So What Are You?

A number of years ago a new Oleh (immigrant to Israel) visited our community of Fort Lee and began discussing with me his new life in Israel. He told me that, although Israel had made major strides in “westernizing” its way of life, there still remained some basic differences between the life he left in the U.S. and the new one he began in Israel.

“What specifically?” I asked him.

“Well,” he said, “I can best answer your question by telling of an experience I just had. I came into the States last week to attend a wedding of a friend and sat at a table of people I had never met. We began by introducing ourselves to one another and telling each other where we lived and where we came from. Invariably, the very next question that was posed was: ‘So, what are you?’

We continued to discuss our professions with each other, sharing work stories and identifying other acquaintances who were in the same business. The conversation centered on our jobs for the bulk of the evening. And I walked away from the wedding feeling that we were still, more or less, strangers.

“Exactly two weeks earlier I had attended a wedding in Israel and also was seated at a table of strangers. But after introducing ourselves, we proceeded to explain our relationship with the bride or groom and told stories about the celebrating families. For the bulk of the dinner, however, we talked about our own families; our children or grandchildren, our personal stories of Aliya or of our years in Israel, and, of course, the ‘matzav,’ the security situation. Two of us even shared Divrei Torah we had recently heard. When I left that evening, I realized that I hadn’t the foggiest idea what these people did for a living. Nobody asked ‘What are you?’ because, I realized, in Israel your job does not define WHAT you are! In Israel, you are identified your disposition not by your position. So I recognized that here there is simply a different set of priorities and a different value system.”

I have recalled this conversation numerous times over these past years. And although I hesitate to make broad generalizations about entire societies, I can state that I have found the visitor’s words to be true quite often.

Six years ago, during a six month sabbatical, I traveled to Tel-Aviv to learn about the much ballyhooed “White Nights.” I had heard about it and I had read about it. I knew that it was an all-night event. But I had neither seen nor experienced it. I really wasn’t sure what to expect. When I arrived I stood before a huge street fair that stretched down a main artery of the bustling city. I wandered about for hours passing museums, book stands, children’s entertainment and reenactments of the historical events of Tel Aviv. It was a cultural smorgasbord informing and educating the public of the available learning opportunities awaiting both residents and tourists alike. And it remained open throughout the night. Hence, the appellation “White Nights.” I remember how amazed I was at the varied populations that attended: old and young, locals and visitors, secular and religious. What struck me most, however, was the thirst that was displayed for culturally meaningful experiences.

Having grown up in a television dominated society, a place when people would actually debate the positive and negative traits of a fictional television character, I struggled to pry people away from their TV sets in order to attend evening classes, lectures or other cultural events. Yet, here I saw masses of people spending the entire night in cultural pursuits. There simply was a different set of priorities and a different value system. For me, it was an eye-opening experience, truly unique, I thought, and rightly named a “White Night.”

It was at 3:45 a.m. recently when I realized that I had been mistaken. The “White Night” was not unique to Tel Aviv, or to any one city in Israel, for around the country thousands upon thousands remained awake all night. It was Shavuot, the festival celebrating our acceptance of the Torah, and myriads filled the streets to attend lectures, shiurim and discussion groups. Jews of all stripes gathered to study Torah! There were those who remained in one place all night and those who strode through the wide thoroughfares and narrow alleyways to attend a specific lecture or hear a specific lecturer. Famous rabbis, well-known professors, experts in different fields of Jewish study made their way from synagogue to lecture hall as the streets of cities all over Israel echoed with the sounds of Torah. What can I say? I saw a different set of priorities.

Six years ago, I sat in amazement as, at 3 a.m., the Minister of Justice of the State of Israel marched into the synagogue (with his security detail) and proceeded to give a one-hour class, accompanied by 20 pages of rabbinic references, on the importance of combining Torah study with regular employment. This year I picked up a map of Jerusalem showing all the different places in the city where classes were to be given-and there were hundreds of classes! I even became aware of the new phenomenon of “batei midrash,” study halls, opened around the country by secular Jews, who may have a very different approach to our Torah than I do, but who thirst, nonetheless, to deepen their understanding and appreciation of Jewish life. And they, too, filled the streets and study halls on Shavuot night.

I know that there are wonderful communities elsewhere who have all-night learning sessions, some with barbecues; some without. And I’m sure that others, in other cities, may have felt a little of what I did this past Shavuot. But walking on Emek Refa’im at 3:45 in the morning, and passing scores of people on their way to study Torah, I could only feel that there certainly was a different value system at work. And I never had to ask anyone: “So,what are you?”

I knew.

We were all Jews.