Shelley J. Klein

The ideal Jewish city

Oh for an Israeli urban setting that could offer the rich Jewish choices available in Diaspora

Many years ago, the Israel Museum held an exhibit of drawings of Jerusalem made by children from countries around the world. What I loved most about them was that none depicted a realistic Jerusalem. Instead, their Jerusalems were mystical representations of the countries where the children came from. So the child artist from Fiji set Jerusalem as an island surrounded by water and beach. And a Chinese girl imagined all the people of Jerusalem were  Asian.

I took my first trip to Israel when I was 20. Since then, I’ve been back too many times to count. And my family and I are now spending this year living in Tel Aviv. But I had 20 years to imagine Israel before seeing the actual.

If, as a kid, I had drawn my imagined Jerusalem, I would have located the Western Wall on Devon Avenue, the main commercial strip of Jewish life in Chicago. I would have put it, naturally, next to Jerusalem Kosher Pizza, two blocks up from Tel Aviv Kosher Pizza.

And then, if my drawing were displayed in Israel, everybody would see that I was an American, who envisioned Israel as a super-sized version of Jewish life in the United States.

When you consider the timeline of Jewish history, Jewish self-rule in the land of Israel is a rare, precious, historical fluke. Knowing that, I am driven to make the most of my luck; to spend time in Israel, understand how it works, and help out from wherever I am. This year my family and I are trying our best to be part of the “real Israel.” Our kids are enrolled in Israeli public schools. Both my husband and I are working on projects with Israeli colleagues — me in the Tel Aviv fashion industry, he in medicine. We appreciate Israel from the inside and on its own terms.

Yet, no matter how acculturated, I still wake up everyday in Tel Aviv and expect it to be, in some way, a larger and grander version of American Jewish life. It never is.

Take hamantaschen. In New York, even no-frill bakeries offer a variety of flavors — Cherry, Apricot, Apple, Chocolate (plus Prune and Poppy Seed, which are only there to fill up the large bakery boxes). Artisanal kitchens, whether home or commercial, experiment: chocolate cookie with peanut butter, rainbow cookie with a jelly filling, classic butter cookie with apple, rosemary, lemon filling.

If that’s New York, you’d expect Tel Aviv, the biggest city in the Jewish state, to be at the cutting-edge of hamantaschen experimentation. But it’s not. The shelves are lined with mediocre Oznei Haman — fig, halva, poppy seed, and maybe chocolate.

It is true, and also a metaphor.

It’s a metaphor for a kind of dynamism in American Jewish culture that you see much less of in Israel: The all-night Shavuot Tikkunim in NYC that draw thousands of people across every level of observance to hear Jewish authors, journalists, filmmakers; the highest quality Jewish newspapers and magazines like The Forward and Tablet Magazine; the Jewish food culinary scene, which has transformed gefilte fish and herring into delicacies.

“Israel has a lot to learn from the US about Jewish identity,” Hanan Rubin, a Jerusalem City Council member, said to me. Rubin and I were discussing how, in the US, what separates one who identifies as Jewish from one who is assimilated are demonstrative expressions of Judaism. And this necessity to express one’s Judaism breeds a rich and diverse national Jewish culture. But in Israel, by virtue of being a Jewish citizen, an Israeli automatically understands herself as Jewish. The risk of assimilation into a minority culture is so low that it does not register as a threat that would require a strong Jewish identity to combat. “We don’t have ‘Jewish problems,’” Rubin said. “Or, at least, we don’t think of them like that.”

While Israel does not have an assimilation threat on par with the Diaspora, it certainly has its own set of “Jewish problems.” More serious than boring hamantaschen are the number of staid synagogues and schools all over Israel that do not inspire or reflect their constituencies.

One example is the women’s section of the standard Orthodox synagogue in our neighborhood — a separate room with a frosted glass window. Sitting there, it is virtually impossible to follow the main service or the rabbi’s sermon. The women in that section are highly accomplished professionals, who, in every other context would demand equal status. I asked several of them about the separate room. All of the them agreed the seating was not ideal — but in the annoying, but unavoidable way that subways are crowded, or soda is sometimes less than fully carbonated. I could only conclude they are so accustomed to a “like it or lump it” approach to Judaism that it doesn’t occur to them to insist on change.

In any conversation about the lack of Jewish choices in Israel it is tempting to blame the outsize influence of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbanut.  But the Rabbanut works top down. This — the drive to define one’s Jewish identity on one’s own terms — has to start with the grassroots. It requires an understanding that assimilation is not the only threat to Jewish identity. Giving up on one’s Jewish identity, allowing it to be defined by others, is ultimately just as dangerous.

If I had to draw my imaginary Israel now, I would still put it next door to our house in New York City. I think the combination of the two would be the ideal Jewish experience.

About the Author
Shelley Klein is spending this year in Tel Aviv with her family. She recently completed her tenure as Executive Director of Congregation Beth Elohim (CBE) in Park Slope, Brooklyn. In prior years, she was the National Director of Programs for Hadassah. Shelley received a JD from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a BA in Politics from Brandeis University. Shelley’s permanent home is in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.