A Funeral, a Concert, and the New Chareidim

Having gone the way of all flesh, Shimon Peres was eulogized (or attacked) by thousands of people from all over the world. While his life and achievements, failures, and numerous controversies were talked about ad infinitum (albeit his achievements received the lion’s share of air time), his death also symbolizes the passing of era in Israel.

This era was the almost total domination of Israeli society by leftist, secular, Ashkenazi, males (with her willingness to allow Moshe Dayan to dominate her on all things military, Golda Meir really was an exception to the rule that proved the rule).  Since the 1977 election of Menachem Begin, this domination has been breaking down slowly, in fits and starts. Religious Jews, Sefardim, right wingers, and to a lesser extent, women, are all climbing into positions of influence in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago*.  Granted, this change is bringing with it its own set of problems.  No change comes without growth pains and no change comes without resistance to said change.

When Israel was founded, the society had a strong group element to it. Everyone belonged to a shevet (a tribe).  While to a large extent this is still true, the tribal aspect has been breaking down or at least shifting.  Asheknazi and Sefardi mixed neighborhoods and mixed marriages greatly broke down those tribal groups. My neighborhood is a mixture of Russian immigrants alongside native born Israelis of all types (with the occasional Anglo immigrant). Religious Jews lose their religiosity (or at least stop observing many of the formal trappings) and secular Israelis reconnect to traditional Judaism.  This last point strikes fear into many secular Israelis, driving them to cast aside what should be iron clad values in an attempt to stop the process.

Last week an event happened that might have generated more noise had Peres not died.  A private person wanted to sponsor a selichot (prayer) concert in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. The catch: the lineup was all male, because of the sponsor’s (a Chareidi Jew) wishes. Boom.  The screaming started and within a day the concert was cancelled. The main charge: An all-male line up discriminates against women. The sub-charge: Given that most of the people attending would be secular or at most somewhat traditional, the concert was an attempt to try and get people to become Orthodox Jews. As Tomer Persico put it in his Haaertz article (Hebrew), if the religious want to have a religious event geared to Orthodox Jews in their neighborhood, that can be somehow tolerated. But if they want to have a cultural event in “our neighborhood”, no way. In that situation, all principles of freedom of speech are tossed aside to protect greater values.

Persico’s approach is off in so many ways I don’t know where to start. When people mock Tel Aviv for being cut off from the rest of the country, this is exactly what their talking about. No one in Hadera, Ber Sheva, Tiveria or Jerusalem would think twice about a concert like this. People would go or they wouldn’t. No one there needs a bunch of secular Ashkenazim to tell them what they can or can’t hear. Ariel, a city with a large secular majority, will be having an all-male selichot concert. Try and cancel it; see what happens. (Not being a great fan of selichot, I won’t be going – my free choice).

I don’t believe for a second that anyone, not Tomer Persico, not Dina Tzilber (Deputy Attorney General who stated that this type of concert is illegal), not MK Tamar Zandberg (who spoke against the concert) would lift a finger to stop all female challah ceremonies like this one held in super-secular Caesarea.

Doctor Persico and company, I have news for you: despite all the in-roads made by the non-WASH (Western, Ashkenazi, Secular, Hebrews), secular culture dominates this country in every possible way. Movies, TV, books, advertisements, the language we speak, the concepts that form our reality, are totally dominated by secular culture. You’re terrified about a concert held once a year? You’re so worried that a rare religious message would find a receptive audience that you’ll work to make sure that it doesn’t happen? You have no confidence in your fellow secular Jews that you have to decide for them what they can hear? You have no confidence in yourselves and your message that you have to shut down the other guy?

In a brilliant Facebook post (summarized in English here), Yagil Henkin describes how a small group of secular Jews have become the Secular Chareidim. In the concert episode, this small group of secular askanim (a chareidi term for self-appointed community activists) are doing exactly that: replicating those very behaviors they claim to despise (specifically 1, 2, 5, and 6).

To me, this episode is symbolic of our confusion. In the past, there were fairly clear rules. The dominant group made the rules, everyone knew their place and we marched to the tune. The only problem with this scenario is that people refused to accept their assigned pieces of the pie.  In response, the formerly dominate group starts playing all sort of games to ensure they keep cutting the pie. You don’t have to be a prophet to know how this will play out.

An after-thought: Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe what the country really needs is a few “safe zones,” places where people will never have to face a spiritual, intellectual, emotional challenge. Bnei Brak and Mei Sharim can be safe zones for the Traditional Chareidim and parts of Tel Aviv can serve that purpose for the Secular Chareidim. The rest of us, the Orthodox, traditional, regular secular, men, women, Muslim, Christian, Russian and a host of other groups will learn how to get along, even if on occasion we get on each other’s nerves.

*For a slew of reasons, Arab participation in general society is still very limited and growing at a very slow rate. I hope that will change.

About the Author
Ben Waxman was born in the US and served as a Peace Corps volunteer. He lived in the Jerusalem area for decades and now resides in the Shomron.
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