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Common Ground

Common Ground

Spending three days with non-religious Israelis, I discovered surprising things about them, and myself.


“But officer, this was not deliberate. I am innocent. The one-way sign was blocked by the trees. I never saw it.” I am telling the truth, but the officer is unimpressed. He writes out my traffic ticket.

Two years later, on a different Jerusalem street, an identical blocked sign, an identical unimpressed officer, and an identical traffic ticket. After having driven 40 years in the USA without a single ticket, here in the space of a few years I am starting a veritable collection of them.

In the mail comes a personalized letter from the Office of Transportation, inviting me to attend a special three-day, 12-hour driving school to improve my driving skills. The cordiality of the invitation is somewhat mitigated by the polite reminder that non-attendance could result in the revocation of my driver’s license.

So here I am at driving school, and I am learning many new things —not only about driving safety, but about non-religious Israelis.

For three days I am thrown together with all kinds of Israelis from every level of society. In my class of 35, there are one Arab, two hareidim, and four knitted yarmulke types. The rest, a full 80% of the group, are Israelis, both men and women who seem on first blush to have no connection with a religious way of life. It is a strange, new world. A few men are sporting earrings and tattoos, all are wearing tee shirts and jeans, and none of the women are dressed in a manner that could be described as even remotely modest. What would be considered provocative in a religious neighborhood is here considered de rigueur, and what in a religious area is considered modest dress would here be out of place. And everyone – young and old, men and women, religious and non-religious – seems to be smoking.

Other than the fact that Hebrew is the language we all share, this could be Italy or Spain or Greece. The only other connection we seem to have with one another is that each of us had violated some traffic laws. We were all Israelis and Jews (except for one Arab), but on the surface, my compatriots and I, for better or for worse, seem to have nothing in common.

Well, I found myself thinking, is this not what the Zionist founders wanted: to shed the shackles of Judaism, the small-mindedness of the shtetl, to become citizens of the world?

But during the three days, as I chit-chat with many of them, I discover just how unfair I was in my assessment. At the end of the first day, the tough, wizened, and completely secular instructor says good night and adds that he will see us tomorrow, “Im yirtze Hashem, with the will of God.” Even if it was automatic, I did not expect such a religious expression to pass through his lips, but there it was. And he said it like he meant it.

In the small café on the premises, I reach out to buy an ice cream cone. The non-religious proprietor stays my hand. “I don’t think you want this; it has no hechsher (no kosher certification).” Perhaps it is my beard and black yarmulke, but during a break one classmate confesses wistfully that his teen-age sons all seem to be going off in unhealthy directions, that he longs for some religious anchor for them and wishes that there were some place for non-religious families to learn about Torah values.

I’ve been too harsh, too quick to judge by external appearances.

Beneath all the disguises, these are my spiritual brothers and sisters, each with his genuine Yiddishe neshama, Jewish soul. I’ve been too harsh, too quick to judge by external appearances. These are good people, helpful and considerate Jews who are very respectful of, and curious about, genuine and sincere religious behavior. It occurs to me that my classmates are simply creatures of their environment, products of schools and teachers who themselves knew nothing about Judaism and imparted that nothingness to their charges. But underneath their exteriors, they seem quite open and ready to respond to sensitive and sympathetic teaching and examples.

Just as I have never been exposed to this aspect of Israeli society, so have they never been exposed to the religious component that is so integral a part of Jerusalem and Israel. If one could dig a bit beneath the surface of these folks, one would discover a love and a respect and openness toward our mutual Jewish heritage. What a pity that there are so very few people around who care enough and are talented enough to do the digging.

What I re-learned from the course, beyond driving safety and some new Hebrew terms, was that it is helpful to occasionally emerge from the social cocoon in which one finds himself, and to seek out people and groups who are not exactly like oneself. This could be mutually beneficial and spiritually broadening. But along the way, try not to drive the wrong way on one-way streets. Someone, I promise you, is always watching. If not the traffic cop, Someone Else.

June 15, 2013

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 30

(21) Ruth Radberg, June 30, 2013 5:57 AM

Who is to say who is the more religious?

Being a Jerusalemite, and working in Tel Aviv is a wonderful way to realize that we orthodox tend to be very arrogant with our beliefs and our assumptions regarding the irreligious. I now find myself coming to very different conclusions regarding my people, for instance, I really feel that every Jewish mother and father, religious or not, is in fact, reacting Akeidat Yitzhak when they take their son to enlist in the army. They, like Avraham, are willing to sacrifice their children, their precious children, for the future of the Jewish people. Is there any greater a test??? And, unfortunately it is the irreligious, that are willing to take this test, as opposed to those who use their religion to try and justify their reluctance to take Avraham's ultimate test. So who is the religious one??????????

Rafael, June 10, 2014 4:11 PM

Soldiers and prostitutes are the oldest professions

There has always been great reverence to warriors or soldiers in every culture. To be seen as a conquerer or be defeated and killed in battle has always been deemed as honorable. To follow the command of a god or superior officer or respond to a nationalist cause was always righteous .
It is also the inspiration for the horrors of Human History. War and blood sacrifice seems to be an inappropriate and primitive tool for the Divine who created Heaven and Earth

(20) Meir, June 24, 2013 5:03 AM

Israelis are not as non religious as you think

Dear Rav Feldman
I moved from USA to Israel 22 years ago. Although in became religious in Israel, please know that there are very few Israelis who are "anti Judaism". I think that that the problem is ignorance. However, to put it in the proper perspective, the level of Jewish ignorance among American Jewry is an order of magnitude larger than among the no religious Israelis (mainly stemming from ack of Hebrew fluency). In short, in my Haifa neighborhood, I have told many a Rav that they should hold beginner classes in thr synagogue and I believe they would fill up the synagogue. Moreover organization like Aish should concentrate more on Israelis than diaspora Anglos. The return on investment will be much higher.

(19) Anonymous, June 23, 2013 6:25 AM


What APPEARED to be a ticket, was an invitation- in disguise......

(18) Anonymous, June 21, 2013 6:55 PM


Thank you for this article. It put a smile on my face and caused me to laugh out loud at the same time. It also has a great message. Thank you.

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