Almost 75 years ago, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion envisioned Israel as a melting pot. Jews from around the world, most of whom were refugees, were to arrive in the Holy Land and become Israeli. What exactly does it mean to be Israeli? That depends on who you ask.
In many ways the early days of the state did everything but embrace the diversity of its new citizens. In trying to create the new Israeli, Jewish identities were often suppressed in an effort to fit the “standard” Israeli ideal. But who gets to set the standard? Jews who often escaped their home countries, discovered that not only do they need to learn a new language, but also to learn a new identity
I was honored to take part in a recent episode of The Myth Machine on Kan 11 that explores different myths in Israeli society that we were raised with, and their legacies 75 years since Israel’s independence.
Ben Gurion wanted to create the “new sabra” and this may have been necessary in Israel’s early years, but what about today? Are we open to hearing about other cultures?
Even though Ben Gurion’s vision did not specifically relate to religion, there are attempts to create one version of a religious Jew. This was the message I received while growing up. The schools I attended and youth groups in which I participated did not allow for or appreciate any deviation from “standard” traditions. It wasn’t until I started my army service that I was exposed to the diversity of Judaism.
Religion and spirituality, in some ways necessarily communal, are also deeply personal. One cannot expect a group of people to enter a religious environment and come out the same – and that’s a good thing. We should not wish for all of our children to be carbon copies of one another or of ourselves. It’s why as soon as I entered adulthood and encountered more egalitarian forms of Judaism, I was able to find a community that fit both my Orthodox practice and my feminist values.
There always have been, and always will be, different opinions in Judaism. Whether due to different regional customs or differing streams of Judaism, there is no “one, correct” way to live a Jewish life. We are stronger due to this, and it is important that we have various practices to bring us closer to Hashem and closer to our Judaism.
On Rosh Hodesh Adar, Reform and Conservative rabbis from the United States joined our prayer service and were met with verbal and physical abuse from ultra-Orthodox Israeli teens who have been taught that any Jewish practice that is not theirs, is inherently evil. Some girls went so far as to spit on a Torah scroll being held by a rabbi. This is not the Israel that I believe in, and I’m confident that most Israelis share my sentiments.
In the episode of The Myth Machine in which I am featured, entitled “The Melting Pot,” I express my frustration that I do not have the right to pray freely at the Kotel. I am a proud Zionist, Orthodox Israeli woman who believes that women should be able to read from a Torah scroll, and that families should have an option to pray together at the Kotel. But because my identity isn’t the “norm” according to the religious establishment, I don’t have a proper place here. The episode also features touching stories from Ethiopian and Yemenite Israelis who were marginalized and mistreated as new immigrants, and have had to fight to keep pieces of their traditions. The series talks about the 1950s but also about today. Have things changed? What can we do to repair the damage?
We are in a new era – one in which our national identity has been ingrained in each and every one of us. While polarizing forces make us feel more divided than ever, we can be truly unified only once we acknowledge and celebrate our differences instead of feeling threatened by the “other.” Instead of a melting pot, we ought to embrace the idea that Israel can be one kitchen with many pots.