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The Dichotomy of Ancient and Modern in Israel

This blog post is written by Rebecca Rich, a Yahel Social Change fellow living and working in Haifa.

I would like to start with a poem I wrote at the Kotel during our day trip to Jerusalem back in October, about the coexistence of regular and holy in this place I’ve called home for about four months now:

There are birds flying around

They don’t know that this is different from any other wall

How could they?

We know that it’s the closest we can get to God

A feeling is going around

A good one

Some people cry

We tell God here the songs of our heart

The birds remind us that there is still life here

It may be old but we’re still coming

Trying to feel even a little bit of God’s spirit

Even if there is no God

There is an agreement that this is a holy place

The birds remind us that we are holy

As they are just as much a part of this place as we are

Israel is a very unique place. The way that the holy and the regular, the old and the new, intersect is not like any other place on Earth. There is nowhere else in the world where you can say that a group of people who were exiled from their land thousands of years ago found a way to come back and make the land their own in modernity, coming back to the holy sites that were once their own. I am reminded of this fact regularly while living here. In Jerusalem, this is especially apparent. The city contains both an old part, which contains the holiest Jewish place in the world, and a new part, which completely surrounds the old. I may not be living in Jerusalem right now, but the image of the old and the new coming together to create a (kind of) singular city stays in my head as I make my way through everything else Israel has to offer.

A picture that I took of Jerusalem from the Hebrew University campus.

Growing up, I always knew Israel was a special place for my people but never fully understood why. Even after three short-term trips here throughout my life, I saw Israel more for its current problems than I did for the history that made it what it is. After spending more time here through Yahel, though, I have come to realize that the ancient history the modern state of Israel was built upon colors everything that happens here, whether people are aware of it or not. Even when Judaism is approached through a modern lens, Jewish people generally treat it with respect and joy in a way that only exists here because of the history of this place. That is not something I am used to. I’ve found that American Jews (especially young ones) tend to be cynical about Judaism in some way. Israel has helped me realize that it does not have to be like that. I’ve seen first-hand through the people who have lived here their whole lives, and the people who moved in search of something better, that the history of this place gives modern Jewish life a reason to exist in the way that it does.

Haifa may not be particularly physically close to most of Judaism’s holiest sites, but there is still an electricity of Jewish connection that can only come with living in the land of Israel. Even in Kiryat Chayim, a fairly secular neighborhood, Judaism feels ever-present. At the school I am working at, for example, I witnessed a huge assembly a week or two before Chanukah where all of the first through fourth graders enthusiastically sang and danced along to a man performing a variety of Chanukah songs. I did not know what to expect when walking into the auditorium, but the children definitely did. The room was buzzing. When the performer came out on stage, everyone cheered. The children, who in my experience are hardly ever focused on anything, were fully invested. If I were to witness a similar assembly in the US, I am pretty sure that there would not have been such unanimous passion. From this experience, I learned that there is something about living in the Jewish holy land that makes being Jewish that much more exciting.

Still, despite the difference in prominent religion and culture from the US, the modernity of Israel feels very familiar. If it wasn’t for the language difference, I could almost believe that the neighborhood I’m living in and its surrounding area were somewhere near where I grew up. There are some cultural differences, like restaurants open late into the night and bakeries dotting nearly every block, but it still feels relatively normal. I can go get groceries at a supermarket, go to a movie theater to see the newest Marvel movie, and go to a restaurant to get burgers or pizza; all of which being of a similar size to what I’d find in the US. With all of these modern comforts, it can be easy to forget that I’m living on the same land my ancestors lived on thousands of years ago. Every time I get to see the remnants of that ancient civilization, though, I’m instantly reminded of why this land is so important and the meaning it holds to me.

During the Chanukah break, I did a program with an organization called Livnot U’Lehibanot based in Tzfat. As a part of this program, we got to see some remote places where Jews lived until they were killed or exiled from the land by the Romans. On the first full day, we were taken to a cave right outside of a current small town in the north-center of Israel where Jews once hid from Roman soldiers. Our guide had discovered this cave many years prior, and he told us that the only groups who went into this cave were with Livnot. I realized at this moment that there are many more reminders of the ancient civilization of Israel than the general public may be aware of. We went into the cave with our phone flashlights on and crawled through some tunnels until we reached a little room completely devoid of sunlight. Our guide asked us to turn off our lights, and we sat in complete silence and darkness for about a minute, as the Jews thousands of years ago would have had to do in order to not draw the attention of Roman soldiers. We were taken out of the silence with our guide starting to sing Oseh Shalom, and we gradually all joined in as we would not have been able to do if we were really in hiding. After that, he blew a small shofar that none of us even knew he had. It was a very powerful moment that made me realize that we have come a long way to be able to practice Judaism openly and freely, something many of my ancestors throughout time have not had the freedom to do. Many Jewish people still do not have the freedom to practice their religion as they would like to, which makes Israel an even more special place because people here are allowed to practice their Judaism however they see fit (at least in most parts of the country).

We lit this Chanukiah in the cave, as another reminder of how Judaism can be practiced more openly now than it could be then.

It is strange, in a way, how life can feel so ordinary in such an extraordinary place. The old and new exist simultaneously in a kind of dichotomy. Yet, looking at it more closely, they are actually not opposed at all. Israel was home to a lot of Jewish people then, just as it is home to a lot of Jewish people now. Life just looks a little different.



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