But a few months after I settled in Jerusalem in 1980 I discovered I wasn't alone. On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, I stumbled quite by chance on a community in formation that seemed like it was made for me. These people, mostly young immigrants from the United States and England, were observant but left-wing in their politics. They were committed to Jewish tradition but disturbed by the narrow place that tradition allowed women in public religious life. In their prayer services they sought to allow women to participate much more than was customary in other Orthodox synagogues, while still observing the requirements of Jewish law. Many of them were active in the peace movement, attending demonstrations that called for accommodation with the Palestinians.
Up until that Rosh Hashanah, the group had gathered only occasionally, but the turnout that year was larger than expected, and some of us newcomers were enthusiastic about making the sometime prayer group into a real community. To me, it was not just a solution to a religious dilemma, it was an answer to the question of what I could do to make Israel a country that lived up to Jewish ideals as I saw them. I didn't have the power to change an entire country, but I could be part of a model community, one that would exemplify my most deeply held beliefs. From that point on, Kehilat Yedidya-"Yedidya" means "friend of God"-was central to my life.
At the time, Kehilat Yedidya's practices put it on the very edge of the religious community in Israel, and we tried to maintain a balancing act-to be as close to the edge of what orthodoxy could tolerate without falling off. We were often vilified by traditionalists in the larger religious community. Even rabbis and religious leaders who thought we were creating an important and useful alternative to an increasingly ossified and unquestioning orthodoxy were afraid to have their names publicly associated with us.
During the Lebanon War, when I was in the army, a number of the community's members helped found Netivot Shalom, a small religious peace movement that tried to break the stereotypical association of religious Judaism with the hypernationalism of the settlers. In the 1980s it was not easy to be on the left. At demonstrations against the Lebanon War and in favor of negotiations with the Arabs, we were accused of treason by right-wing agitators. It was even harder to be a religious leftist. In the average synagogue, sermons were often devoted to condemning all those who called into question Israel's God-given right to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At times it looked to us as if the religious right was veering in to a Jewish version of fascism. In the 1981 elections, an American-born rabbi, Meir Kahane, who worked crowds in poor and religious neighborhoods into a frenzy by calling Arabs "dogs" and democracy "un-Jewish," won a seat in the Knesset. During the Lebanon War, polls showed his support increasing many times. His party might well have won several seats in the elections of 1984 had Israel's Supreme Court not ruled that his opposition to democracy disqualified him from running for or serving in Israel's parliament.
One of Kahane's chief deputies, Baruch Marzel, lived at Tel Romeida [in Hebron]. One day when I was on guard there he showed up to give me and my partner a lecture.
My companion that day was Alon, a newcomer in Company C. Slim and tall, with an oval face and straight jet-black hair over a high forehead, Alon was a quiet type who seemed to accept with equanimity whatever life gave him. Elnatan had singled him out on our first day at the training base before arriving in Hebron and appointed him NCO in Platoon Two. But in Hebron the job of NCO was pretty much meaningless, so instead of commanding others, he and I found ourselves sitting on a boulder together, looking at the prefab homes of Tel Romeida and sipping Turkish coffee we'd bought from the small Arab general store down the road.
A wave of dirty white meandered down the slope toward us, ewes and nanny goats grazing the mound. The shepherd-a wiry, dark-faced boy of eleven or twelve-followed them down. He smiled and waved at us.
I was silent. This had been my first extended conversation with Alon and of course I'd steered the talk to politics. He didn't take my bait but told me a story that made me swallow my words. His mother, he told me, had been born in Hebron. According to family lore, she'd been saved from the massacre of 1929 when her brother tossed her out of a window of Hadassah House as marauders armed with clubs and axes stormed the building.
Marzel, who had a scraggly beard and was extremely overweight, emerged from one of the seven homes and spied on the boulder. He invariably dressed in a white shirt and black suit, making him look like a sumo wrestler moonlighting as a waiter. He came over to us and went through the standard spiel about how we could go home, that he and the rest of the Tel Romeida crowd didn't needs us. Then he launched into a harangue against the Israeli left which, he maintained, controlled the country's media, large corporations, and even the government-which at the time was headed by Begin's successor, Yitzhak Shamir.
"Shamir is probably even to Begin's right," I noted.
"Believe me, I know," Marzel said. "It's just a put-on. Don't trust him."
He pointed to the shepherd boy. "He hates you. They all hate you. We've got to kick them out of here before they kill us."