Effortless Judaism in Ahad Haam’s Israel

My Brother, Cousin, and I in Jerusalem on Purim (Photo Courtesy Abigail Leibowitz)

Experiencing the euphoric air and sheer excitement of Purim in Jerusalem and the attraction of thousands to a Haredi funeral in Bnei Brak, I was reminded of how easy- even effortless- Jewish ritual is in the State of Israel. As we observed Yom Ha’atzmaut, I have thus found what to celebrate. I have delved deeply this year into the writings of Ahad Ha’am, and through this realized that I am a staunch and radical Ahad Ha’amer. This Zionist thinker called for a renaissance of Hebrew-language culture, and to that end he supported the creation of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine as the center and model for Jewish life in the Diaspora. Indeed, if we take away the component of justice, Israel fosters a Jewish atmosphere and ease of ritual practice like no other.

Living in the Diaspora and going to public school, I am used to taking school off for holidays, searching every event for Kosher options, and serving as a sort of “ambassador” for Jewish-related events. Living a Jewish life requires a conscious effort on my part. Speaking Hebrew demands abandoning my comfort zone and entering a foreign mindset.

In Israel, however, speaking Hebrew is the default. Street names reflect famous rabbis and Jewish/Zionist thinkers. Phrases and slang words reference Jewish practices. Judaism is subconsciously and inseparably ingrained in the psyche of the average Israeli.

Even among secular Jews in Israel, Judaism is a staple. Over Chol Hamoed Passover, I participated in a dance intensive with Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv. The other participants were secular Israeli teens. I was the only one in the building eating Matza. However, they all knew what Matza was and respected my observance of Pesach. They all participated in a Seder at home. And their strongest connection to our sources is their method of communication – speaking Hebrew, the language of the Tanach. Contrast this with secular Jews in the Diaspora – most of them have no reinforcement of Judaism, Jewish customs or Hebrew. Accordingly, Israel allows for the continuity of Jewish “flavor” even among the most secular and religiously detached populations.

To prove this point, Purim in Israel is “Exhibit No. 1” and it was an unprecedented experience. Roaming the streets of Jerusalem, almost everyone was in remnants of a costume. Every bakery flaunted windowsills packed to the brim with hamentashens. In almost every corner, one could stumble upon a new party or megillah reading. At the Shuk in Jerusalem, people danced on tables and greeted strangers. Needless to say, it was a very different Purim than the one I am used to in Maryland.

Crowds in Front of Rav Kanievsky’s House (Photo Courtesy Abigail Leibowitz)

Additionally, on March 20, I experienced a cultural event unique exclusively to Israel. Rav Chaim Kanievsky was a leading authority in Haredi Jewish society on legal and ethical practice. Though he held no formal community-wide post, Rabbi Kanievsky was the de facto head of the Lithuanian branch of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, revered as a consummate scholar of Jewish law and tradition, with unimpeachable rulings. With this ethos in the Haredi community, his funeral was projected to be attended by hundreds of thousands of attendees. Naturally, my friend Sarah and I couldn’t miss out on such an ordeal. Events like these are felt across the whole country even among those who couldn’t be less removed from Hareidi communities. Why? Because knowing how many people would take to the streets that day, Israeli municipalities shut down public transportation and closed down roads. Lucky for Sarah and I, my grandma Rivka lives in Giva’at Shmuel, a walking distance from Bnei Brak, and knows a thing or two about the city Bnei Brak having raised a family there and having married the deputy mayor, my grandfather Refael Z”l. Later I found out my mom had even lived on the same street as Rav Kanievsky until around age 4.

With skirts below our knees and elbows covered, we ventured into the packed streets of Bnei Brak. In order to reach where the women stood, we had to pass through a crowd of men. I have never felt more like royalty in that these men split like the Red Sea to let us through. While I approached it as them paving a pathway for us, they were in actuality fearful of god forbid touching a girl. During the funeral, crowds of thousands stood on the street eulogizing and praying. Only sports or music could invoke such a phenomenon among such a large crowd in the US. As such a vast cultural event, residents of Bnei Brak opened their homes for bathroom use for the visitors and funeral goers. Never did I imagine I’d be knocking on a random woman’s door in Bnei Brak to use the bathroom, but alas.

Leaving the Diaspora to live in the Jewish state this year, I have consciously and subconsciously made cognitive, practical, and emotional switches. From representing Judaism in non-Jewish spaces to a daily life of Hebrew and Judaism, I have come to appreciate both roles and both settings equally. Events like Purim in Jerusalem make me marvel at and appreciate a Jewish existence that is relatively effortless while reminding me of my unique and important role as a Jew in the Diaspora.

About the Author
Abby was a student and volunteer on the Nativ College Leadership Program. Originally from Israel, she moved to Silver Spring, MD as a baby and grew up there with her parents and twin brother. Inspired by Jewish concepts of Tikkun Olam and the Jewish refugee narrative, she hopes to go to law school and work in human rights law. Back in the US, she led a student advocacy group called F.A.I.R- Fans of Asylum and Immigration Reform, taught at Temple Emanuel Religious School, and was a teacher’s assistant at CityDance School and Conservatory. During her free time Abby loves to take dance classes, play backgammon (and win of course), and read!
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