A day among Jews, and the people that love us…

Yesterday was another great day for our group: busy, challenging, and emotion-filled. First, the journal:

  • 8:15 am departure from the Dan Tel Aviv hotel, heading north along the coast.
  • 9:30 am arrival in Caesaria
  • 12 pm departure for Sadjur, a Druze village in the Galil
  • 1:30 lunch in Sadjur and a visit to the home of Ra’id Abraham.
  • 2:30 departure for Tz’fat
  • 3:30 a visit to the Meiron absorption center to learn about the klitah of Ethiopan Jews into Israel.
  • 5:00 a walking tour of Old Tz’fat and a visit to the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue
  • 8:00 arrival at the Ramot Hagolan hotel.

And now the impressions….

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the present-day construction of Jewish identity. What makes one a Jew? How important is the collective Jewish identity, and how important is the individual? How important is biology? Should it even play a role? Today was a day for considering those questions through some interesting. Each stop on our journey provided some food for thought.

In the Caesaria amphitheater, our guide was drowned out by an evangelical preacher speaking to a group of American Christians. Using a loudspeaker on a crowded touring day is bad form, but this guy didn’t seem to care. As he preached a sermon on how to “show the Jewish people their Lord,” my blood really began to boil. How dare this guy come to my house, set up a PA system, and start in with the proselytizing. His larger point was that proselytizing in the conventional sense (“witnessing”) was not the way to convert Jews, but rather they must be shown “the joy of living before the Lord, free of the Law.” Oy vey! The irony of a good-old-boy Christian talking about a more nuanced approach to Christian witness with a PA system in the Jewish homeland turned my anger to laughter. Poor guy. Good luck with that missionizing.

The crassness of “the Reverend” set nicely against two great moments in Caesarea: our group’s singing “Eli Eli” (more properly known as Halichah L’kaysariah) and reciting the Mishnaic b’rakhah for seeing the Great Sea, and our brief visit with some Israeli middle-schoolers on a field trip. Let the missionaries come with their loudspeakers and shout about how the Jews need to meet their Lord. They are drowned out, and then some, by a simple tune, unamplified, by the rish-rush of the water lapping at the shore, and by the giggles of Hebrew-speaking children trying out their English on their American Jewish cousins.

Sadjur, our lunchtime stop, was wonderful. The Druze meal was delicious and our host, Ra’id, was delightful. He spoke with such pride of the village’s achievements academically in math and science, their service in the military and their connection to Israeli society.

At the Meiron Absorption Center, we learned about the efforts (sometimes halting) that Israel has made to welcome the Beta Israel Jews of Ethiopia. Director Mark Levov and his staff spoke and answered questions, and then we visited with Ethiopian families, exchanging gifts and hospitality. The klitah of Ethiopian Jews is a challenge for Israel, and race plays a role in that challenge. Israelis, like Jews in America, struggle to set aside perceptions about what Jews ought to look like.

It gets even more complicated. The Falash Mura (Christianized Ethiopian Jews) who are now coming to Israel at a pace of 300 per month are being educated in the Mamlachti-Dati-Torani school system. Their klitah into Israeli society is accompanied by a klitah into Orthodox Judaism and it is obvious that some of the diversity of Jewish practice will be gone in a matter of time. To hear an Ethiopian oleh, now on the staff of the Absorption Center, speak apologetically about the fact that the Beta Israel lived without the Talmud and didn’t know from Chanukah was heartbreaking. Why must they? They are the conservators and practitioners of a version of Judaism whose self-understanding takes it back to the days of the First Temple. The loss of that rich heritage is a shame. “Oreo” is used in the black community to refer to someone who is “black on the outside but white on the inside.” It occurs to me that Ethiopian olim are being turned into “Hydroxes” — the kosher Oreo cookie, outwardly Ethiopian but with a sense of Jewishness indistinguishable from their Ashkenazi teachers.  I have no basis for assessing the extent to which this is happening knowingly or willingly, but it is happening.

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