Monday, October 5, 2009

Sukkot/Octoberfest in Israel/Palestine

This post is much longer than I intended. I had planned just to write about my weekend, but all sorts of personal thoughts about Judaism and Zionism kept creeping in and eventually I decided to publish it as is. I won’t hold it against you if you want to skip the spiritual babble and scroll down to see some photos from Octoberfest in Palestine

I met a Christian Eritrean man on the bus to Jerusalem; his wise words to me were this: “whatever you are looking for, you can find it in Jerusalem.”

Friday was the first day of Sukkot, and my friend Ari [who’s doing a year of Yeshiva in J-lem as part of his Rabbinical school program in NY] invited me to spend Shabbat with him and his fiancé Becca in Jerusalem. Coincidentally, this weekend also happened to be Octoberfest at the Taybeh Brewery in Palestine [near Ramallah], an event that appealed to large portions of the ex-pat community in this region, including our contingent from MIT. I figured…with the high-power combination of God and beer, how can you really go wrong?

My bus arrived in Jerusalem late Friday afternoon, as the sun was getting low in the sky. I took a cab to Ari’s place in Baka, a South Jerusalem neighborhood which he described to me as “progressive-traditional” [i.e. religiously observant and philosophically progressive]. I changed into Shabbat-appropriate attire and we walked to a near-by shul, with a reputation for fantastic singing and forward-thinking ideals. It was the first time I’ve gone to services since I’ve been in Israel.

I can’t believe that’s true – that I’ve been in Israel for 3 months and haven’t gone to services once – but it is. Somehow, my experience of being in Israel feels like it has had virtually nothing to do with Judaism. I know that sounds like an absurd comment, but let me try to explain…

I have, at various points, regularly attended Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist services, taken a number of Jewish Studies classes, read a lot of related books, and studied individually with three different rabbis (one of the three was even a Lubavitcher Rebbe…but this didn’t go very well or last very long.) I’ll admit, I’ve taken a bit of a respite from Judaism over the last few years, since I’ve been in Boston. Quite frankly, balancing any competing interests with the demands of Archtiecture school at MIT is a challenge…especially if you also have an absurdly time-consuming obsession like rock climbing. That said, when I decided to go to Israel last March on a Birthright trip, I saw it, in part, as a way back into my ongoing investigation of my own relationship to Judaism.

Fast-forward a few months; I’m back in Israel, this time for a longer stay and somehow Judaism is barely on my daily radar. For all the Jews in this country, I have been really surprised at the lack of options to pursue the kind of Jewishness that appeals to me – one that is flexible and progressive, that emphasizes social justice and community, and that doesn’t require me to abandon the Modern world – in other words, the kind of Judaism that you can find at countless congregations across the U.S. [and other places, I’m sure.] This is going to sound like a drastic simplification, but in Israel there is Orthodoxy [and Ultra-orthodoxy], and then there is secular society. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find anything in between; the smorgasbord of options available to American Jewry is simply not present here. [One notable exception is Lotan, a Reform Kibbutz, but even the kibbutzniks there will admit they are a rare exception to the rule.]

I can respect the Orthodox lifestyle, but it’s not me. It’s too different from how I was raised and requires too many concessions that I’m not willing to make. So, it’s not surprising that since I’ve been in Israel I’ve settled into secular society – a lifestyle that, on the surface, feels very Western and familiar and comfortable, but, as I’m realizing, demands it own kind of compromising.

I had a long conversation with my dad last week about this very thing. He asked me how being in Israel had added to my understanding of Judaism and I tried to explain why I feel like it hasn’t – that somehow Judaism has, ironically, been missing from the whole experience, but that I have learned a lot about a different ideological system: Zionism.

Maybe the distinction between Judaism and Zionism is obvious to everyone else, but it has taken me a while to get a grip on it and I think that’s partly because it’s to the benefit of the Zionist agenda to conflate the two concepts. There’s a book by Charles Liebman and Eliezer Don-Yehiya called Civil Religion in Israel: Traditional Judaism and Political Culture in the Jewish State that talks about Zionist-Socialism [as opposed to Judaism] as Israel’s civil religion and founding/national mythology. For anyone who’s interested, there’s an excerpt here. I don’t pretend to be an expert in any of this – religion, or politics, or the Middle East – but thinking of Israel not as a Jewish state, but as a Zionist one has helped me a lot in trying to make sense of this place…and in understanding why being here has had the unintended consequence of making me feel less Jewish [sorry, Birthright…something’s not working].

Three thoughts about Zionism and Judaism:

1. For me personally, Zionism is a much harder sell than Judaism. I know that it’s firmly grounded in the idea of ethic autonomy/self-rule and the European mode of governance-by-nation-state. But it’s also about using the Bible to justify a territorial claim [I get worried when the Bible is used, cart-blanche, to justify anything in the public sphere] and secular nationalism [which has a pretty frightening history in its own right.] On this, I guess I’m pretty American; I definitely buy into my country’s ideals of secular pluralist democracy, separation of church and state, and nondiscrimination based on grounds of ethnicity/race/religion/gender/sexual orientation. [That’s not to say that I think U.S.-style democracy necessarily works outside of the U.S., in fact I don’t think it’s realistic to expect that kind of system to function in a place like the Middle East…but that’s a whole other issue.] Today Zionism, along with National Security, is also used to justify an illegal occupation and to legitimize institutionalized racial can't blame me for questioning it.

2. Any ideological system – whether it be Secular Nationalism or Religious Fundamentalism – is a little scary when taken to its extreme. If you can’t dispute it, or if it’s used to justify systematic violence and oppression…it’s probably not a good system. That said, I’m all for crazy radicals [of whatever kind] who just want to be left alone to do their own thing…to live in isolated communities according to their own values and leave everyone else alone. [This is also quite American, I suppose.]

3. Since I’ve been in Israel, I’ve been so preoccupied with the political issues at stake that I think I have, somehow, managed to forget about the spiritual side of things – as if Zionism had eclipsed Judaism in my own head to such a degree that I forgotten about the system that, theoretically at least, was at the heart of this whole project of creating and maintaining a Jewish state.

I went to services Friday night and it was great; the singing was beautiful and there was an oddly comfortable familiarity to it all. Granted, I was a little lost given my non-existent Hebrew and the fact that many of the melodies were different from those that I know [thanks Becca, for your help!] …but I wasn’t that lost, after all there is a lot of consistency amongst Jewish prayer services, no matter where you are. In fact, that’s one of the nicest things about Shabbat, and maybe about Judaism in general; it doesn’t really matter where you go…the tradition is well adapted to persist no matter where it is, inside or outside of the land of Israel.


I love Jerusalem. I kindof hate it as well, but I think that’s part of why it’s so incredible. It’s the craziest and most bizarre city I’ve ever been to and also one of the most beautiful.

One of the things I love about it is that I feel really emotional just wandering around. I’ve traveled a lot and most of the time my initial reaction is always to find the place I’m in “interesting” – a word so overused that it doesn’t mean that much – everything’s interesting…or can be, if you look at it in the right way.

But Jerusalem isn’t a place you can go to, and just casually find it “interesting;” the sanctity of the place and the tension that overwhelms it get inside of you. Every time I go there, I try to remain a detached observer, and every time I fail. Maybe it’s because I’m a Jew and the narrative gets to me…or because I really do feel an overwhelming sense of something – Spirituality? Mythology? – permeating the Jerusalem stone. But come on, even if you don’t believe in any of it, you can’t deny the historical significance of a place that so many people, over so many years, have considered holy. Yesterday, as I walked from Ari’s place in Baka, through Yemin Moshe, to the Old City and into East Jerusalem, for no particular reason, I felt like I was going to cry. And I’ve felt like this in Jerusalem before…there’s something so raw and awesome about the place...[Is there something wrong with me, if I like Jerusalem because just being there makes me feel like I’m going to cry?]


Sukkot in Jerusalem.

Being in Jerusalem for Sukkot was also really cool. I like most of the Jewish holidays, but Sukkot, in particular, really resonates with me [it’s so architectural!]. The premise is to construct a temporary dwelling for yourself and your family [a sukkah]…and to move into it for 8 days – eating all of your meals there and, if you’re ambitious, even sleeping there. The sukkah should be more rustic and less comfortable than your regular home, enough to protect you from the elements, but also exposed to them in a way that your permanent home is not [there are actually a number of architectural specifications to abide by; for example, the sukkah should have exactly 3 walls, creating a space within that is both inside and outside].

Staying in the sukkah is a way to remind yourself of the superfluousness of material possessions and of your own vulnerability [to the elements, to nature, to whatever version of God you believe in]. The holiday is about the dualism between what is temporary [your material ‘home’] and what is permanent [your spiritual ‘home’]. It is also about stepping outside of your normal life, in an effort to gain a better perspective.

Saturday morning, as I drank a cup of coffee in Ari’s sukkah, I was [literally] inhabiting a temporary dwelling, but I had also stepped outside of my life in Sde Boker – which has, lately, felt really isolating – and temporarily into Jerusalem, where I was glad to find old friends and to be reminded of a spirituality that had, for me, been obscured by politics. In fact, just being in Israel seemed like a kind of extended Sukkot – a process of stepping outside of my life in the U.S., into a place where I have fewer social and cultural comforts, and where I feel a great deal more vulnerability and confusion – in an effort to try think more clearly about the home I temporarily left behind.

Maybe the Eritrean guy was right – you can find whatever you are looking for in Jerusalem.


After coffee I went to East Jerusalem, then to Ramallah, then to Taybeh – an interesting contrast to the previous evening, to say the least. Octoberfest was great – a lot of fun, sprinkled with some interesting insights into life on the other side of the political divide. There was also good beer, Palestinian hip-hop, and a lot of German people [which I guess makes sense, but it was still surprising to see]. As promised, here are some photos:

Peter and Fernando sampling the local brew.

Peter winning [yes, winning] the strong-man contest.

Performance by hip hop group, Ramallah Underground.

Walking to the brewery.

David and I in Taybeh. [More pics of Taybeh below.]

I don’t know if this is weird, but I felt just as comfortable hanging out with Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem as I did with Palestinians at Octoberfest. I can also really empathize with aspects of the arguments on both sides.

Anyone who goes to Jerusalem will immediately notice the cultural, political, and religious tensions that saturate the city; what I didn’t realize at first, was that all of those conflicts can somehow exist inside of a single person…and that somehow this internal confusion is part of what it means to be there.

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