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Donkey Wi-Fi, Blurry Glasses and Israel Today

Sermon Parshat Kedoshim Israel Celebration Shabbat

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona, May 10, 2019

There are two stories I love because they illustrate some of the unique qualities of Israel, the only Jewish State in the world. One involves donkeys; the other involves deliberately obscured glasses. See if you agree with me on how much they say about our beloved Jewish state.

In the north of Israel, in the upper Jezreel Valley there is a famous archeological site called Tzippori or Sephoris. Perhaps you’ve visited it. I’ve led four trips to Israel, and we visited Tzippori on three of them. It’s a great site, archeologically and historically important and beautiful as well.

Tzippori was one of the most important locations of the Sanhedrin, and it may have been here—or in nearby Tiberias—that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi codified the Mishnah in the year 225 CE. Right next to Tzippori, with its ancient synagogue and wonderful Byzantine mosaics, is a tourist attraction called Kfar Kedem, which means old-time village, or town of the past. When you visit Kfar Kedem, located right where many famous rabbis lived, you change into the clothing of the mishnaic period, put on sandals and kefiyahs and tzitzit and visit ancient wine presses, millstones, oil presses, homing pigeon columbaria and the like. You can ride donkeys to have the full, realistic experience of the rabbis and ordinary Jews of the period of the Mishnah 1800 years ago. It is all designed to feel very authentic, like entering the ancient world firsthand.

Of course, this being Israel, the donkeys that carry you are also carrying slings around their neck that look like feedbags—only they actually contain Wi-Fi routers, so you can livestream your experience at Kfar Kedem on your cellphone. The proprietors of the village, who are Orthodox Jews from the nearby town, understand that all contemporary Israelis, and most modern visitors, are so wedded to their phones and tablets that they will be much happier if they can show all their friends how they are capturing what it was like to live in the first or second century on their YouTube channel or Facebook livestream or Instagram post. Kfar Kedem: Wear ancient clothing, see and participate in 2000 year-old crafts, ride a donkey and livestream it all using donkey-carried Wifi. Talk about Wi-Fi coming out of your… donkey. That’s Israel!

There’s another story that illustrates a further uniqueness of Israel. Apparently, a small eyeglass company in Jerusalem found a truly niche market to exploit. They manufacture glasses that have deliberately blurry lenses so that the wearers cannot see any provocatively dressed women as they walk through the streets of Israel. For those who already wear glasses this same company makes a film that you can apply to your lenses to blur them enough so you can’t actually see any women who might appear in your line of sight if you have to be in a public place where women are likely to walk. Intended for the chareidim, the ultra-Orthodox community of course, these blurry glasses contain perforations at the bottom to allow the pious wearers to look down and see the ground so they don’t walk into anything dangerous, but still can’t be led into temptation by seeing women clearly.

Also, only in Israel. But also, only in Israel, there is now a company that has developed eye drops that will one day replace reading glasses for those of us with age-related farsightedness and even some nearsightedness. They are called Nano-Drops, and they are in live testing now; they give you several hours of crisp vision with each application. As we age, we see things less well—we all know this. For most of us as we pass 45 years old we start to require more visual assistance. And now these drops are being developed to help us see much more clearly, at least temporarily. So, in Israel, you can wear glasses to blur your vision or put in drops to see better…

These remarkable dichotomies, these contradictions, contrasts and complications, highlight just what Israel is today. Kfar Kedem illustrates this for me. Israel is approximately the oldest existing nation on earth, dating back well over three thousand years to its founding in mostly the same place it exists today with people mostly descended from those who lived there back in 1000 BCE. And it is simultaneously one of the newer nations in the world, having been born just three years after the end of the Holocaust in 1948, 71 years ago, which is essentially adolescence in terms of national entities. Seventy one years old, for a person, is a grown-up age, past middle age and moving into senior status. But 71 years for a country is not very old, in truth, and in many ways it remains to be seen what Israel will ultimately become.

In comparison, America was 71 years old in 1847, fourteen years before the outbreak of the Civil War, when we had 29 states and the seats you are in were still located in Mexico, with which we were then at war. Slavery was definitely legal and there were no states west of Texas. America, at 71 years of age, had no international status to speak of, was agrarian and pre-industrial, a country mostly of farmers and small shopkeepers. There was really no way to predict what it would ultimately become.

So as we celebrate the only Jewish state on earth, the only nation ever to be reestablished after an almost 1900-year break, we need to remember that Israel is still very much a nation in the process of becoming what it will ultimately be. It has changed so much—so much!—in its brief history that in many ways Israel today is nearly unrecognizable to those who first knew it in the early 1950s, or the mid-1960s, or even the mid-1970s, like me. Frankly, it’s radically different now from what it was in the 1980s, or the 1990s, or the 2000s. Every time I travel there, which is every couple of years or so, I see changes that Israelis don’t even notice but which seem quite dramatic even to a frequent visitor. Israel is a small country, but it is perhaps the most dynamic one on earth.

Today, Israel is a vibrant, complicated, successful, first-world nation. Everyone you meet there seems to be working in the high-tech industries that spread throughout the country like wildflowers after spring rains. An industry that began in and was localized to Herziliyah and north Tel Aviv is now everywhere: throughout all of Tel Aviv and its suburbs, of course, but in Cesarea, in and around Haifa, in Zichron Ya’akov, in Jerusalem, in Beer Sheva and the spreading to the “periphery,” those regions that are not the Tel Aviv to Haifa coastal strip and Jerusalem. Technologically, Israel is highly advanced in military industries, in medical technologies, in desert agriculture, in solar power, in software development and computer-based security. And of course, its TV shows now make the leap to American streaming services—how many of you have seen Fauda? And Shtissel?

Israel continues to be true to its agricultural, pioneering roots and produces a great deal of high-quality food, but its fastest-growing, hippest agricultural industry these days is boutique wineries, which have expanded from a focus on the Galilee and Golan to the Elah Valley, the Negev, the upper Galilee, frankly everywhere. I won’t be surprised if I see “The Kotel Cabernet” get released within the next couple of years.

Israeli food has expanded vastly, too, in recent years. I remember well back in the lean years of the 1970s, when the Israeli Lira was worth less every day you held it, how limited the cuisine was. There was falafel, and there was, well, falafel, with an occasional shwarma or schnitzel for variety. I spent an entire summer eating scrawny, hairy chicken or meatless meals where the highlight was pita with chumous. The vegetables and fruits were great and fresh but all the other food was fried and, mostly, pretty lousy.

Today Israeli cuisine highlights the best of the Mediterranean region, which is pretty great, plus all the finest foods of the 200 or so countries of origin of its many diverse residents and their descendants. The restaurants compete not only for food quality, which is excellent, but believe it or not for service. A culture that was once focused on creating a socialist paradise—you want water? Great. Get it yourself—has now evolved into a place where the quality of your experience actually matters, provided the person involved does not work directly for the Israeli government.

And recreationally, Israel has evolved dramatically as well. It’s still the case that the best thing to do on a Shabbat afternoon in spring or summer in Israel is to go to one of the magnificent beaches, but you might choose instead to go to one of the ridiculous number of spas that exist all over the country, or visit the many art galleries or boutiques that are now open on Shabbat, or visit a world-class museum or three. If it’s bad weather there are many art-house locations to watch films, a thriving theater scene, and music, always close to the heart of Israelis, is available everywhere in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or Haifa in all its many variations, from excellent classical orchestras and operas to jazz clubs to a plethora of rock, hip-hop, folk, techno, and rap venues. In addition to soccer games, always wildly popular, there are high-level basketball teams to watch, and a preposterous number of participatory athletic pursuits to engage in, from hiking the many trails and national parks to biking to sailing to windsurfing to scuba diving.

But what about the great religious divide in Israel? Well, that certainly exists. First, if you aren’t aware of it, the vast majority of Israelis consider themselves to be chilonim, secular. They are Jews, they go to their parents’ homes for Shabbat dinner or have their kids come to their homes, their day off is Saturday, they fast on Yom Kippur, they light Hanukkah candles, they go to Seder on Passover and might even eat matzah the whole week, they speak and read Hebrew, of course, they know a fair amount of the Bible which they see as a kind of history book, they had a bar- and possibly even a bat mitzvah and were married to another Jew by a rabbi under a chuppah, but they are avowedly secular. They don’t go to temple on Friday nights, they don’t go on Saturday mornings, they don’t keep kosher, and the men don’t wear kippot all the time. In other words, they are very much like most Diaspora Jews, only kind of more Jewish in some ways. This roughly describes 75% of Israelis, which includes both those who say are secular and those who might classify themselves as “Traditional.” Included in these are the small but growing Progressive movement Jews, who are roughly analogous to Reform and Conservative Jews here in America.

So what about the fast-growing Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox sectors of Israeli society? Well, they are growing, in large part because of a spectacular birth rate, particularly among the chareidim, the ultra-Orthodox. But remember, all Israeli birthrates are higher than we would expect; secular Jews tend to have three or four kids, rather than the one or two children that seems to be the American default for Jewish families these days. And everyone born Orthodox does not necessarily stay Orthodox for life.

In any case, the Datim, the Modern Orthodox—identified as “kipah srugah, knitted kippah as opposed to kippah schorah, the black velvet kippah favored by the ultra-Orthodox—the Modern Orthodox participate fully in society, serve in the army, work in regular jobs and are full part of Israel. They are predictably more conservative in their voting patterns, and they have influence on the composition of the Knesset, but they are not a solid block and they are divided between Sephardic and Ashkenazi groups. They aren’t the ones actively advocating against what we would see as normal practices for a contemporary society.

And the chareidim, the ultra-Orthodox we hear so much about? They make up at most 10% of Israeli society, probably a bit less, about 8%. They are pretty much separatist in their approach to things, they often don’t serve in the army, and they have an inordinate amount of political influence on some small but irksome aspects of society: egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, the Kotel, for example, the acceptance of conversions in Israel, marriage and divorce. They also channel a lot of education funds to their schools and yeshivot and synagogues because of the political balance of power in the Knesset. But I don’t believe for a minute that there is going to be some sort of religious civil war in Israel between the chareidim and the rest of Israel, or that theocracy is about to take over and Halakah is going to be made the law of the land. It simply isn’t true.

Remember those stores selling glasses to blur chareidi vision—as though it needed more blurring—so that they can’t see modernity tempting them? It also applies, in a funny way, to the limited scope of ultra-Orthodox concerns. They don’t really influence the direction of Israeli society or policy much, because they mostly care about Talmud study and ritual observance and funding more schools. They don't see very far, not much beyond the Talmud Bavli Shas they are reading or the page of Tanya they are teaching.

Which means that the vast majority of the time the religious vitality of Israel, including the ultra-Orthodoxy, provides an incredible opportunity to experience Judaism in extraordinarily varied ways. There is nowhere else—probably ever—than Jerusalem today where you can shul-hop on a Saturday morning and visit the Aleppo synagogue of Syrian Jews, the Italian synagogue, the great Ashkenazic synagogue with its cantor and male choir, and then go to a Reform synagogue, all in the space of a couple of hours with a little walking in between. It’s like traveling the entire Jewish world on a given Shabbat morning. Just as there is no other place on earth where you can walk through a tunnel built in the 8th century BCE to protect Jerusalem’s water supply, emerge near the Western Wall, and then walk to a restaurant offering high-tech molecular gastronomy.

You will note that tonight I haven’t talked about Israeli politics, or Palestinian issues, or the trouble with Gaza and rockets and Hamas and Islamic Jihad, or the danger of Iran or Hezbollah or what I think of Bibi Netanyahu, and whether Israel should cultivate relationships with dictators in Hungary and Russia or not. I haven’t even talked about the recent Israeli lunar landing—they definitely landed it on the moon, although a little too hard to be useful—or whether the Eurovision music contest being held next week in Israel will be amazing or a waste of effort.

But that’s by design. I go back to those temporary eye drops, the Nano-Drops that will let us see more clearly, both near and far, for a little while. That’s what we need to do when we view Eretz Yisrael, this extraordinary, amazing, young-old country, as Theodore Herzl first named it over a century ago. We need to see all of it, if we can. At this season of its birth we have the great pleasure and privilege of being able to enjoy its remarkable nature, to put in a few metaphorical eye-drops and enjoy it for all it is, in its energy, beauty, complication and contradiction.

I can’t wait to see what the next 71 years will bring…

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