It’s summer in Israel, it’s 45 degrees and the humidity is so bad you feel like you’re walking through a pot of rice cooking. You’re busy taking in the view of the girls wearing next to nothing or the guys showing off their torsos – when suddenly a Hasid crosses the street dressed from head to toe in black with pale white skin, long beard and a woolly hat.
Religion is an incredibly complex and contradictory thing in Israel which makes it hard to come to any conclusions about it. Generally the guys dressed in black are known as the Haredim, the god-fearing and they tend to congregate in the religious centres of Jerusalem and Sfat. They follow the commandments religiously (how else?) and throw stones at the cars of other Israelis who dare drive cars on the shabbat anywhere near their neighbourhoods.
The Haredim aren’t generally too popular among young and secular Israelis who are pissed off that they receive financial help from the government to study and don’t even serve in the army. They live in their own neighbourhoods with huge families and their patriarchal ways remind one more of the Arabs than anyone else.
Yet there are other religious Israelis who are just as serious about being Jews but who receive no help from the government and serve in the army alongside everyone else. The religious are splintered into a myriad groups, all following the teachings of one venerated Rabbi and are identified only by the angle they wear their skull cap or tuck in their shirt.
It’s probably true to say that most Israelis feel religious to some extent though they may not follow any of the commandments other than to avoid pork. Yet, given the history of Israel, a secular Israeli has a hard time justifying what the hell the Jews are doing in the Middle East if not for the legacy of the Promised Land. Most of them just shrug and get on with it, professing squatter’s rights as they’re already three generations in.
The sense of identity many Israelis feel is often more to do with tradition than religion though. The festivals, the Friday evening meal, the songs and many of the core values have everything to do with family and the survival of the Jews through the ages. The very fact that Jewish identity is passed on through the mother’s bloodline ensured that they remained a close, tribal community as far as was possible when they settled in foreign lands. The good times in Israel generally coincide with the Jewish holidays and all the fun times of childhood are brought back when the festivals roll around. Well, memories of the food, anyway.
Yet most Israelis still know the words to all the festival songs and as bitter an atheist they profess themselves to be, they still rush home every Friday night to take the Shabbat meal with the family. You’ll see Israeli stoners fresh back from India who still go glassy-eyed at the thought of Jerusalem. Or the Israeli who denies his Jewish roots but who will open his home to his friends, share his food instinctively and goes all quit on Saturdays.
Whether any of that has to do with a sense of tradition rather than religion, the Haredim often view the secular Israelis with a mixture of scorn and pity. The Messiah won’t come until every Jew keeps the Shabbat and so they’re being held back by those who turn their cookers on to make shakshuka on Saturday mornings. Every weekend in the coolest streets in Tel Aviv the most enthusiastic of the religious come to convert the hip, young generations and they look utterly out of place in their Polish aristocratic black suits.
However, life goes on beyond the age of 22 and many Israelis find that there is guidance to be found in the Jewish texts which can get quite mystical at times. Recently Israelis returning from psychedelic experience abroad find that the religious know what they’re talking about and what’s more, they have a map. Those who become ‘New Age Jews’ are referred to as ‘returning to the answer’, as opposed to ‘living with the question’, as the secular are described.
Knowing someone who ‘returns to the answer’ can be like losing a friend. They can no longer speak without praising god every few sentences, if they;re female they can no longer even hug male friends and some of them even go and live out in settlements in the occupation of the West Bank. And 6 months before that they were wearing fluoro at a Goa Trance party? Go figure.
On one hand, Judaism offers more reading and understanding that anyone could hope to tackle half of in a lifetime. The downer is perhaps that some of them try to anyway; there’s something profoundly sacrilegious about never exposing your skin to the sun in such a warm country. Some of the men spend their entire lives reading and very little time looking up in wonder at the world their god is supposed to have created.
The children need glasses before they learn to tie their shoelaces and, again, in some of the sects, there seems to be a profound fear of sexuality. Although it’s a mitzvah a commandment) to please one’s wife in bed, it’s not uncommon to meet unmarried religious men who still have no idea how menstruation or conception works. Once women are married they’re made to look as ugly as possible with wigs, stockings and clothes that were never fashionable two centuries ago. They’re not even supposed to lift their voice in song in case that should break the concentration of the studious men.
One look at the eyes and spirit of many of the religious in Israel makes it clear that Judaism can be a rich and beautiful source of spirituality. It’s just that some of the religious hang on to social and idealistic conventions that are archaic and out of place in the modern world. What, was Moses walking round in black furry hats through the desert? And the paranoia about subduing the sexuality of women may partly have come from fear of rape when living as a persecuted minority in Gentile countries.
One thing’s for sure: if it wasn’t for the religious in the proportionally represented government insisting upon tracts of land ‘promised’ to the Jews by the bible, it would be a hell of a lot easier to cut a deal with the Palestinians.
Check out the Judaism Guide for more.