Upon assuming the presidency of the UN ratified State of Israel in 1948, David Ben Gurion instituted a few absolutes that remain iron-clad even today. One of them was that serious yeshiva students would be exempt from military service, so that a nation that had been decimated by the Nazi war machine could rebuild the learning that was the hallmark of European Jewry. Ben Gurion, an avowed secularist, understood that the People of the Book could not remain so if Torah was allowed to wither into obscurity. The numbers of talmidim grew to such proportions that an originally quaint imperative became a cause celebre, with charges against the students for shirking national service. This societal clash is not small, and erupts with great regularity.
An even greater conflict lies in the hearts of Israelis. Global warming, water desalinization, terrorists lying in wait, and an erratic economy are child’s play when juxtaposed to the Sunday workday. Ben Gurion wanted the new Jewish identity to stand defiant in this period of wound-licking and it made great ethical sense to reclaim the Saturday-Sabbath as a proudly unifying factor in the miraculous aftermath of our survival. We were killed because we were Jews; why pretend otherwise, when trying to assimilate we did little to fool bloodthirsty neighbors who witnessed our near-extermination? Jewish pride was a previously unrecognized aspect of our history, and in the heady days/years that followed statehood, we greedily glommed onto this foreign-but-empowering redefinition of what it meant to be a Jew: Jews do Jewish.
However, for those of us who were born into post-war Jewish homes and came to Israel later in life, this Sunday thing is the pits. Over pots of coffee we bemoan the loss of the precious family day that meant barbecues, breakfast in the diner, lolling on the beach, and dinner that culminated with everyone piling into the den to watch “60 Minutes.” Describing American Sundays to Israelis invariably results in the rebuttal, “But we have all day Friday!” Close but no cigar, I say. It is true that most offices are closed on Friday, and there is a European laziness to mornings, filled with cafe brunches and bicycle rides. However, for those of us who are religiously observant, preparing for the Sabbath does not allow us to completely let go of structure. Even if we prepare all night on Thursday, one eye remains glued to the Friday clock, reminding us of impending traffic jams, and the demands that an entire family will place on a small hot-water tank for the pre-candle lighting showers. Regardless of how we try to replicate the ambiance of Sundays in America, Friday is a poor imitation.
With all due respect to David Ben Gurion, his point has been made. Israel is here to stay, our yeshivas are thriving, and the Sabbath is imbued with unity of the spirit and devotion to G-d. Bagels, lox and Costco will not render us extinct. It will create an aberration called “Sunday.”
New York-born Andrea Simantov is a mother of six who moved to Jerusalem in 1995. She frequently lectures on the complexity and magic of life in Jerusalem and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.