Sunday, March 2, 2014

What Does it Mean to Live in a Jewish State?

In my program we have exhaustively discussed the issue of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Does one preclude the other? And what does being a “Jewish state” mean? Well the balance between Jewish and democratic is still being worked out, by politicians in the Knesset and academics in think tanks and universities, by people protesting in the streets and by authors publishing insightful books. As for me, all I can tell you is what living here, in the only Jewish state, means to me.
It means on Fridays everyone is rushing through the streets trying to get errands done, clogging the grocery stores so I can’t find a cart and have to wait at the checkout for ages. The shuk is packed to the gills and I make sure to wear close-toed shoes because I know I will get stepped on, jostled, and ran over by little old ladies with heavily laden carts. There are people selling bouquets of flowers on street corners, and after 3 or 4 PM (depending on the time of year) a hush falls. No buses except the East Jerusalem lines. Which in turn means I am stuck in my apartment on French Hill, at least a 45 minute walk from the city center or a 40-50 shekel ($11-$14) taxi ride. Sometimes I stay in town to see a friend or attend a Shabbat dinner, and then take a taxi back.
It means Saturdays possess a calm that does not exist in America. They remind me of Sundays in France when I studied abroad there, when most shops close. Although it is even more intense in Israel, where public transportation does not work. Schedules are planned around Shabbat. It is a tangible presence in everyone’s lives, unlike in America when whole Shabbats would go by without me even realizing it.
It means starting in October every shop and bakery is overflowing with sweet donuts stuffed with chocolate, jelly, or jam and painted over with colorful icing. The supermarkets are full of festive chocolate packs and cheap Chanukiahs.
It means during Chanukah all the buses say “happy Hanukkah” across the front in Hebrew.
חנוכה שמח.
It means in January all the stores are full of dried fruit and on our program overnight our tour guide breaks out some Tu Bishvat hagaddahs, a platter of dried fruit and some wine to hold a brief Tu Bishvat seder (something I’ve never heard of anyone doing in America).
It means in late February I get an inter-office email advertising our office Purim party, with dancing, face painting, and an “imported bar”.
It means that when I find an English-speaking hiking group and I go on a hike with them, we chat about Shabbat services on the way home. I am told about a fun singing service in Baka and am invited to Shabbat dinner afterword.
It means when I stay at a hotel all the food is kosher and I taste some of the most amazing creamy desserts that I simply cannot believe are pareve (but they are!)
At work I am shown pictures from britahs and we discuss Pesach plans, as we get that week off. I am looking forward to experiencing Pesach in Israel, as it is a celebration of our long journey to Israel and I’ve always dreamed of spending it here.
It means that if I met someone here and chose to get married my fiancée and I would have to prove our Jewishness, and if we were unable to we would have to get married in another country. It means that if I chose to wear a kippah and a tallit, like I did at my Bat Mitzvah when I read Torah, I would get weird looks and maybe worse, depending on where I was.
It means seeing little boys in peyos and their fathers in black hats and mothers in head scarves or wigs walking to or from school or the grocery store as I ride my bus to and from work.
I love feeling like part of a community of Jews here. Knowing that everyone knows what holiday is coming up, that everyone shares the background and values that I grew up with, though with different flavors from all our many upbringings and traditions.
I don’t love feeling like only one kind of Judaism is accepted by the orthodox and ultra-orthodox community and by our government. I don’t love being unable to profit from my weekend unless I pay for multiple taxis (I am working an unpaid internship after all, I can’t exactly afford that).
I don’t love being unable to go to the Kotel and stand with my father, brothers, and male friends.
Hannukah with the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption
Maintaining a Jewish state and respecting everyone’s values and rights is a delicate balance and Israel has not yet found a perfect one. But I would rather suffer the inconveniences and fight to correct what I think should be corrected than lose that special sense of community that results from sharing some sufganiyot with my coworkers as we attend a Chanukah event for work.

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