A Partial Guide to Non-Observant Israeli Jews: Part Two: The Cultural Jew

[Previous Posts: Intro, The Traditionalist]

‘Judaism as Culture’: The Concept and its Israeli Expression

Culture is a very broad term. It potentially includes not only works of high literature and art, but also language and slang, folk songs and children’s books, clothing and musical style. It is important to keep this in mind when we discuss the concept of ‘Judaism as culture’, including in the Israeli context.

The idea of ‘Judaism as a culture’ seperate from religion is a clear product of modernity, both born of it and encouraged by it. It was created at different times and in different contexts by Jews who were no longer traditionally religious but nevertheless wanted to hold onto their Jewish identity by refashioning it into something new and relevant to modern times. We see this idea among the socialist Bund and the Yiddishists, as well as the various liberal strains of Judaism in the Diaspora, both before and after the creation of the State of Israel.

As I said before, culture is a ‘kissing cousin’ to tradition, but it nevertheless is different in two critical ways:

1) ‘Judaism as culture’ is often (though not always) mostly or fully secularized; God and religion are deliberately written out of the picture. It is no accident that ‘Judaism as culture’ is often used as a counterpoint slogan by secular Jews when debating their religious brothers. This is in contrast to tradition, which is neutral on the subject.

2) If traditionalists often try to keep things as ‘authentic’ as they always were, culturalists do their best to ‘make things new’ and ‘relevant’ to present times.

If the Yiddishists emphasised cultural autonomy and liberal Judaism emphasized guarded acculturation, Hebrew culture emphasized the concept of the Jews as a nation. This meant that God was now replaced with the Jewish people as the center (to the point that sometimes religious Zionists tried to counter the well-known Chanukah tune ‘mi yemalel gevurot yisra’el’ [who will speak of the greatness of Israel] with ‘mi yemalel gevurot ha-kel’ [who will speak of the greatness of God’). More than that, it meant that only cultural areas and works that emphasized the national-territorial aspects of Judaism were given full play. Tanach and Land of Israel history – in, Oral Torah and diaspora cultural creations – out (except those which were Zionistic).

The Cultural Jew of Yesteryear

Your average Israeli ‘cultural Jew’ was very well-versed in Tanach and had a powerful command of First and Second Temple history. He knew the land of Israel backwards and forwards down to the names of individual streams and hills. He traveled the land with his feet and often took a strong interest in archaeology – there were many ‘amateur’ historians and archaeologists among them. Some made important contributions such as Shmarya Gutman, who uncovered Gamla.

The ‘cultural Jew’ followed some of the Jewish calendar, with emphasis on nation and territory. Pesach and Chanuka were holidays of national liberation; Tu Bishvat and Sukkot – agricultural holidays. Purim was also ‘secularized’ – for many years during the Mandate, Tel Aviv conducted a famous and very popular parade called the ‘adloyada’. With the establishment of the state, this ‘culture’ was turned into a fully fledged ‘civil religion‘, as documented by Profs. Eliezer Don-Yehiya and Charles Liebman.

In the Aftermath of the fin-de-siecle Kulturkampf

“In terms of students…we get a lot of non-frum students who come to learn Tanakh at Bar-Ilan.  It used to be, when I started at Bar-Ilan in the mid-‘90s, that Hillonim would come to learn Tanakh because they wanted to know the history and they saw Tanakh primarily in cultural or historical terms, but now they come to study Tanakh because they are seeking meaning, and in many cases seeking a relationship with God, because there is a big mashber (crisis) in Israel.  In the ‘90s, there was a sort of headiness about Oslo, that we could be ke-khol ha-goyyim (like all the other nations), and it did not work.  Over time, all the big “isms” of secular Israeli culture fizzled out: the army did not really turn out to be invincible – Lebanon was a big mess (twice); agriculture – the Philippinos do all that now; the idea that we will have a new Middle East – but it is the same old Middle East; and the kibbutz collective life and socialism – none of it panned out.  So there is a huge vacuum now, and Israelis feel it, and secular Israelis know that they do not have a big flag to wave…What is a Jew?  Hmmm, I would like to find out in a way that suits me.”

– Dr. Josh Berman in Kol Mevaser (emphases are mine)

Fast forward to the 1990s. Many ‘cultural’ Jews have increasingly lost touch with their Jewish roots, almost to the vanishing point (this is covered in depth in the massive two-volume Hebrew study ‘Farewell to Srulik‘). There were several reasons for this: the increasing privatization of Israeli life, the bitter struggle over the fate of Yesha, the trauma of the Yom Kippur War and the alienation felt towards those Jews (religious, Middle Eastern) who put Begin in power. The elite of this group, and subsequently its broader body politic, increasingly stressed their Western and secular bona-fides and considered Zionism and anything ‘Jewish’ to be an embarrassment. This came to a head in the Oslo days, with open calls for the abolition of the Jewish nature of the state and wholesale slaughtering of national myths by ‘new historians’ of every shape and size. Important sections of cultural Jews were sick of war, fighting and yearned for ‘normalcy’.

Somewhere along the way, the ‘normalcy’ (re: non-Jewish) train came to a stop. Historians will debate the when and the how. Some will say it was the trauma of the Rabin assassination. Others will place it at the Second Intifada. Regardless of the cause, the effect cannot be denied. Many of the ‘normalcy’ seekers are trying to recreate the ‘Jewish culture’ they were so eager to chuck out the window.

This has created a new phenomenon: the non-observant searcher. The searcher is a non-observant Jew who either passively or actively desires to increase and augment their Jewish identity. They are different from their forebearers in that they do not restrict themselves to any type of source or attitude. More than anything, they are looking for a meaningful Jewish identity. This has resulted in the following new/old types of cultural Jew (there are more, but these are the primary groups):

1)      The old-style Zionist – contrary to popular perception, the ‘cultural Jew of yesteryear’ exists and is enjoying a renaissance in many areas. A perfect example of this is ‘Im Tirzu‘, which is composed largely of non-observant Jews. Other signs of life can be seen in various openly Zionist think tanks like Metzila”h and IZS. All throughout the country, small, but highly motivated groups of non-observant Jews are ‘setting up shop‘ in cities on the social and geographic periphery, emulating the old pioneers.

2)      The Learner – This relatively new type of ‘cultural Jew’ may be secular, but he no longer denies himself the enjoyment of religious Jewish sources alongside secular ones. Walk into any bookshop and you’ll notice a virtual explosion of books on Judaism, many of them targeting a secular or at least neutral crowd. Whether it’s the vaunted ‘Am Hasefer‘ and ‘Yahadut Kan Veachshav‘ series by Yediot publishing, or the staunchly secular ‘Zman Yehudi Chadash‘ encyclopedia, the non-observant Israeli public is hungry for Jewish knowledge, and where there’s demand, there’s supply. The establishment of secular ‘Batei Midrash’ is more evidence of the strength of this phenomenon.

3)      The New Cultural Jew – The ‘new cultural Jew’ attends piyut sessions, listens to the ever-growing trend of ‘Jewish music’ (music with Jewish themes and sources, some of it done by avowed atheists or agnostics) and attends lectures at Avi Chai or similar institutions. Some are trying out Yiddish again or are rediscovering their roots in Europe. What the learner gains through knowledge, they gain from experience.

So that’s the cultural Jew of yesteryear and today. Next week, we’ll cover that most inscrutable of non-observant Jews – the civilian.


Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at: opdycke1861NOSPAM@yahoo.com
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1 Response to A Partial Guide to Non-Observant Israeli Jews: Part Two: The Cultural Jew

  1. Pingback: A Partial Guide to Non-Observant Israeli Jews: Epilogue and Select Bibliography | QED

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