It was morning time in Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center in Denver when a young pre-school student asked me with a great glimmer in his eyes: “Why did you come here?”. I looked down, pausing for a moment, searching for the right answer and striving to find right words that would make sense to a five year old. “It felt right” I replied after a moment, “It just felt like the right thing to do”. And when you come to think about it, that honest answer does sum up the decision of a young Jewish Israeli man who travels 6,841 miles across our world to explore the life of other Jews. What are we if not an ancient tribe, scattered by time and circumstances to thousands of places? And if that indeed is the case, I came here to visit my relatives.
For me, coming to Denver represents a journey. A journey to a world of a different Judaism than my own, perhaps Judaism by choice and by decision. We Israelis don’t necessarily have to choose to be Jewish. We are born into that reality, shaped by the daily events, routines, customs, music, food and more. We absorb the Jewish state that surrounds us, with both the good and bad, we inhale a big breath of Jewishness, sometimes without even knowing about it or fully understanding its depth. Many people I know back home define themselves as Jews, sometimes even proud Jews. But what are they doing about it? What is the role that Judaism plays in their life, in the structure of their identity? Where does the “Israeli” take a break and the “Jewish” begin? Or maybe we are just like bananas – impossible to say if we are more yellow or more curved. Indeed Israel, in the secular world of it, is the land of “Instinctive Judaism”.
I speak only on behalf of myself but understand that in many ways, I represent a lot of young Israelis, secular (‘Chilony’) young men and women. These are people who walk on this earth with the label “Jewish” by birth but prefer to mainly label themselves as “Israeli”. They feel more comfortable with that adjective, “Israeli”, then the first one which draws them to an old-fashioned world defined by religion, by ancient laws and by rabbis with whom they don’t relate. I believe that many of us, my friends and I, were inadvertently educated to take a step back from Judaism. We associate Judaism with issues like “The Rabanot”, “Kashrot” or boring Shabbat services in an old orthodox synagogue. We learned how to stow Judaism in the “Boydim” (the Israeli version of an attic) and take it out only when necessary, for the high holidays or other annual events during the year. When the holiday passes, we wrap our Judaism nicely with some newspapers and stow it back up there.
We are the result of a public school system that doesn’t educate its youth about being Jewish but only about being Israeli. From 7th grade and up, Jewish topics are pushed to the far corners of the curriculum. I was taught Torah stories till I was a junior and even had finals exams on the subject – but never liked it. The system failed to turn us into “Torah lovers” and instead made us want to keep our distance from this ancient book. I do remember many hours studying the terrible events of the Holocaust. It was and it still is a key part of the Israeli government’s plan to shape our Israeli identity. I remember few hours devoted to the story of the Jewish community in Poland (and other European countries) and even less time devoted to the Jewish community of North America. What about Jewish scholars and literature? What about Jewish law and ethics? What about the different streams of Judaism? Perhaps the leaders of the public education system in Israel worry about the effect of letting God enter the classroom but it shouldn’t be a problem. You can talk about Judaism and teach Judaism without dealing with God directly; I say – put God aside for a while and provide me with knowledge to feed my Jewish soul, to construct my Jewish identity. And so it happens that the secular Israeli teenager becomes an adult that knows very little about Judaism and thus generally chooses to remain distant from it.
Since I came here, I have found myself thinking a lot about my Jewish identity. What makes me what I am? What is my Jewish foundation made of? Is it the `chamin` my grandmother used to cook before Shabbat (the Sfardic version of cholent)? Is it opening the wrapping of a spotless new white shirt before high-holidays after a long cleansing shower? Is it going dancing on Purim in the old city of Jerusalem with crowds of Ultra-Orthodox men I never met before but feel strangely connected to? Is it standing with the IDF uniform on the cursed land of Poland, in what used to be the death camp of Auschwitz, and singing the Israeli national anthem? The more questions I ask, the less answers I find. I get only feelings and hunches. The Jewish compass within me tells me today what is right for me and what is not. The more I learn about Judaism, the more I realize how little I actually comprehend about the Jewish world. I tend to forget that this culture and way of life has been around for more than 3,000 years; so much time writing and developing a complex and complete spiritual human existence.
I discuss these issues here with young people my age. I lure them into my trap of dealing with this so called “heavy” topic of Jewish identity. Some of them take the challenge and a great discussion ensues. Others say “Yoni, don’t talk to me about my Judaism, it’s nothing but a religion to me and I don’t feel comfortable with having religion in my secular-progressive life”. And I think to myself – “How dare you say something like that to a citizen of the land of instinctive Judaism?!” I didn’t get the “luxury” of having Judaism removed from my life, it was there the moment I was born and hopefully it will still be there after my passing. How can you view Judaism simply as a religion? Judaism is not a religion! I will say it again- it is not a religion! It is a colorful world of infinite choices, it is a culture of music, food and art, and it is the past, the present and the future of many people. It is the decisions you make in your life, it is the memories that you have from your parents and grand-parents’ house, it is the values and ethics that surround you in your daily hardships and challenges. Judaism can be the apple of your eye or the life-blood of your heart-but only if you let it. I repeat: only if you let it. But it is definitely not only a religion.
As time passes by here in Denver, in this wonderful journey I took upon myself, my Jewish identity will go through many changes – I’m sure about it. I will use this period to ask myself some tough questions about my beliefs, my past and the way I view my future as a young Jewish man. I have no doubt that on my return to Israel most of my friends will not understand the process I’ve been through. They will likely stay the same as I left them and will not share this deep understanding that Judaism is something they could gain so much from, if only they made the choice not to avoid and dismiss it. Shlichim (emissaries), as myself, should collectively act and cooperate in order to change the face of society in Israel. Israel should be a more pluralistic place when it comes to ways of being Jewish and expressing a Jewish identity. Israel, of all places, ought to be a place where Jews explore their Jewish identity – not run away from it.