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Jewish Practice and Popular Culture in Israeli Society

Yaacov Yadgar and Charles Liebman

It is commonplace to categorize Israeli Jews as dati, masorti, hiloni. To the great

satisfaction of social scientists, Israeli Jews dont seem to have much trouble locating

themselves in one of these three categories. The trouble is that we dont know what these

categories mean to the people who so identify themselves and while we do know that

there is certainly a correlation between how one defines oneself and how observant one is

in religious practice, the relationship falls far short of perfect. (Bring evidence from

Guttman study about the overlap) The reason, as we have learned in a series of

interviews we have just begun to conduct, is that many people identify themselves as

hiloni, masorti, or dati because of their own preconceived notions of how others identify

themselves. For example, we have learned that there are ashkenazim whose level of

religious observance is like that of most masortiim but who refuse to identify themselves

as masortiim because that is a category reserved for mizrahim. On the other hand, we

have interviewed mizrahim who identify themselves as masortiim for the same reason.

All ashkenazim, they have told us, are either hiloniim or datiim. This kind of imagining

can work in the opposite direction as well. Mizrahim who want to be like ashkenazim are

likely to define themselves as hiloniim. We would guess that there are probably mizrahim

who reject their own mizrahi identity and therefore define themselves as hiloniim. Such

definitions, in turn, may impact on behavior. That is especially the case for mizrahim

(mostly women) who marry or want to marry ashkenazi men, choose to call themselves

hiloni and as a consequence behave like non-observant hiloniim. We are not urging

sociologists to abandon the categories of hiloni and masorti. It is too late for that.

Understood in a limited sense of generally predicting religious observance they are still

valid. Furthermore, we have no substitute terms to offer. But it ought to be acknowledged

that the more widely the terms are employed, the less meaning and validity they posses.

We do know a great deal about Jewish practices among Israeli Jews without regard to the

categories of dati, masorti, or hiloni. We prefer to label these practices Jewish rather than

religious practices precisely because they remain in the eyes of some who practice them

religious whereas in the eyes of others they are Jewish rather than religious. According to

the latest Guttman report, 85 percent of Israeli Jews indicate that they participate in a

seder , 71 percent light candles on the Sabbath, 67 percent fast on Yom Kippur, 55

percent have a special Sabbath meal, 48 percent recite (or hear) Kiddush before the

Friday night meal and 41 percent build a succah. Forty one percent also report that they

refrain from working in public on Shabbat. (Get more statistics,) Hadas Franco and

Ezra Kopelowitz conducted a survey of students at Michlelet Ruppin, who identified

themselves as hiloni. They found that among the hiloniim... (do you have the

statistics; I erased my copy of the report. Obviously you should only cite this study if

it shows a high percentage of hiloniim doing something Jewish.). The conclusion is

inescapable. The majority of Israeli Jews observe many Jewish practices in their home,

including practices which are not always pleasant ones. Whether this stems from a belief

that God has commanded one to observe these practices, or whether it is a sense of

obligation to ones family, or a sense of Jewish peoplehood, or something else, or all or

some of these, we do not know and we are not certain that those who observe these

Jewish practices know, even when they have an answer ready at hand.

A question of another sort is how important are these practices in the lives of

those who observe them. This too is something we dont know. A reasonable assumption

is that it varies among the non-datiim. For some it is very important and for some of

trivial importance. But we can make an educated guess. It seems reasonable to assume

that among the non-datiim, observing Jewish practices are linked, in some way to sense

of Jewish peoplehood. And Israeli Jews claim that belonging to or being part of the

Jewish people is very important in their lives. (cite Guttmann statistics) A decade ago,

in his book Zehut Yehudit-Yisraelit, Yair Auron, published the results of his interviews

with second and third year students in teachers seminaries. He sampled students from

haredi, from mamlachti-dati and from mamlachti seminaries. Sixty eight percent of the

students in mamlachti (non-religious) seminaries reported that their Jewishness played a

very important or an important part in their lives. (p.61). (We note, as an aside that

Aurons study was widely understood to demonstrate the weak link between future Israeli

teachers and Jewishness. This tells us a great deal about the expectations of the Israeli

establishment at the time.)

We are reluctant to argue that Jewish practices are important in the lives of the

majority of non-religious Israelis. Without careful and intensive interviewing this can not

be established. But there is no evidence that the opposite is the case.

In the light of all this, it is surprising to find that Israeli media, whose programming

presumably reflects popular culture in Israel, gives very little expression to characteristic

Israeli-Jewish practices. To understand our point we must recall that there is a distinction

between state culture (the culture generated by the state itself) and civic or public culture

which in democratic societies exists independently of the state. Israeli State culture, the

culture surrounding the laws themselves, state ceremonies and emblems, pronouncement

by state leaders, can be distinct from the culture expressed by the media. In Israel today,

we will argue, unlike thirty years ago and more, there are considerable differences in the

values expressed by the two cultures and the state culture has lost the impact and

influence it once had. Our interest, however, is the public or civic culture. Our focus is on

the public media which is directed to the broad spectrum of the Israeli-Jewish population

rather than a specific segment of the population.1

Yaacov; Note that I have made a few changes in the section that follows. I

tried to make as many changes as possible although most are quite minor. I think

you should follow the same procedure. Dont simply lift what you wrote from our

Hebrew version and insert it here. As far as the media is concerned one is either dati or

a hiloni who observes no Jewish practices. Israel is a Jewish state and Judaism-

Jewishness continues to play a role in its public culture in the media, in art, in music in

literature. But at the risk of oversimplification we think a fair generalization would be

that that in the eyes of the producers of middlebrow Israeli culture, the agents of cultural

transmission, Judaism-Jewishness is distinguished from Israeli culture. It has an assigned

place in the cultural agenda but it is not to be confused with real culture. For example,

The section that follows draws upon our forthcoming article, Israeli Identity: The Jewish

component, which will appear in Iyunim in Hebrew and in Anita Shapira (ed.), Israeli Identity in


in both Israeli cinema and television, Jewish practices do not appear a natural, daily,

normal element in the life of the Israeli protagonist. Compare this with the manner in

which daily life is portrayed in the American media. The Simpson family is a good

example. Church attendance on Sunday is a regular part of the family schedule. The

Simpsons are not a religious family. Homer cant stand church attendance. He presents a

constant challenge to the pastor whenever the pastor extends his sermon. The pastor in

turn represents corruption and religious close mindedness. The religious character in the

show, Ned Flanders, is grotesque and negative. In other words, the show hardly flatters

organized religion. But this is our point. Religion is part of the American scene whether

one likes it or not. Homer, the average American, does go to church. There is no

counterpart in Israeli television serials. We would not expect Israeli television serials to

show the average Israeli attending synagogue. Only a quarter do so according to the

Guttman survey referred to above. But as we noted above the majority of Israeli Jews

participate in a Passover Seder, fast on Yom Kippur, light candles on the Sabbath, have a

special Shabbat meal, and almost half recite (or hear) Kiddush before the Friday night

meal and build a succah.. But this activity finds little place in the behavior of those

portrayed on Israeli television screens or the Israeli cinema. The notable exception is the

portrayal of the older generation of mizrahi Jews. Scenes that depict mizrahim are likely

to express some form of religious traditionalism. Some will wear kipot, the family might

sit around the Sabbath table and hear the patriarch invoke traditional blessings, and one

even finds scenes depicting a visit to the synagogue. But these practices are played out by

the older parental generation. The media makes clear that the protagonists are

uncomfortable in such settings and find them inappropriate, and unsuitable

We are not arguing that Jews, Judaism and even religion are ignored (although,

see below, this too happens). They have their place in both television and the cinema,

indeed in literature as well, but they are representative of the religious other. Of them and

not us. In the nineties, when the dichotomy religious-secular became so critical in the

construction of the Israeli identity, one finds a greater maturity in the handling of the

Jewish-Judaic element. But Judaism-Jewishness continues to be identified as religious

and generally represented by a stereotypical character. Religious Jews might cavil at such

treatment. But it is the non-religious Jews who affirm their Judaism and participate on a

selective basis in Jewish ritual and ceremony that are simply ignored. It is the non-

religious Israeli, whose Jewish lifestyle is ignored by the agents of Israeli culture.

There is no more dramatic evidence of how secondary Judaism-Jewishness is to

the producers of Israeli middlebrow culture than a recent incident. Israel has three

television channels. Channel one is governed by the Israel Broadcasting Authority and is

non-commercial. Channels two and ten are commercial channels. However, their

programming must be approved by a government appointed public committee. In August

2002, the committee rejected channel tens programming for September. September is the

month filled with Jewish holidays. In 2002 it included the Jewish New Year, Yom

Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, and the seven day festival of Succoth.

However, the channel ten programs for the month of September made no reference to

these daysMembers of the committee asked the directors of the channel to add

programs which carry associations to the Hebrew calendar2

Haaretz (August 23, 2002), p. 23.

The manner in which the movie Avanti Popolo treats the tension between Israeliness and

Jewishness provides another example of the Jewish-Israeli dichotomy. The movie takes

place in the last moments of the Six Day war and the heroes are Israeli and Egyptian

soldiers. But the widespread interpretation of the movies theme, an interpretation

expressed by the movie critic Uri Klein noted, was the conflict between Israelis and Jews.

He observes that

the Israelis in the film are represented by the Israeli soldiers and the Jews are

represented by the two Egyptian soldiers. At the climax of the film, one of the Egyptian

soldiers, who is a theater actor by profession, recites Shylocks well known monologue

from Shakespeares Merchant of Venice3

In other words, here is an example of an Israeli production which does contain a Jewish

element, but it is expressed by Arabs, the ultimate other in Israeli-Jewish identity.

The attitude of Israeli culture to the notion of penitence or becoming a born again

Jew (hazara btshuvah) also illustrates our point. Dan Urian, for example, found that

during the eighties Israeli television portrayed hazara btshuvah in a positive light. The

description of the penitent was that of a secular, anti-religious, leftist, drug addicted

suicidal criminal who embraces religious observance as a solution to the meaningless of

his life. Such persons turn into righteous, family living, quiet positive people. However,

during the nineties, television adopted the stance of the Israeli theater. Hazara btshuvah

was now depicted as a questionable and grotesque act based on a culture of lying whose

Uri Klein, National and Personal Cinema. Kesher 31 (May 2002) pp. 47e-55e

outcome, for example undermines the family and destroys the world of the individual as

well as the world of the Israeli collective.4

We see in the treatment of hazara btshuvah by the disseminators of Israeli

culture, a representative case, exemplifying the attitude toward the Jewish components in

Israeli identity. The notion that lies at the heart of this treatment is the binary distinction,

as we have argued, between Israeli culture and Jewish culture, and hazara btshuvah

becomes a ritual act of crossing lines and abandoning one camp, the camp of us, the

Israelis, for another camp, the camp of the other, the camp of the religious which is

identical with the camp of Jews and Judaism. Israeliness and Jewishness become

mutually exclusive categories and their integration becomes impossible, undesirable and

unnatural. Any in-between category such as traditional rather than religious Judaism is

presented, in the best case, as an anomalous identity that will inevitably dissolve in a

process of identifying with one side or another. In the worst case, it is hypocritical and


Uri Zohar (the prominent actor who became a hozer btshuvah) is a kind of role

model for this sort of interpretation. A great deal of attention is paid to the manner in

which Zohars hazara btshuvah serves the ultra-Orthodox haredi community as a myth

and symbol to attract more penitents. Zohar himself plays an active role in the

confirmation and continual reconstruction of this myth and has placed himself at the

service of those who would mobilize him for political purposes .We are not arguing that

Dan Urian. Touch the Sky: Jewish identity in Modern Israeli Culture, Kesher, 30 (November,

2001, in Hebrew), pp. 31-41.

the manner in which Zohar, the individual, is perceived by the cultural elite does any

injustice to the truth of his particular case. What we are saying is that there is no reason

for Zohar to be viewed as the paradigm for hazara btshuvah. One could point to contrary

examples where an artist has successfully melded the two identities. This is especially

true of artists from a mizrahi background. The case of the musician Ehud Banai is

instructive. Banai has gradually turned to greater religious observance, and has reached

the point where he openly adopted a traditional life style. Nevertheless, he did not cross

any red lines but continued to conduct one of the most successful musical careers in Israel

in tandem with his growing affirmation of tradition. But it is the Zohar case that remains

paradigmatic for the generators of Israeli culture. In their eyes Zohars hazara btshuvah

means that he is lost to the world of Israeli culture and further demonstrates of the

notion that one must choose between us and them Israeliness or Judaism-

Jewishness. Zohars hazara btshuvah provides the ostensibly perfect model of the

choices that an Israeli faces. Either you are an Israeli or a religious Jew. There is no

melding of the two identities.

The treatment of the Jewish holidays is an example of the changing manner in

which the media treat the Jewish component in Israeli identity. We already mentioned

how one television channel simply chose to ignore them. The situation in the press is not

that extreme but the changes in the last few decades are dramatic. A glance at the

newspapers of the fifties, sixties and seventies reveals that the holiday issues of the

papers are indeed holiday issues. In addition to their coverage of the news they

concerned themselves with the traditional aspects of the holiday as these aspects were

transmitted via the Zionist prism. This was also true of the Friday (i.e. the Friday-

Shabbat) issues. This accent on the traditional nature of the holidays has declined in the

last few decades. It has almost entirely disappeared from the two most widely read Israeli

dailies5 Yediot Aharonot and Maariv although not at all from Haaretz. The popular

dallies will carry columns by a rabbi or religious personality commenting on the Jewish

holiday or on the Biblical portion of the week appropriate to a particular Sabbath . But the

columns are written from an Orthodox perspective. A gesture to the religious reader. The

For example, in 1971, the front page of the Rosh Hashanah edition of Maariv included the

headline, Masses Will Gather Tonight in Five Thousand Synagogues for the Rosh Hashanah

Services. (Maariv, September 19, 1971). The same edition, in separate stories, reports on religious

services in Jewish communities around the world and (in keeping with the Zionist meta-narrative)

their difficulties. Ten years later a similar headline on the front page read Preparations Were

Completed for Handling thousands of Worshipers at the Western Wall. The report was

accompanied by a column discussing the holiday rituals. (Maariv, September 28, 1981), p. 1. The

Literary Supplement included several references to the holiday. Ten years later the front page

reference to the holiday was headlined: Security Forces are Preparing for the Holiday. (Maariv,

September 8, 1991), p.1. The Holiday Supplement included a special guide for hikes and tours

headlined Special for the Holidays). The literary supplement made no mention of the holiday. The

September 2001 Rosh Hashanah edition did not contain any front page reference to the holiday. The

back page headline read For the First time: Armed Guards at Synagogues. Three secondary

headlines of the same report read: Vacation: Tens of thousands Are Flying Abroad but Not to the

U.S.A., a second read Money: The ATM machines will be Filled with Cash and the third read

Missing You: Rosh Hashanah Cards to the Soldiers Kidnapped in Lebanon. The Literary

Supplement made no reference to the holiday. (Maariv, September 17, 2001).

orientations of most Israelis, non-religious on the one hand but interested, involved and

sympathetic to the tradition receives little expression.

A similar treatment of the Jewish holidays is found on television. Except for those

programs specifically intended for the religious public, it is difficult to identify the place

of Jewish holidays on Israeli televisions channels. The most prominent expression of the

holiday spirit, with the exception noted above, is the filming of a Hollywood movie on

the festival eve. The most prominent characteristic of the holidays, as reflected in the

listings of Israeli public television is familyness. Programs are those that the whole

family can enjoy together. In some cases the program decision makers air historical docu-

dramas on biblical personalities who might bear some connection to the holiday. These

are often programs produced in the United States with a Christian perspective. Only

rarely does one find television programs relevant to the holiday from a Jewish perspective

then it will usually be a learned round table discussion of the holiday by scholars, rather

than some original production. The ninth of Av (Tisha BAv) lends itself to this kind of

treatment. This is not true of the national holidays, specifically Holocaust Memorial Day

and Independence Day. On those occasions, the television channels devote themselves

entirely to the significance of the holidays.

The way in which Channel One airs the reading of the megillah on Purim is an

example of the nature of the concession that Israeli culture offers to Judaism. The public

channel feels obligated, or is obligated by its charter, to provide some coverage of the

most traditional holidays. Coverage of Purim should be easy because its carnival like

nature offers the least tension between secular and religious values. But Purim does have

its strictly religious moments and the reading of the megillah is the most important of

them. Channel One positions television cameras in some Orthodox synagogue, and

covers the event in the most formal manner possible as if it were saying we are obliged

to handle this topic, we have no idea how to do it, so we turn the production over to those

to whom it belongs, i.e. the religious. As one television critic remarked, it has no place

for the non-religious Jew who might know little of the ritual aspects of the holiday but

wants to learn more.6

A segregation between what is thought of as Jewish or religious and what is

considered real culture is also reflected in the guides to leisure time activity in the Israeli

press. Ahbar Hair, which advertises itself as the Bible of leisure, omits describing

events of a Jewishly traditional nature.

What we are witnessing in the relationship between Judaism and Israeli culture

has an ethnic component as well. As we have seen, there are differences between the

attitudes of ashkenazi Israelis and mizrahi Israelis to the Jewish component of their

Israeliness and this too is reflected in Israeli culture. Ashkenazi Jews are far more likely

to adopt an understanding of Judaism which imposes sharp distinctions between

secularism and religiousness and leaves little space for what is best termed religious

traditionalism religious behavior based on custom and family tradition tied to a sense of

ethnic or national identity rather than religious behavior which is dictated by authoritative

interpretations of sacred text. Jews from Islamic countries have retained a strong measure

of traditionalism which is dictated by family custom rather than rabbinic fiat but

Sagi Green, Television: Redundant, Haaretz (February, 26, 2002), p. 16.

mizrahim are minor voices within the ranks of those who dominate the agencies of Israeli

culture and many of them have adopted the regnant attitudes of ashkenazim.

Attitudes toward Judaism-Jewishness is more complex in modern Hebrew

literature. The Harshav footnote got lost here and I am unable to fit it into the text.

You will notice that the Taub footnote comes at the very end of the paper. I had

trouble with that as well. We confine ourselves to the observation that the retreat from

the collective to the personal in the last few decades characterizes Hebrew as well as

other Western literature. However, it is more surprising in Israel given the challenges that

Israeli society faces. There are those who see the in the retreat of the younger generation

of Hebrew writers to the personal and the private (to the point where there is avoidance of

narrative writing in the customary sense), a sign of a crisis of meaning.

One gets the impression that in this artistic revolution of young writers there is

nothing newnot so much a withdrawal of an embattled artistic vanguard from some

dominant cultural community but a colony of forced exiles trying to create a minimum

space for itself in what appears to be a cultural vacuum.i

This vacuum, we believe, stems, at least in part, from the decline of meaningful

frameworks of collective identity that had previously existed. There is little place, in this

cultural vacuum for Judaism-Jewishness whether in its traditional or in its Zionist,

ethno-national formulation.

I think you should put the Burganim back in, maybe music and radio as well, and

add that spiritualism (astrology, kabala, etc.) does find expression. Do you have

some additional thoughts on the spiritualism bit? Maybe it appeals to the purveyors

of Israeli culture or maybe it is so esoteric that it falls outside any Jewish category

but is interesting.

The next section asks how are we to explain the absence of Jewishness in the public

media Possible answers: 1. The plurality of media catering to special interests

thereby reducing the pressure to portray Jewishness. But, these special interests

whom the media serves, primarily the Arabs, the religious and the Russians, exclude

the bulk of the Israeli Jewish population. 2. The religious establishment which

welcomes this dichotomy. 3.The universalist bias of the cultural elite. Here I suggest

a drastic shortening of the material in our previous essay. You might even exclude it

and then rewrite this last section accordingly. The thing is to stick to the point.

Finish with the problem that Jewish practice, at least Jewish practice in a non-

Orthodox context receives no recognition in the public media. This condition is

satisfactory to two groups, the Orthodox establishment, which thereby maintains its

monopoly of Jewish practice, and the Jewishly neutral secularists on the other. But

the absence of any legitimation or affirmation of Jewish practice in the media may

be a contributing factor to its decline. Point to signs of decline, especially among

mizrahim as reflected in the Guttman Report. For those of us who believe that such

a decline further undermines the unity of society, the sense of identification with the

state, and the self image of Jews throughout the world, the condition should be


Gadi Taub, The Dispirited Rebellion (Tel-Aviv: Hakibutz Hameuchad, in Hebrew, 1997), p. 47.