Friday April 28, 2023 – ז׳ אִיָיר תשפ”ג
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כׇּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃ (ויקרא יט:א)
“יהוה spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, your God יהוה, am holy.” (Leviticus 19:1)
“הישן יתחדש והחדש יתקדש”
“The Old Shall be Renewed, and the New Shall be Made Holy”
Israel turned 75 years old on Wednesday! This was a much-anticipated anniversary. Over the few years, organizations, governments, communities, and more have been planning events, campaigns, missions, and celebrations around Israel’s 75th anniversary.
And quite the milestone it is.
Listening to Israeli radio on Independence Day one can fill the day with the greatest Israeli hits ceremonies, performances, the national Bible Quiz, the Israel Prize awards, and this year – protests. But listening to the radio, something peculiar caught my ear. Amidst the songs and commentary, it was one commercial that caused me to do a double-turn. It was a commercial, in Hebrew, aimed at Diaspora Jews asking them to not give up on Israel, to remain involved, to recommit, and to support Israel in its fight for democracy. It seemed a bit peculiar, but also fascinating, to target a non-Israeli audience in Hebrew on Israeli radio.
Now, having just returned this week, I was reminded of all the things I love about Israel. I love how Israel makes me feel. I love the people, the culture, and the food. I love the scrappiness and the grit. I love the “y’hihye b’seder– the everything-will-be-ok” attitude that actually became the title of one of talk radio’s most popular programs about navigating Israel’s bureaucracy – even when I’m frustrated by it. I love the beauty of the Land, its richness, and diversity. Most of all, I love the Jewish public culture and living in Jewish time and Jewish space. I love that I can have halachic arguments with taxi drivers and that the ATM wishes me Shabbat Shalom, and that Israel has reinvented what it means to be Jewish in the Jewish State, and has enabled a category of Jewishness to thrive that is secular.
I love the Hebrew language and its evolution from the Bible to the Talmud to the Middle Ages, and its carwash-like run through Yiddish, and back again to encounter Sephardic/Mizrachi-ness. I love that Biblical aphorisms and Talmudic dictums make their way into everyday speech, colorful graffiti, and protest placards.
I love the fact that when I meet Israelis, they almost immediately ask me to join them and move there as if that is the most obvious thing for any Jew to do. I love that one can refer to a stranger as brother/sister (achi/achoti) and mean it. And I love that Israelis are the most self-critical people, as if every day is Yom Kippur.
I love the fact that when Israelis feel threatened, they will do whatever it takes to defend themselves, whether that means taking up arms and facing the frontlines or marching arm-in-arm through the streets and protesting one’s own government.
I love that after 75 years we have not given up hope.
I love the collective narrative that Israel is the Third Commonwealth – that we see ourselves as descendants of the Biblical kingdom and the rabbinic era having returned to be a free people in our Land. I love that we aspire to gather the exiles from the 4 corners of the earth and that at the same time, we value ourselves as a country of immigrants who are indigenous to the Land.
I also love the fact that Israel sends emissaries around the world and that so many carry within themselves a sense of shlichut – a sense of mission, agency, representation, pride, and service. I love that Israel has the highest per capita number of NGOs in the world and that more and more Israelis are trying to do good at home and in the world.
Of course, I worry about the future of the State of Israel – whether it will split in two at this most divisive moment; whether it will succumb to the forces that are blatantly attempting to move beyond its democratic nature; and whether it will be able to extricate itself from the Occupation quagmire? There are, of course, many things that annoy and deeply trouble me about Israel, and I will mention those in the remaining 51 weeks of the year. This week I want to focus on the half-full glass, the silver lining that the Jewish and democratic state has given us, the miracle of Jewish history that Israelis and the Jewish people have created, and the agency of the Jewish people in the modern world.
The State of Israel, as the manifestation of the Zionist project, has been a tremendous success in building a State, serving as a refuge for Jews around the world, instilling pride in the Jewish heart, and thriving in a hostile neighborhood.
We know that Judaism in every Jewish community around the world, without fail, has been influenced by the fact that we have a Jewish State. The modern Jewish State is a historical game-changer, and Israel has shaped, molded, and influenced Judaism as we know it today – for better and worse.
All this said I can’t shake that commercial. So, enough about Israel for the moment. Let’s talk about us, Diaspora Jews… and our relationship with Israel. What are Israel and Israelis asking from us and how is the relationship evolving? What does it mean to stay involved and to be active? Is it money? Political support? Showing up from time to time at protests in Israel and around the world? Going on teen tours and coming for meetings in convention centers and hotel ballrooms?
Let’s use this moment when the spotlight is on the Jewish State to talk also about the ‘state’ of Jews. How are Diaspora Jews doing? Do we have what it takes to survive and thrive? Do we have a foundation, common narrative, language, culture, and mission? Do we see ourselves as a People and Nation, living among other peoples and nations, or is our identity more fluid integrating multiple factors that contribute to who we are? Are we Jewish when we choose to be, subtly acknowledging that the host societies that have been most kind to us have allowed us to be freely Jewish, and through tolerance and acceptance, have also allowed us not to be Jewish?
Let us take this next year to focus on us a bit. What does it mean for us to be Jewish? What makes and sustains us as Jews? For many American Jews Israel has been a source of meaning and affiliation. Going to an Israel Day parade, donating to Israeli and Jewish causes, traveling back and forth between our homes and Israel, and being involved in various organizations like AIPAC, AJC, Federations, JStreet, or a smattering of ‘American Friends of…” supporting organizations. Can these kinds of involvement be passed down through the generations? As Diaspora Jews, we have contributed a tremendous amount to Israel – to its economy, security, infrastructure, and culture – what does that mean for us?
Over the next several weeks, this column will be dedicated to exploring the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora, what has worked in the past, and what should be altered for the future. What can we learn from other’s experiences and how we can find common ground going forward? What can, and should Diaspora Jews do to influence what happens in Israel – especially during the current crisis and what can, and should Israel do to influence Diaspora life?
And how do we renew the old, and make the new Holy? That is our mission, let’s explore together.