This past weekend, I went to Hebron, Be’er Sheva, and Yerukham with Nathan and my Israeli classmates from Bina, the secular yeshiva in Tel Aviv. Below are some highlights:
We went to the cave of Makhpelah to see the graves of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Leah, and Jacob. On top of the ancient cave, Herod built a magnificent structure to win the favor of the Jews 2,000 years ago. The Christian Byzantines added onto the building a few centuries later, and the Muslim Mamelukes added their share after the Crusades. We stood on the seventh step up to the building, the closest Jews were allowed to come to the holy site from the time of the Mamelukes in the 13th century until the modern state of Israel. The site is surrounded by Israeli soldiers and armored vehicles and is in the old section of the ancient city of Hebron, a mostly Palestinian city with a tense history. In 1929, the Arabs massacred the centuries-old Jewish community in Hebron in a pogrom reminiscent of Russia. In 1994, a Jew opened fire in Makhpelah during Muslim prayer murdering 29 Palestinians and wounding many more. When we left Makhpelah, we walked right into the small Jewish quarter. A little boy with pale blue eyes approached us and was trying to sell bracelets with the Palestinian flag. I signaled to him that I had no money and he looked disappointed. With Nathan’s urging, and with the little Arabic I know, I said, “My name is Michael,” and then signaled that I would like to know his name. He seemed surprised that I knew a sentence fragment in Arabic, and he told me his name was Yusuf. He smiled and stuck his hand out and we shook hands.
In America, if one wants to be in a Jewish community, one chooses to do so and belongs to a synagogue or a JCC or some other Jewish institution. It is not difficult to be surrounded by Jews in Israel, so most secular Israelis do not form communities around their Judaism. In Be’er Sheva, a large city built in the northern part of the desert, there is a movement to form Jewish communities. We were lucky enough to visit one of these communities for Friday night services. The services took place in a common room on the ground floor of an apartment building. There were about 30 people there, mostly young parents and small children. The service was entirely lay led in a Reform style. I can’t write any more than that because I spent most of the service making faces at a laughing baby.
On Saturday morning, we traveled to Yerukham, a small desert city forty minutes from Be’er Sheva. We passed some of the most miraculous farms in the world. Peppers and bananas and grapes growing out of the golden desert soil! We drove through Yerukham, passed the main factory and the stores and turned off on a dirt road to a Bedouin camp. The Bedouin are Arabs who are historically nomadic but are losing the ability to live that lifestyle. We sat in a spacious tent and met with a self-proclaimed enlightened feminist Bedouin woman. She took off her shoes and we asked if we should do the same. She said that traditionally we would, but now the tent mats were made in Gaza and cost nothing, so they just throw them out when they are dirty. My Israeli classmates could not wait to ask questions. How did you learn Hebrew? Did you go to school? Do your children go to school? Do your neighbors work? Where? How? Does the government help or hurt your situation? Do Bedouins like Israel? The Bedouin woman said that in her culture, the custom is to not ask questions until tea is served. She laughed, and then started answering questions while pouring tea. She learned Hebrew because she wanted to, and she taught herself from Hebrew textbooks. Her children go to school and she hopes they will go to university but doesn’t think any will accept them. Most Bedouin children stop after elementary school. Some of her neighbors work low level jobs, many do not work. The government doesn’t provide electricity or water or housing. The government built a school, but then it didn’t rain one year and the group packed up and moved and the school became a ruin. Some Bedouin like Israel, others see it as the oppressive ruler. My classmates asked if the Bedouin would go back to a nomadic lifestyle. She said many would but most realize that it is impossible. Some still think it will happen. This woman talked about how she wants her people to modernize, but at times she is nostalgic for her tradition and talked about how she did not want to become a Jewish Israeli. After the meeting, my classmates spoke about how they had all met Bedouin before but had never had a substantive conversation like that. One said that it is the Bedouin’s responsibility to modernize, another said that maybe they don’t want to modernize. Another shook his head sadly and lamented about their shattered identity.
On Saturday afternoon, over a large lunch, the head of our school asked us what we thought about the weekend. In the tradition of Israeli culture, I volunteered to answer first, and then ignored the question and changed the subject. I asked my Israeli classmates what they want from American Jews? American Jews give money, weapons, political support, and so much more to Israel. And when Americans try to voice an opinion about Israel to Israelis, we so often hear, “You don’t live here, who are you to offer advice?” If Israel was only for Israelis, this would not be an issue, but Israel is for all Jews. Most of my classmates had never thought about this question and did not have any answers. One of them talked about how American Jews seem to be able to live Jewish lives that are not orthodox. She wants Americans to teach them how to make Judaism relevant in the modern age and how to form a Jewish identity that isn’t associated with a black hat. I smiled and said that this could be done.