Members of the Argentine Jewish community attend the commemoration of the 13th anniversary of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires July 18, 2007. (photo by REUTERS/Santiago Pandolfi)

Israeli Jewish Identity Struggles In Both Israel and Diaspora

Author: yedioth

Who is a Jew?

SummaryPrint Young Jewish Israeli Elisheva Mazia writes that modern Israeli identity cannot be detached from Jewish history and tradition, and that secular Israelis have something to learn from Jewish Americans, "even if their falafel is mediocre."
TranslatorSandy Bloom

Once, many years ago when I was forced to get acquainted with the Jewish fundraising world of the Diaspora, a professional fundraiser explained to me that in my conversations with American donors, “it doesn’t matter what you’re talking about, always push the fact that [your NGO] deals with Jewish identity.” Otherwise, there’s no chance that I’d be a successful schnorrer (beggar).

Although I blindly did as I was told, I didn’t understand why. But soon enough, I said to myself: There’s got to be a reason for this.

A few months ago I ended up spending a week with a Jewish community in Boston, and almost overnight the penny dropped: I understood what worries them, why they are so preoccupied with their Jewish identity, with their connection to Israel  and especially why they are so ambivalent toward us, the Jewish Israelis.

And simultaneously, I also understood how my own Jewish identity is so obvious and taken for granted. It is so transparent that sometimes it doesn’t really even exist. I am already an Israeli, as Israeli as they come, so why do I need something else to weigh me down? And between us, let’s admit it: It’s a lot more heroic to identify ourselves as the dusty Israeli who serves in the army and stands at attention during the siren on Remembrance Day and reads Yair Lapid than as a Jew, with all the religious and Holocaust baggage involved.

Once I used to think that our Israeli identity that takes the place of Jewish identity testifies to great security (or confidence) in our new place, but the sad truth is that it mainly testifies to our laziness. It is a lot easier to construct an identity from falafel, songs culled from the military bands, and esprit de corps when we celebrate an Israeli earning a trophy in Europe than it is to spend the time to become acquainted with texts written hundreds and thousands of years ago. To exert ourselves and research old traditions, to decide what to adopt, what to leave behind, what to renew.

The radicalized secular Israeli identity is not only superficial, it is also lacking a serious value system that is critical for the future of any nation attempting to survive in a world of religious and national radicalization. The secular Israeli identity does not successfully anchor such values as solidarity and respect for one’s fellow man — those same values that succeeded in keeping us together throughout two thousand years.

A secular fellow who had been brought up religious told me this week that he still eats only kosher food. He explains that this is because food is a basic part of life and all the senseless religious prohibitions cause him to exert himself every day and remind himself that not everything is available — not everything is possible nor self-understood.

Although I will never observe Kashrut, I have found that it represents a certain logic value. King David has been considered the great Jewish leader of all time for over two thousand years, despite the fact that the Bible lists in detail on all his sins. Thus Judaism adopted the Biblical approach toward pardoning and repentance.

As part of our holy cultivation of a negative approach to the Jewish component of our identity, we have forgotten that Judaism was originally intended to be a value system to make us better people. Not a “light to the nations,” but simply better people than we are.

There is a lot of disparagement in our attitude toward the American Jews, who try to acquire their Jewish identities. There are women decorated with kipot [caps usually worn by religious Jewish males], elevator music in synagogues on the Sabbath and those who make the Kiddush blessing on Friday evening, right before an (un- kosher) seafood meal. It is so easy to make fun of them, but when a Jewish banker in New York decides to halt his “race to the million” every Friday and even risk his job in order to maintain his Jewish identity, all that remains to be said, is: Yes, we do have a lot to learn from them … even if their falafel is mediocre.

The author is the CEO of the Ruach Hadasha (New Spirit) movement in Jerusalem.

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