When I was growing up, Temple Emanu El in Dallas would hold an annual art show and sale we would attend. There was work by local, national and Israeli artists and I it always seemed very sophisticated and special to get to attend. Sometimes, my parents would even buy prints, and we acquired a series of lithographs of abstract, colorful scenes of observant Jews in Israel that made me want to join them in their joyous dancing, carrying the lulav, walking in the street.
But that was once they made it up on our wall. My dad wasn’t known for his prompt attention to such things, so having bought artwork, it would sometime languish against the baseboard below the spot where he intended to hang it. Intend is the operative word here. But I guess after some time, or maybe some gentle nudging from my mother, my dad would fetch the hammer and nails.
“Marla, come help me.”
I’m not sure where he got the idea that I knew where the picture should go; I mean, I was probably only about 10 or 11 at the time. Maybe, since I liked to draw and paint, he just figured it was a good activity we could do together. And of course I could always hold nails. But Dad would raise the painting approximately where he wanted it to hang and ask, “Is it right.”
“Too far. Bring it back to the right.”
And so on, until we agreed on a spot. Then he’d make his mark, take the nail from me and finally, drive it into the wall.
This memory came back to me recently after speaking with my daughter, Lily, who is spending the year in Tel Aviv in a study and social service program, BINA: The Secular Yeshiva. She spends her days in intense classes, including Talmud and things like Gender in Judaism, as well as Ulpan Hebrew. A few times a week she works as a volunteer in different afterschool programs. One is court mandated for children in difficult home situations, and the other serves impoverished children who need someplace to attend after school.
When Lily called last week, I asked her about the other participants in BINA, who she seems to like. There are 30 in all; a third are “gapnikim,” students from the United States and Europe attending the program between high school and college. The other 20 are Israelis. The program sees Jewish learning and direct action as a conduit to strengthening Jewish identity and peoplehood, as well as fostering a sense of mutual responsibility. It has a deep focus on text study combined with tikkun olam, or repairing the world.
They have chosen to join this program located in Shapira, a neighborhood of Tel Aviv that has become home to African immigrants, many of whom are refugees from strife in their native countries and now the recipients of much of the volunteer work in which BINA students participate. The yeshiva was founded in 2006, as a way to reclaim text study for secular Jews. But the overall program was created in 1996, and arose after the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin, an event that exacerbated the divide between secular and religious in Israel. Today the program, in Israel’s most liberal metropolis, is dedicated to promoting a democratic, pluralistic Israeli society. It’s an idea that feels tenuous and endangered as the proposed “nation-state” bill — which could shift the balance between Israel’s democratic and Jewish identities — wends its way through the Knesset.
Lily’s classmates, from the snippets we get from her, seem decidedly secular and, from what I gather, very liberal. Or as my daughter put it:
“Well, sometimes it’s hard, being a little religious and a little to the right,” she said.
That took me aback. Really? Are you, and by extension, we, your family, “a little religious and a little to the right?” It certainly wasn’t how I saw myself. It was like having a funhouse mirror held up, reflecting a stretched out, fluid image of myself.
While I’ve tried being Shabbat observant, and don’t shop or drive from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, keep kosher, wear tallit and like to leyn Torah and lead services, somehow these things never added up to being “religious” to me. When I write it out like that, I know it sounds kind of ridiculous, but at the same time I’m married to a scientist, have no problem with the concept of evolution and often wonder, when I’m praying, just who is “up there” listening, if anyone. Throw in that I wear tallit and tefillin, which in some quarters practically brands me as a heretic.
Maybe it’s because I live so close to the Town of Ramapo, with it’s charedi enclaves of New Square and Kaiser, and the generally frum ones of Monsey and Spring Valley, that I don’t see myself as “religious.” Is where you stand in relation to someone else what helps define who you are? Or do we define ourselves as absolutes, in isolation from the forces around us?
I suspect it is the former, which brings me to the “little bit right.” Around Rockland County, a place that is very supportive of Israel, I’ve always viewed myself as very centrist on Israel issues. I see myself as a supporter, but sometimes critical of the Jewish homeland’s policies. At the same time I unequivocally see it as the “Jewish homeland.”
But after Israel’s summer war with Hamas, it seemed like any criticism meant you had become a left-wing nut job. And even stalwart, “I’m a two-state solution” supporter statements could seem inflammatory. There seems to be less and less room for varied opinions in the Israel debate. I see myself as a strong supporter of Israel. But do others around me?
So, a little to the right?
After Lily had been in Israel for about a month she said she missed “doing Jewish stuff” and had found a synagogue that looked like it would work, which probably meant it was Reform or Masorti (the name of the Conservative movement outside the U.S.), and was going to attend to shul. I was rather moved by this; thinking all that day school tuition, Ramah camping and fee after endless fee for United Synagogue Youth events had paid off.
But that’s one thing if your housemates think of you as a “little religious” in a country that hasn’t quite figured out how to be somewhere in between on the issue. Lily obviously found someplace to go that satisfied her Jewish soul. Where do you go if they think you are a “little to the right?” ZOA training camp?
A friend familiar with her program said that BINA is indeed one of the most left leaning in Israel. I suppose you’re thinking as parents we should have done our homework a little better, but we let Lily research which she wanted to attend and make her choice. He noted that they wrestle mightily with the notion of being the chosen people and living in a democratic country. It’s not so easy.
Which brings me back to my father and the picture. We could spend a lot of time moving that picture around the wall. Sometimes my brother would come in and roll his eyes and move along before he could be asked to offer an opinion. My Mom might weigh in that it looked just fine. But in my view, it needed to go a little bit up, or down, or left, or right. Where the painting needed to hang was all relative to where I was standing.
And maybe someone else would think the spot I picked wasn’t the correct one at all. And maybe it simply belonged on a different wall altogether.
But wherever we picked, those scenes of Israel beckoned me. And they are playing out for real for my daughter today.