Secular Jews rediscover Jewish heritage

Tel Aviv council member Mickey Gitzin explains how secular Jews have created their own narratives and celebrations in regard to the Feast of Weeks celebration on May 23-24.

al-monitor Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets children dressed up for the upcoming Jewish holiday of Shavuot, before the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 1, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Dan Balilty.

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tel aviv, secularism, orthodox judaism, judaism, jewish culture, jewish, israel

May 24, 2015

The traditional all-night "study awakening" of the festival of Shavuot, known in Hebrew as Tikkun Leil Shavuot (the custom of studying the Torah throughout the night of Shavuot), was once commemorated only by religious Jews and a handful of secular Jews who peeked in. This year, dozens of alternative events are being held all over Israel, offering the experience of studying subjects related to Judaism and Jewish culture linked to a secular identity on the May 23-24 Feast of Weeks.

Such alternative events include an evening at the Georgian Vegan Nanuchka restaurant examining “the way our choice of nutrition impacts the environment, animals and our health, with a link to the Jewish bookshelf [mostly religious research]”; the "Garden of Eden" event at Beit Daniel for Progressive Judaism, featuring director Shira Geffen, Dr. Doron Lurie and Rabbi Meir Azari, with a performance by singer Corinne Alal, culminating in a “dawn Shaharit prayer concert on the banks of the Yarkon River”; and an evening at the Zappa Club in Herzliya with singer Avraham Tal and actor Shai Avivi who will be discussing “the long road to true love: about the Sisyphean task of conserving love in daily life and the tension between corporal love and endless godly love.” Singer Shlomi Shaban and poet Dori Manor will also hold a “musical dialogue on the subject of freedom and choice.”

For Mickey Gitzin, a Tel Aviv city councilman for the left-wing Meretz Party, these events indicate a broader course of action: the renewal of the link between Israel's liberal left wing and the language of Judaism, which, he believes, is essential for the survival of the left and its ability to impact the future. Gitzin, who is also director of Be Free Israel, a nonprofit organization dedicated to cultural and religious pluralism in Israeli society, said, "True, to draw masses to large events you have to also bring singers such as Shlomi Shaban, but every event has a public relations level and then an in-depth process.”

Al-Monitor:  And that is?

Gitzin:  The alternative Shavuot service opened up a Jewish world that speaks a different language. In Israel it’s easy to see the dichotomy of Judaism: You’re religious or secular, all or nothing. In recent years there’s a growing demand for cultural tools unconnected to God, religious beliefs and a set of do’s and don’ts. Last year, thousands of people showed up for study workshops, lectures and cultural events conducted in a secular Jewish language. It’s OK if the world of Jewish content doesn’t interest you, but if you don’t engage with it because it frightens you or disgusts you, if you are antagonistic toward it, that’s really too bad. Every society needs a dialogue with its culture, and here, because of the dichotomy and the rabbinical monopoly, this has been discarded.

Al-Monitor:  How is this dialogue expressed in Shavuot?

Gitzin:  The content, on a political level, is fabulous, and the conservative elements of the Orthodoxy will refuse to deal with them. For instance, Ruth the Moabite, the great grandmother of King David, is a convert to Judaism, a total newcomer from the close-by kingdom of Moab that became a part of Israel [the story of Ruth is told in the Book of Ruth, which traditionally is read on the holiday of Shavuot]. This is a significant cultural statement. After all, if Ruth were to arrive today, she would not have been accepted by Israel or the Jews. But what do people discuss on Shavuot? The agricultural ethos of milk and wheat of kibbutz members [Shavuot is also known as the feast of the first fruits and wheat] or the religious ethos of the giving of the Torah. I would like to say that there’s lots more beyond that.

Al-Monitor:  Why is it actually so important?

Gitzin:  It’s a political undertaking. My generation in the leadership of the left wing has to go back and create a Jewish discourse that does not force us to choose between “Jewish” and “democratic.” The left is waging war for democracy, but there’s a whole other arena in this state — Judaism  in which the left is not a player. This is something that has to change if we want to reconnect with the Israeli ethos at its most basic level. The new left does not have “to come to the periphery” or “to talk to the religious.” It has to be the periphery and to talk Judaism. That’s the challenge how to talk Judaism without abandoning our values.

When we entered the municipal coalition in Tel Aviv, I understood that a change in policy was imperative. The minute the municipal authority allocates funds for organizations of Jewish renewal, cooperates with them, it is announcing that this is the Judaism that is part of the city’s ethos. Not just parties, clubs and gays, although these are also important to the urban identity. One does not have to cut oneself off from Judaism to portray Tel Aviv as liberal. There’s no contradiction. The two go hand in hand. The less contempt we display toward our own culture, the more we gain. It’s not the exclusive domain of the right wing and the religious.

Al-Monitor:  The liberals are often put off by Judaism because it is being forced all the time on the public domain.

Gitzin:  True. And this is something the rabbinate doesn't understand. They are pushing away the secular Jews, not bringing them closer. We can oppose religious coercion by creating an alternative. I asked the city to organize events for Shavuot and I was not turned down. It’s simply that no one before me had asked. Today some 1,500 marriages are conducted annually outside the rabbinate? Let’s have 10,000! Until now we used to attend Chabad [Orthodox Chassidic movement] events? We’ll create events of our own! If we don’t shape things according to our way, coercion will shape them for us.

I was approached by a group of totally secular parents who started organizing [Jewish] holiday events for the kids. One of the mothers said to me, “I have to convey to the kids a narrative and I want it to be mine.” That will happen if we assume responsibility for the content.

Al-Monitor:  Is the Tel Aviv yearning for Jewish renewal connected to the fact that the city is going back to being a city of families, not bachelors?

Gitzin:  Families need to convey to children that they are a part of something, to explain why there’s a ceremony at the kindergarten. A family needs activities and happenings, and religious holidays are activities. If you are forced to do it anyway, and if you live here anyway, you tell yourself, "Wait a minute, I want to shape this according to my set of values." We have an urgent need for community life and that necessitates ceremonies. Judaism enables this in the cultural sense. Anyone who wants to force a religious context — that’s not for me. I’m not a religious person. But this culture is part of me and I want to speak that language. I speak humanistic Judaism.

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