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.