The Arty Semite

Pluralistic Shavuot at Tel Aviv City Hall

By Ronen Shnidman

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Photo courtesy of Beit Tefilah Israeli

This Shavuot, the Tel Aviv Municipality broke new ground in the effort to develop a native-grown pluralistic form of Judaism that meets the spiritual and cultural needs of Israel’s non-Orthodox Jewish majority.

In conjunction with the liberal, independent, egalitarian minyan Beit Tefilah Israeli, the local government of Israel’s cultural capital hosted a night of lectures, panel discussions, study sessions, intimate musical performances and a pluralistic prayer service at dawn at city hall.

The evening, some participants hoped, would provide a prototype for an inclusive form of Judaism that better suited to the needs of Israel’s Jewish population than the one represented by the established Orthodox Rabbinate. During the evening there was much discussion of the need to create a positive secular Jewish and democratic culture as a focal point for non-religious Israelis, instead of a militantly anti-Orthodox or de-Judaized public sphere.

“What happened is that something grassroots that has been developing over the past 10 to 15 years is finally receiving attention from those at the top of the municipal establishment,” Beit Tefila’s Rabbi Esteban Gottfried told the Forward. “There is an understanding for the first time at Tel Aviv City Hall that a pluralistic Judaism is growing in Tel Aviv and could become a source of urban pride. In particular, because of Tel Aviv’s makeup, the Judaism that is growing in Tel Aviv is very creative and very open and this is what we mean when we say that ‘from Tel Aviv shall come forth Torah.’”

When it came to religion, one of the ideas batted around most during the evening was to create a positive definition of the Sabbath that would encompass all Israelis (or at least Jewish Israelis) with respect to limitations on employment and commerce and the promotion of cultural activities. Perhaps even more unexpected for the first Hebrew city was the participation of Yung Yiddish, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and transmitting Yiddish culture in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Yung Yiddish director Mendy Cahan led the audience in Yiddish song during the evening’s tish. It was both a bit amusing and surprising to hear Cahan ask the audience some questions and to hear middle-aged Israelis respond in Yiddish.

Other locally prominent participants who played active roles in the evening events included filmmaker Rani Blair, popular Hebrew linguist Rubik Rosenthal, former Maariv columnist Ben-Dror Yemini and linguist and daughter of President Shimon Peres, Tzvia Walden.

In terms of numbers, the evening could be considered a moderate success with a few hundred people participating over the course of the night. However, the event was more significant on a symbolic level, perhaps as a sign of a developing cultural trend. Tel Aviv may finally be laying to rest the bitter Israeli culture wars of previous decades, including the Yiddish-Hebrew split and later the battle between religious and secular populations over the role of religion in the public sphere. Alternatively, the event may have been just a curious one-off event. Time will tell.


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