My Kol Nidre Sermon – What is an Israeli?

A Jew who made aliyah to Israel poured out his heart to G-d: “Master of the Universe, for two thousand years we prayed that you would return us to the Land of Israel. So why suddenly did you make it possible?!”

That is a joke, but now a true story: A number of years ago, when I was traveling here as a student, I visited a middle-aged woman in Hadera who described herself as an ardent Zionist. This was at the height of the second intifada. She looked at me wryly and said, “Why did you come here? If you like it so much here, why don’t we trade places for awhile? I put in my time, so now maybe you want a turn.”

What does it mean to be Israeli today?

I think about this question a lot. I’m an immigrant. By definition, I’m the one who’s trying to assimilate to a society to which I was not born nor do I have any familial roots. I like to believe that I am following in the footsteps of Israel’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion, Israel’s current president Shimon Peres, and the poet Yehuda Amichai, all immigrants to this land. However, today when approximate 72% of Israelis are native-born, there is more of a cultural norm to fit into: I’m trying all the time to be “Israeli” – I work on pronouncing my “rrrrresh”. I listen to the radio to learn all of the Israeli songs. I have a Naomi Shemer song book (she wrote every famous Israeli ballade). I clean my floor with a squeegie.

Does this make me Israeli?

My husband also works hard to help me become Israeli. The first CD he bought me was “HaKivsah HaShisha Asar (The Sixteenth Sheep)” On Israel’s Independence Day once he made me watch “burekas” (silly) movies all day. He tried to get me to like soccer and watch with him every night.

I made aliyah in 2005. Every time I met someone, they said, “Why are you still here?” I told them: “I made aliyah.” They said, “But we didn’t really think that you would stay.” Because a lot of Americans do make aliyah and leave because it’s too hard. In 2006, three weeks after my wedding, the Second Lebanon War broke out. My husband was suddenly called up and was up North for the next three weeks. I was alone in Jerusalem and he was dodging katyushas. After the war, native Israeli friends told me: “Now you’re an Israeli!”

Is that truly when I became an Israeli? Or did I become an Israeli when I knew “HaYaldah Hachi Yafah baGan (The prettiest girl in the pre-school)” by heart? Or did I become an Israeli when I got all the jokes on Eretz Nehederet (like Saturday Night Live in the US) (even the ones that aren’t funny)? Sometimes, I am reminded that I am not an Israeli. People, of course, draw attention to my accent. Sometimes, I’m not Israeli because Israelis feel like to have to explain to me what Israelis are like.

I bring up the topic because while it is one that is close to my heart and part of my everyday struggle, I actually think that it is a question that all of us face, whether born in Israel or having immigrated here at whatever age. Yom Kippur is a time to ask the big questions (there isn’t anything else to do – no TV or radio and nothing open!). Who am I? Where have I been? Where am I going? What do I stand for? I love the rabbinic metaphor of a giant Book of Life being opened during this time. I envision a giant tome, guilded in gold and jewels like the High Priest’s breast plate, with gilded pages. I see a figure sitting before this book holding a quill, dipping in the ink, and seeming to weigh thoughts very carefully before beginning to write. There are pages written upon, full of the experiences of my life. But the page now open is empty, tabula rosa, waiting to be written on, full of potential and possibility. Each of us has his/her own book. Each of us has the opportunity to ask him/herself: Who am I?

And I believe that a large part of the identity of most every person sitting here is “I am an Israeli.” So, I ask all of us the question: What does it mean to be an Israeli today? I also was drawn to the question in the publishing of two articles about Israel from abroad:
Perhaps you heard about the cover of Time Magazine last week – a Jewish star covered in daisies that read, “Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace”. The article says, “The truth is Israelis are no more preoccupied with the matter [peace],” adding that Israelis were “otherwise engaged, they’re making money, they are enjoying rays of the late summer…A watching world may still see their country being defined by the blood feud with the Arabs……, but Israelis say they have moved on. Now observing two and a half years without a single suicide bombing on their territory, with the economy robust and with the souls a trifle weary of having to handle big elemental thoughts, the Israeli public prefers to explore such satisfactions as might be available from the private sphere.” (September 10, 2010)

What do we think? Is this true? To be Israeli today is it to be indifferent to the pursuit of peace? To be Israeli, is it to be more concerned about economic advancement and personal achievement?

A recent poll by Forbes Magazine ranked Israel as the world’s 8th happiest country, ahead of the United States (14) and tied with Canada. The four-year survey asked thousands of respondents in 155 countries to give a “life evaluation” score between one and ten, and cataloged their daily feelings to decide what percentage of people in each country were “thriving, struggling, or suffering.” The survey was taken between 2005 and 2009. (www.jpost.com)

To be Israeli, is it to be happy?

The answer, I’m sure you’ll all thinking, is a bit more complicated than that. I am positive that there are many answers to this question of who is an Israeli. And honestly, my goal tonight is to encourage you think of your own answer. But I have some thoughts that I would like to share from our traditional and Israeli sources and from my experiences.

Of course, in the most basic sense of the word, an Israeli is someone who has citizenship in Israel. A citizen is someone who was either born here or who immigrated. This definition, by the way, includes non-Jewish Israelis, mainly Israeli Arabs. I’m sure it would be a very interesting exercise to ask an Israeli Arab to define his Israeli identity.

But I am standing here speaking to a community of Jewish Israelis who are gathered tonight to observe Yom Kippur, so I really want to focus on the unique aspect of being an Israeli who is also part of the people of Israel. I want to tie our tradition to our modern lives today.

First of all, I want to look at our name: Yisrael. The people who struggles with G-d. An Israeli is someone who strives over and over to define himself. He is eternally between history and tradition and innovating for the future.
Beginning with our most ancient text, the Torah, G-d tells us in Exodus, “You shall be a holy nation, a nation of priests.” This ancient vision set pretty high expectations for us ordinary people. Higher standards help us rise to the occasion. An Israeli doesn’t settle – an Israeli is always trying to do better, to learn more, to make things special. Not to worry, soon after we learn from the Torah that we are also “a stiff-necked people.” And the midrash tells us that there were three cheeky types: The dog, the chicken, and the Israel(i). To be an Israeli is also not to be without flaws. Doesn’t anyone know anyone stubborn and difficult around town?

Secondly, the voices of our tradition informs our values. The Talmud instructs us: All Israel is responsible for one another. And Israelis do feel a sense of responsibility toward the other. They care about each other. I always hear stories about the guy who asked for directions and the woman ended up driving him to where he needed to go or the young mother who had a colicky baby on the bus and three grandmothers reached over and helped her with the baby. This is a special attribute not to be taken for granted – when we lived in Los Angeles, once we passed on a deserted street a young woman who was sobbing into a pay phone. Tamir, my Israeli, said, “We need to go back and see if she needs help.” He approached her to help her, and the young woman was in shock, unable to fathom that a stranger would offer or could be trusted to help.

The Talmud also states, “Even when an Israel(i) sins, he’s still an Israel(i).” Our collective responsibility extends even when we are disappointed or alienated from one another. Israelis are family – we don’t stop caring just because we disagree. The opposite – we shout even louder. The easiest thing to do is to disconnect – to check out and say “it’s not my problem” or just leave. It is harder to stay and to shout. But that’s what Israelis do — they stay and shout.
The writer David Frishman, after whom is named a street and a great beach in Tel Aviv, said “the Jewish people is both like an old man and like a child.” Israelis have a deep memory of our heritage — Our heritage of 3000 years ago on this land as well as our moreshet of tradition in Poland or in Morocco or Iraq or Yemen or Serbia. At the same time, we are a young, vibrant society creating new things, creating a new identity, and challenging all of the older ways of thinking. We are always cutting edge – making new ideas, new technologies, creating new vessels to our ancient values.

Finally, an Israeli is someone who cares about the future of Israel. The prophet Joel said “Your sons and your daughters will prophesy – your old will dream dreams and your youth will see vision.” And perhaps the author of the Time magazine article should have listened to the popular rock back HaDag Nachash who sing in their song “I believe” to understand who is an Israeli:

We can pick ourselves up and begin to act
To establish organizations, participate in demonstrations
Raise funds and oversea the activities
To be interviewed and photographed and explain and clarify
What we need and what is worthwhile so we can do it differently
That the solution is just around the corner.
And how easy it is, if we would only be ready to change the picture.

Perhaps – once an immigrant, always an immigrant. But I didn’t come here just for the view and just for the history, as I think many immigrants will tell you. I came here because of the people, because of the Israelis. When I was 20 and visited Tiberius for the first time, I’ll never forget the guy who rented me the bike: You’re visiting for a few months? You like it here? So, why don’t you move here? Just as I’ll remember the experience a few weeks ago right before Rosh HaShanah at the shuk when I stood in an enormous line to buy fish. The poor woman next to me with a Russian accent, “But I’ve been waiting here for half an hour!” as people pushed ahead. And I could shout and get the fish seller’s attention and help her to take her order.

We have a vision. We have 3000 years of wisdom and experience and also poking fun at ourselves to back us up. We have the energy and the drive to do fantastic things in this world. We make mistakes and we investigate ourselves to no end. We shout and we debate and immortalize ourselves in this eternal conversation on the meaning of life. And we never give up hope – no, we never give up hope. We pray for health, we pray for happiness, and we pray for peace.

We are Israel.

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One Response to “My Kol Nidre Sermon – What is an Israeli?”

  1. Benjamin Sperber Says:

    Dear Rav,

    Eretz Yisrael has been the State of Israel only a few years more
    than I have been a Jew in the United States.
    I remember when the rabbi feared that the USSR would supply
    Abdul Nassar with the “Bomb” (1957?). Now you live with
    the impending terror of an Iran with that weapon.
    As much as I love Israel, I fear for her safety.
    Yet, I only give my donations of support to you and
    Rabbi Maya. To me, you are the true Israelis. You are her
    true hope.
    thank you again for continuing to be my teacher,
    Benjamin Sperber

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