The Lazy Jew -- Keeping Jewishness Alive

The Lazy Jew -- Keeping Jewishness Alive
AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner
The Lazy Jew -- Keeping Jewishness Alive
AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner
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There is a new Jew, and she lives in Israel. The new Jew practices Judaism like no Judaism before it, and like no Judaism anywhere else. It is a Judaism unique to a place and to a time. Israeli-Judaism – an amalgamation of tradition and nationality.

Ask Israelis what is a Jew, and a large majority of them (72 percent) will tell you that it is a person who celebrates Jewish holidays or serves in Israel’s army (68 percent). Apply statistics to Jewish behaviors of Israelis – what they consider to be Jewish behaviors -- and almost all of them (97 percent) cite attending a Passover Seder and 60 percent say it is raising the national flag on Israel’s Independence Day. Yes, for most of Israel’s Jews, the flag – designed to resemble the Jewish prayer shawl -- is a component of Jewishness.

About a year and a half ago, under the auspices of The Jewish People Policy Institute, I teamed with Israel’s leading pollster, Tel Aviv University Professor Camil Fuchs, to study Israeli Judaism. Last month we published a book based on our findings, whose subtitle is “A Portrait of a Cultural Revolution.”

It is a revolution because of two things: the way Israel revolutionizes Judaism – and the way it revolutionizes its Jews.

The early Zionists strived to create a new Jew. But they argued about what this new Jew should be like.  Some wanted to abandon Jewish traditions, others wanted to revive them, still others wanted to create new traditions. The Jews of Israel still debate these questions, but they are in possession of a tool much more powerful than verbal inquiry. Their Judaism is a product of a relatively new historical reality – the reality of a Jewish State.

You can look at this reality every December, when the Jews of the Western world exaggerate Hanukkah to mesh into the spirit of a Christian holiday season.

Hanukkah is a relatively marginal Jewish holiday, and Israeli Jews are well aware of it. Nevertheless, they practice it more intensively than diaspora Jews. Three-fourths of Israelis light candles every night of the eight-day holiday. Why would they practice a marginal holiday with such intensity? Not because they attribute great importance to it, and not because of a need to compete with the shiny holidays of others. In Israel, Hanukkah is king because Israel is the one place in the world that lives by the Jewish calendar. Hanukkah is celebrated there more intensively because schools teach about it, and then go on a break for the eight-day celebration. All children are on vacation and search for entertainment. All supermarkets carry the traditional foods of the holiday (91 percent of us eat the greasy delicacies). In Israel, one is surrounded by Hanukah and hence must surrender to Hanukkah. No special effort is required.

Then comes Christmas -- in Israel, the holiday of a tiny minority. Then comes a New Year. Israeli Jews are aware of the new year. About a fifth of them even celebrate it in a party. Still, very few (only 6 percent, to be exact) consider January 1 their “true” beginning of the year. Jews have Rosh Hashanah, sometime in September. This is when our new year begins.

Many of Israel’s institutions (such as schools) base their schedule on the Gregorian calendar. Many Israelis remember the Gregorian date and struggle to keep with the Hebrew date. Nevertheless, our culture follows the Jewish calendar. We vacate on Sukkot and wear costumes in Purim (51 percent of adults!); we insist on having family dinners on Friday night (82 percent!) and cannot ignore Shavuot (a spring holiday) because TV commercials remind us to buy the cheese for the traditional dairy meal.

The reality of the Jewish State allows us a new culture: Let’s call it “no sweat Judaism.”

Jews, who used to live as minorities, developed a culture that is highly demanding. There are special laws for food and drink, rules governing family life; there are a lot of prayers, many restrictions; daily, weekly and monthly tasks. Arguably, a less demanding culture could not maintain a small people in a vast and assimilationist world. The Jews who live outside of Israel – most of them in the United States – are familiar with the challenge posed by what some of them call “Jewish continuity.” In short: The highly observant pass on their Judaism to the next generation; the less observant do so, too, but it’s a struggle. When I lived in the United States and studied and wrote about American Judaism, I was fascinated by the great effort that Jews must invest to keep their tradition. I admired their effort. And still do.

But my current study taught me a lot about the benefit of living in a society in which Jewish continuity is a given. Of course, we have a lot to worry about in Israel – from security issues to our political culture to the never-ending conflict with our neighbors. Still, we are spared the worry about the future of Jewishness. When we asked Israeli Jews about their level of confidence that their children and grandchildren will be Jewish, the outcome was remarkable. The overwhelming majority – 86 percent -- are confident that their children will be Jewish Nearly as many (79 percent) are confident that their grandchildren will be Jewish. What other option is there? 

There is no reason for a Jewish Israeli not to remain Jewish – the obvious choice in a Jewish State. There is not much opportunity for a Jewish Israeli to have a spouse who isn’t Jewish. There is no way for a Jew to escape Jewishness, to avoid it, to ignore it. Our survey included more than 300 questions, and what they demonstrate is the extent to which the Jewish tradition is a constant feature of our lives. We breathe Judaism. We breathe it effortlessly. 

Israeli Jews are lazy Jews. In a good way.

Shmuel Rosner is the political editor at The Jewish Journal, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and a contributing opinion writer at The New York Times. His Twitter handle is @rosnersdomain.

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