Just a thought: On the three weeks

An American expat reflects on his time in Israel, and his understanding of Jewish-ness here.

THE TEMPLE MOUNT in Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I arrived in Israel in August 1993. It was just about the time that the Oslo Accords were announced and just before the international companies and brands that now flood Israel arrived. It was what I now realize to be the very tail end of “old Israel” and the very beginning of the new modern Israel.
Those old green Bezeq phones taking asimonim (tokens) were still around, cellphones were still rare, Israel’s second television channel had yet to begin broadcasting and cable TV would soon be connected to almost every home. And just to complete the mental picture, Israelis were still wearing brown leather sandals.
All of these influences, along with some one million Russian olim and the dividends of the Start-Up Nation, transformed Israel into one of the most cosmopolitan countries in the world. The economic growth broadened our horizons and in many ways Israel lost a lot of its peculiarity, a peculiarity that had always been our hallmark. Even worse, these external influences took away attention from our own national narrative. We became a Western country and let Western values influence us more than Jewish ones.
Two memories from that time in 1993, perhaps it was already 1994, standout to me till this day. The first was a Shabbat I spent in Tel Aviv.
I never had much occasion to visit Tel Aviv, but on this particular Shabbat, I found myself in the center of the city and saw something that will stay with me forever.
I passed by a coffee shop; one of those old-time sparse places that were popular here before the trendy cafes opened. Sitting on a table outside were a group of older gentlemen, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes while they discussed the weekly Torah portion with Bibles opened in front of them. It awed me. It awes me still. The contrast was so startling in my young mind; and yet it warmed my heart. It remains a beloved picture in my mind.
The second memory was of a conversation I had with a young woman, perhaps in her early 20s. During the conversation, the topic of Tisha Be’av came up and she had no idea what I was talking about. That she didn't fast or spend the day reading kinot (lamentations) was obvious to me, but to not even know what this day was astounded me.
Growing up in the United States, I was surrounded by Jews who did not know anything of their heritage. The phenomenon was not new to me. What amazed me was how a woman who lived in Israel could be so clueless.
Berl Katznelson, or perhaps it was Ya’acov Hazan, used to say already in the 1940s that, “We arrived in Eretz Yisrael to build a generation of heretics, but only succeeded in building a generation of ignoramuses.”
The contrast between the old men learning Humash (Torah) and the young woman really captured for me the generational divide in Israel, although I fear the blame should be equally shared by the religious and secular populations alike.
The religious establishment did two things wrong. The first was that, in their efforts to zealously guard Judaism from secularization, they simply excluded the secular population.
By making Judaism a “religious” thing and not a “national” thing, those who were not religious did not find a place for themselves.
The second was religious coercion.
The religious establishment not only set standards for itself, but forced those standards upon a public that did not share the same worldview, leaving a very sour taste in the mouth.
The secular population’s greatest sin wasn’t the abandonment of Halacha, but the abandonment of Jewish studies. Perhaps it was too difficult to teach about a Judaism that did not obligate you in a meaningful way? Or about the covenant with a God that did not exist? Either way, the end result was ignorance.
Right now we are in the midst of a very significant time in the Jewish calendar. We are in the middle of what is known as yemei ben hametzarim, the days between the straits.
The term is taken from the Book of Lamentations, which describes in the most graphic and horrible ways the destruction of the First Temple.
This time period marks three weeks between when the walls of ancient Jerusalem were broken through on the 17th of Tamuz until the Temple was destroyed on the 9th of Av.
The sages marked this time as a period of mourning – not just for a Temple that fell in the distant past, but the Temple that has not been built in our time.
The Temple, however you conceive of it, was at the very least a symbol of national unity and consensus. The vacuum left by its destruction is emblematic of the lack of unity and consensus that plagues us till this day.
This time period should be used by Jews from all over as a time of contemplation and introspection of who we are and where we want to go. This process cannot happen if the religious community continues to pay lip-service and go through the motions of faux mourning rituals, while the secular community doesn’t even know what’s happening on the other side.
The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.