letter from israel day one
The first thing you notice when you fly to Israel is the diversity of people coming here. Half of them appear to be not Jewish, and none of the two Jews looks quite the same. OK, that's a lie, there were two little girls with a traditional-looking mother and matching mini-backpacks--Shira and Malka, I think, or something equivalent--who looked almost identical. But for a country that's supposedly in trouble, an awful lot of people seem to come here .
That last part bears a little more thought. Part of the reason some Jews have mixed feelings about Israel may be less that it is failing than that it is succeeding in a way that they don't like. Each time I come here it seems a little bit more Middle Eastern and a little less, well, American. For one thing the percentage of religious people, to judge from superficial signs like kippot and long dresses, seems to inch up each time I visit. (I'm cheating a little, by teaching at a nominally religious university (Bar Ilan), but the feeling starts right at the airport.)
Counteracting, or perhaps contributing, to the religious revival is the crude or at least earthy nature of a healthy--probably not the right word--portion of Israeli society. Tabloid newspapers carry a steady stream of corruption and harassment allegations against high-ranking officials, which are distinguished from the American variety only by their outrageous character. (American men annoy women with unwanted emails and phone calls; Israelis simply tackle them). Then why not buy the upscale daily (Ha'aretz), you ask, which is relatively free of such stories? Because Ha'aretz is sold practically nowhere outside of central Tel Aviv and seems to exist primarily as a website for foreigners--another sign of the distance between different types of Israelis, not to mention Israelis and foreigners, that is a pervasive feature of the country's life.
Not that there isn't much good here, or that the country doesn't remain, for all it's faults, an infinitely more healthy environment for Jews than North America or anyplace else. There is something reassuring about a country where you can buy Hannukah candles at a newsstand, where notices for Sabbath retreats share space with ads for sports facilites and laser tonail removal. What is striking is how easily, seemlessly the Jewish and even the military aspects blends with the normal rhythms of everyday life. On a bus into Tel Aviv a male soldier flirts with a female one describing his training exercises. She turns around to reveal two green bars on her shoulder: an officer. So they're not intimidated by rank, whatever else their problems.
And the bumper stickers, like nowhere else in the world. "Whoever Believes Will Not Be Afraid" (Mi she-maamin lo yefahed.) "Don't forget Ron Arad" (an airman lost years ago and almost certainly dead). And of course the endless paens to the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, both deceased, but seemingly more alive with each passing year.
A crowd outside the Hen Cinema near Dizengoff Circle, Tel Aviv. Cameras and paparazzi. Leonardo DiCaprio and Bar Refaeli are supposedly on their way. A bearded Israeli artist, who I recognize vaguely from some or another TV program, garners a few photographs. So the secular side still lives, but of course--in true Jewish fashion--they have merely turned celebrity into an alternate religion. No one here is really secular, in the way other people understand it.
A bookstore five blocks away. David Grossman's book To the End of the Land, which of course has a completely different title in Hebrew, is on sale for 98 shekels. But everything in Israel is a mivtsa (a special deal, or literally, an operation). For 100 shekels--50 cents more--I can have three Grossman books and a book of poetry, as well. So we spend a half hour searching the store for the additional books which would take me at least five years to read and which won't fit in may already overstuffed bags, anyway. The absurdity seems somehow fitting, You want normal, go to London, the saleslady seems to be saying.