Flip Side: A bike ride down the middle road

If you're a "Zionist expatriate" Jewish continuity is one of those subjects you'd rather not ponder too often.

By RUTHIE BLUM LEIBOWITZ
October 1, 2006 08:34

'Dad, you've got to get my bicycle fixed," a determined 12-year-old boy I know reminded his father recently, for about the fourth time. "I will," his father promised. "When I get around to it." "But it's got to be done before Yom Kippur," the boy demanded. Anyone but an Israeli overhearing the urgency of the boy's repeated request might assume it stemmed from his needing his wheels prior to the High Holy Days, when bike-repair shops are closed - or something along those lines. Locals would know better. Like the boy's father, they would understand immediately why the errand could not be postponed. There is no day of the year on which the streets are void of vehicles - other than Yom Kippur. For the kids, this means free rein over the roads. For most of the rest of the population, it means dodging tot-to-teen traffic on the way to and from synagogue. Debates about the religious legality of this practice - which has become as ensconced in Holy Land Day of Atonement tradition as fasting - continue to be raised. But they're not very heated. In fact, it is one of the few issues in this contention-filled country that is tolerated with little opposition, in spite of its running contrary to the somber spirit of repentance. The following is a reprint of an article I wrote in these pages in 1997 about this seeming contradiction. Now, as then, I consider it a blessing. JEWISH CONTINUITY is one of those subjects you contemplate when you're invited to attend a lecture. Or when you're invited to give the lecture. Or when you're asked to participate in a symposium. Or when you're about to marry a gentile. However, if you're a "Zionist expatriate" (my translation of oleh) who is behaviorally secular yet full of Yiddishkeit in heart and soul, Jewish continuity is one of those subjects you'd rather not ponder too often - if you can help it. You tend to assume you're perpetuating it by mere virtue of your aliya. Which, in some respects, you are. Still, that doesn't stop you from panicking every so often about passing on the concept of continuity to your children - children for whom the term "Zionism" might as well be "Hellenism" for all it means to them. Being children of "Zionist expatriates," they may know intellectually that Israel is a homecoming magnet for displaced Jews, whether Holocaust survivors or Harvard graduates. They may also know that this is some sort of special legacy. Emotionally, however, they "know" something very different: that Israel is simply home. School. Sports. Movies at the mall. Bad grades. Broken hearts. Ups and downs. Life. Which is the ultimate sign of Zionism's success, after all. Or is it? Around these High Holy Days, I'm never quite sure. Many years ago I was asked by my confused four-year-old if Hitler was the Pharaoh of Purim. "No, honey, that was Haman. Hitler," I answered without skipping a beat, "was the Pharaoh of Nazi Germany." "Oh, I get it," he said, "That's why we get hammers with noise-makers on Holocaust Remembrance Day." "No, no," I corrected him patiently, "The hammers are for Independence Day, which comes right after Memorial Day." The former, I explained, was a happy day; the latter a sad one. "Oh, I get it," he said again excitedly, "That's why we don't get noise makers on Yom Kippur!" "Right," I grudgingly agreed, relieved that this answer was sophisticated enough for a kid his age. Nevertheless, instinct told me I was headed for trouble. Instinct proved correct. "Then how come we get to have so much fun riding our bikes down the middle of the road on Yom Kippur?" he asked. The conversation had taken an unwelcome turn as far as this Zionist expatriate was concerned. My young son was referring, of course, to the bicycle "festival" which, in the minds of kids the country over, has come to be associated with the most awesome day in Judaism. Heaven on wheels. The day you're allowed to zoom from neighborhood to neighborhood without fear of getting hit by a car. "Because ... because ... because there's no traffic," I responded meekly, angry at my parents for not having raised me as an Orthodox Jew; angry at my spouse for not being one himself; and angry at myself for not having taken the trouble to become one as soon as I gave birth. After all, I'm the one who has accompanied this child (and subsequent siblings) down the middle of that road - literally and figuratively. It was I who had taken pleasure in the sight of the streets swarming with children rather than cars on this holy day. It was I who felt delighted to be raising my children in a place where everybody knew it was Yom Kippur and paid deference to it - even if the form the deference took was the oiling up of spokes and filling up of tires during the week after Rosh Hashana. THE MIDDLE of the road. Like Jewish continuity, it has a nice ring to it. But locating that middle of the road requires a map which includes all of the "edges." In our case, the "edges" are assimilation on one end, and Orthodox Judaism on the other (though, these days, you might need a separate map to find your way around Orthodoxy). For some secular Jews, aliya puts an end to the quest for the middle of the road. For their children, it's a different story. Growing up in a Jewish state means having the distinction between Jew and gentile erased. Yet it was this very distinction which was at the root of the Zionism of most of their parents and grandparents. For these children of modern Israel, it is a different sort of distinction - the distinction between religious and secular - which has become internalized, no matter which category they're in. Panic similar to that which I feel on occasion is also experienced by many secular Jews living in the Diaspora who worry about Jewish continuity. In their case, however, this panic tends to take the form of religious ritual being introduced (or re-introduced) into the home, just as the Pharaoh-Haman-Hitler questions begin gracing the family dinner table - a dinner table quickly beginning to shed itself of nonkosher food, one at which every male in the family is now donning a kippa during the Friday-night meal. Such families place great emphasis on going to synagogue with their children on Shabbat, and add Israel to their list of possible holiday and summer-camp locales. As a result, the children of secular "good-Jews-at-heart" who live outside of Israel might tend to feel more "at home" with the religious Jews in Israel than they do with their secular Israeli counterparts, who, in turn feel more "at home" with gentiles when abroad. I mean, how many secular Israeli kids eat only kosher food and wear a kippa during Friday-night dinner? That's irony for you. Feeling somewhat complacent about having solved your own Jewish-continuity issues by moving to a country in which it is actually possible to overlook Christmas and Easter, you might forget to take note of the fact that your children know almost as little about Judaism as they do about living among gentiles (which is why it is hard for them to understand what possessed you to shun the good life led by Grandma and Grandpa, who in their eyes appear to live half the year in Wonderland and the other half in Toys R Us). There's that irony again. The sight of hundreds of children cycling, skate-boarding and roller-blading throughout the streets of Israel from sundown to sundown on the holiest day of the year - a day intended for fasting and atonement - is hard enough to fathom. When this phenomenon is made possible by the fact that the entire population of the country respects the "awe" of Yom Kippur, and hence wouldn't dream of driving, grasping it becomes downright impossible. Another miraculous paradox in a country established on miracles and paradoxes. This High Holy Day season, I am celebrating that continuity which enables my Israeli children to ride their bikes down the middle of the road on Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, I will atone for not having given my Jewish children the proper tools - the example and the education - with which to carve their own continuity niche.


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