Aharon Appelfeld, one of Israel's most renowned authors, passed away earlier this month. Born in Czernowitz, Romania, he survived the war alone from the age of eight. In a 2004 interview in Ha'aretz, the interviewer, Ari Shavit, described Appelfeld as "not subversive, but not actually a Zionist either. Not belonging, but not someone who doesn't belong, either. A Jew."
Though he came from an assimilated family, Appelfeld described himself as repeatedly drawn back to the Jewish story. And for that reason, Shavit noted, the Israeli literary establishment always took an ambivalent view of him, and he of it.
In that interview, Appelfeld identified "the major sickness of Israeli society," as "that so many have cut themselves off completely from their past." They have thereby "amputated the internal organs of the soul," leaving in their place a "black hole of Jewish identity."
All modern Jewish movements, Appelfeld told Shavit, have "internalized the hatred of Jews" to which all European Jews were subjected on a regular basis. "Modern Jews don't want to be Jews. They flee from being Jews. Everything that obliges them to remember that they are Jews makes them flinch, arouses disgust in them, is unaesthetic for them."
Zionism, in particular, according to Appelfeld, waged an aggressive war "against the Diaspora and fought against Jewish riches," and has paid a price for its success in terms of the "diminution of the Jewish soul."
Appelfeld's critique was echoed by Anita Shapira, a leading historian of Zionism, who also saw the early Zionists as having accepted the anti-Semitic critique of Jewish degradation — a degradation from which they sought to escape by creating a "new Jew." "The Jewish national movement," writes Shapira, "drew its ideas and measure of what is exalted and what is debased, what is honorable and abominable, admirable and loathsome, from the conceptual world of European social and national movements." As a result, Zionists and anti-Semites shared in common "images, stereotypes, and myths" about Jews.
MY OWN SENSE is that Appelfeld's criticisms of Israeli culture were more accurate when he came to Israel after the war and for a few decades afterwards. Those were times when it was common to dismiss the Jews of Europe as having gone like sheep to the slaughter.
The early Zionist leaders were, in the main, raised in European Jewish society and were often in rebellion against that society. Contemporary Israeli Jews know nothing of that world, in which Jews were downtrodden and the frequent objects of humiliation. They have come to maturity in a country that has succeeded against all odds, and has demonstrated that Jews will fight fiercely to defend themselves. They have no reason to associate being Jewish with degradation.
At the same time, Zionism proved a poor substitute for Judaism in terms of its ability to give meaning to life. That was little noticed in the early decades of state-building. But today, the state has been achieved. Now what? Noah Efron wrote more than a decade ago in Real Jews: Secular vs. Ultra-Orthodox and the Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel that chareidi Jews make secular Israelis profoundly uncomfortable precisely because their deeply held values are a reproof and a challenge to "the mall-above-all values we take for granted."
Finally, one of Zionism's promises has not been realized. Herzl argued that Jews would never be able to fully assimilate into European society, but that once the Jews had a state of their own, they would be able to assimilate collectively into an international order based on nation-states.
But that has not happened. Hatred of Jews as individuals has transformed into hatred of the Jewish state. In short, there is nothing to be gained by fleeing from Judaism. They'll still hate us.
As a consequence of the differences in experience between the generation of Israelis that greeted Appelfeld and the present one, some of his descriptions need to be updated. Now that the period of active state-building is over, the question that Zionism failed to answer comes rushing back: Why does the collective existence of the Jewish People matter?
The answer to that question cannot be so we can build a state to protect the Jewish People. That's circular, for it does not answer why the Jewish People are important.
Young Israelis are called upon to risk their lives and give up two or three years of their young lives to defend the state. They require some account of why our existence as a people is important to justify their sacrifices. And they recognize that the answer to the question can only be found in the Torah that has bound Jews together through the millennia.
No religious organization that has made Torah learning available for the general public has returned empty-handed in recent years. At least 10,000 nonobservant Israelis are involved in some form of weekly Torah study, and the numbers are limited as much by the availability of religious Jews to teach as by the demand.
The Kesher Yehudi pre-induction academy program provides a good example of the more recent phenomenon. A little over six years ago, Col. Gilad Olshtein, the head of three pre-induction academies (mechinot) under the rubric Nachshon, approached Mrs. Tzila Schneider of Kesher Yehudi and asked her to develop a program for those in the Nachshon mechinot that would provide the participants with a stronger sense of their place in Jewish history and what they would be fighting for upon entering the IDF.
In response to the request, Mrs. Schneider developed a curriculum around ten basic topics in Judaism, including: Jewish nationhood, "love your neighbor as yourself," Shabbat, the Written and Oral Torah, Tefillah, women in Judaism, and the transmission of Torah.
And she developed a unique program for discussing these topics. Each month mechinah participants hear a lecture on one of the core topics. That lecture is followed by one-on-one learning with study partners, all volunteers. The ten annual meetings are supplemented by special programming around the holidays and at least one shabbaton spent in the chareidi neighborhood from which the volunteers for that particular mechinah are drawn.
That program has grown to 14 mechinot, with approximately 750 young participants, and an equal number of chareidi volunteers. The latter undertake to maintain a long-term connection with their study partners during their years of IDF service. But the kicker is that in each case, the initiative to join has come from the mechinot based on feedback from those mechinot already in the program. The participants have obviously found something very powerful in realizing that the Torah belongs to them, as much as to those born in Meah Shearim.
The participants have been changed by the program. When Mrs. Schneider and Kesher Yehudi were awarded the 2016 Jerusalem Unity Prize, their strongest proponent on the committee to select the prize winner was General Benny Gantz, then the outgoing chief of staff. Gantz had firsthand knowledge of the effect of the program on the Jewish identity and motivation in the IDF of the program's graduates.
Whether they ultimately become observant — and some already have — young Israeli Jews are no longer fleeing from being Jewish.
I confess that I have never been a very disciplined giver of tzedakah: If someone asks, I try to give. One of my sons jokes that, as a writer who sits alone at home working, I respond affirmatively to telephone solicitors so they will keep calling and break the solitude.
Recently, however, someone to whom I am very close became incapacitated. And that forced me to focus my giving and to learn how to say no, even when the cause pulls at my heartstrings, which is not the hardest thing in the world to do.
As I was forced to prioritize my tzedakah donations to a much greater extent than before, I started to think about ways to make tzedakah more efficient. The observations that follow refer only to a very specific donor class — to wit, those without enough money to have a significant impact on institutions with large budgets, but who can provide their children with extra tutoring or orthodontia if they need it. That is itself already well-to-do in the Israeli chareidi context.
If we look around, just among those closest to us — relatives, neighbors, close friends — it is not hard to spot cases where a modest input of funds could make a major, perhaps life-changing, difference for one of the children in the family. All one has to do is imagine that that child is one's own.
The hypothetical family in question would pass under the radar of most tzedakah organizations — they have food and Materna, just nothing left over for "extras" -- "extras" that many of us would consider "necessities."
Such direct giving has the disadvantage of not being anonymous, and anonymity is high on the Rambam's list of desiderata in tzedakah. But, at the same time, it is a form of "from your own flesh do not hide." And the direct giving is efficient in that one, or perhaps a group of friends, can solve concrete problems in real time.
The value of such a direct, activist approach extends beyond just tzedakah giving. A friend who works for Yad Eliezer recently told me of a project he had personally undertaken. He related that recently went out on Leil Shabbos for the first time in many years, and was shocked by the number of boys and girls he saw hanging out together, some from good families that he knew personally.
Immediately after Shabbos, he went to work. His organizational background helped, and he was able to set up a clubhouse and hire someone to supervise it. His attitude was: If I saw the problem, I own it. Had he waited to organize a committee, involve the local rabbanim, collect funds, etc. — all things that are in many cases necessary — it is likely his sense of urgency would have dissipated long before anything got done.
Just this morning, he told me that the police told him that there has already been a downturn in break-ins in the neighborhood because now these kids have something to do instead.
The point is that we can all make an important difference in the lives of others, particularly those close to us. We just have to keep our eyes open for the opportunities.