What attracted me in part to moving to Israel as a secular Jew was the secular Jewish aspect of the country’s character. Zionism in many respects was a secular response to the religious idea that the Jewish people would be redeemed from persecution when the Messiah comes. Zionism as a movement looked for redemption through the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland.
The Zionist movement was led mostly by Jews who were fervently Jewish and fervently secular, and to this day, Israel’s dominant culture is secular. But one cannot deny the sizable and probably growing segment of the population that is religious. Nor is it deniable that the land of Israel has major religious significance and that Jewish tradition and Jewish religious observance are entwined.
What is fascinating to witness is evidence that a fusion of Israeli and Jewish religious identity is taking place here. Last month, The Jerusalem Post featured an article about the creation of a Jewisraeli identity, focusing on the book “Israeli Judaism – A Cultural Revolution,” by Shmuel Rosner and Camil Fuchs. It’s out in Hebrew and is due to be published in English in the fall.
“The state of Israel is an unprecedented reality for the Jewish people,” the Post quoted Rosner as saying. “Never before was there a civil, secular Jewish state.”
But Rosner then goes on to describe the Jewisraeli identity that is in some respects replacing the more standard Israeli categories of secular and Orthodox – and “traditional” identity, which is somewhere in the middle.
Rosner, notes, for example, the attachment to Friday night dinner in his secular Tel Aviv neighborhood. It became obvious, he said, because dog owners would come to the neighborhood dog park on Friday earlier than the rest of the week so they could be home for dinner. Tel Aviv University professor Aviad Kleinberg even published a book (in Hebrew) the title of which translates as “A Guide for the Secular Person: How Not to Believe without Apologizing.”
But there is also a backlash against religious influence in Israel that sometimes takes disturbing turns. Israelis have a choice of sending their children to secular or religious public schools, but I find it troubling that some parents at secular public schools resist having their children learn more about religious customs as if the kids would be tainted by it. Several years ago, there was even an effort to stop the construction of a yeshiva in my neighborhood over fears that it would bring in large numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews.
On the other hand, virtually every secular Israeli boy has a bar mitzvah and almost all secular families also hold Passover seders. And the Bible and Jewish history are central features of the curriculum in secular as well as religious schools here.
From another angle, Haaretz, where I work, featured an article last month about California Talmud scholar Daniel Boyarin, who has written that Jewish identity only became seen as a religion in the 16th century in response to European Christianity. Before that, it centered on observance and the ethnic collective, but not belief – a way of life, in other words.
In many respects, Israel is reshaping Jewish way of life in a modern context and integrating these various strands of Jewish identity. All of this ferment is taking place in a Jewish context – in a Jewish, Hebrew-speaking country.
It’s proof Israel’s success is going beyond achieving sovereign independence for the Jewish people and is actually molding what it means to be a Jewish Israeli.
Cliff Savren is a former Clevelander who covers the Middle East for the Cleveland Jewish News from Ra’anana, Israel.
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