Posted by: chrisdavis | September 21, 2006

Just an article…

One of the Jews’ favorite sayings goes something like this:

“If you visit Israel for a week, by the time you go home you will understand enough to write a book. If you visit Israel for a month, by the time you go home you will understand enough to write an article. If you visit Israel for a year, by the time you go home you will understand so little you won’t be able to say anything.”

I have been in Israel several times–this time for two months–and I believe the saying is true. The longer I’m here, the less it seems I understand about the Jews and the way they think and act. But, I am learning. I do ask a lot of questions, and everyone is eager to help me. It’s just that everyone has a different answer–or should I say, opinion. Just a couple of weeks ago, an elderly orthodox woman took a book off her shelf and placed in on the table in front of me. “Here, read this. Then you will understand.” The book is titled, This is My God, by Herman Wouk, author of The Winds of War, Youngblood Hawke, Marjorie Morningstar, and The Caine Mutiny. The lady was right–partly. 

During my last talk with Yossi, I tried to make him understand why it would help his readers to have the different stories in his book arranged in chronological order.

I said, “Yossi, when an American reads something historical, he expects it to be arranged in some kind of logical (preferably chronological) order. All his years in schooling have prepared him to view historical things historically. If your book  contains  stories,  and those stories are about real history, and they are placed in your book in random order, that will be a stumbling block to the reader.”

Yossi looked at me as if I had spoken to him in Chinese. I could tell he was thinking hard what to say. He was actually considering how to make me understand something he wasn’t sure an American, non-Jew could understand.

Finally he smiled at me with one of those “You may never understand” looks. “Yes, this is true. When a non-Jew reads the Bible, he reads it like a history book. That is because it is stories about someone else. It is not close to him.  When a Jew–especially one who has been raised in Israel–reads the Bible, he is reading about his family and his neighbors. Chronology is irrelevent to him.”

For several days I have thought about Yossi’s response and I think I have come up with an analogy that gave me the insight I needed:

I have a relative who has spent a lifetime doing detailed geneological work on our family. One Christmas, she presented everyone in the family with a portfolio of her work. It was full of names and dates and how this person was related to that person. Except for the latest entries, I didn’t know any of them. I have also known other families in which a relative bound all their geneology into a book. But, the best kind of geneological work includes more than names and dates of births, marriages & deaths. The best ones include stories of the individuals so that following generations might know their ancestors as people.

This is what Yossi reads when he reads the Bible: A compilation of those same kinds of geneological records of his family members and their stories. Further, since he has always lived in Israel (where all these stories took place), he really means it when he says he is reading about his family and his neighbors.

When Yossi said, “When an American reads the Bible, it is not close to him,” and when he said, “People in the Bible are my neighbors,” he meant…

“My uncle, David, used to be mayor of Hebron until the people voted him the leader of the whole country. Then he moved to Jerusalem and made it the country’s capitol. And, in that valley down there, below my house, is where we all get together three times a year for a family reunion to worship God and have a big picnic. One of my young cousins lives in the village and is being raised by the priest. Samuel is a differend kind of little boy; he has an unusual connection with God. But I like him. The Old Man (Abraham) still lives in Beersheba. He doesn’t get up here any more and we don’t go to see him very often. But, three times a day, I invoke his name in prayer, so I feel really close to him. I almost feel as if I could ask him a quesiton and he would answer me.”

So, why should chronology mean anything to an Israeli Jew? “These are just stories of our family. Who cares when they happened?”

Herman Wouk makes the following comment about his relatives (Jews living in Israel):

“They are very warm people. Our old tradition is true: The nation is a family. All its disagreements have the sharp note of family quarrels. All its rejoicings are like a wedding or a birthday. The people cannot be induced to take the government quite as seriously as people do everywhere else in the world. After all, it is only Uncle David or Cousin Moshe making the speech. This must drive Israeli officialdom rather wild at times. But it has its points. When the family is threatened, it fights like a band of blood brothers.”

This people have tremendous energy and a tenacious intention to keep their land. After all, nearly every tree and bush is irrigated with the blood of a family member. They are  kind and hospitable; but bump the glass, and their anger spills over. Why are they so angry? Think about their history. Don’t push them around. They are cynical of everything and everybody. They don’t trust anyone: not the government, not nations who declare their friendship, not one another; and for many, not even God. Until they are in danger. Then they close ranks. And, then they expect God to fight on their side, which He doesn’t always do.

Throughout their very long history, Jews have alternatively believed in the One, true God; they have believed in no god at all; or they have believed in other religions altogether. And, depending on the historical period or the group, they have believed (or not) in different combinations of all three. None of this ever changed their identity as Jews, however. Even “religious” Jews today can believe in mysticism or reincarnation or lots of other things and not lose their identity as Jews. A Jew can be an athiest and still be a Jew.

Can this be confusing? Only if you think of Judaism as a religion. Judaism is actually not a religion but is really more of an ethnic group; or, as Jews would say, “We were chosen by God to be a People. God deals with us depending upon how we behave as His people.”

A Jew believes that God planted Jewishness into their DNA. If a Jew decides to not be a Jew anymore, he is still considered a Jew because he may eventually come back to his Jewishness at some point in his life. That’s why a Jew can change religions and still be Jewish. If, on the other hand, his family believes he has gone too far, the family will consider him dead, and may even have a full-fledged burial.

Speaking of being chosen, only 40% of Jews in Israel even believe this. To the rest, the notion of being “chosen” is stupid.

What is the Jews’ attitude toward Christians? They especially don’t trust Christians, which makes me guilty by association. “What are you doing in my country?” they will ask me when they feel free enough to ask, or when they have had several drinks. Most don’t even care if the question is offensive or not. “You have come to help us? What could you possibly do that would benefit us!”

Actually,  I don’t blame them. Throughout their history, the Church has alternately left them alone (allowing them to exist) or stood silently by while they were being killed by the millions. Often, the Church has been the one doing the dirty work. Why shouldn’t Jews be wary? Why should they be gracious at all to anyone? Why should they not feel it best to keep everyone else at a safe distance? Who knows when their “friends” will again become their enemies?

What makes a visitor crazy is the clashing of conflicting viewpoints, all of which are expressed loudly and often. These people are passionately religious or passionately non-religious. What they have in common is that they are passionate. The religious have deep convictions that the Land is theirs by right of promise (God’s promise). The non-religious don’t believe in the Promise, but they use the  argument to their benefit, anyway.

The non-religious don’t want a religious country: all this “religion stuff” makes us look silly to other nations and is an embarrassment to us. It keeps us from being taken seriously and allowed to take our place among the great nations of the world, as is our right. If we could just convince all our citizens that we need to be a secular country, then they can believe whatever they want, as long as they keep it to themselves and don’t bother others with their religion.

But, the passionate beliefs of the “religious” do press into every area of life. This is why buses don’t run after sundown on Friday and why most businesses are closed on Saturday. This is why McDonald’s has both  regular, and kosher, restaurants. This is why some close friends won’t come into your house or invite you into theirs.

In the central Jerusalem Market, a tall, heavyset man is dressed in an old-fashioned black hat (his uniform requires that his hat be too small for his head) and a long, black coat that almost touches the ground. He has a long beard and long sidecurls. He is followed by about 10 young disciples who are all much shorter than he. The man walks slowly down  each aisle of the Market. It is late afternoon on Friday and the Market is packed with people, pushing, shoving, sweating and yelling. If you look carefully, some are on cell phones, calling their spouse in a different part of the Market:

“Honey, was I supposed to get the fish, or were you? Did you remember the spices?”

Sabbath will begin in a few hours and the big man wants the shops to close so people can get home to prepare the Sabbath meal. Never mind that many shoppers are non-religious and don’t celebrate the Sabbath. But, the big man has a self-appointed job to do: make sure everyone has plenty of time to get ready for Sabbath.

I watch the man pick a stall, seemingly at random, and stop in front of it. The stall owner is frantically making last-minute sales to the people pressing against one another, trying to be the next one served.

The man takes from his sleeve the smallest trumpet I’ve ever seen. This guy is such a big man, the trumpet looks like it came from a Cracker Jacks box. He presses the tiny trumpet to his lips and blows as hard as he can in the direction of the booth owner who is trying to ignore him and pay attention to his customers. Toot-toot. The trumpet makes a little, high pitched squeal (when I first heard it I laughed out loud). The merchant rolls his eyes.

The trumpet-man begins to shout at the merchant and wave his hands in gestures which punctuate his demands. As his voice gets higher and higher, his face turns redder and redder. His disciples are watching him and I wonder what they are thinking. I know what I am thinking. The merchant scouls and points to all the customers waiting impatienty to be helped. The big man and the merchant shout at one another for about 30 seconds. Then, suddenly, the man turns and moves on down the aisle, trailed by his little flock. I watch him pick another merchant, seemingly at random, and repeat the process again–and  again.

Yesterday I went to the Market to take a picture of this colorful character and guess what? He didn’t show up. I was really bummed because I wanted to show you what he looked like. Maybe next week.

I will be spending this Sunday through Friday morning in Ma’ale Levona writing with Yossi. Friday night is the Jewish New Year’s Eve and the New Year celebration doesn’t end until Sunday night. I won’t take the time to explain why 2 days although I thought it was an interesting story. 

Keep those comments and emails coming. I leave Israel for Tennessee 5 weeks from today!



  1. How very interesting!! Thanks.

  2. Dad asked me to post a comment and say, “You have lived a too sheltered life, that if you had run into the right people you wouldn’t think that things like ‘treeish green’, ‘creekish brown’, and ‘skyish blue’ are so strange. What’s wrong with ‘desertish yellow’ anyway? It reminds me of ‘nightish black’.” He would have done it himself but he has to leave for his inspection. Talk to you later. Martha

  3. Thanks for the understanding of how Jews think about their history. I think I was one of those who thought his book should have been written chronologically. Oh well! Shows what I think. We westerners! I think your article should be required reading for anyone traveling to Israel. Look forward to your return home although I do hope you are able to finish what you have stared with Danny and Yossi. Love you, Charles

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