08/06/2009 91 °F
Israel's culture is diverse and complex which is not surprising considering the diversity in Jews who make up the state. These complexities and diversities find union in some areas such as a love for the holidays and for the Land of Israel while at the same time remain unique in the expression.
It seems like there is at least one holiday a month in Israel. Judaism, to most in Israel, is a culture and a tradition rather than a religion. Festivals provide a sense of unity, cultural roots and meaning beyond everyday life. Most are at least familiar with the historical and spiritual background of the holidays but maybe not to the extent that their grandparents remember the traditions being regarded. Many holidays include lengthy Torah portion readings in which the youth grumble about what a waste of time religion is while the elderly express bitter disappointment in the godless generation who have failed to remember what it means to be a Jew. Sometimes the summary of the holidays by the modern Israeli is "Look, it’s like this: They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat." That is not to say that this generation is not proud of being Jewish or are choosing to reject the history. But maybe they don't feel the reality of the ancient texts in their lives today. Maybe they feel that being a part of the army and being fiercely patriotic is their expression of faith.
It is impossible to go anywhere in Israel today without encountering Israeli soldiers. They can be seen checking bags in front of the train station or sound asleep siting up on a bus heading home after basic training. Dressed in green uniforms with a machine gun slung over one shoulder, they are Israel's best looking getting old from sleep deprivation. Military service is mandatory for all citizens. Men serve 3 years and woman serve 2. After that, most guys are usually called up to serve for a month out of every year until they are 50. Their initial service begins right out of high school at 18 years of age. Strong friendships are formed in the army which usually last a lifetime. The army has also been a way for this country of immigrants to assimilate and unite. In the army, everyone is equal whether your parents came from France, Ethiopia, the US, Morocco or Russia. The Israeli mindset of team effort is built in the army by tight living quarters and strong group assignments. It carries over when the youth complete their army service and go in packs to India or Thailand. A reporter observed in Bangkok: “When a crowd of Israeli's come into a cafe they don't so much hang out as secure the place.”
You can try to buck the system with a convincing performance of being psychologically inept for service or if you admit to having a drug addiction but you will probably be alone in this attempt. All of your friends will leave for the army and you will constantly feel you have let your mom, dad, aunts and uncles (who all served) down. Israeli's who succeeded to escape the army in their younger days, will tell you today that they feel that was the worst decision of their life. Some even try to go back to do national service of some sort but they still never feel they gave to their country what they owe. As a result, everyone in Israel is a soldier. Some may be bitter and traumatized by war but they are all proud and will say that the army is where they grew from child to Israeli.
Losing two or three years of their lives put Israeli's in somewhat of a hurry after their army service. As if Israeli's had any patience to begin with. This part of their culture can be seen in their fighter pilot style of driving and break neck speed of carrying on conversations.
Supposedly as soon as one learns enough Hebrew, one will find that Israeli's spend most of their time talking about either food or money. Which is strange since they pretty much eat the exact same thing generation in generation out. Sharing a meal together is a strong part of Middle Eastern culture. "He who eats alone dies alone" is a popular proverb here.
The sacred hush of Shabbat is ushered in by the most important meal of the week: Shabbat dinner. This meal is shared with any and all. No one is a stranger at the Shabbat table. The menu varies because Israeli's have come from all over the world. This meal is the soul purpose of Shabbat to most Israeli's. And the next day of course which is a day off. Only the religious, or "Haredim", keep Shabbat to a greater extent.
To make it even more complicated, the religious come in a few different varieties too. The religious are splintered into groups which have their own token Rabbi whose teachings they strive to live up to. For the most part, you can tell a religious person walking down the street by their clothing which is literally from head to toe. Men wear white dress shirts, black pants and a black coat. Sometime you can see loose strands of tzit tzit sticking out of their shirt hem. In some groups of religious, the boys and men have curly side locks. The men have shaggy beards and often wear a black hat. The woman wear two shirts at a time and the hem of their skirt usually brushes the ground. They either cover their hair with a colorful scarf or wear a wig. All this no matter what the season. Even now when being outside feels like you are walking through a pot of rice cooking.
Secular Israeli's eye the most religious groups with great contempt because they receive financial help from the government and are exempt from army service. Some religious groups cause lots of headaches with their demands to make Israel a more religious state. Some of the most religious will throw stones at outsiders who are not dressed up to religious code in their community or at cars which drive anywhere near their homes on Shabbat. In the most religious communities, the roads are actually gated off to prevent outsiders from driving through and disturbing the peace of the Shabbat. You may remember that I reported that some religious started a riot in Jerusalem when the mayor permitted a parking lot to remain open on Shabbat. Other religious groups are more tolerant, serve in the army and receive no government aid.
All of this is completely unreasonable in the eyes of secular Israeli's. Most Israeli's feel religious even though the only law they keep is abstaining from pork and shellfish. They feel religious because their religion is based on the traditions. The festivals, the Shabbat meal, the songs all give Israeli's a strong sense of identity to their past and future as Israeli's. Family bonds are emphasised and the recognition that the Jewish nation has survived (for what they don't know) in spite of countless attempts to obliterate them forever. Even the most bitter atheist knows the festival songs by heart and will rush home for Shabbat dinner at mom's house. Meet an Israeli abroad and watch him get teary eyed at the mention of Jerusalem.
The Haredim view secular Israeli's with a mixture of pity and scorn. They believe that the Messiah can not come until every Jew keeps the Shabbat so they feel they are being held back by the shameful neglect of the secular. Every Friday on street corners in some of the most hip parts of Tel Aviv (I have seen them in New York City doing the same thing too) some of the most religious set up booths in an attempt to win back the coolest of this generation. They beg guys to read prayers and hand out little booklets with pictures of Rabbi's on the front.
Up from the four corners of the earth having survived generations of unspeakable persecution Jews have made the homeland of Israel a unique and vibrant place. A land where tradition reigns. A land where service to ones country is esteemed. A land with a rich history and mysterious promises of what is yet to come. This is the culture of Israel.