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Are Secular Israelis Jewish?

My education and experiences as a secular Israeli made me consider “Israeli” to be a different identity from that of “Jew.” Under this perception, American Jews are those who exchanged the Eastern European oppressive shtetl for a new, more prosperous Diaspora existence. I was surprised, if not embarrassed, when, during trips abroad, I was sometimes asked if I am, or was actually identified by strangers as, a “Jew.”

But my frequent professional visits to New York in the past two decades revealed to me a hidden part, lost or suppressed, of what sociologists and anthropologists would define as my cultural identity.

This attitude of alienation from Jewish identity, I concluded, also remained potent among the majority of Israeli immigrants (nicknamed yordim) whom I studied in the 1980s in Queens, and whom I called “children of circumstance.” They refrained from joining the organizations of American Jews. They could not see themselves taking part in the synagogue life of even the most liberal among the Jewish denominations. Despite their continuing residence in America, they maintained their Israeli identity as separate from a Jewish identity. Instead of the siddur and the machzor books of prayers, they had memorized the books of Israeli folk songs. Their enthusiastic gathering for singalongs replaced the synagogue services of their American Jewish neighbors. I described them in this context as “people of the song.” Their “old country” was Israel, not the lost shtetls in Poland, Galicia, etc., remembered by means of Manischewitz’s gefilte fish and matzo balls. However, I also identified resentment on the part of American Jews, who felt discomfort at the growing presence of Israelis who had left the homeland that Diaspora Jews are encouraged to support and consider as a haven for the Jewish people. In sum, both parties, the yordim and American Jews, seemed to be very distant from each other. No doubt there are in Israel many people committed to traditional Judaism. But the deep division between the “religious” (datiim) and “seculars” (chilonim) leaves no space for the latter to identify with Jewish religious traditions. Secular Israelis feel no need for, and no sympathy toward, Jewish Orthodoxy. Israeli Jewish Orthodoxy reminds Israelis of a history and a communal existence that raise little nostalgia for the “old country” of Eastern Europe. Secular Israelis are unacquainted with the more liberal shades of American Judaism. They feel their descent from a Jewish genealogy as a sort of biological, cultural-free connection.

My later professional engagement in New York, the study of a gay synagogue in Greenwich Village, Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, stirred up a fascination with the deep need of gay men and women to return to the institutions and the tradition of their youth, even though they were rejected by its official custodians. The sukkah at CBST during my observations in the late 1980s and early ’90s was a symbolic one, a wonderful work of art, a sort of a grand chupah around and over the bimah.

The services, however, were conducted in a style close to the Conservative movement, and many tunes reminded me of my childhood experiences with my grandparents, parents and the synagogue at my elementary school in downtown Tel Aviv. That association became even stronger in the last two years, when I often attended services at the Stanton Street synagogue on the Lower East Side. The synagogue combined a liberal disposition among its members with an Orthodox service. I could not avoid contemplating the choices of my own close relatives who, for motives and circumstances unknown to me, preferred to take the boat from Eastern Europe to Jaffa when many of their neighbors went to New York.

I still remember the sukkah my grandfather built on the roof deck, where my family and other residents of our apartment building had their meals during the holiday. I recall the excitement of running upstairs to decorate the sukkah and play with the neighbors’ kids. But we stopped that tradition after my grandfather’s death, and I gave up completely any association with Judaism on entering a secular Israeli high school.

Had my ancestors joined their brethren en route to New York, some Lower East Side synagogue like those I have observed as an Israeli anthropologist might have been the natural place to express their cultural identity, and a base to develop their social relationships.

Observing the older and younger congregants who offered me warm hospitality, I wondered: Had my ancestors made the trip to America, how would I have spent the Sabbath and holidays like Sukkot? Would I have joined an Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or other Jewish movement?

I do not feel deprived of my roots. We are all children of circumstance. The choices made by our ancestors affected our lives as much as our choices affect the lives of our children. But for my generation of Israelis, the voices coming from American synagogues still evoke the feeling of a world I can relate to with warmth and empathy. For the next generation of secular Israelis, however, a new dialogue and notion of affinity between them and their brethren in the Jewish Diaspora needs to be developed.

Moshe Shokeid is professor of anthropology in the department of sociology and anthropology at Tel Aviv University. His books include “Children of Circumstances: Israeli Emigrants in New York” (Cornell University Press, 1988) and “A Gay Synagogue in New York” (originally published in 1995 by Columbia University Press).

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