By Lisa Goldman
Photographs Philip Touitou
On Saturday mornings in Tel Aviv, the cafes are full of customers. Sun lovers crowd the beaches. Saturday is, of course, the Jewish Sabbath; and Tel Aviv is Israel’s most Jewish city. But it is easier to find a kosher restaurant in Brooklyn than in the crown jewel of the Zionist project (which is how Tel Aviv is sometimes described), and the few synagogues are usually modest affairs, tucked back from the street. Tel Aviv is secular.
Jerusalem, on the other hand, is quiet and subdued on the Jewish Sabbath and the holy days. That is, Jewish-majority West Jerusalem is quiet. But east or west, this is a city associated with religion. Whereas in Tel Aviv one is hard-pressed to find a kosher restaurant, the reverse is true in Jerusalem. Non-kosher restaurants are tucked away, out of sight, and one can hardly walk 10 minutes without coming across a synagogue or a chapel – not to mention a church or a mosque.
On Saturdays, the most common sight in Jerusalem is that of men dressed in traditional Hasidic garb, or in the black suits and black fedoras of the non-Hasidic Orthodox, as they walk to and from their synagogues for morning and afternoon prayers.
In Tel Aviv, Hasidic men dressed in their traditional holy day garb — a fur hat and a belted, knee length black satin coat — are an incongruous sight. But that is exactly what one sees on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, the heart of the city’s most fashionable neighborhood. Whether walking briskly to and from synagogue in the morning or strolling languidly with their families during the afternoon, they are oblivious to the sleepy-eyed hipsters in flip flops who saunter along the boulevard with a coffee in one hand and a dog leash in the other.
In Tel Aviv the Hasidim rarely interact with their secular neighbors — not even to exchange courtesies. Nor are they hostile. By contrast, in Jerusalem tensions between the religious majority and the secular minority are an ongoing social problem. In some majority-religious neighborhoods, secular people are cursed and even physically attacked if they drive their cars through the Sabbath-quiet streets.
Hasidic Jews base their identity on their religious faith, its attendant practices and their Hasidic lifestyle. It is a portable identity that has almost nothing to do with their surroundings.
Secular Jews of Israel will tell you they are Jewish because their mothers are Jewish — and because they are native Hebrew speakers who served in the army, carry Israeli passports and are connected to the place they live in via family and community. That is not a portable identity. It is a synergy of religion (halacha, or Jewish religious law, rules that Jewish-ness is matrilineal) and nationalism.
Hasidic Jews have a very ambivalent relationship with Israel. They identify with the biblical Land of Israel, but not with the modern State of Israel. For secular Israelis, their identity is based on a combination of the two (religion and nationalism) with an emphasis on the latter — the modern state and its institutions.
If you want to see the starkest illustration of this difference between secular and religious, stand outside a Hasidic school, mid-morning on Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror, when the two-minute siren wails. All over the country, traffic comes to a complete halt. Even on the inter-urban highways, people get out of their cars to stand at attention. The hipsters in their flip-flops stand up at the cafes. Secular schoolchildren stand rigidly at attention in their classrooms or in their schoolyards. But the Hasidic schools are quiet. The teachers keep their pupils in their classroom, because Hasidim don’t stand for the siren. They think the practice is idolatrous, because it smacks of worshiping the state before God. But they don’t want to anger the secular Jews by seeming disrespectful. So they stay out of sight.
At the Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem, Arab and Jewish children learn about the narratives and tragedies of both peoples, and they are taught to respect both. This is a unique experiment in Israeli education, and it is controversial. Right wing extremists torched part of the school a couple of years ago to express their displeasure over Jews and Arabs attending school together in an atmosphere of mutual respect.
On Memorial Day at Hand in Hand, all the children stand for the siren; afterward, they can choose whether or not to attend the memorial ceremony. In P.S. Jerusalem, two seven year-old boys, one Arab and the other Jewish, best friends, choose to attend together. The camera lingers on their profiles as they sit side-by-side and watch intently while some older children sing a sad song about war and loss.
In subsequent scenes, the Jewish boy says he does not identify as a Jewish, but refuses to explain why — though there are hints to the reasons for his ambivalence scattered throughout the film. The little boy has seen and commented on Jewish settlers who take over the homes of evicted Palestinians in East Jerusalem. He knows that Jews become soldiers in Israel, and he has said he does not want to be a soldier. We never see him observing any Jewish religious rituals, either at home or at school. His family is secular, but also leftist and opposed to nationalist ideology in any form.
So where does the little Jewish boy who doesn’t want to be a Jew belong? What makes him Jewish? Why would he not want to identify as a Jew? These are questions that both the secular Jews of Tel Aviv and their Hasidic neighbors would probably find puzzling. They know who they are.
But for a child raised on universal ideas of social justice and human rights, living in a place where these ideals and rights are contingent on political ideology and military policy can pose existential questions that most adults would find daunting. So imagine the confusion of a seven year-old.