This past summer in Israel, on a long walk to a friend’s house for Shabbat dinner, I passed groups of young people hanging around street corners. Looking through the lit windows of Germantown’s cafes, I saw numerous individuals sitting alone at tables. This was Jerusalem, not secular Tel Aviv.
What had happened to the family Friday night dinner ubiquitous just a generation ago? What had happened to alienate almost an entire generation from the core of its Jewish roots?
The early Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’Am once quipped, more than the Jewish people kept the Shabbat, Shabbat kept the Jewish people. He, of all the founding fathers of the Jewish State, understood that without living Jewish culture, the Jewish soul of the Jewish State would be in jeopardy.
That is why A.B. Yehoshua‘s comments last week at the American Jewish Committee conference, and his subsequent apology, somewhat miss the point. He reiterated the classic Zionist position that Jewish life outside Israel is untenable: that Jews ultimately cannot maintain their Jewish identity in the Diaspora. If he were simply talking about assimilation through intermarriage, he might be right. After all, it is much more likely that one Jew will marry another in Israel rather than in any of our United States. However, merely living in Israel not longer guarantees that the home a young couple builds will be Jewish in more than name. Even Israeli Jews have become choosing Jews, and they are choosing in greater and greater numbers not to observe even the traditions their secular grandparents had kept, such as gathering for family dinner on Friday nights.
This is not to say that Israel is devoid of Jewish life. Thank God, Israel has not yet become, as Ben Gurion wished it, simply a nation like all others. Until one experiences Hanukkah in Israel, with its menorahs in every window and town square, one cannot really grasp the significance of living a Jewish life in a Jewish State.
Government offices are closed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, instead of Christmas and Easter, and the country goes wild over Purim. But is that all there is to proving that Jewish life can only be fully lived in Israel?
The early Zionists believed that Israel would be the fountainhead of a renaissance of Jewish culture–art, literature, philosophy, music, a new secularlized spirituality. While the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and authors like Yehoshua and S.Y. Agnon are testaments to the accomplishments of that vision, a vibrant Jewish culture has also thrived in the Disapora, particularly here in America.
Who’s to say who is more Jewish? We certainly are all one family, caring and concerned for each other. Perhaps the simple answer remains the truest: that we continue to need each other. Each of us–Israeli and Diaspora Jews–carries but a little piece of the story, the vision, the revelation of what it means to be Jewish and it is only by sharing what we each carry that we can be whole.