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October 7, 2015 | 24th Tishrei 5776

Israeli Culture VI

Galilee Diary #250
September 11, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

R. Elazar said: We can distribute tzedaka to the poor on Shabbat... R. Samuel bar Nahmani, in the name of R. Yohanan, said: We can go to theaters and circuses and basilicas to deal with public welfare on Shabbat.

-Talmud, Shabbat 150a.

It seems that nothing much has changed in the habits of the Jews over the past couple of thousand years. Today, as in the period of the Talmud, if you want to find the people on Shabbat, you should go to the soccer field, the mall, or the theater. In particular, soccer games are played on Saturday afternoon. And most light entertainment (performances by comedians and singers) in culture centers and clubs and theaters takes place on Friday night. Recently I got a call from a woman who holds musical evenings in her home in a nearby community, suggesting a co-sponsorship (with our culture center) of a performance of an Arab ensemble. As I was considering the possibility, I remembered to ask her the date, and sure enough, it was a Friday night. I said that was a problem for us. She responded that she had tried other nights in the past, but Friday night was the only time when we could expect a reasonable turnout. I told her that I understood her problem, but that we simply don’t sponsor events on Shabbat. And indeed, she is right. Even though Israel is moving more and more toward a five day week, with many offices and now many schools (but not, of course, retail businesses) closed on Friday, Friday is still by far the preferred night for going out, for adults and teens. We have learned from experience that our policy of no Friday night events has definitely hampered our efforts to attract crowds to performances of drama and music. Even in Jerusalem, the bastion of traditionalism, the prohibition of Friday night entertainment collapsed in the 80s, and today the city swings on Friday night (well, almost).

With respect to shopping, there has always been a good deal of traffic of Israeli Jews to the markets in Arab and Druze villages on Shabbat, including, since 1967, the old city of Jerusalem. In the past several years, however, the villages have suffered serious competition from new suburban malls that are open on Shabbat. These have been controversial, and the subject of some vilification, but the “bottom line” is that many are open and – needless to say – very profitable.

In our region of the Galilee, the Misgav community center and Karmiel culture center offer a full program of entertainment on Friday nights: concerts, comics, performances by the school modern dance troupe and local adult choirs. One significant effect of this policy, of course, is to exclude anyone who is shomer Shabbat from participating or attending. This generates a sort of informal cultural segregation, contributing to a situation in which the observant and the non-observant lead separate cultural and social lives. The non-observant tend to see this as a problem of individual choice – you choose to be shomer Shabbat, you pay the price; and they see any suggestion of taking Shabbat into consideration in scheduling programs as “religious coercion.” The observant, on the other hand, feel resentful that in the Jewish state, they have to choose between observance and participation in the cultural life of the community – they thought that that was a feature of the Diaspora, not something they’d have to face here.

We tend to assume that the obstacle to pluralism in Israel is the entrenched political power of the Orthodox rabbinate, who refuse to grant status to the other movements and their rabbis. However, the reality is a little more complex than that, for while the rabbinate holds the power to force halachah on those who don’t accept it, the secular majority hold power over the institutions of culture, and often, in wielding that power, are no more sensitive to the needs of The Other than are the rabbis.

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