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Best things in Jewish state include: 24/7 convenience stores

It’s not often that I feel inspired to write about the aspects of the Jewish state that I really truly like, considering how much damage is done in the name of that state. So I am listing a few such aspects that I noticed this weekend, wondering if they add up to a different notion of what a “Jewish state” might mean. Here they are:

AM/PM 24/7 convenience stores. While the experience of shopping for a standardized list of packaged and processed goods under ghastly fluorescent lights is an assault on my senses, I am grateful for the 24-hour convenience stores that have popped up over the last decade and remain open on the holy sabbath. Before the AM/PM, Fridays were spent frantically darting around town to buy all basic needs before shops close at midday. Summers were brutal: folks had to start errands early, or risk miserable heat-abuse and crowd-claustrophobia as the whole population thronged the markets en masse. It was anything but relaxing; although many businesses were closed, people felt like Israel had a one-day weekend.

Now, Fridays have become a ritual day of touching base with friends, with slow, lazy quality time to enjoy them. After long work days dealing with the hard world around us, we are allowed a day of conversations about nothing and everything, with no end in sight. Fridays now epitomize something for me that I always found powerfully attractive and missing in the US: the investment in people as an end in itself; the appreciation of one another’s company in an unplanned way, the communities that come and go spontaneously in a single café, where groups of friends merge and morph and subdivide.

For me, these moments distinguish Israel from the hyper-individualism of the US, and turn a post-modern urban environment into an extended home. The convenience stores allow me to drink my fill of this human warmth on Fridays, and pick up supplies at my leisure. After a day of so many people and friends, I am free to retreat for a more reflective, quiet Saturday or Sabbath as it may be. Nothing is imposed, no one is excluded.

Sabbath Parking. For many Israelis, Friday nights involve a family or friend-oriented social activity, including the famous Israeli Friday night dinner. While walking to one last night, a couple in an SUV stopped me to ask if they could park in the resident-only area, and I assured them that there is no ticketing on the holy sabbath. We smiled at each other: with my bottle of wine, and their parking search, we knew we would both soon be taking part in this authentic national institution. Religious or secular, Jewish or Arab, every person who wants to can share the atmosphere of community and calm. I thought I felt it when I spent a Friday recently in the Arab city of Umm el-Fahm. I don’t know if it was my imagination, but I believed it.

There are no parking tickets on Fridays because the municipality is closed. But I like to think that the state is also consciously encouraging people to visit each other and be together, through a tiny policy that involves no coercion, intrusion, invasion, or discrimination, just a day off for the traffic police. It would be even better if those who don’t own cars also had some support for visiting people.

Shalom Aleichem. Continuing my walk through the heart of what many view as secular, heathen Tel Aviv on my way to dinner, I caught a familiar melody winding through the trees on the darkened street. It was “Shalom Aleichem,” the traditional song before the Friday evening Sabbath dinner. It was being sung to the tune I have known since I was born, by a gathering of voices that recalled any number of Friday night dinners in any number of places, throughout my life. And I mused that while I have traveled far and wide since I first heard that tune, the melody floating down the street was a moment of continuity through all the tumbles and turns – I am home. It can be Brooklyn, the Upper West Side, or Israel; it might not be my family singing but it’s someone’s family.

Music binds, especially when it’s a vehicle for ancient traditions. I cannot imagine that this one family’s melody hurt anyone, nor did it (of itself) hinder another person’s ability to sing or not sing any song. At my dinner, we did not sing Shalom Aleichem but still I feel we’re part of some larger family.

Polyglot kids. Recently, several friends’ kids around 6 or 7 years old, native Hebrew speakers, showed off their Russian skills; one of them is already bilingual (Hebrew and English). A Nigerian foreign worker living legally in Israel for many years related proudly that his twins, who finished 6th grade yesterday, got excellent grades in Hebrew.

Why write about polyglot kids for a post about the Jewish state? I think instinctively, this represents an ideal of sorts for me: a people rooted in the Hebrew language that absorbs other peoples and cultures, then adopts and transmits those cultures too. I have a vision of a people that embraces the cosmopolitanism that I love about Jewish culture, firmly anchored in the linguistic basis. With Hebrew as an unshakeable foundation, those kids are not frightened of other cultures, they delight and giggle as they embrace them – so unlike the anti-immigrant demonstrators of South Tel Aviv a few weeks back.

My reverie was marred when I spoke with another 6th-grade graduate who said she had never had a single Arabic class in elementary school, although they did have a year of Yiddish which she said was mandatory. That’s a shame, I thought: in neglecting Arabic, the “Jewish state” part of the Israeli polity seems destined not for anchored cosmopolitanism as in my dream, but for isolation from its own political brothers and sisters, the non-Hebrew-rooted citizens of this country.

******

If there is any thread connecting these random items, it is my growing belief that the term “Jewish State” must evolve into a conceptual entity, not a political, physical or legislated entity. It can refer to the Jewish people, united by an changing and pluralistic identity, who must hammer out their notions of Judaism simply by living together in a space to be defined by political, not religious, considerations. A state with a small ‘s,’ as a state of being, if you will.

That’s because I don’t really want the goal of Israel to be about preserving Judaism, which makes me think of small animals in formaldehyde. I want to re-vitalize Judaism.

It’s not just that the state should not legislate how we choose to define the Jewish people; to re-vitalize Judaism, it need not.

Separating state from Jewish peoplehood, while giving the Jewish people a home here, means that state’s priority is legislation and policy on behalf of all its citizens. Arab and Palestinian political rights, indeed land rights, become no threat to Jewish existence, because it is the people, each according to his/her beliefs who are responsible for keeping Judaism vital.

The result for Judaism might be a strange kaleidoscope of practices, beliefs, rituals, food, melodies and customs. But the composite picture will be as pretty as Shalom Aleichem sung by a few off-key family members on a Friday night in Tel Aviv – together, the musical messiness blended and the melody emerged pure. Nobody can legislate that.

Maybe then, the state can consider minimalist, non-intrusive, non-invasive, non-coercive policies to encourage minimal shared community values, emerging from any of the three major faiths here.

If the term “Jewish state” evolves into a non-tangible, people-entrusted concept that exists inside the physical political entity, then eventually the word “state” can be separate from “Jewish” altogether. I want to believe in the Jewish people inside Israel, and I want to believe in a State of Israel that nurtures every one of its citizens.

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    COMMENTS

    1. maya

      oy vey!!!

      Reply to Comment
    2. Aaron

      I like some of the same things, but I don’t like those AM/PM stores. I admit, it’s partly ideological: as a conservative, I don’t like the idea of chain stores of any kind. Besides the main humanistic and aesthetic objections, grocery chain stores are driving the proverbial mom-and-pop makolot out of business. If people get used to shopping at a chain grocery store (or any other chain store) on shabbat, then they’ll tend to shop there on weekdays, too. That said, I admit to having shopped for groceries on shabbat, so I’m a hypocrite.
       
      I came to Israel for completely non-Zionist, non-political, non-ideological reasons. For me also, a Jewish state is important because of little things like those listed in the article. But like it or not, the state’s Jewish identity can only be defended self-consciously, politically, and ideologically – in other words, “violently.”

      Reply to Comment
    3. miss

      hell, is this 972 or is it Israel Hayom?

      Reply to Comment
    4. This is a slightly odd article – I agree with the main push, but the first point is both mean-spirited, negative and untrue. She doesn’t actually like 24/7 shops. She likes the fact that shops are mostly empty on Shabbat. She could have phrased it entirely differently – she could have said that she loves shabbat – that she loves that she can go shopping almost alone. She could have said that she loves spending Friday catching up with friends. But to say that one of the things she loves about Israel is 24/7 shops makes no sense (there are far more of them in New York, or any other western country). It is clear that the writer is attempting to be antagonistic, which detracts from an otherwise good piece.

      Reply to Comment
    5. AYLA

      @Haim–I took her point (and you can direct your comments directly to the author) about the AM/PM just to be about having choices if you’re not shomeret shabbat, as I gather, from her post, that these stores are a new development. (I live in Israel, but in the Negev, where believe me, nothing is open on shabbat less because people are religious and more because it’s a small town life. we also don’t have an ATM in my town. For example).
      *
      @Dahlia–It seems almost as if you’re longing for Israel to take on the challenges of diaspora Jews, which is interesting (for me) to consider. For anyone who immediately objects to this idea, I would argue that in many ways, Judaism is more alive in the U.S. than in Israel where most people consider there to be two categories: religious, or not. I’m into Judaism, as a religion (not just a culture), and have found many fewer communities here who are practicing what I’d call a revitalization of Judaism than I found in the States. There’s a whole “renewal judaism” scene in the U.S. that I love. I sit in Israel, in the Negev which feels to me like the living torah, and often long to go to a retreat at the Isabella Freedman retreat center in Connecticut. There’s a bit of that scene here, and it’s growing, mostly in Jerusalem, but still. Anyway, I’ve often observed that there’s a way in which a Jewish State, at least so far, has turned so many Jews away from religion, and why that is. Interesting. You can not, however, convince me that anything involving florescent lighting is for our Higher Good ;).

      Reply to Comment
    6. Cortez

      “Arab and Palestinian political rights, indeed land rights, become no threat to Jewish existence, because it is the people, each according to his/her beliefs who are responsible for keeping Judaism vital.”

      Why not go the extra step and recognize Palestinians as Jewish people or at least as the descendants of Israelites?

      Reply to Comment
    7. Kolumn9

      Nice article, though the idea of rooted cosmopolitanism is something intended for diasporas, not actual residents of their home country. There remain the arguments over control over policy, education, public space, national symbols, etc, for which the individualistic concepts of a ephemereal rooted cosmopolitanism have no real recipe. In other words, even if you try to separate the ‘Jewish’ from the ‘State’ you are still left with a state in the ever stormy seas of the Middle East and such a state can not be minimalist, non-intrusive, identityless, and non-coercive and continue to survive. That is the brutal reality.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Cortez

      Kolumn:”for which the individualistic concepts of a ephemereal rooted cosmopolitanism have no real recipe.”
      You’re joking right? UK, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Australia, South Africa, France, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Switzerland India, Iran, Ethiopia etc. So yes, there is a recipe for a vibrant cosmopolitan countries and they all go through rough times (as seen right now during the Arab spring and economic crisis) but they also persevere and many of them are highly successful.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Rachelle Pachtman

      Gorgeous piece. It carries the hope of the Israel I hold in my heart and my dreams. The very best of the rich mosaic of cultures without the pain, fear, wounds and paranoia that stem from many horrors of our past.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Thank you all for your comments. Here are a few responses:
      .
      @Haim – I’m somewhat surprised at your comment. It was not meant antagonistically at all and I actually quite hate shopping, in a crowd, or alone, and in general, so yes, it was meant a bit ironically. The point was that for many years that state set up the system to work for the religious and now there is a small concession (for about 10 years already) that makes it easier (technically) for seculars to appreciate shabbat with our own meaning (spiritually). And if you didn’t get out of the piece that i relish shabbat in israel, then i have failed as the writer!
      .
      @Ayla – I’m not sure why you and a couple of others relate this to diaspora themes. I live here, not abroad. Yes I’m from there, but 15 years + 2 more prior to moving here – that’s nearly half my life here, and I think it counts as “Israeli”. Maybe you’re saying it represents a mindset shared by N. Ams more than ‘native’ israelis (the concern for an individualized expression of judaism), and maybe so – but my point was less about the cons/ref/reconst vs. ortho – and more about the politicized vs. privatized version of religion.

      there’s a deeper possibility, that you see in this piece a situation in israel that mirrors jews in the diaspora – i.e., as if I’m describing an israel where jews will be a minority. and in fact, this is eventually what will happen under the current policies. And if it does, yes, i’d rather see the notion of jewish meaning i imagine here taking over, rather than a jewish state imposed by a minority over a majority. I owe it to Brent Sasley for thinking this point through with me.
      .
      @Rachelle – thank you!

      Reply to Comment
    11. Sari Revkin

      You are talking about the state of Tel Aviv not Israel my dear…..

      Reply to Comment
    12. Kolumn9

      Cortez, you have no idea what you are talking about as demonstrated by the list of countries you provided. Read up on the concept of ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’ in all its glory.
      .

      Dahlia, the reason why people mention that your ideas are more fitting for diasporas is because they are. Your ideal is a society of minorities within a neutered state in which your hypothetical attachment to it being a Jewish home has no practical significance and is thus void in any context outside your personal beliefs. Your proposal is for Israeli Jews to give up the burden of actual national responsibility because it’s practical implications weigh too heavily on your pure Jewish soul. In practice this means turning Israel (would the name stick? would Hebrew be the main language?) into a state where Jews are just another diaspora community.

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    13. @Sari – HI! I hear you, but I don’t agree – in the following way: I feel that argument is being used too reflexively to dismiss the reality lived by precisely the group you mention. Gush Dan is about 1 million people – that’s over 12% of the Israeli population, Tel Aviv is the second largest city in the country and therefore, I don’t see the contrast between the “state of tel aviv” and “Israel” – it feels like someone’s telling me that I don’t belong here, that I’m not part of the “real” israel. That hurts as much as it wd hurt an Arab, russian, Haredi, settler, born-in-israel child of a foreign worker. As the middle class, I definitely contribute my share of taxes, consume far less state resources than some others – further, as a political activist by profession and calling, why is my attitude any less legitimate than those you put into the “real” Israel category? If your argument is that no one else even in my TA world thinks like me – then the article is simply not relevant. My guess is the opposite – that there are plenty outside TA who might agree (with the general sentiment) and plenty inside TA, who would not. The form it takes for me is Tel-Avivian, but I think the issues run deeper (at least that was my intention!). Hope you are well 🙂

      Reply to Comment
    14. AYLA

      Dahlia–I love this piece, and I’m not questioning your identity or expertise as an insider/Israeli. And I actually share all of the longings you express so beautifully in your concluding paragraphs. I long for this Israel, too. And at the same time, to me, the following in particular mirrors diaspora Jewish challenges at its core, “…Arab and Palestinian political rights, indeed land rights, become no threat to Jewish existence, *because it is the people, each according to his/her beliefs who are responsible for keeping Judaism vital*”. I actually feel like I’d have to quote your entire final four paragraphs to explain why it seems to me that you’re longing for the challenges of diaspora judaism. At the same time, I believe that what you’re envisioning is not only the most beautiful, honest way to live on this land and honor this land, but also, for the same reasons, best for the future of the Jewish people, here.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Thanks Ayla – have no doubt, I didn’t take your comment as a critique, I was really just interested. I’m still not convinced that this is a diaspora mentality though, as I feel it comes from a very uniquely israeli set of experiences that most diaspora Jews wouldn’t get, even America’s finest Jewish commentators. But then again, maybe a native Israeli wouldn’t notice or appreciate those little things (AM/PM, parking) – having no galus experience to compare them to…And the conversation goes on…

      Reply to Comment
    16. AYLA

      I’ve been considering if I have anything valuable to add, because mostly, for me, your post raises really interesting questions. If we are to say, for the sake of this conversation, that the State you describe would leave her Jewish citizens facing many of the (good) challenges we face in the diaspora, including personal responsibility for keeping Judaism vital (which often leads to more connection to the faith, not less), then the question for me becomes, but how would our challenge, and ideal, too, be different, here? And the answer of course is, in so many ways. And I’m not talking about security… Rather than living with many cultures as a tiny minority, it would actually be part of our kavannah on this land to honor the particular deeply-rooted histories and cultures, here, with which our own intertwines. The more we Ashkenazi-wash Israel, the more we loose what’s rich about this land, for *us* as well as for non-Jews. That’s why I live in the Negev; if you squint, it still looks, feels, and smells like it may have long ago, which has a lot to do with its Arab population. Please, though, no am/pm stores down here! You know what *I’d* like to see in order for us to have a lazy day with friends and still allow for shabbat-space? Sundays. I’m takin’ ’em back ;). Come to think of it, we need three day weekends. You know, to honor the three major religions ;). Thanks for the beautiful, thought-provoking piece, Dahlia. Maybe some Friday afternoon we can finally meet and sit by the Sea and envision on and on. And maybe I’ll have digested your piece, and my response, more fully by then.

      Reply to Comment
    17. Cortez

      Ayla”The more we Ashkenazi-wash Israel, the more we loose what’s rich about this land, for *us* as well as for non-Jews”:
      – I think that was one of the major problems from the begining. The Askenazi-washing of Israel (which is more or less Eastern Europeanizing of the country, since Western European Jews have a different culture) continues to promote the idea of the “other” within Israel where many non-Ashekenazi have basically had their history erased and Palestinians continue to be treated as “the other” in law, politics and general life. I don’t think Jews have to be the minority in Israel if they are willing to acknowledge history and redefine Judaism to not only include North Americans and Europeans but the other cultures and variations that have define the diaspora overtime. I don’t see why Jews as a religion or as a securalized people should have to minimze their cultural presence if they can instead reincorporate the various different cultures that have come to define the people as a whole in the past and some respects today. Its preposterous to think that the Palestinians muslims as natives of Israel, and as Arabizied and Islamicized Israelites are treated as foreigners on their own land. If maintaining the culture is one of the goals (cause converting people to a different religion is not in the cards) at least incorporating as many people as possible into the dream would at least bring a sense of inclusive cosmopolitanism to the area that has been lacking it since the 1940s.

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