By Rabbi Dov Wilhelm
Two peoples, poles apart, live in the same tiny country: Here, a community thriving in Torah; there, the vast majority of Israeli Jewry — estranged, lost, without knowledge or readiness to learn about Judaism. They live in superficial peace, each streaming along its own course. Where they flow into one another, there is turbulence. The secular population hates the religious irrationally, and the religious are too busy to notice how alienated the others have grown.
I visit Israel’s development towns as part of my work for a Torah-education organization. This year I tried to discover how Israeli secular children think, what they know about Judaism and how they feel about it. When I told my cabbie that I wanted to visit a secular high school, he gave me a funny look — neither my beard nor my clothing has a secular cut to it. He radioed for directions, and we arrived at a local high school just as hundreds of kids were pouring out at the end of their school day.
Hesitantly, I approached and said, “I’d like to talk to you, to anyone who’s willing.”*
Five or six teenagers stopped and looked me over like a bone in a paleontology museum.
“What’s your name?” I addressed an alert boy of about 17 who seemed to dominate the group.
“Oscar, Oscar Levy.”
“Oscar’s not a particularly Jewish name.”
“I like it. My parents named me Oren. My mother says Oren is a firm, proud tree,” he said disdainfully. “A couple of years ago, I decided to change my name to Oscar. Mom went ballistic when I asked the family and my friends to call me Oscar from then on. You should have heard her. “It’s a cold, foreign name. It’s not a Jewish name! Not Israeli!” he mimicked
“I answered her, ‘It’s not enough that I’m a Jew? Must my name announce it to everyone?’ She was in shock. I really don’t know why. Why all this emotion about origins? I hate it when I’m told that the Jews are the eternal people, the people of the Bible.”
“But it’s true!”
“So what? Why do I have to be born with 3,000 years of heavy history on my shoulders? What does that do for me? We only live once. I want to make my own life, not to feel bound by pretty words that tell me nothing.”
“Do you fast on Yom Kippur?”
“Were you ever inside a synagogue?”
“What’s a synagogue?” He was serious. I just stared.
“Oh, you mean one of those buildings that religious Jews visit on Shabbat and Yom Kippur, like the one across the street from the Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem? No, I was never inside one.”
“Did you celebrate your Bar Mitzvah?”
“I didn’t want one. Mom tried to push, but we finally agreed to celebrate my graduation from elementary school. I was 14 at the party, but Mom told some relatives that it was my Bar Mitzvah. Maybe she was embarrassed.”
“Do you know what a mezuzah is?”
“Did you ever talk with a religious Jew before?”
“You’re the first one.”
“What’s your opinion of Charedim?”
“They seem abominably primitive to me, but I don’t care about them.”
“What do you think of more modern Orthodox Jews — people who believe in God and do mitzvot, but they also serve in the army?”
“I know they exist, but they don’t interest me, either.”
“What does interest you?”
“You want to know the truth?” he smiles. But he answers absolutely seriously, “Myself, my family, that’s what. And things I want to achieve. That’s all.”
“The State of Israel?”
“Doesn’t interest me. I hate it when people romanticize land and houses. A country is the place where you live, and that’s it.”
“What is your dream?”
“To be my own boss. To work. I hate parasites.”
“There’s injustice in life,” interposed Mayan, a girl Oscar’s age. “A person is born into a ready-made situation over which he has no say. No one asks you whether you want to be rich or poor, blonde or dark. I wasn’t asked whether I want to be Jewish.”
“And if you had been asked?”
“Being Jewish is an annoyance,” she said calmly. “If you’re Danish, French, Irish, or Polish you can be successful in anything — all of life is open. But if you’re Jewish, you’re handicapped. You will be treated differently [by non-Jews]…Just as a handicapped athlete is relegated to a lower level of competition. I usually think of myself as pretty good, but if the whole world thinks the Jews are worthless, that’s a sign that it’s really so.”
I ask two of the kids if they would remove the crosses they are wearing around their necks. Both refuse. “The cross is just decorative,” says Benny. His friend Ruth adds, “It’s pretty. Straight, neat lines. I like it.”
Nimrod walks out the school door late. The other kids are gone. There’s just me out there, leaning on the fence in the shade of a tree. He warily consents to talk with me.
Nimrod is eighteen, the “good” son of his father, the lawyer, and his mother, the doctor. His parents are presently divorced and remarried to others, his father for the second time, his mother for the third. He has five half-brothers and sisters, two from his mother and three from his father.
“Whenever they talk on TV about families blessed with children,” he chuckles, “I wonder if they mean us, too.” He explains. “One of my brothers is a dope addict. Another brother is now in Bangkok. One of my brothers left school and joined a meditation group. One sister is really gifted, but she married her 60-year-old professor when she was seventeen…
“Once we were proud to be Zionists. In my children’s high school…’Zionist’ is an insult.”
“You might get the impression that my parents don’t really care about us. That’s not so. They’re both very warm, devoted people…My mother’s oldest son was once arrested for stealing. She knew she was risking her reputation when she went to the jail, put up bail, and took Ron home. Her picture appeared in the papers and her prestige suffered a lot. But she did it.
“That’s why I didn’t travel to the Orient, and didn’t take up drugs, and didn’t join a cult. There are plenty of ideas out there that draw me. I’m no square and no nerd. But I’m not the type to break my parents’ hearts. I have a realistic view: I wouldn’t want my kid to do it to me.”
In a few weeks, Nimrod is to report for induction into the army. That subject blew his cool.
“I hate coercion!” he exploded with sudden intensity. “A communist state! It forces all of us to ruin our best years. And for what?”
“To defend this country.”
“Let them set up a standing army of professionals like in America! …[Anything] paid for is better than what is volunteered.”
“But you are going. You haven’t refused to serve?”
“I’m going. I’m not rushing anywhere. I still haven’t worked out my goals in my head. I haven’t decided if I want to continue my studies or what. Instead of raising a ruckus, I’ll serve my turn like everyone else and then get on with my life.”
“And you’ll fight if necessary?”
“If necessary I’ll make sure to be the Minister of Defense’s secretary, or a commentator for Army Radio.”
“If everyone’s going to be a commentator, the Arabs will annihilate us.”
“The United States won’t let that happen.”
My driver clenched his fist from time to time as he listened to these conversations, but he said nothing till we got back into his taxi. “If you still want to talk to kids, I know where to find more. They’re just like my own kids.”
He drove me to the kids’ hangouts — perched on sidewalk railings, crowding around the entrance to a shopping center, even at bus stops en route to the university. And I spoke to as many as would speak with me.
They were cynical, supercilious — and knew nothing about Judaism: never heard of Rashi, Rambam, Rabbeinu Tam, Rabbi Akiva, Shmuel Hanavi. When I asked, “What’s an etrog?” the answer was, “Some kind of citrus fruit that nobody eats. There are some orchards near Chaderah.”
Mention of Orthodox people aroused their disgust and often their hatred. Yet they agreed to converse with me, though I was obviously religious in appearance; and I believe they were generally open and frank.
They hated the Charedim en bloc, labeling them “black fanatics.” I asked, “Tell me what you find wrong with me?” And was told, “I don’t mean you, I mean those black fanatics.”
Danielle, whose father is a singer and whose mother is an interior decorator, commented, “You’re not like all of them…the guys who sit at the Gemarot all day and want to kill us.”
“To kill you? Where did you ever get that idea?”
“Our Bible teacher taught us that,” several of them concurred. “The Torah says that people who desecrate Shabbat should be put to death. And we desecrate it. So the Orthodox think that killing us is a mitzvah.”
“You know,” says Betzalel, my driver, “if all you want to know is how these kids live, you can ask me. I don’t keep Shabbat, I’m not pious. But I’m scared, hysterical almost. It’s not just my kids, you know? It’s the whole nation.
“My parents came from Yemen. We were not quite scrupulous in keeping mitzvot, but I never became an atheist. And I keep our traditions. I always fast on Yom Kippur and I never eat chametz on Pesach. I manage to eat on the first night of Sukkot at a neighbor’s sukkah, and I always light Chanukah candles.
“But my kids? Their world is one where Judaism is as meaningful as last year’s snow. I can’t even expect them to believe in God after all the Darwinism they’ve been stuffed with. But doesn’t a person need some values, some ideals, a little Zionism? It’s fashionable today to rebel against everything. If you’re rebelling it means you’re thinking, you’ve got a head on your shoulders, and you’re not just buying into someone’s propaganda.
“Once we were proud to be Zionists. In my children’s high school in Ramat Gan ‘Zionist’ is an insult. First of all, if you’re a Zionist, you robbed the Arabs of their land. Second, they keep asking “What does it mean to be a Zionist? Who established this as a value? On what basis?” My daughter Rita gives me no peace with all these questions. I say to her, ‘Zionism gave us this land, Zionism maintains this land. The day we desert Zionism we can pack our bags and go to Miami.’
“‘Forget Miami,’ she says. ‘They say it’s too hot there. Make it Canada or Switzerland.’
“It’s not that I care so much about the Torah or the mitzvot that they don’t know (although I have a hard time seeing them eat on Yom Kippur, which is why I spend the day in the synagogue). I don’t care that they’re not religious; I’m not religious either. But there’s something destructive in the way they’re growing up today. The kids in this country lack any sense of belonging, of mission, of love for the land or for Zionism. They keep saying ‘Everybody’s corrupt,’ ‘There are no values, no principles,’ and they believe what they’re saying. They ask why should they go to the army? Why shouldn’t they get hooked on drugs?
“They say to me, ‘Dad, that stuff is oldfashioned.’ Sometimes I say to my wife, ‘Okay, if that’s all old-fashioned, then what’s new-fashioned?’
“…Yes, my wife and I are married 21 years now, thank God. I know that’s a rarity. In every class that my children are in — would you believe it, in every one of them — they are the only children whose birth parents are still living together and have not been divorced once, twice, or three times. Maybe that’s where it begins: the great family crisis.
“At times I wake up at night and think I’m living a nightmare. How come everything around me is coming apart? Why should I be ashamed to admit that I still believe in the values I was raised with? Why are these children cut off from their people, from their history?
“They are good kids. My kids are not on drugs. They’re not members of any gang. Nor are they part of a Satanic cult or any other garbage from the Far East. They’re not the kind of kids who murdered a cab driver. Believe me, they don’t have a police file. My friends envy me my children. But they have no connection to our people or to our land. They’re our future. What will they teach their children?”
Before returning to the States to file my report, I visited Kiryat Shemonah to meet with officials from the municipal education department. The mayor sat in as we discussed the possibility of additional Bible study hours in the municipal schools.
The mayor stood up at the end of the meeting and said emotionally, “The subject we just discussed is extremely important. You’re going back to America now to our Jewish people there. Please transmit to them our cry for help.
“In this city…there are thousands of teens who know nothing about their Jewish identity, nor about the Jews as a people. They were raised alienated from their history and tradition.”
He practically yelled the next words, “These kids disdain tradition and sanctity out of ignorance! Most of them don’t hate religion, and those who do hate don’t know what they’re hating!
“I tell you, most of them, if not all of them, are ready to hear about Judaism. Jewish souls can be brought back to the Jewish people…
“…hopefully, [something will be done] before they are lost to us permanently. I’m not exaggerating these numbers: A third of each class says it would leave the country immediately after army service. 20% would do it sooner. 70% say they have no reason not to marry a non-Jew. Serious crime is constantly on the rise; so is the drug habit.
“I have no answers for them. Only Judaism has answers. I am a secular person myself and I’m frightened by what I see.”
* Conversations are translated from Hebrew.