Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Of Limmud and Long Tails

Even working on Christmas day doesn’t make me miss being Jewish in England. And while its neither good manners nor fair to bite that hand that raised you, the 'shul Judaism' of the motherland - mainly bland and uninspiring (for both religious and secular) - is not a great advertisement for religion.

Yet for one week a year, between Christmas and New Year, Anglo Jewry provides what remains one of the most amazing occasions of diverse Judaism I have ever experienced; the Limmud Conference.

Over 2000 Jews from different continents and denominations meeting in Nottingham to enjoy Shiurim on Gemara, discuss philosophy, debate social issues, dance to Jewish rap, experience Torah yoga…14 sessions a day, each with over 20 options.

And while there's many I wouldn’t necessarily recommend, the overall diversity, dynamism, and feeling that one is engaging in a 'live religion' has no parallel.

A book I recently read called the Long Tail describes how the rise of the internet and ensuing option of infinite choice has shifted us from a mass to a niche culture.

If the search for popularity previously required looking for the lowest common denominator - 'dumming down' in order to appeal to the masses, creating a 'one size fits all' product - the new situation has shattered the mainstream into a 'zillion different cultural shards'.

And when more choice and more opportunities are offered, the most exciting, inspiring and intellectually attractive choices rise to the top.

Jewish life in some areas of Israel reminds me of the Long Tail. If in England, Judaism needed to be 'one size fits all' in order to appeal, the critical mass of Jews in Israel provide an opportunity to move into 'niche Judaism'. Take the issue of minyanim in the Katamon neighbourhood as an example; Whether its Bratslav, Carlebach, Sefardi or Ashkenazi, traditional, egalitarian, or kinda egalitarian - whether the mechitza looks like the entrance to a medieval castle, a gallery, transparent or invisible, whether it goes between front and back or down the middle, its all here - somewhere in the infinitesimal sea of opportunity and options of Judaism.

Outside those few square miles of Katamon, Baka and Rehavia however, religious tolerance and diversity are not a highlight of Israeli life. And even many secular Israelis believe that the only legitimate shul they don’t go to is an Orthodox one.

The return of sovereignty has given us many challenges, not all of which we are able to solve. But it would be a shame to miss this opportunity for utilising the critical mass of Jews to create a long Jewish tail, a Judaism of different shades and sizes, in which the cream rises to the top to the benefit of all of us.

And in this context, there's actually a lot we could learn from those who are spending this 'festive' week locked in thought and discussion in the good ol' English countryside.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Aliya: Two Years On

Two Fridays ago, on a sun-drenched November morning in Jerusalem, I had one of those untypical 'typical Israeli moments'.

On one side of Emek Refaim stood 40 crimson clad protesters of all ages whistling loudly and calling on drivers to hoot their horn in support of better conditions for teachers who have been striking for the last 2 months.

100 yards down the road opposite Café Hillel the noise of car horns persisted, but this time due to a traffic jam caused by a chefetz chashud, a suspect package.

In many ways, that scene is Israeli society in a nutshell. Two problems – one social, the other security; Both central to our future and ability to live prosperous and happy lives. Neither with simple answers.

And in the background, regular Israelis trying to maneuver between the noise and enjoy a relaxing day off in a café.

The first night of Chanukah marked two years since my arrival in Israel. And while I’m sure I’ll be told by those Israelis who disagree with my political views that I haven’t been here long enough to ‘really understand’, time has undoubtedly eroded the ‘chadash’ part of being an ‘oleh’.

In many ways, my Aliya has been a process from ideological fervor and excitement – appreciating the grocer's Shabbat Shalom wishes, Shai Agnon's Nobel Prize speech on the 5o Shekel bill and countless other small things Israelis take for granted - to simply living life, with all its disappointments and excitements, its ups and downs.

If new immigrants get off the boat feeling Israel is their oyster and that the country offers a wealth of possibilities, a 'veteran oleh's' experience is generally more sober, maybe even more jaded.

Two years on, life in Israel is normal, regular. Like a long-term relationship, it's often harder to maintain constant romance. One doesn’t necessarily start every morning excited. Faults become more apparent.

Yet every now and then, things happen to remind you why you are still in love, why you choose to stay.

And when all the thrills are taken away, the commitment remains as strong as ever.

Despite all the changes, most of my thoughts regarding this country remain the same. I still don’t enjoy being asked why the hell I moved here. I continue to be excited by the uniqueness of how religious festivals are marked as national holidays, or amazed by the opportunities, challenges and responsibilities that power and sovereignty provide us, the Jewish people, with.

And despite the issues whose solutions remain somewhere over the beautiful Mediterranean horizon – of territory and terror, of education and economics, of settlements and society – I can't think of anywhere else I'd rather be.

Because whether we like it or not, here is where things of importance to the Jewish people are being played out. This is the front line in shaping all of our futures. And why wouldn’t I want to be a part of that?

And even for those who find ideology and idealism passé, there's always the attraction of relaxing with some toasted bagels and coffee in the November Jerusalem sunshine.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Hanukkah 5768 - Between Judaism, Hellenism and Peace

Hanukkah is always a wonderful time to be in Israel – the doughnuts in the bakeries, the lights in peoples' houses, the sense that this is a national holiday, shared by the majority of the country. (Where as Adam Sandler sings, you don’t need to feel like the only kid in town without a Christmas tree) The festival celebrates both the military victory of the Hasmoneans over the powerful Greeks as well as the ideological victory of the Jewish way of life over the alien culture of Hellenism. If on Purim we were saved from physical destruction, Hanukkah marks our victory over the evils of spiritual assimilation (something I was taught in primary school was much much worse, although I'm still not convinced).

Last weekend’s Jerusalem Shabbat table discussions were filled with debates over the Annapolis Summit and the political process. While I find these conversations often go round in circles (and it’s uncomfortable to disagree with people you happen to personally like) one comment really stuck in my head: That bearing in mind both keeping the territories and giving them up have risks, the best option is to be ‘Torah true’, i.e. to continue to hold onto the land of our forefathers.

I’m still unsure exactly what ‘Torah true’ means. Are human rights and sympathy for the ‘other’ alien, non Torah values? Is worrying about the moral and physical toll soldiers pay by controlling a belligerent civilian population un-Jewish? Is feeling Israel can’t survive without the support of the international community assimilationist? Is modern day Hellenism reflected in those who call for an Israeli withdrawal to the armistice lines, as
Avigdor Lieberman recently quipped?

In his laws on Hanukkah, Rambam describes the importance attached to publicising the miracle of a military victory of the few against the many; "the commandment to light is an exceedingly precious one…even if one has no food to eat except what he receives from charity he should beg, or sell clothes to buy oil and lamps" Yet despite this, someone who only has enough money to either buy a Shabbat candle or a Hanukkah one should choose Shabbat because of what Maimonides terms ‘Shalom Bayit’ between husband and wife.

As the British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes "The implication is simple. Even the smallest peace (between husband and wife) takes priority over the greatest victory in war."

The debate about peace with the Palestinians will go on for a few more Shabbat meals yet. And while Abbas is weak, the sides remain far apart on core issues, and no one particularly fancies evacuating 80,000 Jews from their homes, perhaps we should be more careful deciding what actions constitute Jewish values.

Here's to hoping that this Hanukkah takes us away from spiritual assimilation and closer to true Torah values, (whatever they may be) and to achieving Shalom – both with our neighbours and between ourselves.

Chag Sameach