fact that so many Israelis are moving to America that the government felt they needed to campaign to bring them back. While I don’t think the advertisements sent the right message, it is important to remember the cultural differences between the two countries, and the fact that these ads were made by the Israeli government.

The ads were not meant question American Judaism, just to show how vital Israel’s continued existence is for American Judaism’s own existence.

So, before we criticize Israel, or there orthodox community there, think about where we would be without both of them? And where would they be without us?

A tree can’t live without roots, but without branches, it’s nothing more than a stump. And then, what is it good for?

(Photo: premasagar)

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6 comments

  1. Perhaps before writing a piece like this, the author should have done some actual research.

    The idea that Israel needs Orthodoxy to keep is Jewish is laughable.

    Tens of thousands of Israelis have nothing to do with religion because of how Israel’s haredim and its Zionist Orthodox movement behaves.

    They’re sick and tired of having to deal with corrupt rabbis and they’re sick and tired of having to deal with the corrupt rabbinic bureaucracy.

    But more fundamentally, the idea that today’s Orthodoxy is the same as the traditional rabbinic Judaism practiced a few hundred years ago is false, and haredim and Orthodox Zionists are arguably no more Jewish than secular Israelis.

    Then go back a bit further to when the Karaites were almost – but not quite – the worldwide Jewish majority.

    Go back the various sects that existed during the last century the second Temple stood.

    Were the large number of Hellenist Jews in Alexandria and other points in the Diaspora less authentically Jewish than small Rabbinic sect?

    What about the Sadducees? They ran the Temple and they opposed the rabbis. Were they less authentically Jewish?

    If you don’t know Jewish history, Israeli history, or Israeli politics, what is it, exactly, that gives you the authority to write this piece?

    It’s really great that you went to Israel.

    It’s good that you care enough about the community and about Israel to write.

    But someone or some group has fed you a lot of PR spin and told you it was history and fact. But it isn’t that at all.

    And as for your tree and branches analogy – one that is used by ultra-Orthodox missionary organizations like Aish HaTorah and Chabad – here’s how it works.

    Haredim – ultra-Orthodoxy – needs the money, political clout and the bodies of non-Orthodox movements and of non-affiliated Jews.

    They need this because without that money, these groups cannot sustain themselves. And they want non-Orthodox bodies because they want the souls that come with them.

    If we stopped donating and funding Aish, Chabad, and the other haredi groups and organizations they would crumble.

    And what do we get in return?

    Not much past their high birth rate (which is not really beneficial to the rest of the Jewish community) and their circular reasoning that allows them to define Judaism in the ahistorical way they want and then allow us to fit within that definition, but only as they allow.

  2. I know that many Israelis are frustrated with the ultra-Orthodox, with their political power, and with their overall hold on Israel’s religious life. But I like Leora’s metaphor of the tree, because like it or not, our fates as Jews, American or Israeli, secular or religious, are just as intertwined. And I must defend the work that Aish and Chabad do, reaching out to bring Jews to Judaism. Look on any American college campus and see where vibrant Jewish life is happening. Who is hosting Passover seders from Nepal to Patagonia? Chabad. Jewish friends of mine who had a medical emergency overseas were aided round the clock by Chabad, no strings attached. It is possible to want greater pluralism in Israel, which I do, and at the same time, recognize the good work that some Orthodox groups are doing.

  3. And?

    Others do good work, too.

    And Aish and Chabad do the good work they do because they want your soul, not because they practice pluralism.

    And don’t try to say that isn’t true. I worked for or with both of them in Israel and in the US for years and I studied in their yeshivot.

    We don’t need that – and I say that as someone who once header the World Union of Jewish Students in the US and who knows very well how devoid of Jewishness many college campuses can be.

    And, at any rate, the point of Goldblatt’s article is wrong, and thhe facts she assumes to make her points are not actually true.

  4. I believe that Leora’s comments are in the spirit of “Klal Yisrael” which is seeing Judaism as one community with many segments each of which has respect for the other. As such, I would like to differentiate between the modern Orthodox and the Haredim. Modern Orthodox wear knit kippot, almost all hold productive if not professional jobs, they not only serve in the army but are disproportionately officers, and they are for the most part respectful of ther Jews whatever their beliefs. As such they fit in with Leora’s blog perfectly and see themselves as a part of Klal Yisrael. In contrast are the Haredim. Many of the men are unemployed or underemployed, they reject not only contact with
    the world and other Jews (who they do not recognize as Jews), they do not serve in the army, they take hundreds of millions of dollars from Israel and some do not even recognize the state (in what alternative universe would this be ethical?), they have large amounts of children some of whom they cannot feed without assistance, they are utterly disrespectful, even disdainful of other Jews and their idea of Klal Yisrael is limited to them. These people don’t consider themselves a part of Leora’s metaphorical tree. I believe we should honor their beliefs and even recognize them as a different form of “plant” life. Unlike modern Orthodox who enhance what it means to be a Jew, Haredim are destructive to the Jewish people. When will we wake up and figure out a strategy to stop including people in Klal Yisrael who don’t want to be included and will never include us?

  5. I disagree with the writer’s opinions on Orthodoxy sustaining Judaism. The reform movement was alive and well in the diaspora for generations before the founding of the modern state of Israel. Were it not for the state of Israel, who gave special privileges to the Orthodox as an afterthought, the Orthodox movement would have died long ago. Now as a result of exponential breeding, they have become a dominating force in Israeli and Jewish politics. In doing so, they have created a revisionist history, in which the contributions of secular modern Jews who fought for and built the state of Israel and kept Judaism alive by adapting, are minimized. In place of giving credit to the secular pioneers, the Orthodox movement is patting themselves on the back for ‘keeping Judaism alive’. They conveniently forget that it was secular Jews who built the nation, while they huddled in shtetls and dressed like 16th century Northern European peasants.

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