So Who (What) Are We?

Just what Jews are has been debated for ages. In recent times, the different options have become agendized and politicized. My friend Rabbi Shmuel Goldin recently contributed a delightful, upbeat essay to Torah Tidbits (the OU’s weekly here in Israel) that not only nails the reasons for some of the inconsistencies, shall we say, in the behavior or Israelis, but is actually a serious contribution to our self-understanding.

Some like to insist that we are a religion. That allows them to deny – as the Palestinians do all the time – that we are a nation, with roots in a piece of territory at least as significant as any other nation. Witness the back and forth between Abbas and Bibi last week. The former mocked the notion of Israel being a Jewish state, because it included Russians and Ethiopians. Bibi felt compelled to respond that Jews from Russian and Ethiopia are as much a part of us as anyone else.

Another reason for our foes insisting that we are a religion is that it permits them to dismiss 90% of Jews as unfaithful to that religion, and therefore not deserving of any sympathy as the people of the Bible. There are still lots of anti-Semitic Christians who tout that line.

Many of our admirers come at it from a different angle. What impresses them the most about us is that we live as a community. They sense that this is something they very much miss in their own lives. Christian friends often point to this, as well as conversion candidates in their interviews with beis din.

Rabbi Goldin comes up with an important dimension that we don’t stress often enough. He happens to perfectly capture some of the beauty and craziness of life in Israel. My wife loved it when she read it, instantly recalling so many examples of the same phenomena. I had the same reaction. No spoiler from me. You’ll have to read it!

So there we were, my wife and I, embarking on another of the seemingly endless tasks associated with our Aliyah.

On this occasion, we needed to visit the Misrad Hap’nim, the interior ministry. In order to avoid the long lines at the central office in Yerushalayim, we decided to travel to the Misrad Hap’nim in the nearby neighborhood of Har Homa.

As we boarded the bus, my wife turned to the driver and asked, “What stop do we get off at for the Misrad Hap’nim, please?” [this entire conversation, of course, took place in Hebrew]

To which the driver responded, “Lo Yodea, I don’t know.”

My wife then asked, “How can you not know? You’re the bus driver!”

To which the driver again responded, “Lo Yodea, I don’t know.”

The episode would have ended there, had it not been for the lady in the first row…

She turned the bus driver and, echoing my wife’s words, loudly asked “How can you not know? You’re the bus driver!”

She then turned around to the entire bus, pointed to us, and in an even louder voice asked, “Is there anybody who can help these poor people? They need to go to the Misrad Hap’nim in Har Homa. Does anyone know what stop they get off at?”

At that point, the driver stopped the bus short, and began to yell at the top his lungs, “What do you want from me? This is my first day on the job!”

Immediately, chaos corrupted, as the entire bus got involved…

A number of passengers shouted at the driver, “How could you not know the stops on your route?” Others screamed, “Leave him alone, it’s his first day!’ And yet others yelled, “Just start the bus! Start the bus!!” (As I, mortified, quietly crawled to the back of the bus…)

How do you explain a country that can produce such a scene?

How do you explain a country where, on the fourth visit to the motor vehicle office, you are finally able to get your Israeli driver’s license, and you try pay the requisite fee… only to find out that you don’t pay the fee where you get the license… for that, you have go to the post office (and wait on line there)!

But that’s understandable, because the post office is where you do most of your business… except mail packages (if you want them to get there in timely fashion), and, oh yes, except for registering your car… that you do on a machine at the pharmacy!

Anyone who has made Aliyah could go on and on…

How do you explain a country like this??

Over the years, I have come up with some answers that make sense to me.

For example:

1. Israel is a Middle Eastern country with a Western veneer. Beneath the surface it’s the shuk (Middle Eastern marketplace). Anyone who has visited the shuk knows that it operates by its own rules.

2. The Israelis have more important things to deal with. They have neither the time for niceties nor the bandwidth for constant politeness. Consider their miraculous accomplishments against monumental odds in such a short time. They have been forced to, and are still forced to, prioritize. Bureaucratic tasks, therefore, will not always be characterized by finesse. And, if that means you have to go to the pharmacy to register your car, so be it!

Since making Aliyah, however, I have arrived at a more comprehensive perception of Israel. A perception that, to me, explains everything.

To understand, we have to go back in time, to the very origins of our people.

As the Torah reading at this time of the year reflects, Jewish history begins twice. Our story opens with the patriarchal/matriarchal era, when the totality of our history is summed up in the lives of Avraham and Sara, Yitzchak and Rivka, Yaakov, Rachel and Leah, and their families. When that era ends, our story begins again with the advent of the national era. The Jewish nation is born through slavery, the Exodus, and Revelation.

One could well ask (as does Rashi in his first comment on the Torah): Why does Jewish history include the patriarchal/matriarchal era at all? Why not start the “Jewish story” with the birth of the Jewish nation?

A multitude of answers can be offered to this question (in addition to Rashi’s own answer). Perhaps the patriarchal/matriarchal era is recorded to create a balance between individual and society before the national era begins. Perhaps the Torah’s purpose is to establish the gift of legacy; to enable the Jewish nation to be born into a proud pre-existing history. Perhaps the Torah documents the lives of patriarchs and matriarchs because of the manifold lessons that can be learned from their personal behavior. Perhaps Hashem wants to underscore the family unit as the most important educational unit in Jewish experience.

After two years as an Israeli citizen, however, I have come to another conclusion.

The patriarchal/matriarchal era is recorded in the Torah because God wants us to always remember that we began as a family.

In a very real sense, the journey of the patriarchal/matriarchal era is a journey towards family.

A grand experiment commences with Avraham’s first steps towards Canaan. Set your selves apart, God says to the patriarch. Pit yourselves against the world. Do not allow the tribe, the society around you, to raise and educate your children. Raise them within the context of your home.

Imagine the loneliness of that journey… We all know how difficult it is to parent children when we are surrounded by others who think and believe as we do. To create family alone, against the world, must have been a monumental challenge.

And ultimately, the story of the patriarchs and matriarchs cannot end until, after difficult travail, we arrive at the journey’s final scene. We must reach the point where, Yaakov, the last patriarch, lies on his deathbed, surrounded by all his sons, each present and accounted for, each part of the unfolding destiny of his family for the first time in three generations.

The patriarchal/matriarchal era cannot end, and the national era cannot begin, until the family is whole.

But, then, with the arrival of nationhood, the next step must be taken. For while God wants us to begin as a family, even more importantly, as we become a nation, He wants us to remain a family.

That is why He commands us, on the eve of the Exodus and the onset of our national journey, to return to our homes and share in the Korban Pesach, essentially a family meal. That is why Hashem introduces the majestic Revelation at Sinai with the words: “Thus shall you say to the House of Jacob and speak to the Children of Israel…” You began as a family, ‘the House of Jacob,’ and you remain a family, ‘the House of Jacob,’ even as you become a nation, ‘the Children of Israel.’ That is why the very definition of Jewishness is so unique and complex. We are at once a nation and a family, to be joined by birth or by choice.

And today, as we watch the miraculous birth and growth of the State of Israel; what are we witnessing, if not the extraordinary scene of a family coming home, from all corners of the globe?

We can now return our original question. How do you explain a country like Israel?

Simple-you just have to accept one basic fact.

Israel is not a country, it’s a family.

The minute you accept that fundamental truth, everything made sense. Everything; the functionality and the dysfunctionality… The love and the “edge.”

This truth explains, for example, why a whole busload of passengers will get involved in a couple’s search for the Misrad Hap’nim in Har Homa.

It explains the way Israelis drive. Rules? What rules? This isn’t a public road, it’s my grandfather’s parking lot. What, I should put on my turn signal? You should know that I plan to turn; I shouldn’t have to tell you. Really, did I honk you? I didn’t even notice. What? You are waiting for the light to turn? Traffic signals are just suggestions…

It explains why, when you come out of the voting booth, people you don’t know greet you with the question, “Who’d you vote for?”

It explains why those same “strangers” are also comfortable asking you other questions such as, “How much did you pay for your apartment? How much do you make as salary?”

It explains why the niceties are often ignored. Conversations in Israel start at a different level, with the preliminaries unnecessary. What, I have to say “hello?” I have to ask “how are you?” We are past pointless platitudes. Let’s get to the meat of the matter. A few days after our aliyah, Barbara and I were discussing our experiences while sitting on a bus. Suddenly, two women, who didn’t know each other and certainly didn’t know us, sat down in the seats facing us and seamlessly joined in the conversation. After all, we’re family…

It explains why the mail never seems to come on time; yet when the postman tries to deliver a package and finds no one home, he calls my wife (whom he doesn’t know from Adam, or Eve, for that matter) offers to pick her up, give her the package, and bring her home.

It explains why Israelis will push and shove, but will be the first ones to pick you up when you fall; why a driver will scream at you for stopping traffic, then quickly jump out of his car to help you when he realizes your car won’t start.

It explains the woman who approaches my friend outside a museum, where he is having difficulty calming his infant granddaughter. “The baby is clearly hungry,” she says. “I’ve been nursing my own child. Would you like me to nurse yours?”

It explains why mothers strolling their infants on the street, on the bus, in the mall, will receive a continuing flow of advice from passersby: the baby should be wearing a hat; sit him/her up straight; don’t hold the baby like that, it’s not good for him/her; etc., etc., etc.

It explains why everyone across the country is totally shaken by the death of a single terror victim; why each soldier is everyone’s son or daughter; why tens of thousands will attend the funeral of a lone soldier whom they never met.

It explains all this, and so much more…

As I said, it’s simple. To live in, or even visit, this country successfully, you only have to realize one thing.

It’s not a country, it’s a family.

It’s a family, and we are finally coming home.

And when you realize that, you will also realize that there is no other place in the world where you’d rather be.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, New Jersey, and Past President of the Rabbinical Council of America. He is the author of a five-volume set on Chumash, Unlocking the Torah Text, and Unlocking the Haggada. He currently resides in Jerusalem with wife, Barbara.

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32 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    “They have neither the time for niceties nor the bandwidth for constant politeness.”

    Do they have the time or bandwidth to explain how niceties and politeness eat up precious time? Among people in general, and of course among Jews who take Torah very seriously, these tools for interpersonal relations make things go much smoother.

    • I would argue, Bob, that the importance of “these tools for interpersonal relationships” vary in importance from culture to culture. When they are expected, they are essential. When not expected, as is the case among many Israelis, they are not.
      As I argue later in the piece, Israelis start the interaction at the second level, rather than the first-with many of the preliminaries unnecessary….

      • Bob Miller says:

        Since the context is that we Jews are a family, let’s focus on that. Family life doesn’t need exaggerated shows of politeness, but we both know that total matter-of-factness doesn’t work either, even when we’re being very helpful to someone else.

      • Baruch says:

        So it’s impossible For Jews to be both polite and caring? Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations!

      • Mycroft says:

        There is a problem. I was reading a book about Aging and example …”Polite in Tel Aviv might be thought as rude in Ottawa..” Successful Aging by Daniel J. Levitin page 8

  2. Isaac says:

    These wonderful comments and the attached article reminded me of a source that addressed this question years ago. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in “We Jews: Who Are We and What Should We Do” wrote a wonderful volume that dedicates the entire work to this question. In fact, he has an entire chapter dedicated to the approach that Judaism is a family. It is a wonderful book that gives the same answer as Rabbi Goldin but in a more comprehensive manner.

  3. joel rich says:

    so poor middot are allowable (or at least not discouraged)within a family?

  4. I hesitate to keep answering-but i have to-last comment I’ll make on this particular issue
    I think that we
    ‘re missing the point
    Poor middot are , at least partially, in the eyes of the beholder.
    I would stack up the deep caring shown by Israelis and Israeli society against the often superficial caring of other societies any day!

    • joel rich says:

      OK then no need to respond but that deep caring IMHO doesn’t provide a pass for poor middot which the beholder measures against traditional halachic sources.

  5. dr. bill says:

    Like many other things, there are both absolutes and items left to local custom. The boundary is most often (at least slightly) unclear. Tzniut is a good example.

    in Israel a few decades ago, someone entering a post-office found only a floor-washer mopping up. He asked, does no one work here today? the response, no we are closed this afternoon, no one works in the morning.

  6. Gavriel M says:

    This is the most preposterous explanation for the defects in Zionist society that I have ever seen. Next time I have to pick up dog s**t and broken glass in the middle of a children’s park, I’ll console myself with the precious time the dog owner saved himself.

    Israel was built by meshumadim gemurim. It’s not the worst country in the world and it’s not the best either. There’s no need for religious Jews to join an anti-zionist pile in, but there’s no need to leap to its defence either. The goal of Jews is not to integrate into zionist society by becoming rude and learning to drive like someone with a personality disorder, but to replace it with something better. There is nothing more lame than Anglos trying to gaslight themselves into thinking that every uncivilized facet of Israeli society is really awesome.

    (And, yes, as the above commentator noted, is the medium term, dispensing with niceties costs more time than it saves. Dispensing with niceties to save time is the mark of dysfunctional people with low time preference).

  7. Michoel Halberstam says:

    Dear Gavriel, its nice to have the luxury of comforting yourself by listing all your reasons for feeling superior. Yes, even if you think you are more religious than the next guy, these words have no meaning and will not engender any valuable response. But keep on doing it. Lots of like minded fools can’t get over the urge to do so. MJH

  8. dr. bill says:

    Gavriel, your statement is oxymoronic IMHO. the fact that they built the state of Israel means axiomatically that they are not “meshumadim gemurim.” perhaps some rabbis in the early years of the state thought so, but witnessing the Russian aliyah and Jews from all over the world arriving to escape rising anti-semitism should be more than sufficient to prove Rav Kook ztl and the Rav ztl prescient and correct. If I needed to label anyone a meshumad gamur, i would look elsewhere

    • Gavriel M says:

      the fact that they built the state of Israel means axiomatically that they are not “meshumadim gemurim.”

      What does that even mean?

      but witnessing the Russian aliyah and Jews from all over the world arriving to escape rising anti-semitism should be more than sufficient to prove Rav Kook ztl and the Rav ztl prescient and correct.

      Rav Kook, for what it’s worthy, refused to join Mizrahi because it was too subservient to secular zionism. I do not in any way dispute the correctness of establishing state. I am merely pointing out the indisputable, namely that the state was founded by people who ranged from non-observant to anti-religious and that Jews have no obligation to twist logic so as to portray every fault of the society they created as representing some deep hidden beauty. Dangerous driving is just bad, bus drivers driving past stops and closing the doors on old ladies (I saw this yesterday!) is just bad, incompetent obstructive bureaucracy is just bad. Full stop.

      • dr. bill says:

        My late father’s family came from the southern border of Poland and were in the lumber business and his father traveled to Vienna on business (around the turn of the 20th century.) He was on occasion asked how he deals with the Tumeh that envelopes Vienna. He said I go to shul, I go to my clients, I go back to shul, I eat and learn and I go back to sleep. I do not notice Tumeh.

        A person tends to see things that fit with his narrative and miss those that do not. That is ingrained into human nature; it will help you if you remember that.

      • They tell a similar story about the Klausinberger Rebbe, zt”l – a tzadik, if there ever was one. The hospital he built in Netanya apparently is close to the beach. Some of his chassidim complained that they found it difficult to visit the hospital because of all the women in various states of improper dress. His response? “Hmmm. I’ve walked there many times, and never noticed.”

      • Shades of Gray says:

        I heard a similar story, with  a touch of wit, about R. Alexander Linchner, who was a son-in-law of R. Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz and a principal of Torah Vodaas. As the  founder of Boys Town Jerusalem,  Rabbi Linchner met with many wealthy people, including women who were not modestly dressed. Someone once asked him, “you’ve met with the likes of  the Chazon Ish and Baba Sali, how do you also speak to such women ?”  R. Linchner responded, “all I see is people in long, green ($) dresses.”

        (My source for this story heard it from a  relative of R. Linchner.)

    • Mycroft says:

      The Rav certainly was certainly considering Aliyah in mid 30s when he visited Israel when there was apparent potential to receive a major position. He gave the Hesped at Agudah convention for RCOG. Certainly, by end of World War 11 he had joined Mizrachi, there is evidence that certainly before the end WW 11 he had to a great extent switched to Mizrachi. Not sure proof that Rav was prescient. He recognized mistakes that were made.

      • dr. bill says:

        Ironically both the Rav ztl and Rav Herzog ztl lost to one of the most prominent rabbis to join Mizrachi before the first world war, Rav Amiel. While Rav Herzog was a mizrachist, the Rav decidedly was not. neither had Rav Amiel’s zionist resume, particularly to be the CR of Tel Aviv. the letter his father wrote supporting his candidacy needs to be read carefully

      • Mycroft says:

        Dr Bill
        I remember reading the letter Rav Moshe wrote praising his son RYBS. IIRC part of the praise refers to RYBS being an expert in philosophy. Not sure what you are referring to when stating letter….needs to be read carefully

      • dr. bill says:

        it was written for a (very) more modern city and addressed the likely objections a young candidate would face.

      • Mycroft says:

        It was written by a proud father, what else is new RMS proud of RYBS or R NK of MOAG proud of RYK.
        Certainly father and sons of both RYBS andRYK had something to be proud of. What else is new

  9. Shades of Gray says:

    Start-Up Nation, an international bestseller about learning from Israel’s meteoric economic rise, begins with the following old joke before describing the positives of Israeli assertiveness in business, even among junior employees:

    “Four guys are standing on a street corner, an American, a Russian, a Chinese man, and an Israeli. A reporter comes up to the group and says to them: “Excuse me. . . . What’s your opinion on the meat shortage?” The American says: ‘What’s a shortage?’ The Russian says: ‘What’s meat?’ The Chinese man says: ‘What’s an opinion?’ The Israeli says: ‘What’s “Excuse me”? “

    “…Newcomers to Israel often find its people rude. Israelis will unabashedly ask people they barely know how old they are or how much their apartment or car cost; they’ll even tell new parents-often complete strangers on the sidewalk or in a grocery store-that they are not dressing their children appropriately for the weather. What is said about Jews-two Jews, three opinions-is certainly true of Israelis. People who don’t like this sort of frankness can be turned off by Israel, but others find it refreshing, and honest.”

    Perhaps the above can be explained by the stereotype of the Sabra, which like the desert fruit, needs to be tough on the outside to survive in a hostile region, but is sweet inside. A letter in Mishpacha from an American oleh mentioned this reason, as well as the family aspect point (“Why Wait in Passaic: Continued”, 1/30/19, available online):

    “Often, I get into conversations with precisely the “toughest” cases and I am surprised, time and again, to find that under the rudest exterior and most chiloni appearance there beats a Jewish heart that’s warm and open to me. I prefer rude brothers to polite strangers any day.”

    About the Israeli propensity to give unsolicited opinions, there is an apocryphal story told about Ben Gurion and President Eisenhower, who were each claiming that they had the tougher job. Ike says, “I am the president of two hundred million people”. Ben Gurion replies, “but I am the prime minister of two million presidents”.

  10. Bob Miller says:

    1. We should judge each other l’chaf zechus (other than the exceptions named in Chofetz Chaim).
    2. We should give each other sound advice, in a loving spirit. This doesn’t mean agreeing to all the creative excuses. How does anyone progress if we all tell him he’s just fine as-is?

  11. Michoel Halberstam says:

    Gavriel Apparently we should stop trying to find good things to say about Israeli society because we don’t like the Mizrahi. Do you seriously think you can peddle such an argument to Rav Kook, who was as you say really not interesting in joining the Zionist organization.

    The urge to point the finger at one cause for everything that is wrong, and that has to do with the defects if Zionism, is part and parcel of an ideology that rfeally has nothing positive to offer, but wants to be in charge anyway.

    • Gavriel M says:

      Hold up a second. I didn’t randomly start listing everything I don’t like about living in Israel. I’m responding to an article, which tries to justify even ambiguously sinful behaviour such as dangerous driving as a facet of the unique beauty of Israeli society.

      As I said before, Israeli society isn’t the worst and it isn’t the best either. In certain respects it is, frankly, kind of crummy. The most obvious and pervasive example of is the way Israelis are inculcated into trying not to be a freier (i.e. a civilized person), which makes daily life unnecessarily hectic, stressful and difficult for no benefit whatsoever. I suspect Rabbi Goldin has a nice income stashed away from the States and for him Israeli dysfunction is basically an abstract thing, something he occasionally encounters on the bus or at the ministry of absorption. Try, however, looking at the deep beauty of Israeli society when you’re working minimum age for a boss who screws you over every chance you get. Try it when you’ve called you’re landlord for the 15th time to get him to deal with the cockroaches he carefully concealed from when you signed the contract. Try it when you’ve been waiting six months for the police to provide you with redress etc. etc.

      None of these features are even uniquely Israeli. They are just as pervasive, for example, in ex-Soviet countries and that’s not a coincidence. There’s absolutely nothing virtuous about trying to explain every bad thing about Israel as an expression of its fundamental Jewishness. If anything, it’s slightly blasphemous.

  12. Baruch says:

    “All I see is people in long green ($) dresses”

    That is not a very complementary story.

  13. Nachum says:

    Can’t reply to the above anecdotes, but here’s another:

    Two Buddhist monks, one older, one younger, were walking down a country road. They came to a small stream. A young woman, not wanting to get her dress wet, was standing at the edge, hesitating to cross. Without pausing, the older monk picked her up, carried her across, and put her down. The two monks continued on together.

    After a while, the older monk saw that the younger was agitated. He asked him why and the younger one exploded: “I can’t believe you did that! You picked up and carried that woman! How could you have done that?”

    The older monk responded, “I left the young woman back at the side of the stream. You’re the one who’s still carrying her around.”

  14. Bob Miller says:

    If we have any integrity, we won’t be bought by donors with agendas. I doubt Rav Linchner’s donors were in that category. However, a multi-billionaire is trying to buy our very frum votes in 2020 (along with everyone else’s) and a new photo posted on this very site provides an example.

  15. Shades of Gray says:

    “That is not a very complementary story.”

    I think you mean “complimentary” 🙂   

     I checked with my source, and he clarified that  R. Linchner  meant the response in question tongue-in-cheek.

    He  told me another  complementary–and complimentary– story about Rabbi Linchner. For a few years on Simchas Torah, a busload of Jews from a  Reform congregation in Great Neck would arrive in Torah Vodaas in Williamsburg  to observe the dancing in the beis midrash. R. Linchner took these congregants under his wings, and explained to them what was going on. He is not sure why this group  decided to come to Torah Vodaas, but he observed R. Linchner interacting with them during the hakafos.

    In “Where Heaven Touches Earth: Jerusalem From Medieval Times To The Present” on the bottom of page 539, linked below, there is a  brief entry on Boys Town; you can see a description of the imprint  R Linchner made on the  younger generation of Israeli  immigrants from limited backgrounds , as well as a picture of him:  

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