AFTER 21 YEARS in Israel I am finally ready to acknowledge that for many secular Israelis, Jewish holidays are mainly looked upon as a chance to take a vacation at the State’s expense. This is especially true of the fall holiday period, which for secular Israelis contains no essential observances. (Whereas over the spring holiday period, the three weeks beginning with Passover and ending with Independence Day, most Israelis are devoted to some kind of family Passover Seder and many are committed to visiting certain bereaved families on Memorial Day.) Additionally, because the university calendar-year only begins with the conclusion of the fall holidays; many students are abroad during the whole fall holiday period.
Depending on the way holidays occur in a given year will influence the vacationing of secular Israelis; for example, with Rosh Hashana falling this year on Monday and Tuesday, September 10 and 11, and with the eve of Rosh Hashana (Sunday, September 9) being a holiday for most people, it will be extremely tempting for secular Israelis to forgo the apples dipped in honey in favor of flying out of Israel Thursday night, September 6 for a 5-day trip abroad that does not “cost’ a single personal vacation day. Many Israelis are quite flexible about opting in and out of Jewish tradition and ritual. A vacation abroad may mean a total vacation from Jewish tradition and ritual, whereas I once heard a woman say: “If I am in Israel, I fast on Yom Kippur.”
Jews like myself who grew up abroad, where people with any Jewish consciousness make it their business to get to a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and/or Yom Kippur, are always amazed that for some Jewish Israelis synagogue attendance is out even on the High Holidays. Last year my neighbor boarded a non-kosher cruise in Barcelona over Rosh Hashanah. Though he typically has festive family meals over the Jewish holidays, last year he completely blew off the New Year (shofar pun intended).
Why do I feel bad about my neighbor’s treif cruise over Rosh Hashanah? Let him enjoy himself, no? Part of it is that I think that there are enough values in Jewish tradition whatever one’s faith commitment. I care about my neighbor and I honestly feel that he missed out by not in any way marking the Jewish New Year. But to be completely honest, I do not care about my neighbor that much. There must be something more to explain my disappointment.
I think the reason has to do with the fact that I observe Jewish tradition mainly for ethnic reasons and less for theological reasons (though I am fully observant, this makes me Reconstructionist more than Orthodox). The more I observance Jewish traditions, the more I feel validated in participating in these traditions, the more I feel that doing so is important in an ultimate, timeless, cosmic way. When I am faced with Jews who don’t observe, the rituals and traditions seem to lose some of their power and to become more arbitrary and idiosyncratic.
Having said all this, I find it important to recall a conception of religious Zionism that holds that in the Jewish polity all life is Jewishly important; i.e., whatever Jews choose to do in the Jewish state on the Jewish holidays is Jewish—whether it is going to the synagogue or going to the beach. With several of my children opting for the latter on a typical summery Jewish holy day, but with all 5 of them well on their way to building adult lives here in Israel, I’m a big believer in this Zionist approach!
Teddy Weinberger, Ph.D., is Director of Development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.