Sunday, September 20, 2009

Culture shock?

1. Religion
Israel is a Jewish state, right? Sure, theoretically. But that's not really what I saw these past two days of Rosh Hashanah. I thought that I was in the most Jewish place in the world, because I'm in Israel. To tell the truth, if I hadn't made a point of going to synagogue I wouldn't have known that it was Rosh Hashanah. 

Maybe it would have been different if I'd been in Jerusalem--of course it would have been different--but I certainly didn't feel like I was in a more Jewish place than if I'd been in Manhattan or, hell, even West Rogers Park! The street today and yesterday didn't look like anything but a normal day--kids rode on bikes and waited (impatiently) at the corners for cars  with screaming babies to pass as dads got pulled along by dogs on leashes. 

Even inside the house of a family that I knew to be religious--at least when they were in Chicago they were religious--I would hardly have known that it was Rosh Hashanah except that we lit candles, etc. on Friday night. In the house I could hear the hum from the computer and the rattling of the washing machine, the kids on the couch watching tv in their shorts and t-shirts and the flick-flick of a light switch being turned on and off. Yes, the family still identifies itself as religious (they have two sets of dishes) but from my understanding (and stereotypes) of what it means to be religious? No way. They wear whatever they want (shorts and tank tops for the girls, no kippah for the boys), they "break" Shabbat and chaggim without a thought. In short, they go about their normal lives even on Shabbat and holidays. During the week, if you put them on a street, I'd pick them out as "chilonim" (secular). 

That's kind of how I've felt about all the "religious" people I've met here, mostly from the Mechina. Of all the ones who identify themselves as religious, only two wear kippot all the time. Only one of the girls wears a skirt all the time. The others wear whatever they want--short shorts, tank tops, whatever (guys included). They all keep kosher (at least that I've seen, because the Mechina is strictly Kosher), but they don't all keep Shabbat (we have a "chilul Shabbat" room, and there were many "religious" people using the computers there last Shabbat). None of them are shomer negiah (when opposite genders don't come in contact before marriage). And girls never go to synagogue. (Maybe because at every synagogue, except for reform ones, there's separate seating for men and women, maybe even a separate room for women. And women don't participate in the service, period.)

-Something interesting that I saw at the (tiny, Sephardic) synagogue I went to today and yesterday. A little background, first: The place is tiny. There are 12 seats set aside for women in the back right corner of the room, blocked off with a 3 foot high wall and then a curtain above as a mechitza. On Friday night I was there and the curtain was a bit open; one of the (few, at the time) other women in the room (a young woman, too. Not older than 24 probably) turned to me and asked me to please go close the curtain. I was in shock! But then on Saturday morning when the Torah came around (I'd never seen a Sephardic Torah before; it's beautiful. And they stand it up to read from it!) the old (!) women opened the curtain so they could see the Torahs. Generational divide?

Another word on women: even to chilonim, the idea of a woman reading from the Torah is bizarre. When I told them that I had an Aliyah and read from the Torah for my bat mitzvah (and indeed, probably every other week), they couldn't fathom the idea that I'm not reform. I said, "No, no. I'm conservative. You know, Masorti?" Well, apparently Conservative Judaism is not the same as Masorti. Now I know to say that I'm "conservativi".

Of groups that are identified as "religoius" (excluding charedim, etc.), there are two groups I think. There's the ones that are ultra-orthodox--the guys who walk around all the time in tzit-tzit and (knitted) kippahs; and then there are the religious people that I've met, the one's that I'm still having trouble differentiating from chilonim or, to give the benefit of the doubt, from reform. 

At least for some people I know it's a "We're in Israel, there's no need..." type of thing. But could it possibly be that way for everyone?

2. Generalizations
People here (why not start off the section on generalizations with a generalization?) are much quicker to jump to conclusions/make generalizations than are the people I know from home.

There are "Aravim", "Druzim", "chilonim (secular)", "dosim (religious)", "filipinim (Filipinos)", "polanim (Polish)", "etyopim (Ethiopians)", "teymanim (Yemenites)", "Arsim (greasers, basically), "homo-im", "kushim (I-think-derogatory word for blacks)--and everyone fits into a category. When people tell stories, they identify the people they're talking about by these categories. When our madrichim want to reiterate that we have to clean up after ourselves they say "there are no filipinim here to clean up after you." (The American stereotype is Polish cleaning ladies; here it's Filipino. But in America we would never say "Clean up because there are no Poles here.")

Another example: "Kushim" is derogatory. Not nearly with the same connotations as the N-word, but still, not a nice way to talk. I spent an hour one night (a late hour, so I won't write the time) explaining to some people at the Mechina about political-correctness and who says "black" and who says "African-American" and what the differences are and why I don't want to hear them say "kushim." (There's also, apparently, a difference between "etyopim" and "kushim", more on that later). One time I heard a women say to her children (who were being very wild and crazy and loud), "quiet down, or people will think that this is a house of kushim!" Can you smell a stereotype? Because I sure can. 

Two weeks ago I read an interesting letter to the editor (in Hebrew, which made it even more exciting!) on this topic exactly. It was about specifically identifying Ethiopians. Basically the gist of the letter was "Yeah, their parents or grandparents came from Ethiopia. But they're Israelis like the rest of us. You don't call me 'germani' whenever you talk about me just because my mom is an immigrant from Germany." I think what the author was trying to get across was: why do you specifically categorize certain groups--but not all?

And homophobia? That's for another post. It's very interesting here.

Anyway, as a good friend told me when I made this rant to her: "It's tough observing how other cultures operate, how historical prejudices surface or manifest on a daily basis...These are good questions, ones that many are not willing to face or confront... try to remember, these are all experiences--the amazing, the frustrating, the disappointments, the challenges, and wonderful times... they are all layers of experiences that are piling up for you." 


  1. Too many parentheses. Stop that.
    Ok: So another example of this is Israeli's apparent insensitivity to the shoah-- based on my madrichim, holocause jokes are much more OK in Israel than they are here, for whatever reason.

  2. What you are saying about religion is that they are getting to be just like the rest of us. They just don't have all the labels yet. And the shul they don't go to is more likely to be orthodox.

    As far as the generalizations go, it sounds like that kind of talk is more generally acceptable in Israel than here. But people here talk and think that way too-- more of them just are aware that it is not as acceptable. So they whisper and mutter.

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  4. This was very interesting to read! I had a similar experience on Rosh Hashana. Somewhat contrary to what you felt, I was refreshed when I found that there's a spectrum of sorts to religion in Israel. Previously I thought it was "black and white," Datim and Chilonim, but I began meeting friends who were not religious, but still planned on going to services, or religion and didn't keep Shabbat on purpose. At least for me, it made me feel a little bit more in place as a Reform Jew.

    I too have noticed the great vastness in the religious spectrum. I would hardly call someone wearing a knitted kippa an ultra-orthodox though. Maybe in the south things are different... that was supposed to be a joke.

    I'd love to hear from you about all that's going on! So call me! But I could understand if you're busy with the holidays and stuff...