Time for a new kind of Israeli-Jewish identity - opinion

Two competing narratives are at play: one secular and one religious.

 “Young Tel Avivians  at MINYAN. Participants from diverse backgrounds are invited to celebrate Shabbat with 10 total strangers in an attempt to form a new kind of Jewish community" (photo credit: MATAN PORTNOY)
“Young Tel Avivians at MINYAN. Participants from diverse backgrounds are invited to celebrate Shabbat with 10 total strangers in an attempt to form a new kind of Jewish community"
(photo credit: MATAN PORTNOY)

Many religious Zionists see Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel as reshit zmichat geulatenu, or the sprouting of our redemption. The secular story, on the other hand, sees the establishment of Israel as the liberation from two oppressors: God, whose punishing of the Chosen People is well recorded throughout our texts, and antisemites. A Jewish state could free the Jew from both these masters, allowing them to finally be free of archaic religious restriction and the destructive forces of antisemitism.

In other words, national identity could replace the spiritual functions of Jewish religious practice and the social functions of a religious community. Secular Israelis that live in the West drive on Shabbat, eat shellfish and seek to shed the yoke of tradition – as one meme calls it, “peer pressure from dead people.”

And Israel’s religious-secular tension has never been more palpable. Secular Israelis fight for public transit on Shabbat and religious Israelis fight over allowing chametz in hospitals during Passover.

But a national identity that has replaced a religious one and an orthodoxy that is becoming ever-more conservative are hiding from one truth: we have yet to shake the sense of victimhood in our identity from which the state of Israel was meant to free us.

It’s the core of our origin story, as Jews, to carry trauma with us: in Exodus, we already faced calls for our destruction. Pharaoh looked at the people of Israel and said, “Look, the children of Israel are far too numerous, we must deal with them shrewdly, lest they multiply!”

We look at the Jewish world around us and see the potential for something different. We are a new generation that was born into a reality in which Israel not only exists but is a global force. We are a generation that refuses to be defined by our communal memory of trauma.

Those who fought for us to be free imagined a world in which we could self-actualize and live our Jewish life in revolutionary ways that haven’t been seen for 2,000 years. Yet, we have been victims so long that we search for it everywhere because we were taught it was our essence.

Tel Aviv

Our home, Tel Aviv, exemplifies this dilemma. This city, said to be built on sand dunes, has become an international hub for art, food, fashion and music. But one thing Tel Aviv can’t get right – and this goes back to our two competing stories of Israel’s establishment – is Jewish life.

There are, of course, synagogues, Jewish schools and yeshivas. But the circles creating groundbreaking culture will rarely be found there, if at all. Tel Aviv sees itself as the capital of Israeli secularism, one that rejects religiosity or anything too Jewish for infringing on its oasis of freedom and creation. Tel Aviv is so afraid of the antisemite that it rejects God in the same breath.

STILL, THERE are secular-identifying artists, musicians and intellectuals creating works deeply rooted in Jewish texts, tradition and thought. Atar Mayner raps over Shlomo Carlebach samples and musical sister trio A-WA have won worldwide acclaim by remixing Yemenite Jewish folk music. That hints at something bigger: secular Israelis hunger for a sense of meaning that comes not in spite of their oppressors but from deep in their hearts.

The time is ripe for an experience that can take these forces and direct them towards a new type of Jewish life and identity. One that is rooted both in Jewish values of liberation, openness and questioning with Jewish traditions, rituals and community.

 Israelis wear protective face masks in Tel Aviv, on December 23, 2020 (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90) Israelis wear protective face masks in Tel Aviv, on December 23, 2020 (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

Toward that end, we sought to create an authentic, meaningful Jewish space and community that is simultaneously Tel Avivian and deeply rooted in Jewish culture, wisdom and spiritual practice.

We started small a few months ago, inviting friends to a wine bar for Torah study. We tackled issues like queerness in Jewish tradition, the relevance of shmita in a post-agricultural society and what tradition says about women’s pleasure. The sessions were packed, with a wait list of 60.

Supported by the Stulman Foundation, we then launched MINYAN, inviting 10 highly influential cultural creators – producers of Top 40 musical hits and photographers shooting magazine covers – to a Shabbat dinner experience at a loft in Jaffa. 

For four hours, the busiest people in the city put their phones aside and let the weekend wash over them, a meditation begetting kiddush begetting a family-style meal begetting a dvar Torah (words of Torah) begetting conversations long into the night. It proved a hit and people are clamoring for more of MINYAN – community, ritual and culture that is authentic to our traditions and our city’s cultural zeitgeist.

Our journey from being Pharaoh’s target to being a free people is long. But we will never be truly free if we let our identity be defined by those who seek to destroy us or conduct our spiritual practice in service of protecting it as a historical artifact. If Tel Aviv can birth world-renowned technological innovation, Paris fashion week runways and Five Star dishes, maybe it can also bring us redemption as Israeli Jews.

Lipaz Ela is a Jewish educator and storyteller, and the co-founder of MINYAN Tel Aviv. Oz Fishman is an urban designer and researcher, and the co-founder of MINYAN Tel Aviv.