Friday, June 20, 2008

Between Clark Kent & Superman: Israel's view of Diaspora

I don’t go to bars that often and am forced to queue outside even less. But the 10 minutes outside Villa Sokolov last Thursday did provide an opportunity to successfully test out a theory that’s been doing the rounds - that putting on your best English accent immediately gets you through the chaotic crowds and into the bar.

I suppose it's based on the assumption that foreigners spend more money and add a certain sophisticated spice to proceedings. I'm surprised the bars haven’t yet noticed their mistake.

It reminded me of another time last March when a friend and I tried to get into the Israel - Estonia football match. Arriving at half time to a half empty stadium with two season tickets but for different gates, we were denied entry… until we switched into our mother tongue.

Suddenly, as fast as Garinim guzzling fans in Ramat Gan could shout ‘sit down,' we were waived into the stands accompanied by smiles and smatterings of pidgin English.

Being a Diaspora Jew hasn’t always provided such a direct route into high rise Israeli society. A major aspect of traditional Zionism was negating the Diaspora experience and its powerlessness. Zionism rejected the ‘concealing and cowering’ Jews of Chaim Bialik's ‘City of Slaughter’ in favor of the suntanned swimming Sabra admiringly mentioned in Amos Oz’s childhood memoirs.

It’s as if Zionism created a kind of binary existence; Israel good, Diaspora bad.

This theme was picked up at last month’s International Writers Festival in Jerusalem that I attended with my parents. Discussing the difference between ‘Jews’ and ‘Israelis’ with Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer, Israeli writer Etgar Keret humorously echoed Bialik’s poem explaining whenever he eats at ‘Jewish’ restaurants he fears a Cossack will come in and rape his wife!

He also admitted that he left high school knowing every European town in which a pogrom took place but without realizing Kafka was Jewish.

Keret’s comments were made in jest. But they are indicative of a specific mindset – that the Diaspora experience was wholly negative; one pogrom after another leading to the Shoah.

There's no question that many aspects of Diaspora living were not good for the Jews. Keret wondered whether the reason so many creators of comic book superheroes in the late 1930s were Jewish was indicative of the tension in their lives; the nerdy alter ego who ultimately saved the world reflected Jewish frustration of wanting to be heroic while ultimately lacking any political or military power.

Yet it’s also clear that ignoring Jewish society spanning two millennia – from the Babylonian Talmud through Spain's golden age and Poland's pre war intellectuals to the Jewlicious creativity of the Modern US Heebrew Tribe – overlooks central aspects of what it means to be Jewish.

These thoughts didn't go through my head as Dov and I sat on ‘The Villa’ couches watching those who had chosen Israel over ‘Galut’ unsuccessfully try and pick up Israeli girls.

But I did wonder whether it was possible to break the binariness, to simultaneously appreciate the positive and negative aspects of Jewish life both inside and outside Israel; to recognize both Kafka and Kishniev;

And to find something inbetween the Clark Kentesque Jewish nerd early Zionism spurned and the modern day Superman post Zionist Tel Aviv bars embrace.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Shavuot 5768: Creativity, Adaptation and the Nature of Torah

Shavuot night in Jerusalem is indicative of one of the greatest problems the 21st century poses – too much choice. From workshops, poetry and lectures, in Synagogues, streets and private homes, the Jewish long tail is at its most dynamic on Tikun Leil, when Jews traditionally stay up all night learning to commemorate the giving of the Torah.

Yet as always, accompanying such an array of choice is the FOMO – fear of missing out, or of choosing the wrong lecture.

Two years ago I got overwhelmed by the abundance of choice; after presenting a session to year course kids, I rushed to hear another Shiur (getting lost on the way) only to find myself squashed (and stressed) in the corner of a room unable to hear a thing and within half an hour had dozed off.

The whole scenario still makes me cringe.

Preferring not to make the same mistake again, I was delighted when friends suggested a DIY Tikun Leil – each person preparing a short something to be learned and discussed by everyone.

So following a lovely dinner at
Gila’s, the guests spent the midnight hours deliberating over the origins of Shavuot as well as our relationship with God, Halacha and history. One discussion revolved around the connection between the festival and the actual giving of the Torah. Strangely enough, traditional commentators disagree as to the exact day the event supposedly took place while the Pentateuch itself never explicitly links the holiday of Shavuot with the giving of the Torah.

It seems most likely that while the festival originally centred round the harvest, its nature was reconceptualised after the destruction of the temple so as to maintain its relevancy. In the new reality, without a temple to bring first fruits to, Shavuot loses its meaning if that is its raison d'ĂȘtre.

Emphasising the receiving the Torah meanwhile, makes it meaningful for future generations. As
Rabbi Joshua Berman commented, this 'refinement' speaks volumes about the Rabbis' flexibility and capacity for adaptation as well as recognition that yesterday’s solutions don’t always adequately address tomorrow's problems.

This Jewish capacity for adaptation was the main reason Tom Friedman gave as to why he is optimistic about Israel's future.

Speaking at last weeks Reut Conference (after I had geekily nabbed him to sign three books I have of his), Friedman argued that despite the problems with peace and political systems, Israel is hard wired for a flat world.

Having successfully moved from
Jaffa to Java, we have something that can't be learned – the ability to think out of the box and be creative. It's no coincidence that from start ups to solar power, cars to clean tech, Israelis are leaders in the field.

It's not unreasonable to suggest that this modern success is in some small part based on Judaism's tradition of argumentation, questioning, and openness to a changing reality…a positive slant on the 2 Jews 3 opinions shtick.

And even though today's religious leadership show few signs of living up to the challenge of maintaining relevancy, its refreshing to see how even if its for one night a year, the diversity and latent creativity of Torah study is recreated in a way that offers us a model for 21st century success.

Maybe the Torah (or at least its nature) was 'revealed' on Shavuot after all…