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October 8, 2015 | 25th Tishrei 5776

Reclaiming Roots

September 23, 2001
Marc Rosenstein

Almost 20 years ago, when I was researching my doctorate on the history of the teaching of Jewish tradition in secular Israeli high schools, if I mentioned my research to a middle-aged, secular Israeli, often the response was an angry, “yes, let me tell how ‘they’ ruined it for us...” In recent years, this feeling by non-religious Israelis that they were somehow robbed of their heritage by their parents and teachers has become a central theme in cultural discourse. It seems there was a kind of unspoken agreement: the secular majority would abandon its knowledge of and connection with the classical texts of Judaism as irrelevant in a modern, rational, secular democracy, and the orthodox would continue to study and upgrade this body of text, “keeping the flame alive” by proxy for the rest of us. That is why Ben Gurion’s generation set the precedent of draft exemption for what seemed then an endangered minority of yeshiva students...

Since the assassination of Yitchak Rabin, there has arisen a feeling that maybe we were foolish to trust the tradition to the traditionalists; maybe we should have kept up our own connection to it. And so, in recent years there has been a burgeoning of institutions large and small, national and local, dedicated to helping secular Israelis reclaim the tradition for themselves. These range from the trivial to the seriously academic, from local kabbalah study circles to national networks of high-level training programs. And the Reform and Conservative movements have appropriately supported and benefited from this popular movement.

This year, our seminar center is working in partnership with one of the leading institutions in this field, the Midrasha, a study and training center based at the kibbutz teacher seminary, Oranim. Recently we held our first public program of the year, a workshop on how to create a meaningful home observance of Rosh Hashanah. After a lecture on the universalistic themes of the High Holy Days (as opposed to the more nationalistic themes of the other festivals), participants in an ongoing Midrasha study group on the holidays presented a “Rosh Hashanah Seder” for use at the family meal on Rosh Hashana eve. It included a combination of modern poetry and songs, readings from biblical and rabbinic texts, participatory activities (personal stories about “beginnings,” personal blessings, etc.), and the eating of traditional symbolic foods (there are various such food traditions; e.g., pomegranate, so that the new year will be as full of mitzvot as the pomegranate is full of pits; and dates, beets, carrots, and others, based on puns on their Hebrew names). The booklet was well received by the 40 participants.

Afterwards, I was discussing the program with S., one of our new Galilee Fellows, who comes from a traditional background. I commented that I thought the evening was successful, and was part of a positive process of finding new ways give meaning to old forms. Her response was that the whole thing felt sad to her: so much that was natural, beautiful, and part of a continuum had been lost - and these people are groping, straining for some kind of reconnection; there is something artificial in their creativity when looked at over against her own experience of simply bringing forward what she had imbibed as a child.

As for myself, much as I enjoyed the program and found in it some elements that we might incorporate in our own Rosh Hashanah meal, still, I did not feel the same need to infuse content into the holiday as did those sitting around me. And I realized why: for affiliated Jews, of whatever denomination, the High Holy Days are almost exclusively based on the synagogue. The other holidays have a much stronger home or even public component - but on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, if you don’t go to synagogue, there isn’t much else to mark the day except food (or lack thereof). Therefore, for “secular” Israelis, who feel no attachment or attraction to synagogue and have no memories of it, these days are particularly empty of color, of memory, of associations, and remain abstract and somewhat forbidding. Maybe reconstructing these holidays as family observances is a first step toward reconstructing the whole concept of community, reclaiming Judaism from the state.


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