The 'Israeli Friday' Campaign: No Wonder It Annoys Us Secular Jews

It may be crass and arrogant, but the new media campaign to promote the traditional Sabbath hits non-observant Jews where it hurts.

A year ago I found the writings of the fathers of Zionism at a friend’s house, and asked to borrow them. After erupting in laughter, she said: “Of course, they’re a gift. I don’t need them.” I took them, and started reading: Ahad Ha’am, A. D. Gordon, Y. H. Brenner. I wanted very much for the writings to evoke memories, in the same way that I could reminisce about the magical memories of reading the first verses of the Book of Genesis back in second grade. I made every effort to recall, but it didn’t happen. And then it hit me: I have never seen most of these works before.

These are books that we didn’t read in school, nor in the youth movement (except for a collection of Communist slogans of Berl Katznelson); not in the army and not in university. And the saddest part is: I never read them at home either, and they are not found on the “Israeli bookshelf” either.

Yes, the new “Israeli Friday” (Shishi Yisraeli) campaign that tries to promote the Friday night kiddush [ceremonial blessings] among the public [and presents the secular alternative as shallow and meaningless] annoyed me too. It is crass and arrogant, but it mostly provides a looking glass, and as always, our greatest anger is unleashed when someone dares to hit us with the truth. I got annoyed, since secular Judaism of the Zionist fathers is truly a cart filled with all that is good: It is moral and genuine, it embodies the delicate balance between tradition and innovation, between an ancient heritage passed on from generation to generation and a link to contemporary reality. It is thousands of times stronger in my eyes than most of the Scriptures. But this Judaism — Zionist and secular — has failed in its transition from the realm of books and ideas to the realm of daily life — the educational system, the family Sabbath table, life cycle ceremonies.

Two months ago I made a large Friday night dinner with friends and I proposed we perform the kiddush. No one remembered the words, but someone thought of connecting to the spirit of the times and Googled the text. When dessert arrived, one of my friends, a dedicated fighter in the army of liberation of the secular cart, said: “Listen, we need to write a secular kiddush for ourselves. Let’s talk about it one day next week.” Two months passed and the idea of a secular kiddush fell victim to both our busy schedules.

Religious texts on the Sabbath have always had an enormous social and familial value. It is not by chance they managed to survive for thousands of years. The divine authority is just part of them, and with a little bit of effort, it is possible to remove that and hold on to what is appropriate for us: To accustom children that once a week, with insane perseverance reserved for Jews, we put down the iPhone and mostly talk about ourselves and about how we fix the world.

Haim Nahman Bialik, who was not religious, chose to design for himself one day a week dedicated to spiritual and moral matters — a sophisticated combination of self-restraint and joy. He called this day Shabbat, since he insisted on seeing himself as part of the Jewish people. He did not feel he needed to apologize for it and did not feel someone was criticizing him because of it. He was secure in his identity, since he had his own cart filled with truth (and still, on Shabbat he was careful to smoke only one cigarette so as to symbolize the passage from the profane to the holy.)

It is true that an amazing movement of the Jewish secular renaissance has bloomed in recent years, but it flowered in the form of a bounty of study halls and high- level philosophical studies — and so it has remained the preserve of a narrow elite. A cart filled with texts and ideas, but without any passengers. The greatness of religious Judaism in my opinion has always been its day to day anchors, its simple but sophisticated practicality, which forces everyone to learn to reject indulgences and to strive to be a better person. The beauty of the kiddush is that everyone — from intellectuals to the poorest manual laborer — can say the same words and feel they belong to something bigger than them.

It is possible to be angry about the campaign and continue to wave the banner of devoted secularism. But it is possible to see it as a reminder of what the forefathers of Zionism wanted to establish here 100 years ago. Only a few made the effort to think about how to continue to develop these ideas. Maybe the time has come to try once again.

The writer is the CEO of the New Spirit - Students for Jerusalem (Ruach Hadasha) nonprofit organization in Jerusalem.