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Digging Galus in New Jersey

For years I couldn’t understand why American Jews have such a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea of aliyah. Now i finally got it.

Walking down the tree-lined streets of a typical New Jersey suburb on shabbos, with it’s spacious houses and manicured lawns, everything seemed just perfect. And the next moment I got an insight into the “three weeks”. Spending my summer in New Jersey, instead of at home, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, can do this to you.

Ask most observant Jews about their least favorite time of the year, and chances are the “three weeks” between 17 Betammuz and Tisha Beav will be high on the list. Three weeks without music, celebrations, and shopping, two fasts, and one week without meat can really dampen the spirits.

The stock notion is that the three weeks commemorate the tragedy of the Jewish People two thousand years ago. But Judaism is not a museum. Every single practice has relevance to our lives today.

That’s the thing. We are so far removed from normative Jewish life with a Beit Hamikdash that we don’t even know what we are lacking. Animal sacrifices seem at best irrelevant and at worst gross. Descriptions of annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem read like cute pieces of folklore.

I mean how many people you know who walk around yearning to sacrifice a sheep? Even learning about Beit Hamikdash and the daily avodah hardly makes your feel like you are missing out on something special. Despite all our difficulties, we can’t envision a different existence.

This is the understanding I developed this year. The community I am visiting has all the trappings of Jewish life: dozens of shuls catering to every taste, kosher restaurants galore, kosher supermarkets, schools, learning programs, you name it.

As I look at the Jewish life here, I see the tragedy of not knowing what you are missing. The “locals” think they have the perfect Jewish experience, but I know that it doesn’t even begin to compare with the Jewish experience of living in Israel.

For my kids, learning Tanakh with Rashi is a constant scavenger hunt for familiar words, places and ideas. Anatot, Beit El, Geva, and Mikhmas are as close as a road sign or a school trip. Gelida is not just a word in Onkelos; it’s the ice cream on their Shabbos table. Everything is just so relevant.

Back in high school, quite a few of my classmates couldn’t recite the Jewish months of the year even after 10 years of yeshiva education. But for Israelis, Pesach is in Nissan, not in April; and Rosh Hashanah is in Tishri, not in September. We actually had to teach the kids the months of the Gregorian calendar and they still ask when November is.

At kindergarten birthday parties, “May you see Moshiach” and “May you become a Cohen in the Beis Hamikdash” are the standard fare of 4-year-olds’ birthday greetings. Speaking Hebrew from crib makes Jewish learning that much more easy.

In Israel, mezuzas accompany you from the day you enter the world in a hospital ward (or walk into the Ben Gurion terminal) at school and work, in the army and at city gates, until the very last day. And in the words of Uncle Moishe “Shabbos is the day of rest” and family, even for people with minimal understanding of halacha and observance.

With all the westernization, Israel is still a far cry from the anti-Torah materialism. Here, Memorial Day is about memories, not shopping. Family and kids come far ahead of climbing the corporate ladder. Although American frum community also upholds these values, the society around them doesn’t. In Israel, even the non-observant usually marry young, have multiple kids, and maintain close ties with parents and siblings. And yes, all of us are definitely influenced by society at large.

Being frum in Israel and bringing up frum kids here is still a challenge, but it’s a different kind of challenge. The secular society may at times be anti-religious precisely because it wants to pick and choose parts of our heritage. Yet even the most fervent Israeli secularists are deeply connected to the Jewish cultural legacy.

On a metaphysical level, Chazal teach us that the air of Eretz Israel makes one wise. We may not feel the difference, but it is clearly there in ways that are too subtle for our conscious minds to distinguish.

Still, even those American Jews who have been to Israel, view the Israeli experience as so different from the “normal” back home, they can’t relate. For most of us “familiar” means good and “different” means bad. So aliyah seems foolhardy, because really people are perfectly happy living the way they do. Why rock the boat?

And this is exactly the problem we all have with the pre-churban experience. We just don’t understand it. It’s different and not at all alluring, because we are used to things the way they are. We daven for geula three times and day and pay lip service to Moshiach, yet we don’t have an inkling of what that means.

Along come the three weeks to remind us that although we don’t know what we are missing, we should just know that our existence is not normal. We are blind and deaf to the color and music of the Beit Hamikdash experience. During the three weeks we can feel the eyepatches and the earplugs and just know that there is a whole world on the other side, we will only appreciate once we experience it. Hopefully soon enough.

What do you do to connect with the Beit Hamikdash experience and make the three weeks relevant?


 

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10 Comments

  1. Marna Becker says:

    Leah,

    This is beautifully written. It’s always hard to explain to others why I left a happy life in the United States to go to a supposedly “foreign” land. But this isn’t a foreign land. This is home. Thank you for writing this and for making the differences more tangible, but in a positive way!

  2. R. M. Rosen says:

    This makes a lot of sense to me. Thanks for the analysis. So glad I live in Israel!

  3. Anonymous says:

    We here in Israel spend the entire three weeks learning and studying the history of what caused the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash – while we should be learning and studying and discussing the laws and regulations about greeting Moshiach, as he is expected to show up NOW, any moment.
    But our non-optimistic rabbis haven’t found any source material for such study sessions, so they repeat what has been repeated every year for the past 2000 years. They, our present day Israeli rabbis also don’t want to “rock the boat”.
    That is the saddest part of life today…
    Shmuel Shimshoni

  4. Leah says:

    @Marna, Thank you for your comments. The Israeli mentality may at times seem “foreign,” but like everything else it’s a learning experience.

    @R.M.Rosen So am I!

    @Shmuel, you know Chazal say that mashiach will come behesekh hadaat (without us noticing). You are describing a paradigm shift, which is fairly radical considering our history of false Messiahs.

  5. SJP says:

    It’s happening in New Jersey and New York… It’s happened in Goshen…. It’s happened in pre-war Berlin… the notion of “v’hayu mitzuyanim sham” – and look where it gets us.

    Also, while I tip my hat to the folks who actually did make aliyah, it bothers me to hear poeple say, “I’m going HOME for the holidays”; meaning Lakewood or some other US city with mikvaot, Jewish day schools, schita, shuls, etc.

    People are not necessarily afraid of aliyah; they are afraid of the prospect of change. In this regard, Jews, as described as “am kshei oref” is as much a curse as is it a blessing.

  6. Shaindy says:

    Leah -
    Thanks – this is really beautiful.
    May we be zoche to really understand – by experiencing the geula

  7. Laya says:

    I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but I think the best way to talk to our brothers and sisters in America and elsewhere, regarding Aliyah, is not through harsh criticism but through Ahavas Chinam.

    The derogatory remarks regarding American Jews desire for materialism over and above their avodas HaSh-m is tantamount to throwing stones at people who desecrate Shabbos.

    I feel when I read the countless blogs about the shallowness of American Jews, I am reading loshon hara. Something I avoid at all costs.

    From what I have learned, HaSh-m does not want divisiveness amongst his children, even on this issue, as great as it is. It is very true that yidden all over should surely want to make aliyah, and do whatever they can to make it happen, and countless Jews have, at great sacrifice. But, honestly, not all Jews in America are wealthy, or live in nice houses, with manicured lawns. Not even close. A great majority literally struggle to survive day by day.

    The emes is that we must be dan lekaf z’cuss, give the benefit of the doubt, and know that every Jew is doing his best. Berating them will not bring them closer, actually, it might have the opposite effect. Why would anyone want to live in a place where they are looked down upon, even the holy eretz yisroel. Perhaps showing American Jews that they are welcomed with open arms and that they will have support and friendships when they make aliyah, would be more conducive.

    Believe me, I certainly understand the great frustration in not having every Jew on Earth live in the Holy Eretz Yisreol, especially after HaSh-m miraculously gave it back to us after millennium. I certainly understand that the Jews living in Eretz Yisroel want to share the beauty of it with everyone. But that is part of the nisayon. That fervent desire, is so strong, it is difficult to temper it with love and compassion, as we are mandated to do when giving criticism. As HaSh-m treats us.

    Honestly, most Jews I know have a great desire to make aliya and are working toward it, aggressively. But many have to secure the funds to get set up, I don’t mean in a big house, I mean in an apartment, even for a few months. Many, many Jews take care of their aging parents and will not leave them, as they shouldn’t. Many, sadly, have severe sickness. We are in a time where the nisyonos (tests) are so great.

    As the time of geulah approaches, as the level of kedusha is to rise to great heights, the satan works overtime, trying to thwart all our good efforts. Let us all support each other in these trying times, I humbly think that HaSh-m wants that above all else, even, if I dare say it, making aliyah.

    Achdus (unity) and unconditional love for each and every Jew is paramount at this precipitous time in our history. That attitude will insure a geula in a peaceful, beautiful, miraculous way.

    B’Ahava for all,

    1. Leah says:

      @SJP, Yoou are right – change is difficult. People are willing to change only when situation becomes unbearable or when the gain is so great that it outweighs the loss of the familiar. That was my greatest insight this year.

      @Shaindy, thank you for your beautiful wishes. Same to all of us.

      @Laya, I really appreciate your thoughtful comments. My post was definitely not meant as harsh criticism and I am sorry if it comes across as such. On the contrary, it is meant to judge favorable. It is human to feel comfortable in one’s surroundings and to reject change. American Jews are used to their ways of life. After many years, I was able to understand that they just don’t see the difference between the US and Israel clearly enough to want to turn their lives upside down by making aliyah.

  8. Elana K says:

    I totally identify with your post; I don’t think it’s harsh criticism, just realistic. If American Jews can’t handle it, it’s sad. Just because you criticize someone doesn’t mean you think they’re a bad person. I think your post was quite eloquent and not harsh. In fact, I feel the same way when I go back to visit the States (also NJ).
    Elana K´s last [type] ..Get your hands off my belly

  9. Elana K says:

    Leah, achdus doesn’t mean you should sit idly by when you see someone doing something you perceive is wrong.
    We live in a society where everything is okay – it’s okay to marry a non-Jew, it’s okay to eat non-kosher, okay to do whatever. Why not speak up for what you think is right – after all, it’s not me or you who dictates what’s okay, but the Torah.
    Elana K´s last [type] ..Get your hands off my belly

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