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Monday, March 13, 2006

Unsuspected Holiness

One of the many downsides to being religiously observant is that one sometimes develops a slight blindness to the deep cultural connections our less-observant coreligionists have to Judaism.  This tends to happen less outside of Israel... perhaps because of the wide spectrum of observance and cultural connection that reaches from ultra-orthodox to reform and re-constructionist.

But in Israel many people (myself included) sometimes make the mistake of looking at Jewish religious connections as a binary - yes/no issue.  I'll admit it... I often mentally divide my friends into 'religious' and 'secular' (dati and chiloni) rosters, and in so doing ignore the less obvious connections (or lack thereof) that exist.

For instance I know plenty of people in the religious community who wear the 'uniform' and show up for the requisite ritual observances... but they view their connection to religious observance the way some might view a country club membership.  It is an inertial decision... a status symbol... maybe even a safety zone, but little thought is given along the way to a Higher Power.

By the same token, I am starting to notice how many seemingly non-observant people (no kippah... very revealing clothing, etc.) keep a very clearly defined level of kashrut (dietary observance), show profound respect for Torah and Torah scholars, observe holidays quite carefully (although perhaps not according to the same religious precepts I do), and believe fervently in a Divine Creator who influences the world and holds the keys to the world to come.

This blindness of mine was once again brought home to me yesterday as I sat waiting for a friend in Ben Gurion University's 'Beit HaStudent' (Student Union) building.  As I sat there I noticed that many of the students wandering the campus, as well as the clerks in the many stores and eateries, were wearing Purim costumes. 

This by itself wouldn't be much of an indicator of religiosity since for many, Purim is a secular 'dress-up' holiday not unlike Halloween. 

But then I started thinking about the timing.  Purim was two days away, so why was everyone in costume?  Then I realized that, of course!... there would be no classes scheduled on Purim.  So why not dress up on the day before Purim?  Then I realized that there must have been at least a tacit acknowledgment of the somber nature of 'Ta'anit Esther' (the fast that takes place the day before Purim) so dressing up would be inappropriate.  Therefore everyone was dressed up two days in advance!

I also noticed that there were many university-aged students running around with pre-adolescent kids in costume.  I recognized the older of one such pairing as a girl who often travels with me from Efrat, and I called her over to say hello and ask about the kids.  She explained quietly that many students had 'adopted' kids from 'troubled homes' in Beer Sheva and they met with them weekly in a big brother/big sister-type capacity.  I had caught them on their way to attend a pre-Purim party.

As I watched teddy bears, clowns, red riding-hoods, spider-men, and, um, I'm guessing hookers (judgmental?  Who me???), walk in and out of the building I noticed another thing.  Many of the students I had mentally labeled as non-religious instinctively reached up to kiss the mezzuzah as they passed through the doors! 

I'm not doing a good job of expressing myself here and it's really frustrating me! 

The best I can do is tell you that I am constantly being surprised by a Jewishness here in Israel... even among the ostensibly non-observant (perhaps especially among this segment of the population)... that makes the religiosity of many observant diaspora Jews seem affected and half-hearted by comparison.

Sitting there in the 'Beit HaStudent' I once again got a reminder of how little I know... and how important it is not to make assumptions about people.  We can argue (no that isn't an invitation) about the prospects for Jewish continuity... intermarriage... loss of tradition and the growing chasm between religiously observant and secular Israelis.  But yesterday I realized I can't worry about everyone and everything all the time. 

Some things just 'are'.  Take my daughter for instance.

Unlike her diaspora counterparts, the moment Ariella turned 12, her physical presence here allowed her to instantly fulfill a positive religious commandment that the most pious Hassid in Brooklyn can't hope to approach.  She didn't have to go to synagogue to do it... she didn't have to recite a complicated benediction to accomplish it... she didn't even have to have the proper kavanah (intention) to receive 'credit' for having fulfilled this precept. 

It just happened!

A while back I remember welling up while watching a Nefesh B'Nefesh video during some of the most unlikely points in the film;  When a new arrival is shown descending from the El Al plane onto the tarmac carrying a Sefer Torah (Torah Scroll) in his arms it didn't move me.   What got me was when a soldier standing nearby reached over to take the heavy Torah from his arms but paused first to instinctively kiss it. My heart skipped a beat!  And then a few moments later in the film... as the Torah is seen being carried past a woman Police officer at passport control, she instinctively reached out... touched the Torah... and then brought her fingers to her lips.  The gestures were so natural... so instinctive... that I know it would be the worst sort of sin for any man to stand in judgment of such holy people.

When people ask me how I could in good conscience bring my children to a place so potentially fraught with danger... I wish I could figure out a way to let them have a peek at what I see in my mind's eye when I think about those two small, almost unconsciously gestures of respect on the video.  I wish they could see the costumes and children and mezzuzza-kissing in the Student Union building at Ben Gurion University. 

Let them come and take pictures of the Kotel (the western wall)... let them take in the holy sites and study in Yeshiva.  But if only I could show them the hidden holiness found in the most fervently secular Israeli... they could never even ask such a silly question about why I would bring my family here!

No matter what the rest of the world may say to try to tear us down...

... no matter what terrible things we may say and think to try to tear down one another...

... there is an indescribably, untouchable, unsuspected holiness in all people... and all things here. 

And for this I am profoundly grateful.

I'd like to wish everyone an early happy Purim since I expect to be away from my computer tomorrow.


Posted by David Bogner on March 13, 2006 | Permalink


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What a beautiful post! (1 kleenex warning) I, too, have trouble conveying my feelings when praying at the mekomot hakedoshim and when observing the same things you describe. It's not something tangible that a person can accurately convey. But you did a beautiful job. Purim Sameach!

Posted by: Essie | Mar 13, 2006 1:46:51 PM

I've long grown tired of explaining that I want to make aliyah more because of the chilonim than because of the dati'im. Just the fact that I've heard everyday expressions coming out of relatively obscure liturgical sources. My favorite: walking to the kotel in the wee early morning hours, and passing a bar where the bouncer was throwing out the laggards. Upon seeing us walking with our tefillin, he yells at the stragglers "yalla! Rabbotai, he'giah z'man keriyat shema shel shacharit!" ("It's time for the morning prayers," a quote from the Passover Haggadah)

Posted by: efrex | Mar 13, 2006 2:25:46 PM

efrex...thats awesome!

yeah Mr B, its so true. i love it.

have a freilichen purim Mr B.

Posted by: Tonny | Mar 13, 2006 3:32:33 PM

What a beautiful post and it's important to let people know that in Israel, despite it's reputation for the growing differences between the two, that secular Israelis do really care about their Judaism.

I know you are referring mostly to your experiences in Israel, but I think what you wrote is very important for religious Jews to think about and therefore rethink their bias towards those of us who aren't observant or not observant enough that would be in their eyes "Kosher" (and I am not referring to food here.)

"By the same token, I am starting to notice how many seemingly non-observant people (no kippah... very revealing clothing, etc.) keep a very clearly defined level of kashrut (dietary observance), show profound respect for Torah and Torah scholars, observe holidays quite carefully (although perhaps not according to the same religious precepts I do), and believe fervently in a Divine Creator who influences the world and holds the keys to the world to come."

This quote is very honest but also a bit surprising coming from someone that didn't grow up religuous. Did you ever doubt that the type of affilation and level of practice, respect and love that you and your family did growing up as being equivalent to athiests? So why this new revelation?

Thank you again for writing this thought provoking and heartfelt post and I hope those who are religious will walk away with a new perpective on something that shouldn't be a culture shock to them.

Posted by: jaime | Mar 13, 2006 5:58:00 PM

A very moving post which at the same time makes me happy and sad. Happy at the level of 'secular' holiness you have seen, and sad that we are so judgemental of each other.

My maternal grandmother (of blessed memory) came to the US from Poland in 1912 with three children, to join my grandfather (also of blessed memory - although I never knew him) who was already there, and my mother (also of blessed memory) was her first child born in the US, followed by her last son (also no longer with us). For the first part of my life, I knew of no level of 'observance' exceeding (if you want to call it that) of my long-widowed grandmother, both in kashrut and prayer (she davened every day at home if not in shul).

While my mother kept what I then saw as the most kosher kitchen imaginable (and that standard remains, although maybe our meat wasn't glatt enough for some) she learned that level of kashrut from her mother, who I now realize would be frowned upon by some because - horrors! - she used teabags on Shabbat (but not Pesach - she didn't think they were kosher for Passover, so it was back to loose Swee-Touch-Nee then) with water from a kettle that was left on a low fire from before Shabbat started, and none of this kli sheni stuff.

I would just love to hear my grandmother's comments on the issue, in much the same way I can imagine my mother's comments on Viagra.

If the specific article were online, I'd post a link to an article in the latest issue of Reform Judaism magazine (http://reformjudaismmag.org/ but this article isn't there), about how a hilbilly redneck (his terms - now in NYC) came to Judaism, and what he is teaching his sons.

If this type of division exists between Jews, what can we expect between Jews and non-Jews?

Posted by: Iris | Mar 13, 2006 7:41:40 PM

its been a while... i miss bgu! sadly im back in california, but ill be back in israel next week for my spring break

you are right though. a lot of my non religious israeli friends are obsessive about keeping kosher and such. not all of them mind you, but enough that makes me happy. and there are moments talking to a seculr friend who will suddenly and quite randomly, quote torah in a conversation or an argument... well those moments are ones that seldom happen here in the states. even though i was more religious than most of my friends in israel... they understood me.

the divide between the secular and religious in israel seems much bigger than here in the states, but i think its mostly decieving.

Posted by: Lisa | Mar 13, 2006 7:52:55 PM

My favorite: walking to the kotel in the wee early morning hours, and passing a bar where the bouncer was throwing out the laggards. Upon seeing us walking with our tefillin, he yells at the stragglers "yalla! Rabbotai, he'giah z'man keriyat shema shel shacharit!" ("It's time for the morning prayers," a quote from the Passover Haggadah)

A few months ago, my wife and I get a taxi to the airport, with me carrying a huge Ben Yehuda Street shofar. Exclaims the driver, "T'ka b'shofar gadol l'harutenu!"

Posted by: JSinger | Mar 13, 2006 9:45:04 PM

David, you never cease to amaze me. I am humbled and thoroughly amazed by your insights.

Posted by: Lachlan | Mar 13, 2006 9:58:08 PM

You expressed yourself just beautifully.

I listened one day as a woman in my congregation started to say something uncomplimentary about less observant Jews in our area---only to see with delight that the rebbetzin, with quiet dignity, said firmly, "We are all Jews." I try to keep her example in mind. Everyone of us is part of the Whole.

Posted by: aliyah06 | Mar 13, 2006 10:04:03 PM


This post really hits home for me. It made me think of my most significant memory of Israel. This happened in all places in a schwarma shop in Tsfat during my Birthright trip. I was there with my friend who was chatting with the owner. We had finished eating and my friend wanted to bench. I didn't have a kippa and I refuse to pray without one. The owner, seeing that I was going to leave, took the kippa off of his head and put it on mine. This simple act more than anything else connected me to the people and the land of Israel. Thank you David for sharing your observations, it made me feel that special connection all over again.

Posted by: Jonah | Mar 13, 2006 10:18:51 PM

That was a really great post. I go to Hebrew U and am constantly asked to define myself and my religious beliefs, and as a result have been exposed to a plethora of "secular" Jews who are so much more Jewish and commited than they realize. Your writing is absolutely beautiful, I've been reading your blog for a while now, discovered it on If I Forget Thee... Keep it coming and chag sameach!

Posted by: aliza | Mar 13, 2006 10:40:49 PM

Jaime is right. There are a lot of so called secular Jews who have a very strong Jewish identity but may not practice Judaism the same way as others do.

They are no less Jewish. I am not saying that you said that in the post, just commenting on things.

Posted by: Jack | Mar 13, 2006 11:32:24 PM

Thank you very much for posting this. As a secular Jew who grew up away from any large Jewish community I was constantly blown away by the depth of religious knowledge and the ease of observance of most secular Israelis and it always saddens me when I hear a religious Jew talk as if they have no connection to their faith at all. Thank you for dispelling this and in a forum that is read by other religious Jews.

Posted by: Lisoosh | Mar 13, 2006 11:35:43 PM

Wow, this is the first time I have ever seen the NefeshVnefesh video. I sat at my computer crying. It is "nefesh sheli", aval probably not in my near future. How sad for me. Meanwhile, I read your posts and smile (and cry)

Posted by: ac | Mar 14, 2006 12:08:37 AM

Good post. Unfortunately I see a lot more materialism and humanism amongst the religious than I do Torah. Both Jewish and Christian. It is too bad we don't pay as much attention to the First Commandment as we do some of the others.

Posted by: Scott | Mar 14, 2006 3:56:20 AM

Have a very, very happy holiday!

You know, while I was reading the post, I was thinking about my own experiences in shul, and how, my problem is not the big things that people do, since I can follow them along somehow, but the small things. Where do you find the passion, the respect? I think it's something that you can learn, and it's something that I'd like to learn, and yet... it comes to me so slowly. I hope someday I can be a natural at small gestures and show the same respect as the people you described.

Posted by: Irina | Mar 14, 2006 4:26:17 AM

When Alan and I arrived in Israel a couple of years ago, the chiloni cab driver kept asking which bag Alan's tefillin were in. He wanted to make sure to put that bag on top of the others.
The 'us' and 'them' mentality I see so often in Israel is very sad, especially when so many of us have experiences that prove like these.

Posted by: Chedva | Mar 14, 2006 6:01:58 AM

Great post David. (no more Trep after reading your interview ;)) The first week after making aliyah I needed to use the mikveh on Friday night. I was directed to a building, and came a bit early, so I had to wait at the entrance. After a few minutes of standing by myself, two women dressed in sleeveless tops and shorts joined me. I felt uncomfortable, and started to worry that I was in the wrong place. Then the balanit (mikveh attendant)showed up with a big smile and a "Shabbat Shalom" and opened up the door. Here I was, dressed in the "uniform" of the national religious (skirt, scarf covering my hair), along with secular women in their "uniform" and the balanit in hers (a wig, and stockings in the summer heat). We were all dressed differently, but we were all participating in the same mitzvah. It was very inspiring.

Posted by: westbankmama | Mar 14, 2006 8:11:26 AM


I'll start by getting my contradiction out of the way; the reason most of the students dressed up two days before Purim is probably less because of Ta'anit Ester and more because there weren't classes on erev Purim either, so most of the undergrads wouldn't be at the university.

On the whole, however, I agree with you. I've long observed that observance is more of a spectrum than a yes/no proposition; even that isn't a totally accurate analogy, since different people observe different parts.


The secular/religous divide in Israel is motivated much more by politics and associated "lifestyle" questions (e.g. military service) than it is by religion.

Posted by: Eyal | Mar 14, 2006 11:21:47 AM

A beautiful reminder that we shouldn't judge others. Nor do we truly know what is in anyone else's heart and soul.

Posted by: Stacey | Mar 14, 2006 4:07:07 PM

Stacey, you summed it up perfectly.

AC - my daughter and I also watched the Nefesh b' Nefesh videos and we both had tears running down our faces. It wa so sad watching them leave their families behind, but the happiness in their eyes upon their arrival revealed it all.

Posted by: jaime | Mar 14, 2006 4:25:38 PM

Well you know how I feel about assumptions . . . :-)

I am glad you are able to appreciate the diversity that is Israeli society and its connection to Judaism in many forms. It is harder here in the USA, I think - we are so factionalized into our denominations. Each denomination has its own 'orthodoxy' in terms of its OWN assumptions about what is acceptable or not acceptable within itself and according to each movement. It makes being a 'hybrid' extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Posted by: ezer knegdo | Mar 14, 2006 5:19:59 PM

Thoughtful post. I understand completely. And I am dissapointed in myself when I seperate friends and loved ones in my mind as you described.

Posted by: Aaron | Mar 14, 2006 5:40:45 PM

it is true that we can't judge a person's religiousity by their outward appearance but I also think you can generalize a bit based on ethnic background. I find that Sephardic "secular" people are often more religious/spiritual than you would think (for all the stories above, think, weren't those cabbies and other random people probably sephardic?). Living in Be'er Sheva, the population is obviously heavy on the sephardic side and I also notice, for example, when I'm at the hair salon or in a makolet, a kid with spiked gel hair, piercings all over his face and a cell phone will kiss the mezzuzah when he walks in the door and will answer "baruch hashem" to the question "how are you". I don't think if you went to a chic suburb of tel-aviv or obviously kibbutzim, you would have the same experiences..but I could be wrong, and that was point of your post :-)

Posted by: Naomi | Mar 14, 2006 6:04:41 PM

Essie... And here I am without a proper icon. :-) Thanks.

Efrex... Great story. One of my favorites came from a friend. He said that he was once riding in an army jeep with a bunch of soldiers when they started making up and singing rather bawdy/off-color songs. Even though most of the soldiers were not religious, the lyrics were actually very clever adaptations of Biblical quotations. He was blown away by the easy familiarity they felt with our liturgy. Blasphemous? Yeah, probably. But how many non-religious people outside of Israel can spontaneously quote from (and make dirty puns from) obscure Biblical references? :-)

Tonny... You too. Regards to everyone i might know where you are.

Jaime... The quote shouldn't surprise you. I grew up non-observant outside of Israel, and as a result knew relatively little about my own culture and religion. My point was exactly that... that people here are able to develop an attachment to aspects of Judaism that aren't accessible to many people outside of the country.

Iris... Thank you for sharing your family story. Yes, it is sad that we all tend to be judgemental in some way. But in this case, it is also nice to be proven wrong in such a public and obvious manner. :-)

Lisa... Great to hear from you! How long will you be in this trip. Any chance we could finally have that coffee? :-)

Jsinger... Israeli taxi drivers tend to be the salt of the earth. :-)

Lachlan... Aw shucks! Thanks Lach... But I wish my 'insights' didn't usually come from stumbling over stuff that should have been obvious in the first place. ;-)

aliyah06... I like that sentiment very much. I just wish I 'walked the walk' more often.

Jonah... Like Israeli taxi drivers, the guys who run falafel and schwarma stands also tend to be the salt of the earth. :-)

Aliza... Thank you so much! I did the first two years of my undergrad studies at Hebrew University so I know what you're talking about. the other part of the equation is being in Jerusalem which tends to bring out the spirituality of even the non-spiritual. Enjoy Shushan Purim!

Jack... Of course they are no less Jewish! I was simply saying that there are other measures of one's connection to Judaism than strict definitions of religiosity.

Lisoosh... Consider it a public service announcement. :-) Thanks.

ac... It took us quite a while to finally get here. Nefesh B'Nefesh was instrumental in helping us organise actual plans instead of simply talking about making aliyah. I highly recommend that you speak with them even if your plans are on the back burner for now. http://www.nefeshbnefesh.com

Scott... There is plenty of all that to go around. :-)

Irina... For the people I described in my post the gestures came as naturally as breathing. That only comes from a lifestyle of including Jewish values in ones life. Just as you give no thought to taking your next breath... I'll wager that you manifest many of these small but important gestures in your daily life without knowing it.

Chedva... It's a shame that cab drivers are so busy driving because they seem to be perfectly qualified to be both political and spiritual leaders. :-)

Westbankmama... My wife has similar stories to tell. Yes, assumptions are very dangerous.

Eyal... There were classes on Taanit Esther, but not many. I agree with you about the broad spectrum, but would add that outward appearances of religiosity (or lack thereof) are no indication of what's in a person's heart.

Stacey... I stole your comment for my previous reply. I hope you don't mind. :-)

Ezer Knegdo... Just one of the many reasons we're here. :-)

Aaron... One of my coworkers is an older gentleman with a gray ponytail and a very secular upbringing/worldview. He can quote and discuss Biblical references in much greater detail than most of the religious folks I know. Of course, he was a product of an Israeli educational system before it was stripped of most of its Jewish content.

Naomi... On the whole I'd have to agree with you. I have many Sephardi friends who are not at all religious in their daily life, but they can recite every word of every daily, weekly or holiday prayer by heart. They are also weirdly superstitious about certain aspects of religion despite their obvious lack of observance.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Mar 14, 2006 9:10:15 PM

i know exactly what you're talking about here. i am constantly jolted by spiritual references made by those who by outward appearances would seem less than spiritual. on a recent visit to ny, at the baggage claim at jfk airport while waiting for our elal luggage to be offloaded, i was standing next to an extremely secularly dressed israeli woman and her daughter. my husband had just helped her put her last bag on her cart. in due time, her cell phone rang and after listening for a minute responded (referring to her luggage) ,"ken, ken, boruch hashem, har habayit beyadeinu!" made my day!

Posted by: nikki | Mar 15, 2006 12:09:41 AM

ill only be in for a week this time, sadly.

maybe we can, ill email you when i know better what im doing

Posted by: Lisa | Mar 15, 2006 1:42:28 AM

True, so true. I have seen so many "secular" Israelis surprise me on many an occasion- kissing the mezuzah, putting on a kippah before eating, or simply displaying their Jewish "soul"

"As I watched teddy bears, clowns, red riding-hoods, spider-men, and, um, I'm guessing hookers (judgmental? Who me???),"

I had to laugh at this part- how could you tell the "hookers" were in costume, considering the way many girls here dress?

Posted by: lori | Mar 15, 2006 2:10:34 PM

I felt the exact same way after my trip to Israel this past Chanukah- just goes to show that we all have more in common than we realize. It's such a unique and wonderful mindset.

Posted by: tnspr569 | Mar 16, 2006 5:36:43 AM

it's not just Israelis in Israel. Here in NYC, I've been going to a shul with mostly Israeli chozrim b'tshuva. There is ZERO talking during prayers, everyone is sincere, some guys learn all day, most work, but everyone treats everyone else with respect.

On the other hand, even in some of the best American shulls, there is always some fool yammering away with a friend. It doesn't even matter what the age of the group is.

If the only thing Israel would have is minyanim where people respect silence and don't regard it as a social event, then it would be worth putting up with everything to be there.


Posted by: ronny | Mar 17, 2006 5:47:36 PM

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