The Middle Ground

by Brian on November 9, 2006

in Jewish Holidays and Culture,Only in Israel,The Old Country

There are a few constants in this world: siblings will rival, property taxes will rise, and following a trip to North America, I will wax nostalgic for the “old country.” Our most recent family vacation was no exception.

The trip was book-ended by two gala smachot – festive family events that included the bar mitzvah of our nephew in Toronto and the wedding of my brother-in-law in San Diego.

The two events couldn’t have been more different: on a scale of religious observance, they occupied the far extremes. The bar mitzvah was held in strict ultra-orthodox style while the wedding was uber-secular with a judge and vows in place of a rabbi and chuppah.

The extremes that delineate our family borders are not all that unique; indeed religious and secular extremism has in many ways become emblematic of life in the Jewish Diaspora, especially when compared to a more moderate Israel.

Israel…a place of moderation? That may sound counter-intuitive; after all Israel has long held a well-earned reputation for being a leader in polarization – not only between traditional and secular observance, but between different ethnic groups, and increasingly between rich and poor.

The past few weeks’ debate over whether to hold a Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem was typical: before yesterday’s compromise converting the parade to a rally, an estimated 12,000 police would have been required to protect parade participants from a demonstrably violent opposition.

But it’s been my experience, at least amongst our somewhat insular group of North American expatriates here, that the trend towards extremes is more pronounced overseas than it is in the Holy Land. Put another way, except in a few pluralistic pockets of New York and Los Angeles, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hold the middle ground outside of Israel.

Let me explain.

Staking an active claim to Judaism in the Diaspora naturally puts you at odds with the surrounding society. Even the most watered-down Jewish practice still includes observance of some holidays and traditions that, to the outside world, seem quaint at best, separatist and even elitist at worst.

The more one takes on additional practices, such as keeping kosher or observing the Sabbath, the more out of synch you become with the Friday night movie and club-hopping, cheeseburger-downing culture that represents much of secular North America. The same would be true, I’d imagine, of any religious or social group that doesn’t worship at the altar of conspicuous consumption.

It’s tough to live in a bubble, out of step with those around you. I used to describe our life in Berkeley as akin to living in outer space. We’d set out from our Jewish home in a spacesuit, intended to be impenetrable by outside influences, until we would arrive at the synagogue, JCC or other Jewish institution where we could remove the protective layer and be our Jewish selves again.

Is all that protection really required? Truthfully, yes: it’s a whole lot easier to join the prevailing culture than to fight it – that’s what assimilation is all about and it’s probably the most logical and natural option for the majority of Jews in the Diaspora today. I say this truly without judgment or criticism; it just is.

The alternative is to build fences and boundaries, to sequester yourself and your family from outside “non-kosher” influences. That involves restricting access to the icons secular society takes for granted – mass media (movies, television, and popular music) are all off-limits – as well as separating yourself through different traditions in eating, dressing and other core behaviors. The intent is to remove as many points of friction and places of overlap with unwanted values as possible. In this approach, even the calendars are hopelessly at odds.

Israel, by contrast, is a place where the center can hold…and actually flourish. Certainly there is a secular culture that beckons seductively to the observantly minded. And much of what would be described as religious here has moved progressively rightward.

But even still, the two extremes are more neatly integrated. The holidays are the same. The food in the supermarkets is nearly all kosher, as are many restaurants (even if they are missing an official kashrut certificate). Assimilation is not out of the Jewish world, but into a different flavor of the same national experience.

Rather than spending so much time fighting against negative influences on the one hand, or embracing non-Jewish values over-enthusiastically on the other, in Israel you’re freer to proactively search for the community that offers the most, to reach out to find where you best fit in.

This allows for a more dynamic middle ground, one that combines the best of what modern life has to offer with the joy and beauty of tradition; where you don’t have to dive in too deep in any one direction, but can tread nearer the center. Sure, sometimes you find yourself pulled more to one side of the pool or the other, but it’s easier to maintain your balance.

And while I’m not saying that can’t be done in the Diaspora, for the most part in Israel you don’t have to work as hard at “being” Jewish; you can spend more time just “doing” Jewish.

When we lived in California, our family towed a pretty straight line and we were fairly strict on where and what we ate, and how we observed Shabbat and holidays. We built our own fences and boundaries knowingly as a way of preventing a slippery slide.

Since moving to Israel, we’ve lightened up to a considerable degree. We’re less strict in nearly every area of observance and I’m pleased with the direction our lives have taken in what I see now, in hindsight, was an unexpected and unplanned result of our being here. As a friend of mine commented recently as we discussed his own religious “lightening,” with all the difficulties and frustrations Israel already presents in day to day living, “I figure God ought to cut us a little slack!”

The place that we’ve come to was made all the more poignant during our recent trip to the States when I felt some of our old feelings coming back. As we met with friends who were struggling to raise Jewish kids in the U.S., I was reminded how hard they had to work at maintaining Jewish values and tradition in their families.

And as I found myself asking – more out of my recurring “old country” nostalgia than any serious consideration – “what if we lived here?” I imagined that we’d necessarily return to a more stringent form of observance in many areas, from synagogue attendance to outward religious garb.

While that reaction both concerned and saddened me, I could also take solace in the decision we made some 12 years that has led to our focusing on strengthening the middle ground in the best – perhaps the only – place to do that naturally, organically and integrated with the surrounding society: Israel.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Anonymous November 15, 2006 at 4:00 pm

Brian,
You're absolutely right. My wife and I always say that if we were in the States, we would be more haredi. I would definitely still be wearing my black hat. Perhaps its the fact that in Israel being secular does not preclude Jewish identity that makes the black-hatters here so much more determined to seal themselves off from the rest of Israeli society.
Yossie Bloch

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