Don’t get me wrong. I miss America. In a big way. My family, my friends, the familiar culture and folkways, watching my teams on TV in their time. All those things were on display for me as we visited the States for 10 days earlier this month, our first time “back” since aliyah last summer. I’ll get to these things, some time after I finish watching my Boston Celtics play the Orlando Magic this morning – at 3:30 am Israel time…..
For the moment, however, another big thing. Very big, and very illustrative of the country I left and the country to which I came.
America -- and China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, etc. -- make and America takes. More, bigger, by far, than anyone. I never realized it so.
From touch down on the tarmac in the USA so much was too big. Often excessively, wastefully and grossly big.
Obesity. People driven there by big cars. Stuffed to the gills by big food.
IHOP has added to its caloric record-setting menu with a stack of pancakes sandwiching cheesecake. Simultaneously leading the herd up mountains of home fries, sausage and bacon.
In Israel, people stuff themselves on fresh vegetables….
Big cars. I dunno, but my compact Honda Jazz has more interior room for 4 than the compact we rented in the States, an engine 2/3 the size, ½ the gas usage, and plenty of get-up to get us up the 2000 feet between here and Jerusalem.
Excess begets excess, as a cause and response. And in ways often much deeper than the frightening but shallow surface of food, cars, and American consumer culture.
Consider synagogue sanctuaries, of which we visited two during our stay. Broadly-speaking, American synagogue sanctuaries are majestic and colorful, focused on an overdone aron kodesh (ark) and a bevy of ornately dressed sifrei torah (torah scrolls) within. I believe in hiddur, the beautification of our religious items. Still, such sanctuaries are excessive.
Why are they made so?
It hit me during our trip, as Jewish life competed with life for Jewish attention. The Shabbat bride sung about in L’cha Dodi did not come walking down the street outside a Boston hotel -- as she does in Modi’in, whether you are observant or not. She was hidden, as a matter of fact, behind the rush of weekend traffic in and out of the city. The inspiring landscape of the prophets, which we view from our balcony, was likewise absent.
I understand it, I know it, I experienced it most of my life. In their synagogues, American Jews have to create kedusha , a separated sanctity, all themselves. At the flick of the switch when they walk in the sanctuary, to disappear into the recesses of their pockets the minute they leave the building. Therein the big, fancy synagogues – temples in the desert. Excess as a response to famine, to spiritual starvation, to the domination of chol -- the decidedly un-sacred – on the outside.
Kedusha permeates the environment in Israel. An aura of the divine blankets this land and envelops its time, no matter the desecration of the Holy One that too often characterizes Israel’s social and political life. Our Shabbat minyan meets in a hastily-transformed but pleasant two room senior center, with a paper-mache portable ark that rests otherwise in a storage pod and contains, at its max, two scrolls. But it doesn’t matter. Shul lives together with its environs, not separated from it.
Big is quintessentially American, at the surface level and below. But it not always better – far from it -- reflecting as much absence as presence.
For an American Jew, it’s a big thing to realize that small is good. It might be the first step over here, to a lifestyle not consumed by big, to a society where it is much easier, blessedly, for Jews to bring kodesh and chol together.
- Mark Robbins
- I'm "just off the boat" to Israel, having arrived on aliyah with my family on August 4th. Within this blog, I want to 1) enable your virtual/vicarious experience of our aliyah 2) share the experiences, the twists and turns, of this big move and 3) offer pointed observations on two great countries (Israel and the United States), their Jewish communities, their similarities, and their differences. Now, as a citizen of Israel, I see all the above in a much sharper, quite different light.