This scent still tugs at my heart . . . opens doors . . . to that ancient song we have passed down for generations.

—Israeli musician Rami Kleinstein, “Small Gifts”1

In early 2013, shortly after Israel held elections to the nineteenth Knesset, those newly elected to the Parliament—in keeping with long-standing tradition—took to the podium to deliver their inaugural addresses to the assembly. In that election, a new party had done surprisingly well. Named Yesh Atid (“There Is a Future”), it was led by a handsome, intelligent, widely admired television journalist and author, Yair Lapid. Lapid, whose Holocaust-survivor father had also been a member of the Knesset and a fierce opponent of religion in the Jewish state, had assembled an eclectic list of candidates, many of whom had never previously served as elected officials: men and women, Haredim, national-religious and secular, gay and straight, Ashkenazi, Mizrachi, and Ethiopian, immigrants and native-born Israelis.2* Part of the point of his list was that the silos dividing Israeli society needed to come down. Among the MKs in his new party was Ruth Calderon.

When it came her turn to speak, Calderon walked to the podium with a volume of the Talmud in hand. “Mr. Chairman, honorable Knesset,” she began, “the book I am holding changed my life, and to a large extent it is the reason that I have reached this day with the opportunity to speak to the Knesset of Israel as a new member.”3

Then Calderon continued by reminding the assembly of the history they all shared to some degree or another:

I did not inherit a set of Talmud from my grandfather. I was born and raised in a quaint neighborhood in Tel Aviv. My father, Moshe Calderon, was born in Bulgaria and immigrated to this land as a young man. After the difficult war years, he began studying agriculture at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and was immediately conscripted to defend Gush Etzion during the War of Independence. . . . My German-born mother, who had the combined misfortune (at that time) of being Jewish, left-handed, and red-haired, made aliyah as a teenager, and met my father courtesy of the British siege of Jerusalem.

Yet her story was not the classic Zionist narrative that it sounded like at first blush. In fact, she went to great lengths to explain, her generation marked the beginning of the end of that narrative.

I grew up in a very Jewish, very Zionist, secular-traditional-religious home that combined Ashkenaz and Sepharad, [Revisionist] Betar and [Socialist] Hashomer Hatzair, in the Israeli mainstream of the 60s and 70s. I was educated like everyone else my age—public education in the spirit of “from the Tanach to the Palmach.”* I was not acquainted with the Mishna, the Talmud, Kabbala or Hasidism. By the time I was a teenager, I already sensed that something was missing. Something about the new, liberated Israeli identity of . . . Naomi Shemer’s poems, was good and beautiful, but lacking. I missed depth; I lacked words for my vocabulary; a past, epics, heroes, places, drama, stories—were missing.

The new Hebrew [i.e., new Jew], created by educators from the country’s founding generation, realized his dream and became a courageous, practical, and suntanned soldier. But for me, this contained—I contained—a void. I did not know how to fill that void, but when I first encountered the Talmud [with] its language, its humor, its profound thinking, its modes of discussion, and the practicality, humanity, and maturity that emerge from its lines, I sensed that I had found the love of my life.

Calderon’s opening was far more than a mere autobiographical curiosity. The Zionist revolution, she was saying, had been successful, but also too successful. Zionism had created a new Jew, but that new Jew was rudderless, an “orphan in history.”4 Zionism had “cured” the Jew; but it had also overcured the Jew. Desperate to create a new Jew, to fashion a Jew who would not cower behind casks when Cossacks attacked Kishinev, Zionism had so eradicated connection with the Jewish tradition that a generation or two later, young Israelis were so divorced from their own tradition that Hillel Halkin, a well-known Israeli author and translator, called them “Hebrew-speaking goyim.” Now they were hungry for meaning, yearning for roots, seeking to reconnect with what Zionism had taken from them.

Nor was she alone, Calderon insisted. There were so many young Israelis seeking the very reconnection she yearned for that multiple institutions were founded to address their needs. She and several others founded a “Home for Hebrew Culture” in Tel Aviv, and in Jerusalem, they created one of the first Israeli settings in which men and women, religious and secular, studied classic Jewish religious texts together.

Secular Israelis were studying these great works, seeking a rapprochement with the very tradition from which Ben-Gurion, Alterman, and Bialik (all of whom knew classical Jewish texts and cited them often, ironically) had felt Israelis needed to distance themselves. And religious people were now studying with secular people, suddenly aware that rather than simple “apostates,” these secular Jews had interpretations of texts to offer from which the religious young people could learn a great deal, but which they were not going to hear in classic religious settings.

Though this new trend did not, of course, touch all of Israeli society, increasing numbers of Israelis were no longer certain that the Jewish state could be what Natan Alterman had intimated it would be in his poem “The Silver Platter”—a replacement for Sinai, the mountain that represented thousands of years of Jewish tradition. In fact, they sensed, without Sinai at the core, without a unique and particular Jewish message rooted in classic Jewish writings, Jewish statehood and sovereignty would be rendered meaningless.

THE ORIGINAL ZIONIST REVOLUTION was fading. Many early Zionist thinkers had seen Zionism as a therapeutic project. Zionism would heal the Jew. It would save the Jew from religion, from the dusty tomes of the yeshiva bookshelves. There had been an era in which having absolutely no religious faith was a badge of Zionist honor. Tommy Lapid—Yair Lapid’s father—recounted an instance in which he and an ultra-Orthodox Jew appeared on the same television show. Lapid mentioned that he did not believe in God and then relayed what happened: “‘If you don’t believe in God,’ some angry ultra-Orthodox politico shouted at me during one of the Popolitika television programs, ‘then who defined you as a Jew?’ ‘Hitler,’ I shouted back at him. For once there was silence in the studio.”5

Lapid may have put it more starkly than others, but a rejection of classic Jewish religion was key to much of early Zionism. That was the power of Calderon’s coming to the podium of the Knesset with a volume of the Talmud and teaching a passage to the assembly. She, the product of those new Jews that Zionism had sought to create, wanted some of the old Jew back.

THE IDEOLOGY OF CLASSIC ZIONISM was beginning to crack. Cracks could be seen far beyond the relatively small—even if widening—circles of Israel’s young intellectual elites. The rock music scene was another lens into the phenomenon. Arik Einstein (1939–2013), the wildly popular “father of Israeli rock,” grew up in Tel Aviv with all its attendant hypersecularism (and the lifestyle belonging to a rock musician). Einstein’s closest friend was Uri Zohar, a comedian and film director, who in the 1970s began to turn to religion. In 1977, Zohar—long a symbol of the best of secular Israeli entertainment—left the entertainment world, became a rabbi, and joined the ultra-Orthodox community.

In the meantime, Einstein divorced his wife, Alona. Alona was from pure Zionist aristocratic stock. The daughter of one of the Israeli Air Force’s first pilots, in itself sufficient to make her part of the secular aristocracy, she was also the granddaughter of Manya and Israel Schochet. Manya had been a revolutionary in czarist Russia, and both she and her husband made their way to Palestine during the Second Aliyah. Theirs was the classic, canonical Zionist narrative.

After she and Einstein divorced, Alona found her way to religion, as well, and she, too, became ultra-Orthodox. Ultimately, Arik and Alona’s two ultra-Orthodox daughters married Uri Zohar’s two eldest sons, also ultra-Orthodox. In many ways, the story was a mere curiosity; but the image of Arik Einstein, the hypersecular king of Israeli rock, surrounded by ultra-Orthodox family members who had come from the secular aristocracy was a powerful symbol of the shifts taking place in parts of Israeli life.

Arik Einstein’s family was not alone. Reengagement with religion became a defining characteristic of many Israeli musicians. Etti (Esther) Ankri achieved instant stardom with her first album, I Can See It in Your Eyes (1990), which reached double platinum in Israel. The very symbol of musical success, she was eventually named Israeli Female Singer of the Year. In 2001, she, too, began a slow return to religious observance, and when she released an album in 2009, it was a musical rendering of the poetry of the medieval Jewish poet and philosopher Rabbi Yehudah Halevi.

The Banai family, the first “Israeli musical family,” illustrated the pattern best. The first generation of Banai performers, Yossi and Gavri Banai, were staunch secularists. In the next generation, first cousins Ehud and Yuval Banai were in bands that brought East-West fusion into Israeli culture, a reflection of the spiritual search that often took Israelis abroad. Still later, in the 1990s, Ehud and Evyatar (also first cousins) became religious and were soon bringing overt Jewish themes into their music. It was one family, with several stages of spiritual searching that represented Israeli life at large.

One could see the shift online and in bookstores, as well. YNet, Israel’s most popular news website (hosted by the secular daily Yediot Achronot), almost always posted some overtly Jewish religious content on its rapidly changing pages. In 2005, when Israeli professor Malka Shaked published I’ll Play You Forever: The Bible in Modern Hebrew Poetry, her anthology of modern Israeli poetry that was in clear dialogue with the Bible weighed in at well over a thousand pages.6 The poetry had been written over decades, but now there was a popular market for volumes that would trace Israelis’ ongoing dialogue with the Bible and attest to its being so ubiquitous in Israeli cultural life.

Micah Goodman, a popular teacher on the Israeli scene and one of its young public intellectuals, wrote his first three books on Maimonides’s Guide to the Perplexed, Rabbi Yehudah Halevi’s medieval classic, The Kuzari, and the biblical book of Deuteronomy—hardly subjects one would expect to attract mass attention. Yet all three of Goodman’s books hit the Israeli bestseller list. Israelis were buying, reading, and thinking about books on subjects their grandparents had tried to evict from the Israeli conversation.

In the Israeli movie industry, major films began to examine, often with a sympathetic even if critical eye, the world of Jewish tradition that most of secular Israel had long ignored or viewed with derision. In 1999, Kadosh (Hebrew for “sacred”) cast a critical but not entirely unsympathetic eye on the secular world’s narrow and dismissive view of ultra-Orthodox life. Fill the Void, released in 2012, focused on a modern ultra-Orthodox twist of the biblical tradition of levirate marriage; the film tells the story of a young woman pressured into marrying her sister’s husband after her sister dies in childbirth.* Get (Hebrew for “writ of divorce”), a 2014 film, explored the power that Jewish men could exert over their wives in government-sanctioned rabbinic courts. Perhaps the best known of the rapidly expanding genre was Footnote, a 2011 film that focused on the troubled relationship between a father and a son, both of whom are Israeli professors of Talmud. The father, interested in highly technical academic aspects of the Talmudic text, is appalled by his son’s search for contemporary meaning in the text—and the throngs of students who are attracted to his son’s new (and in the father’s mind, insufficiently academically serious) approach. The battle between the generations, a realistic assessment of what was transpiring in Israeli academe, was a clear reference to Ruth Calderon’s generation yearning for exposure to the Talmud not as a scientific discipline, but as part of a journey of searching for life’s meaning in the company of Jewish texts.

The shift was apparent even among Israel’s most important establishment intellectuals. In 2003, Professor Ruth Gavison (a leading Israeli jurisprudential philosopher and later a nominee for the Israeli Supreme Court) and Rabbi Yaakov Medan (one of the leaders of the prestigious Har Etzion Yeshiva) published the Gavison-Medan Covenant, a proposed “agreement” between secular and religious Israelis about how to make Israel’s public space palpably Jewish while respecting individual rights. The covenant covers many areas of daily life in Israel, including Jewish identity, marriage, the Sabbath, Kashrut, the Western Wall, and the IDF. Some of its groundbreaking progress included agreements that civil registration of marriages would be necessary for all those wishing to marry, while a religious service, if any, would be optional. The Sabbath would be deemed a day of rest for the State of Israel but restaurants, entertainment centers, and a limited number of grocery stores, gas stations, and pharmacies would not be forbidden from operating, and there would be modified forms of public transportation on the Sabbath, as well.

It was telling that Gavison, a nonobservant woman long associated with the Israeli Left (she had been at the helm of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, in addition to her many academic endeavors) was the one insisting that the state could not survive without a substantive core of Jewish content. Her participation reflected two moves—secular and religious Israelis reaching across the divide, seeking common ground, and Israelis seeking to root their country in a discourse of Jewish meaning. If Israel were not democratic, she believed, it would have no justification for being. If it were not palpably Jewish, it would have no reason to be. The challenge of Israel’s governmental policies, she insisted, “is not just to ensure the existence of the state, but also to ensure that it will include an effective legacy of Jewish identities . . . as a precondition for interest in Jewish history or Jewish sources. Only such a legacy will enable the continued willingness of most of the public that lives in the state to continue to support a state that is both Jewish and democratic.”7

There was more. Across Israel, one could see indications that young religious Jews were anxious to meet their secular counterparts, and that secular Israelis, in addition to meeting their religious peers, were thirsty for serious exposure to the texts that the “Tanach to Palmach censorship” had long hidden from them. One-year post-high-school, pre-military-service programs for students cropped up all over the country, many of them designed specifically for a mixed population of secular and religious people. Thousands of students attended—applications far outstripped capacity.

Israel remained a complex and heterogeneous society, of course. Approximately a million immigrants from the former USSR had come to Israel very skeptical about religion, and as a whole they remained so—though many of their children who were not Jewish according to Jewish law (because their mothers were not Jewish) availed themselves of opportunities that the army afforded them to undergo conversion.

Israelis of Russian background typically share the right-leaning political dispositions of the Mizrachim—but not their instinctive allegiance to religious tradition. Tel Aviv remains a highly secular city, so different from much of Israel that it is sometimes called “the State of Tel Aviv.” There is no one Israel, but many Israels—and religion plays a different role in each of them. Across the country, though, one could sense at least a new openness to the tradition that the Zionist founding fathers had jettisoned, a new spiritual searching that earlier generations had dismissed.

Scarcely more than half a century into its history, the very religious tradition that the founding fathers of the state had sought to banish was making its way back to the center of Israeli life. The State of Israel—and especially its foundational ideology—was going through a seismic shift. What had happened?

ONE MAJOR DEVELOPMENT WAS the rise of the Mizrachim to a place of social and cultural prominence in Israeli life. Mizrachi religiosity had always manifested itself differently than the philosophically more rigid Ashkenazi variety, and now secular Israelis were being exposed to its worldview. Mizrachi Jews admired rabbis more than their Ashkenazi counterparts did, but obeyed them less. As one leading Israeli philosopher put it, for Mizrachim, a Jew’s relationship to Jewish tradition was less one of obedience (the central trope of classic Ashkenazi religiosity) and more a matter of loyalty.8 One could be a deeply believing and loyal Jew, Mizrachim essentially asserted, without being committed to the observance of all the rigors of Jewish law. The Mizrachim made it possible for Ashkenazim to draw closer to Jewish tradition—with attendant sentiments of respect and loyalty—without the fear of becoming “religious,” a label that was still anathema to many Israelis who had been raised in the secular world.

In some ways, Israelis were also growing tired of the burden of history, of having to constantly see their own lives as part of a grand historic pageant. Many decades had passed since Haim Hazaz had written his 1943 short story “The Sermon,” in which he declared that he was opposed to Jewish history. But Israel had never given up on history or memory. Archaeology had become a national obsession, and some archaeologists, like Yigael Yadin, became virtual folk heroes. Israel also treated memory as virtually sacred, as seen even in street names. There are virtually no Broadways or Ninety-Sixth Streets in Israel: every street is named for a person of biblical, Talmudic, or historical importance; a biblical place or flower—but then, only a flower that is found in the Land of Israel; Zionist organizations; important dates in Jewish and Israeli history; and the like.

But the drive to play a pivotal role in a historic drama of epic proportions, which had so moved and animated the early generations, was wearing thin for Israelis two or three generations later. Yehuda Amichai, who in many ways replaced Natan Alterman as Israel’s national poet (Alterman, who died in 1970, filled the role when Chaim Nachman Bialik died in 1934), often expressed the yearning to be relieved of the burden of history and narrative. His poem “Tourist” is one of his most famous. The narrator, a man carrying heavy baskets at his side, comes across a group of tourists with their guide. The guide points to the man with the baskets and says, “Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.”9

But is the man, the person, the living human being less important than the ancient stones? Says the narrator (and thus, Amichai, too), “Redemption will come only if their guide tells them, ‘You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.’”

Israelis were seeking a new kind of redemption, one that would come not from courage on the battlefield or profound ideological intensity, but from a life of simple humanity. Many of them were seeking it in the texts and traditions that had shaped their people for thousands of years.

The renewed search for meaning also stemmed from Israelis’ realization that peace was not going to come any time soon. After the devastation of the Yom Kippur War and the collapse of the conceptzia, Yehoram Gaon—one of Israel’s most popular singers—came out with a song the refrain of which was “I promise you, my little girl, that this will be the last war.” By the end of 2000, after a new Intifada had erupted, few Israelis believed that there would be a “last war.” The conflict would go on, if not forever then for a very long time. The idyllic images of Theodor Herzl’s Altneuland, where Jews and Arabs lived peacefully beside each other in a Jewish state thriving and welcomed by all, seemed terribly naive. If the pursuit of a lasting peace could no longer be many Israelis’ source of inspiration and meaning, they would have to turn elsewhere.

EVEN AS SOME ISRAELIS were growing more interested in their religious roots, much of Israeli society was at the very same time worried about other religious phenomena in the Jewish state. The chief rabbinate, an institution that the Ottomans and British had established and shaped, was becoming ever more reviled. As the Haredim had become increasingly central to Israeli politics, they were able to ensure that the chief rabbis were either ultra-Orthodox or close to it. By the twenty-first century, Israel had not only chief rabbis who were occasionally indicted for misuse of funds, but were also not Zionists. Frightened by modernity and opposed to change, they dismissed and ridiculed all non-Orthodox forms of Judaism, alienating large swaths of Diaspora Jews, the vast majority of whom were not Orthodox. One Orthodox rabbi writing in 2016 and bemoaning what had happened to the rabbinate cited a recent poll in which 71 percent of Israelis said they were dissatisfied with the rabbinate and 65 percent favored abolishing the institution altogether.10

The Haredi world, varied though it is, on the whole had a strategy for Jewish survival that was fundamentally at odds with almost all branches of Zionism. If Zionism was predicated on erasing the passivity of the Diaspora Jew and taking the reins of history into Jewish hands, the Haredi world believed that it was in the Diaspora that Jewish life had reached its purest state. If Zionists wanted to create new Jews, Haredim sought to retain what they saw as the luster of the “old” (and therefore, “authentic”) Jew and restore the primacy of Jewish religious life, even if that meant forcing it on nonbelieving Israelis. If Zionism believed that a powerful Jew could engage the non-Jewish world as an equal, the Haredi world eyed the Gentile world with suspicion and fear. They wanted to be left alone. The less contact with the Jewish state—and the world it was engaging—the better.

By 1963, when Ben-Gurion realized that he had been wrong to release Haredi students from army service, he wrote Eshkol, who was then prime minister: “I released yeshiva students from army service. I did so when their number was small, but now they are increasing. When they run amok, they represent a danger to the honor of the state.”11

Much more than the state’s honor was at stake, however, and Ben-Gurion had failed to recognize the full gravity of the mistake he had made. By 2014, Haredim constituted approximately 15 percent of Israel’s Jewish population, and the percentage was growing; the average fertility rate for Haredi women was 6.2 children, while for the non-Haredi Jewish population it was 2.4.12 Because the vast majority of Haredi boys cease their secular education at the age of fourteen, they are much less prepared for the job market and remain increasingly dependent on the government. In 2010, the universally liked and admired Bank of Israel governor, Stanley Fischer, warned that without a significant change in policy, Israel’s prosperity in light of the Haredi numbers was simply “not sustainable.”13

Interestingly, though, even as Israelis were deeply worried about the implications of the Haredim for democracy (many Haredim would prefer a theocracy or life under a non-Jewish government), secular civil rights, and economics, they were, at the same time, also fascinated by the devotion that way of life elicited in its followers. That, too, was reflected in popular Israeli culture, in a well-known television series discussed obsessively on social media after each episode. Named Shtisel, its plot follows a Haredi family of the same name. After decades of secular Jews showing either disinterest or disdain when it came to Haredim, Shtisel was a loving, understanding portrayal of a way of life Israelis still feared but also found fascinating. It was, as one of its coauthors readily noted, “the first time that a television show shows Haredim who love their way of life, their kids and their grandkids.”14 Tel Avivians who watched the show began speaking to each other with a smattering of Yiddish terms they learned from its characters.

The tensions with the Haredi world were not over, but the barriers were cracking. Israelis were searching, and were finding meaning in places that not long before would have seemed unthinkable.

WHATEVER CHALLENGES THE HAREDI world might have represented to Israel’s democracy or economic sustainability, religion in the Jewish state also had other, more radical splinter groups. In the decades following Oslo, a small group of nationalist extremists began to establish outposts in the West Bank (or Judea and Samaria, the biblical name by which many Israelis refer to it). The “hilltop youth,” as they are called, grew out of the Gush Emunim worldview but came to see even the hard-core Gush Emunim settlers as too passive and overly respectful of the state and its government. Their goal was not only to ensure Jewish sovereignty over the “whole land of Israel” but also to form a monarchy that would establish Jewish law as the law of the land. For them, Zionism was too new to afford them a sense of being part of a grand Jewish narrative. “I don’t see myself as a continuation of Zionism,” one told an interviewer. He was in search of “something deeper with more roots.”15 Even the sometimes militaristic rhetoric of people like Ze’ev Jabotinsky was insufficient for these young people. They were looking for a different, more violent sort of inspiration. They were the extreme manifestation of precisely what Yeshayahu Leibowitz had warned would happen if Israel did not exit the West Bank.

Their inspiration came in the form of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, the author of a book named Barukh Ha-Gever (Blessed Is the Man). The book justified the actions of Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Palestinians and injured 125 in Hebron in 1994. Barukh Ha-Gever was actually a play on words, for it could mean either “Blessed Is the Man” or “Baruch Is the Man,” and it became a manifesto for the violence-inclined post-Zionist hilltop youth.

Two of Ginsburgh’s admirers then published a book in 2009 called Torat Ha-Melekh (The Law of the King). Among its most notorious (and repulsive) conclusions, Torat Ha-Melekh justifies the killing of Palestinian children because “it is clear that they will grow to harm us”16 and asserts that the Bible’s injunction “Thou shall not kill” applied only to the killing of Jews. Appalled by its tone and content, several Jewish groups filed a petition with Israel’s High Court of Justice, asking that the book be banned and that its authors be charged with incitement.17 But Israel has a long tradition of protecting freedom of expression and freedom of religion, and the High Court argued that the book, even if inflammatory, was not a call to action and therefore could not be banned. Successive governments were no less successful at containing this small but ugly phenomenon than they were at limiting the power of the Haredi community. In ways that no preeminent Zionist thinker had foreseen, the Jewish return to physical power had spawned an ugly, racist, and dangerous offshoot; and no matter how small it was, Israel would have to confront it.

DESPITE THESE WORRISOME DEVELOPMENTS, Judaism in the Jewish state was mostly a story of deep decency, vitality, and renewal. One hundred and twenty years after the First Zionist Congress, almost seventy years after the State of Israel had been created, Ahad Ha’am’s dream had in many ways come true. Israel was once again bursting with Jewish energy, with Jewish creativity, with Jewish searching. In 1897, Ahad Ha’am could never even have dreamed of a state that would be home to eight million people, three-quarters of them Jews. Who, in Zionism’s early days, could have imagined that there would be a sovereign secular state that would still be home to the thousands of yeshivot of which Rav Kook had dreamed, in which bookstores boasted hundreds of linear yards of shelves holding books written in a largely abandoned language that Eliezer Ben-Yehuda had revived?

Herzl’s Jews had sought a state. Ahad Ha’am had proposed a vision of Israel as a great spiritual center. In ways that neither could have anticipated, though, the two dreams grew intertwined. Israel could never have become the Jewish spiritual center it was becoming were it not for the fact that it was also a nation-state. Ahad Ha’am’s dream could come to fruition because Herzl, too, had won the day.

Yet Herzl’s vision of a sovereign state had meaning, increasing numbers of Israelis believed, only if those new Jews rooted themselves and their humanity in the tradition they had inherited. Herzl without Ahad Ha’am was merely political sovereignty—and that, Israelis began to sense, was simply not enough.

Theodor Herzl. Ahad Ha’am. Two radically different personalities. Two opposing visions for the Jewish future. But a century after Balfour, it was dawning on Israelis that what made their country so extraordinary was the fact that they no longer believed they had to choose between the two. Both models had come to be, and in the process, the two together had created a new Jew far richer and more nuanced than either could have achieved alone.

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