Jewish Cultural Life in Israel -- Blog #6
Most Israelis self-identify as not Dati -- not religious. But what that means is highly imprecise and to understand we have to dig a bit deeper. It may reflect not believing in God, not attending shul, or not fully halachically practicing the laws of Shabbat, holydays and kashrut. Some, to be sure, are anti-religious. The terms Dati and non-Dati mean something different than how we think about them in America.
Throughout Israel, the week revolves around Shabbat. This forges an internal awareness of Shabbat, even by secular Israelis. For all, the weekly rhythm of Israel is different from the Christian or Moslem cultures. Most Israeli businesses are closed on Shabbat, and it means businesses from Christian countries often do not do business with Israel on their Saturday, and Israelis do not do business with them on their Sunday, their day off, which in Israel is the first work day of the week. Furthermore, much public transportation does not operate on Shabbat.
So too do TaNaCH-based and rabbinic holydays guide seasonal life. While religious and traditional Jews observe the laws and customs of Pesach and Succot -- these two 7-day holydays are vacation weeks for secular Jews, including the half-day preparation time prior to the holydays..
In addition, kosher food is ubiquitous; most supermarkets are entirely kosher, though some serve non-Kosher meats and more. I recently read that a 2010 survey showed that 70% of Israelis observed kosher inside and out of their homes.
Modi’in is a good example of the religious / non-religious divide. This planned modern city between Yerushalayim and Tel Aviv was initially intended to be sans synagogues. But as in Proverbs: “Many are man’s plans, but God’s designs stand.” There are several neighborhoods with synagogues, but they are a distinct minority.
Built in the 1990’s, Modi’in’s population has just surpassed 100,000. The ModiinApp lists the synagogues, among other places. (However, some synagogues may not be listed; for instance, Micah’s does not appear on this list.)
I counted 41 synagogues listed on the ModiinApp: 17 Ashkenazic and 13 Sephardic (two of which present themselves as North African and two as Indian). Another seven are Yemenite. (Some Ashkenazic shuls note that they are combined, which may mean that the style of service varies). Finally, there are three Conservative / Masorti egalitarian congregations, and one, presumably more “liberal” modern Orthodox, bills itself as a “partnership” minyan. If the congregations average 100 families and 5 people per family, it would mean 20,000 (20%) of Modi’in is synagogue-affiliated; some think the number is as high as 30%. (Perhaps the number of affiliated families and their size is larger, but who knows?) The synagogues I have attended are usually filled for Shabbat and holydays, but far fewer attend weekday minyanim during the morning or in the afternoon and evening.
In the center of Modi’in is its train station -- a half-hour ride to Yerushalyim or Tel Aviv, even less to Ben Gurion airport, and about two hours to Haifa. Nearby is the main Azrieli mall with perhaps 100 shops and a kosher food court -- pizza, chinese, hamburgers, fried chicken, deli, and more. The mall also features other restaurants, a pharmacy, and clothing, jewelry, electronics, and toys and games stores, among others. Nearby is the main downtown street, called the Ma’ar -- lined with shops and eateries. Most restaurants and eateries in Modi’in have a te’u’dah -- a rabbinical certification, which means they are kosher and closed on Shabbat and holydays.
One striking element in Modi’in is the number and proximity of parks and playgrounds, especially for children. I think I read that Modi’in has 117 parks! Situated among the residential neighborhoods, one can’t walk more than two or three blocks without running into them. Some have extraordinary views; all seem to have playground equipment such as climbing, sliding, and twirling apparati; some have ping-pong tables and chess, as well as trees and plants. There are even several dog parks.
I recently became aware that Modi'in’s sidewalks are paved, in my area, with various shades of red brick, occasionally with a contrasting white or grey color or design; the bricks in other areas are gray with black or white borders. Alongside there are extensive bike lanes. I have observed many joggers at night. Schools and other cultural buildings are situated within the neighborhoods, some visible from the streets and some set back.
There are venues for cultural activities, including pools and gyms, and for music and dance. On a recent walk I saw stacks of books outside, against a wall. I drew closer expecting a bookstore. No, they were shelves, outdoors, for others to take or donate used books. I recently saw another bookshelf in a park.
I will close with the cultural influence of religion. On my second Shabbat, as I returned from Kabbalat Shabbat services, I became especially conscious of the sky. The night sky was deep blue, reminding me of the crayola color “midnight blue.” I counted only a few cars.
On Shabbat morning I walked to Dimri (see my Blog #3 for more on Dimri). Again I counted cars -- to shul, back from shul, and then on my walk to Micah’s. About 12 cars at 8:15 AM, another dozen on my way back at 11:30, and about 50 traveling on the 4-lane highway -- again in a city of maybe 25% self-identified as religious out of 100,000 people.
The religious cultural influence of Shabbat is strong. Many who do not identify as Dati, nevertheless do not drive, and they observe other halachic aspects of Shabbat. Another percentage may simply use Friday night, and Shabbat day, as a day off. And since most stores are closed -- either for religious reasons or as the national weekly day off -- people are less inclined to drive.
What else do I routinely see on Shabbat? Parks filled with Dati and non-Dati Jews, sharing time with their children, enjoying outdoor afternoons in Israel.