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Behind the lines: Whither Succot?
Israelis can be excused for walking with their heads a bit higher after Wednesday night's match.
Israelis can be excused for walking with their heads a bit higher after Wednesday night's international soccer match. A national team, the Under-21 squad, has succeeded in winning its way into a major international tournament on the continent. And what way could be more satisfying than an 89th-minute goal against the mighty French? OK, so it's not the World Cup, not even the Euro Championship, but still our young lads are now officially among the top eight in Europe. But hold on. Since when are we part of Europe? This isn't the place to recall the long wanderings of the children of Israel, from the days when they were shunned by the various Asian sporting federations, boycotted by all neighboring states, forced to fly across the world and play Australia and New Zealand (and Samoa and Marshall Islands) in the World Cup's Oceania group, until finally they arrived in the promised land of Europe. But this week's celebrations at the Herzliya Stadium barely managed to cover the fact that we're still accepted only on sufferance. Just a couple of months ago, the European sporting associations were still outlawing playing matches in Israel, throughout the country, because of the war up North, even after it had ended. Israel's sporting travails are just a metaphor for what still remains its basic rootlessness. Can it ever become a natural part of our Middle East surroundings, a bona fide east Mediterranean nation? Or are we forever destined to remain a bastard offshoot of the old world, European wannabes, or perhaps perpetual candidates to be the next state of the US, another star on its flag? At no time is this lack of a clear identity on show as it is during the Succot holiday. Originally a religious festival, the lack of a historical narrative understandable to a mainly secular public and even many Orthodox Israelis leaves the week devoid of meaningful cultural content. Most Jewish holidays have some kind of motif, a year's reckoning, atonement of sins, fighting for freedom, natural and spiritual renewal, but Succot keeps us guessing. Editors and producers in newspapers and television stations always fail here. How many times can you show the same pictures of makeshift huts and bearded men examining the tips of palm fronds? Of course, anyone who really wants to find Succot's true spiritual meaning can easily find hundreds of explanations, but who can be bothered with spirituality after we've had such an overdose of it over Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur? So how do you fill a week? The arts and cultural establishment has tried to take over Succot with a deluge of special events, each one a festival - from the film festival in Haifa to the fringe theater festival in Acre, the dance festival in Karmiel, the stone sculpture festival in Ma'alot and the wine celebrations in Rishon Lezion - and this is a very partial list. All these events are billed, of course, as being "so Israeli" while actually they are take-offs on much larger and well-established festivals abroad. This year's novelty was the first horse race at the new hippodrome (we still haven't come up for a Hebrew word for that) in the Gilboa. It was a typically Israeli mishmash of a dirt course, no real stands and no organized betting (nine people were arrested for illegal betting), animal rights demonstrators, and two competitive categories, pure Arabian horses and American thoroughbreds. Who knows, maybe it'll catch on and the main event of Succot will become the Gilboa Derby. Since most of the festivals took place up North, each was a media event in itself with dozens of breathless reporters, spurred on by editors back in Tel-Aviv ordering them to "bring me some color," asking the same inane questions: "How did you organize this despite the war?" "What does it feel like to back to normal?" and a hundred variations on this theme. When this is all the media have to go on, political spin can work wonders. It's no wonder that every meeting between politicians, every rumor and off-record briefing this week has been blown up to almost mythical proportions, with talks of grand coalitions that once and for all will bring about drastic reforms in our electoral system. Cynical hacks who in any other week would have reacted languidly to the reports pounced on them like gold dust. Next week we'll undoubtedly find out that Avigdor Lieberman has remained in opposition and that the overhaul of government is still a while off, but for now, anything is better than another report from our correspondent at the dance festival. I wish I had a constructive suggestion for how to fill up newspaper space, air time and indeed anyone's time, next time Succot comes around, but as someone who has spent a considerable portion of this week navigating traffic jams on the Wadi Ara road, shepherding children along clogged nature trails and avoiding camping grounds packed with barbecue makers, I'm hardly the person to come up with a bright and original idea. It would be nice to think that by the time another generation goes by, we'll have managed to coalesce into something a bit more coherent, but watching the soccer match on Wednesday, which pitched against each other two representative groups of Israeli and French next generations, I realized that the future is far from simple. On both teams, some of the more promising players belonged to immigrant groups still fighting for their place in the new country. Not that I think that the problems of integrating the Ethiopian community of Toto Tamuz (who played for both the national and Under-21 soccer squads in the last week) into Israeli society is going to trigger anywhere near the strife caused by the clash between Marseille star Samir Nasri's Muslim minority and Christian France. Perhaps one shouldn't take comfort from the troubles of other nations, but if even France these days, despite centuries of proud Gallic tradition, is unsure of its identity, maybe I shouldn't be complaining about the still undeciphered Israeli Succot.
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