Finding Members Of The Tribe

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 10-10-12

During a Sukkot week excursion to London, my family and I were repeatedly Bageled—American Jewish slang for when a fellow Jew who has figured out you are Jewish, makes the Jewish connection, usually using insider language—a shanah tovah here, a shabbat shalom there. We also, inevitably, crossed paths with many Israelis and therefore coined another expression. To Crembo is to start speaking Hebrew to an Israeli whom you have overheard using the Jewish people’s old-new mother tongue. (Crembos are a distinctive Israeli treat, only served in the autumn and winter, offering mini-mountains of vanilla crème sitting on a cookie base encased in a thin layer of chocolate).

The New West End Synagogue is pictured in Bayswater, West London on March 3, 2009. (Leon Neal / AFP / Getty Images)

The New West End Synagogue is pictured in Bayswater, West London on March 3, 2009. (Leon Neal / AFP / Getty Images)

Bageling and Cremboing are particularist peoplehood moments, moments when we break through the usual armor of anonymity we carry around with us in public and click with another human being. But while we can affirm our common humanity with just about anybody—and when traveling do that too—Bageling and Cremboing capture the particular joy we share when we discover what we called an “MoT” when growing up in New York—a member of the tribe.

A central tenet of Zionism is that Judaism is not just a religion; Jews are a people, a nation, with ties to a particular homeland. Especially in elite progressive circles, the validity of Jewish nationalism is often challenged. At a recent brainstorming session about how to revitalize Zionism, I recommended inviting Jews to take Zionism personally, meaning to create a nationalist vision that works for them. One progressive deemed my words “nationalistic” and therefore “right wing.” The attack prompted me to quote Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and other leading progressives about the joys of patriotism—joys which politically effective liberals know they cannot renounce.

But my progressive colleague was reflecting the trendiest of thoughts which are an obstacle in discussing Zionism.  Many elite American Jews, in particular, are enthralled by a faux cosmopolitanism, a belief that universalism is good; nationalism is bad, with Jewish nationalism somehow getting the brunt of the critique. If we are to nurture a new, revitalized Zionist discourse for the 21st century—an Open Zion if you will—we must confront this distaste for Jewish particularism and this false god of universalism, which has been luring Jews for over two centuries now.

Fortunately, leading thinkers are tackling both these tigers. In his massive new volume, “From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews and Israel,” Professor Robert Wistrich of Hebrew University shows how the negation of Jewish nationalism—singled out among all nationalisms—and this Jewish craving for universalism have been building blocks of the left, and of leftist anti-Semitism (not just anti-Zionism). My friend Daniel Gordis’s new book, “The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness Is Actually Its Greatest Strength” celebrates Israel as a model of particularism, a beacon for the 21st century, showing how having a deep, multidimensional, vital national identity leads to personal satisfaction, communal cohesion, and good deeds individually and collectively. Gordis argues, convincingly, that the Arab Spring and the Palestinian national movement will succeed best if Arabs try mastering and mimicking the Israel model, combining a democracy tolerant of diversity with a proud particularist national-religious culture, rather than trying to recreate the American “tower of babel,” which Gordis, the sociologist Robert Bellah and others show often leads to individual rootlessness, loneliness, and alienation. And the legendary Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Sir Jonathan Sacks, has declared that he will dedicate the rest of his career to bridging the gap between Jewish particularists and universalists—challenging Orthodox Jews to emerge from their intellectual bubbles and embrace what Western thought offers while challenging universalist Jews to emerge from their own constrained virtual reality and appreciate what having a rich, traditional Jewish identity can offer as well.

Gordis, Sacks and others are standing on the works of other great modern thinkers, especially Michael Walzer, Michael Sandel, and Charles Taylor, who teach that nationalism is a neutral tool, able to help or hurt, and that human beings crave community and most often thrive as anchored communitarians not alienated individualists.

On a more basic level, my family’s British experience was enhanced because all our Bageling and Cremboing paid off.  Stumbling in as wandering Jews, we were hosted magnificently at the St. John’s Wood Synagogue, welcomed and honored at the services, invited to meals in the synagogue’s sukkah and in a private home, and made to feel absolutely special. As two of my children and I spontaneously became the 17th, 18th and 19th guests at an Israeli’s table at the end of the holiday, I went up quietly, apologetically, to our hostess, offering to drink a quick l’chaim and run. “Of course not,” she said, “it’s Simchat Torah—and you are welcome.” And, of course, she and her family would be welcome in our home too, with bagels, crembos—and even the kind of four course meal we were lucky enough to enjoy with them, our fellow MoTs.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Intstitute Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

Let’s use Sukkot to reconsecrate links to Israel

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 9-27-12

The holiday of Sukkot needs a makeover, at least in the Diaspora. Known traditionally as Hechag, The Holiday, for its primacy and passion, Sukkot is neglected in North America. Partially this is due to holiday burnout – Jews are exhausted after feasting on Rosh Hashanah and fasting on Yom Kippur. But partially this is due to no longer appreciating this holiday’s delightful and meaningful messages.

Sukkot is one of the Shalosh Regalim, the three walking or pilgrimage festivals, delineated in the Torah. These three important holidays brought Jews from all over the country to Jerusalem, bearing their first fruits and sacrifices. All three holidays emphasized the centrality of Zion in Jewish life. They linked Jewish religious obligations with a sense of Jewish national belonging. And they taught us to be humble before the Lord while delighting in earth’s bounty.

Sukkot, with its temporary booths, was about the Jewish people’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. It emphasized the transience of material attachments amid the permanence of lasting anchors. It emphasized the perpetual search for home, for rootedness, for anchors, learning how to grow and stretch by feeling rooted yet searching for more.

All these are important themes for us today. We should renew Sukkot by using it as a holiday to showcase the importance of Israel in our lives and to rethink what it means to live in a world with a Jewish state.

We can start by learning from Israel on this one. In Israel, Sukkot is widely observed and universally beloved. It’s the magical culmination of the holiday season. School vacation injects a festive air and guarantees festivals galore – even though some harried parents are stuck managing the kids while having to work. The weather is often glorious, with the heat of summer lifting, just as in Canada signs of winter begin accumulating. And sukkot – temporary huts – sprout out of Israeli buildings and sidewalks, appearing as quickly and dramatically as shovels after the first Canadian snowstorm of the season.

Many non-religious Israelis enjoy building sukkot because of the agricultural associations – it’s a harvest holiday. Others enjoy the Zionist associations, with its hands-on expression of homecoming. And others simply enjoy the sheer fun of it, the creativity in the building and decorating. I’ve seen extraordinary sukkot on many kibbutzim made of palm fronds suspended by string. While they need 2-1/2 more solid walls to adhere to Jewish law – some have them – they capture the richness, the green-ness and the dance between transience and permanence that are so central to the holiday.

In making Sukkot a forum for celebrating and reconsecrating our relationship with Israel, we should start with the sukkot, the huts, themselves. By decorating them with Israeli posters, Israeli pictures, representations of the seven Israeli agricultural spices, and the lulav and etrog – as so many do – we bring the relationship to Israel alive, sensually, artistically and graphically. In our synagogues, our rabbis should deliver sermons about Israel, focusing on identity Zionism, meaning how we use Israel, the idea of Jewish nationhood, the reality of the Jewish state to revitalize our own Jewish identities. And in our beautifully decorated Sukkot – or in warm houses nearby – we should study texts about Israel. Wouldn’t it be great if every year we had community-wide, or worldwide, text-study sessions, knowing that simultaneously dozens, hundreds, thousands, were studying the same texts – say one traditional text and one modern teaching.

Sukkot is about a journey, from slavery to freedom, from homelessness to home, from being passive victims to active shapers of history, from wanderers to builders. Sukkot should invite us to contemplate our own journeys as Jews, as human beings. Where are we going? Are we Jewishly ambitious? In thinking about these issues, in viewing our Jewish identities through the prism of Israel, we can get more clarity about who we are and where we are heading.

Holidays are symbolic moments that evoke our pasts. They are often suffused with childhood memories and nostalgia. Many have strong feelings about what to do and what not to do in trying to recreate the past. But we can’t have a Judaism that’s only about yesterday. We also need holidays that celebrate today – and inspire us to build, journey, and decorate, the key Sukkot verbs – a more meaningful tomorrow.

If Mayor Barkat Fires Rachel Azaria He will Betray Zionist Jerusalem

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-25-11

Related: J’lem mayor fires coalition member over court petition, JPost, 10-21-11

If Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat follows through on his threat to fire City Councillor Rachel Azaria from the coalition and take away her important portfolios of early childhood education and community councils, he will be declaring war on Zionist Jerusalem – the core constituents who elected him. Fortunately, the news reports treating the firing as a done deal were premature. This Thursday’s City Council meeting must ratify the decision. Everyone who cares about quality of life in a free, pluralistic, prospering Jerusalem should sign the petition demanding Rachel Azaria’s full reinstatement. If this grassroots initiative succeeds, not only will we be saving Jerusalem, we will be rescuing Nir Barkat from his self-imposed imprisonment to anti-Zionist, ultra-orthodox political bullies.

Rachel Azaria

The same redemptive spirit that elected Barkat in November 2008 propelled Rachel Azaria, a grassroots activist, to the City Council from the Yerushalmim Lo Mevtarim, “Jerusalemites Don’t Give Up” movement. Azaria, 33, now the mother of three young daughters, has dedicated herself to improving Jerusalem’s quality of life, focusing particularly on young Jerusalemites. She is a religious Zionist whose movement unites religious and secular, old and young, Sabras and immigrants, committed to reviving Jerusalem. She has performed her City Council duties magnificently, boosting the budgets for community councils, helping to open dozens of kindergartens, revitalizing neighborhood schools, and putting the issue of young families on the city’s agenda. “Before,” she explains, “everyone talked about keeping students. Now people in the municipality understand that young families are the key to our future too.” Full disclosure – I met Azaria during her campaign in 2007 and have supported her enthusiastically since.

Connected to her quality of life push, this religious woman has also navigated the complicated dynamics between ultra-orthodox haredim and their fellow Jerusalemites. She has fought to ensure that the Western Wall does not become a haredi synagogue but remains a unifying Jewish and Zionist space. She has combated haredi attempts to inflict gender segregation in public spaces, including her latest fight against gender segregation on Meah Shearim’s streets during Sukkot, a shocking imposition of fanatic, idiosyncratic, undemocratic, restrictions on public thoroughfares.

“I am not anti-haredi,” Azaria insists, visibly uncomfortable with the characterization itself. “I yearn for the way Israel was in the 1950s, when religious and non-religious Jews lived together in the same apartment building. We were all returning together, in the spirit of the prayer ‘Vahavieynu Leshalom Mearbah Kanfot Haaretz,’ G-d will bring us in peace from the four corners of the earth. But I object to all kinds of segregation – residential and gender. I want to affirm to the haredim that they are a part of us. They are 20 percent of Jerusalem and are here to stay. We have to change the discourse that this is ‘our’ neighborhood or ‘theirs.’ Meah Shearim can’t be beyond the law.” This segregation, she notes, harms haredim too. She has fought equally hard to ensure that buses serve all of haredi Jerusalem, on this principle of equality.

Mainstream, “hegemonic,” Ashkenazi rabbinic and political authorities find this religious woman fighting from within tradition even more threatening than secular Meretz types. But, she notes, “I am the address for many disenfranchised haredim. They come to me begging for help, because I am willing to get my hands dirty.”

Rachel Azaria embodies the open, constructive, pro-Jewish, pro-Zionist, pro-Israel, pro-Jerusalem spirit Nir Barkat himself embodies. She and her party represent the majority Jerusalem sensibility needed to make the city thrive. She is a poster child for all the aspirations of Zionist Jerusalem that Barkat stirred and promised to serve. He was absolutely right when he tried promoting her to deputy mayor last spring. And he was absolutely wrong when he succumbed to haredi pressure then. Even worse, he is now threatening to fire her on a technicality, based on the city’s marginal role in the lawsuit Azaria and others initiated opposing the gender segregation in Meah Shearim’s streets – which, she notes, many haredi women encouraged.

As a student of executive power, frustrated that Israel’s current Prime Minister lacks the spine to fire coalition members, no matter how incompetent or defiant, I understand Mayor Barkat’s discomfort with Azaria, his coalition partner, launching a lawsuit implicating the city, although Barkat also opposes the gender segregation. But, in a democracy, activists need to use a range of tactics. This move against Azaria seems too technical, too political, too opportunistic. The haredi press’s delight indicates that this palace coup has been long in the making.

The haredim are well-organized, appear unified, and control between 8 and 11 votes at different times in the 31-person City Council. Azaria’s –and Barkat’s – core constituents are more diffuse and more distracted, living their lives and making the city work rather than playing politics. If Barkat, however, figures he can continue disappointing Zionist Jerusalem, because no one else from that camp will run against him, he risks alienating so many we will simply stay home on Election Day. A surge of voters elected Barkat last time; elections can be lost by abstentions too. Barkat needs Zionist Jerusalem to rise up and free him, demanding Azaria’s reinstatement and promotion to deputy mayor. He should remember not just the 17,000 who elected Azaria but the tens of thousands who placed such hopes in him when he promised to bring this ancient city into the twenty-first century.

Rachel Azaria is Nir Barkat’s natural ally in this all-important mission. We, citizens of Jerusalem, and lovers of Jerusalem, must reunite them, not just by signing the petition, but by demonstrating that while we may not be well-organized or very loud, we care deeply about this special city, which remains the Jewish people’s capital, precious to many of us, religious and secular alike.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.”giltroy@gmail.com

The Blame Israel First Game Insults Palestinians and Prolongs the Conflict

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-11-11

It remains one of the Israeli-Arab conflict’s great mysteries and irritants – with numerous occurrences this September. Israel is trapped in an asymmetrical blame game, not just an asymmetrical war.  The Arabs, particularly the Palestinians, are like the obnoxious younger sisters on those awful “tween” TV shows. They usually cause the mischief, yet somehow the Israelis shoulder the blame – like Drake and Josh when terrorized by Megan.

How is it that Egypt and Turkey, for their own respective domestic reasons, spoil relations with Israel – yet the American Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, echoing the conventional wisdom, chides Israel for becoming isolated?

How is it that, despite rejecting Ehud Olmert’s generous land swap, setting preconditions for negotiations, and negating Israel’s historic national rights, Mahmoud Abbas is considered “moderate” and, as the New York Times recently editorialized, “The main responsibility right now belongs to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel who refuses to make any serious compromises for peace?” This comes after Netanyahu, the alleged obstructionist, embraced a two-state solution and temporarily froze settlement growth – with no results.

And consider the mass outrage if an Israeli threw a rock at a passing Palestinian car, triggering a crash that killed a 25-year-old father and his one-year-old son, as happened with the recent, mostly overlooked, double-murder of Asher Palmer and Yonatan Palmer.

Or imagine the outcry – and the probable breach in relations – if Israelis protested against President Barack Obama by waving disgusting racist placards depicting him as a monkey – which happened at a Palestinian protest – yet no leaders denounced it. Actually, there is no need to imagine. Many leftists still loathe Netanyahu for implicitly inciting violence by not denouncing some extremists carrying posters depicting Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Nazi uniform nearly twenty years ago.

Israel is neither perfect nor blameless, but the asymmetry is glaring – and insulting to Palestinians and Jews. Making the Palestinians the spoiled brats of the world, the perpetual victims, robs them of self-respect and what academics call “agency” – the dignity of owning their actions. This radical-left condescension, always treating Westerners or whites as responsible, good or bad, reduces Third Worlders to bystanders. Just as many of us, including Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu, condemned the “Price Tag” Mosque vandals last week, Palestinians and their leaders must repudiate bloodshed, from rocks to rocket fire, consistently, sincerely — and stop inciting violence.  Holding Palestinians morally accountable for their actions and actions taken in their name reflects respect, judging them by the same behavioral standards we impose on ourselves.

This tendency to understate Israeli moderation and overstate Israeli sins while overstating Palestinian moderation and understating Palestinian sins reflects the harmful effects of the lengthy delegitimization campaign against Israel.

Delegitimization – an ugly word for an ugly phenomenon – is a form of bigotry, a hateful exercise in selective perception, harping on Israeli foibles, ignoring Israeli virtues, now escalated into an obsession treating the Palestinian-Israel conflict as unduly central in world affairs.  Even if it did not build on traditional anti-Semitism, this campaign would epitomize prejudice, actually, one of the last few politically correct prejudices in today’s world.

Delegitimization escalates the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from questions of borders and land rights conducive to negotiation and compromise to a life-and-death, zero-sum clash between good and evil. It elevates criticisms about controversial or wrongful state actions into doctrinal assaults such as “Zionism is Racism” and the Apartheid lie.  This inflammatory approach is a major obstacle to peace.

Both the Palestinian free pass and the perpetual indictment against Israel stem from the late 1960s and 1970s. At the time, Yasir Arafat and the PLO, aided by skilled propagandists such as Columbia University Professor Edward Said, framed their local narrative of woe as part of a global struggle. Exploiting the rise of a global mass media, and what Said called the twentieth century’s “generalizing tendency,” the Palestinians hijacked Third World solidarity talk while hijacking their way onto the world’s agenda. Understanding that, post-Vietnam, weakness could be a PR virtue, they portrayed themselves as victims of Western imperialism and colonialism. Coached by Soviet propagandists, perversely comparing Israel to South Africa and Nazi Germany, they injected race into Palestinian nationalist rhetoric, culminating in the UN’s infamous 1975 Zionism is racism resolution.

Radical New Left elites welcomed this farce. A new totalitarian mindset among the Third Worldist Left subordinated facts to broader black-and-white political worldviews. Seeing the world through this ideological prism romanticized but infantilized those deemed to be people of color, casting them in the role of perpetual victim, automatically guilt-free, while demonizing those deemed white and thus powerful. The Palestinians embraced the identity as the ultimate victimized people of color treating Israelis as evil Western whites.

Four decades later, this delegitimization campaign is ubiquitous, like the unseen pollution fouling our air. Many people who consciously reject Palestinian extremism, abhor terrorism, and are not explicitly anti-Israel have absorbed the ideological equivalent of second-hand smoke. They have become conditioned to blame Westerners first in viewing most conflicts, blaming Israel most of all. This is the more subtle yet toxic anti-Israel bias that clouds many media, academic, and diplomatic discussions of Israel, resulting in what has become an instinctive, unconscious, ubiquitous myopia.

This Sukkot festival, as we think about the different structures humans construct — real and imagined, good and bad, lasting and temporary — let us try dismantling these harmful, artificial constructs. Rather than being bitter, we should build a Sukkat Shalom, of genuine peace based on mutual respect and acceptance of mutual responsibility leading to real reconciliation. May this Sukkah be authentic and lasting, containing neither the politically-correct magnifying glass that exaggerates every Israeli and Western imperfection nor the Harry Potter-style invisibility cloak that hides Israeli peace gestures and Palestinian provocations.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com

Slichot, Leonard Cohen, the joy of Succot

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-8-09

With Israel best known for generating headlines about its troubles, its joys are too frequently overlooked. To be in Israel for “the hagim,” the High Holidays, including Sukkot, is a blessed, underreported privilege. From the shanah tovah greetings everywhere to the antacid commercials responding to bouts of holiday overeating, the holiday spirit is pervasive. But this is not simply the Jewish version of the Christmas season three months early. It is striking to an outsider how seriously so many Israelis take the Yamim Noraim, truly making them Days of Awe.

Especially in Jerusalem, the engagement with repentance feels ubiquitous. In North America, the ten days of penitence frequently divide into three holy days (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) and seven scrambling-to-catch-up-at-work days. In Israel, many people carve out the time for spiritual reflection, following the journey from self-evaluation to redemption our ancestors mapped out for us.

Affirming the Zionist idea that returning to the land would make us whole as a people, the spirit is in the air; the spirituality has a geography to it too. School kids hum Adon HaSlichot, the Lord of Forgiveness, a multi-stanza piyyut, poem, as they scamper about. High school students have all-night tours in the neighborhoods around Jerusalem’s Machaneh Yehudah market, culminating in pre-dawn “slichot” penitential prayers, as the magic of the night and the romance of the place enhance the prayers’ power. And for people of all ages, there are classes galore, in schools and synagogues, in community centers and private homes.

My twelve-year-old son, starting this year at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s High School, had one such all night marathon. It began at 11 o’clock with a class for parents, too. Surprisingly, impressively, my son’s teacher immediately engaged the bleary-eyed parents who showed up. The class began with a contemporary Ehud Manor-Matti Caspi song, “Slichot,” about the challenges of seeking forgiveness and the mutuality needed for it to work.

“I don’t know what to say, I didn’t want to hurt you,” the song begins, sounding like a typically sappy pop-cult lament. But, as the teacher’s literary, historical, and spiritual tour de force demonstrated, the song echoes the Talmud, the 12th century rabbi Maimonides, and Israel’s Nobel Prize winning novelist, S.Y. Agnon. Even more impressive than the teacher’s mastery of the sources was the sincerity of his engagement with the process, with these spurs for each individual to use this highly ritualized collective time to make personal, challenging adjustments.

The next night, my wife and I joined fifty thousand others at the National Stadium in Ramat Gan to hear Canadian music legend Leonard Cohen. The 75-year-old graduate of Montreal’s Herzliah High School fit right in with Israel’s addictive, characteristic, old-new mix. Cohen’s entrancing three and a half hour performance culminated with his invoking Birkat HaKohanim, the priestly blessing.

Still, as moved as I was by Cohen’s wry, impish, sensitive provocative worldview, as fascinated as I was to see how he transformed his Jewish learning and his own spiritual wanderings into popular poetry for the masses, his message was jarring. “Who by Fire” updates the stirring Unetanah tokef prayer, a High Holiday highlight. Inspired by the terrifying “Who shall live, who shall die,” riff, Cohen asks, “who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate… who in mortal chains, who in power/ And who shall I say is calling?” A Jewish prayer affirming God’s power, and prescribing “repentance, prayer and righteousness” to “avert the severe decree” becomes a modern mirror of alienation and hedonism, tempered by a dash of social criticism. Unetaneh tokef, “We Shall Ascribe Holiness to this Day,” affirms order, virtue, and authority in the world; Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire” ascribes randomness to this universe.

Nevertheless, Cohen’s karma proved contagious. After the concert, as thousands pulled out of their typically Israeli haphazard parking spots – it took us more than 45 minutes to leave the complex – a modern miracle occurred: I did not hear one shout, one sustained beep, one impatient “Nu kvar.” As we traveled back from Cohen’s world to the Jerusalem bubble – unsure which is real, which is right – we hit traffic jams at 1 a.m. – as hundreds thronged the streets, taking last-minute penitential tours of Machaneh Yehudah, Nachlaot, the Old City.

It all peaked with Yom Kippur, which concentrated the collective power of millions engaging with God, engaging with themselves, repenting, changing, fixing the world. The atmospherics outside again enhanced the piety, literacy, authenticity, intensity of the experiences inside the synagogue. Leaving the Kol Nidre prayers into the silence of a world without cars – in the center of the city – is amazing, as is the warm, communal feeling, as people promenade up and down normally hazardous streets like Emek Refaim. With the bicyclists and the pedestrians taking over the city, religious and secular mingle freely, easily, sharing the delight in the voluntary ban on driving in the Jewish people’s capital on the Jewish people’s holiest day.

The holiday season culminates now with Succot. The oft-neglected holiday in the Diaspora – with people desperate to return to work – is a national holiday here, with all schools closed. Succot blossom everywhere, lovely unexpected flowers jutting out of the urban concrete jungle. With camping trips and mass priestly blessings at the Wall, soap box car races, all day learning fests, and a 70,000-person Jerusalem parade featuring Christian Zionists from all over the world – Succot truly becomes zman simchateinu, “the holiday of our joy.”

Few moderns can relate to our ancestors’ joy during the harvest. But as meaning-seeking creatures, with all of us on some path trying to understand what life is all about, Succot’s joy derives from its proximity to Yom Kippur. Having grappled with eternal questions, struggled to improve our souls, what better way to assert our humanity and our Jewishness than through celebration? And for those of us in Israel, how lucky we are to experience this all at the point of origin, our ancient homeland, and in sync with so many others. Such joy, such spiritual satisfaction may not make headlines, but it makes life worth living.

Gil Troy: We should all turn toward Israel

Canadian Jewish News, 10-30-08

Five times a year, Israelis witness a strange sight. As they return to work after the first and last day of Sukkot, the first and last day of Passover, and the Shavuout holiday, some visiting North American and European Jews still observe the strictures of the “chag,” the holy day.

That these Diaspora Jews stick to their galut – exile – practices in the Jewish homeland when even the most pious Israelis have ended the holiday is absurd. The holiness of Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, should prevail

The bizarre practice of visitors to Israel observing the second days of holidays there highlights two disturbing trends. The Orthodox world suffers from a kind of autism about ritual, an inability to read subtle cues, to distinguish minor from major. More broadly, many Jews exhibit a condescending attitude toward Israel, forgetting Israel’s primacy within Judaism.

For starters, accompanying Orthodoxy’s welcome resurgence over the last few decades has been a disturbing stringency about far too many minutiae. Some – but not all – rabbis have lost their bearings. Some hector their congregants about the most picayune rules of kashrut while ignoring major sex scandals or other ethical lapses among congregants. Some gossips condemn neighbors in harsh, hateful and even violent terms for wearing dresses they might deem immodest by centimetres.

In fairness, the genius of Halachah, the Jewish system of law, lies in its focus on details. The strict attention to seemingly minor rituals has sustained Judaism through the millennia, preserving continuity, maintaining legitimacy and fostering an intensity in Jewish tradition. But focusing on details should enhance, not obscure, the major principles looming behind the minor acts. When ethical guidelines are ignored – or sacrificed – and when bigger principles are violated, ritual is distracting rather than reinforcing.

Rabbis must educate congregants about proportionality and intentionality. Maintaining the purpose behind the ritual is essential, and Jewish law should facilitate the broader quest to achieve a good, meaningful and ethical life. I once asked a rabbi what he thought about Orthodox Jews who observed the Sabbath obsessively yet acted in business immorally. He answered: “They are not Orthodox.” This rabbi understood that if you can’t pick and choose when it comes to rituals, you can’t pick and choose when it comes to ethics, either.

Of course, visitors observing the second day of holidays in Israel are not obscuring any lapses, ethical or otherwise. Still, maintaining this particular ritual diminishes the Holy Land, thus undermining a major Jewish principle to adhere to a more minor ritual.

Alas, more and more Jews seem to forget Israel’s primacy. Forgetting the blessings that flow from living in Israel, all too frequently, free, comfortable western Jews feel they are better off than their poor Israeli cousins. Too many fundraising appeals that caricature Israel as needy seemingly confirm this perception.

In truth, Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora face a major contradiction that most of them simply ignore. Despite devoting their lives to following every jot and tittle of Jewish law, they overlook the many mitzvot associated with living in the land of Israel. Before Israel became independent in 1948, Jews felt forced to remain in exile. Today, how can someone dedicated to following all of God’s commandments as fully as possible justify choosing to live outside the land of Israel?

I’m well aware of how explosive a charge this is, and how sensitive the aliyah issue is, so allow me to make a more modest proposal that will help restore some proportionality to the relationship. All Jews today should put the study of modern written and conversational Hebrew at the top of both communal and individual agendas. Studying modern Hebrew necessarily reorients people toward Israel, helping all Jews engage with Israel better.

And perhaps even more important for Diaspora Jews, putting Hebrew front and centre can prove humbling. Rather than demanding that our Israeli brothers and sisters speak to us in the particular language of our exile, we should make the effort – however trying – to speak the language of our people.

The great Zionist philosopher Achad Ha’am said that just as the Jews preserved the Sabbath, the Sabbath preserved the Jewish people. Similarly, let future historians note that just as the Jewish people preserved Hebrew, Hebrew preserved – and redeemed – the Jewish people today.