‘There is nothing new under the sun,” wrote the author of the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes who, according to tradition, is King Solomon, the wisest of all men.
Yet much of Jewish life, and particularly American Jewish culture, has been driven by the concept of innovation, or more precisely, balancing ancient tradition with creativity.
It’s a hot topic. The Journal of Jewish Communal Service devotes its current 220-page issue to “A Tradition of Innovation,” with a variety of thoughtful articles on topics ranging from measuring and evaluating change, to exploring how “mainstream” and “startup” groups both overlap and clash. (Full disclosure: It’s both satisfying and disheartening that an investigation I wrote 31 years ago about a grand — and failed — experiment to spark an American Jewish renaissance is still relevant, and is reprinted in the issue.)
In our religious lives today, we define the major denominations by where they stand on the fulcrum of custom and modernity, from liberal groups that seek to find a place for Jewish ritual within the framework of 21st-century life to the traditionalists who cherish and uphold the laws of Moses in a timeless fashion.
Within the span of a few days in early June this year, we celebrate both the newest and one of the oldest Jewish holidays on the calendar, and a unique parade. How, and if, we observe them tells us much about Jewish life today, who we are personally and collectively, our feelings about Israel and how we see ourselves on the continuum of change.
On June 1, corresponding to the 28th day of Iyar, we marked Yom Yerushalyim, Jerusalem Day, the anniversary of the dramatic culmination of Israel’s victory over the Arab states in the Six-Day War of 1967.
For those young enough to grow up thinking of Israeli statehood as a given rather than a modern-day miracle, the historical context of that war reminds us of its storybook nature. Surrounded and outnumbered by hostile Arab nations whose intention was stated bluntly by Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser, to “drive the Jews into the sea,” Israel achieved a lightning-fast victory whose impact is still with us.
Putting aside the political implications of that victory for a moment, the words of the “Al Hanisim” prayer recited on Chanukah, when we thank God for our redemption and for “delivering the mighty into the hands of the weak,” resonates with us on Jerusalem Day.
Some communities mark the event with special prayers in the synagogue, including Hallel, the prayer of thanksgiving recited on holidays. In Israel there are ceremonies, a parade in Jerusalem and memorial services for the soldiers who fell to liberate and unify the long-divided capital of Israel.
For the great majority of Jews in the diaspora, however, it is just another day on the calendar, largely unnoticed.
Unfortunately, the same could well be said for Shavuot, one of the three biblical Jewish festivals. It is the one that, compared to Sukkot and Passover, is recognized and observed least by American Jews, even though it celebrates the giving of the Torah, that mystical encounter between God and the Children of Israel (past, present and future, according to some).
But Shavuot has undergone a significant, if small, revival in recent years. While traditionalists continue the custom of staying up all night to study Torah, increasing numbers of less observant Jews are marking the holiday through nighttime communal events that blend study and celebration.
Perhaps the biggest is the “Stay The Night” program at the JCC of Manhattan, which, for the eighth consecutive year, will offer “film, dance, all-night study, music, meditation, yoga, wine tasting, food demos, art workshop, cheesecake,” and more on the first night of Shavuot, June 7.
It may not be your bubbe and zayde’s style, true. Our attitudes toward this type of observance — one Jew’s celebration is another’s desecration — identifies our place on the spectrum of tradition and change. But it’s important for would-be critics to remember that as a result of these creative approaches, more and more people are marking and observing a holiday they may not have even been aware of before.
In between Yom Yerushalyim and Shavuot on the calendar this year is the annual parade for Israel, which takes place this Sunday, June 5. With a nod toward sensitivities over the military aspect of the event, the longtime Salute to Israel parade is now the Celebrate Israel parade, billed as “the largest event in the world celebrating Israel’s 63rd year of independence.”
Sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, the event promises to feature 30,000 participants marching up Fifth Avenue, from 57th Street to 74th Street, starting at 11 a.m.
Too often in past years the parade has been a source of tension in our community, focusing on who and isn’t marching, who’s protesting and for what cause, why the non-Orthodox segment is under-represented, and whether the parade has lost its energy.
Sadly, Israel has become a divisive rather than a unifying issue for large numbers of American Jews, many of whom are too young to remember its precarious history or too unaware of the confidence its very existence gives us as Jews living in the diaspora. Especially at such a time, turning out to celebrate Israel’s history and promise on Sunday would be a palpable and positive sign of much-needed support — for Jerusalem and for each other.
Let’s face it, we will always be a contentious people. God called us “stubborn and stiff-necked” in the Bible, and little has changed. “We are one” is a better fundraising slogan than definition of who we ever were and who we are today.
But there are healthy aspects to a people that engages in vigorous debate, be it over ways to observe a Jewish festival in the 21st century or Israel’s role in the modern world. Disputation is a sign of engagement, passion and caring. The goal, though, is that our disputes, like the Talmudic ones between the schools of Shammai and Hillel, be “in the name of heaven,” and have a common bond of commitment to the Jewish future.
In that spirit, Chag Shavuot sameach, and see you at the parade.