July 16, 2018

Learning to Love Shabbat From the Diaspora

By Ornat Turin

Ornat Turin

Ornat Turin

Five months ago, I arrived at HBI for the spring semester as a scholar-in-residence. This is the first time in my life spending a long period outside of Israel. As the child of a captain and a scholar in my adult life, I have had my share of travelling, but I never lived away from Israel for this long. Here was an opportunity to be a witness to cross-cultural distinctions and by that I don’t mean the New England winters. All I can say about that is they have nerve calling it the “spring semester.”

What surprised me most was my reaction to the differences in Shabbat celebrations in the U.S. and Israel. For the record, I consider myself a secular Jew.

In Israel, one can always feel the commemoratives. On Purim, the streets are full of children in costume and the bakeries have Haman’s ears (hamantaschen). On the Holocaust memorial days, the television airs testimonial documentaries and the radio streams sad songs. When the siren of Memorial Day (Yom HaZikaron) sounds, one cannot miss the moment. The cars stop, people freeze in the street. Even an alien watching from the sky would know that something was happening.

I can look about this phenomenon from two sides. One side is that I am forced to take part in events with which I, or other members of society, might not feel a connection. The converse is that in Israel, we celebrate as a society that has successfully maintained a sense of communality and solidarity.

Before I spent so much time in the U.S., I usually found myself at the complaining side. “Why can’t I have a bun with my hamburger during Passover? Why is there no public transportation on Saturday? How dare they cut off the cable television programs on Yom Kippur. For heavens sake! I paid for this service.”

On my first Shabbat in the U.S., I noticed the difference. In Israel, something mysterious happens for Shabbat. On Friday morning, there is a big commotion, everyone hastens to the stores to buy goods and food. Around 1 p.m., the streets empty and the shops close. Something as tender and transparent as a bride’s veil falls over the city.

In my eyes, as a secular feminist activist, Shabbat is a radical, humanistic idea that Judaism has presented the world. But, I realized, it is also dear to my heart.

I believe in the notion that everyone and everything, including slaves and animals, deserve rest of both the body and the soul. Cease the spinning after business opportunities. Cut the urge to meet requirements, to compress and squeeze one more email, just another phone call. In order to avoid the possibility of melting and dissolving the Shabbat in the stream of life, it is an order included in the Ten Commandments.

But here, in Boston, the buses go on driving. I can shop all weekend and watch cable television. Or, I can fulfill Shabbat in my own house like anyone else.

Am I satisfied now?

Well no. I cannot be. I am a native Jew and whining is part of my genes. Where is the Shabbat feeling? Where is the aroma of the special day and the spiritualism in the air?

My stay in Boston made me appreciate the general recess of the nation as a whole. This does not mean I transformed into an Orthodox Jew. I am, more than ever, full of appreciation and admiration for the beauty and wisdom in our tradition.

I needed to travel all the way here, above the Atlantic Ocean, to have this insight. It is one of the many things I will bring back to Israel.


Ornat Turin was a scholar-in-residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. She is the head of the media education department at Gordon College of Education in Haifa, Israel.


  1. Talia Carner says:

    Thanks, Ornat, for expressing this marked difference. I, too, am a secular Israeli who’d never set foot in a synagogue until I came to live in the USA some decades ago. I have grown to appreciate how in Israel, Jewish traditions have become ingrained in the culture–secularism notwithstanding. Recently, a friend told me on the phone call from Tel-Aviv that she was going to another secular friend for a Savuot dinner. I had no idea it was Shavuot that week, but in Israel, you couldn’t miss it. It’s a tradition to share a dairy dinner with friends or family.

  2. Lois Dinkin says:

    I loved the way she described the aura of Shabbat and holidays in Israel. Almost a pervasive feeling of holiness and community.

    But in America (and the Diaspora) the Synagogue and the home become our Israel and we surround ourselves with this beauty and feeling and community in these places. And in these places we are also able to perpetuate, not just the feeling, but the practices of our people – the Bible readings, the prayers. No pressure, voluntary observance by choice.

    I hope Ornat took the opportunity to spend Shabbat in one of many synagogues in Boston. Our secular Israeli visitors usually find this experience an eye opener.

    Lois Dinkin

  3. What a wonderful insight: you have put your finger on a critical difference for Diaspora Jewry. Here in the United States, as elsewhere in the world outside Israel, we must make shabbat and other Jewish observances happen. What partially defines us as Jews is not what is around us. The surrounding society pulls us away from our distinct faith; it does not reinforce our rites or our identity.

    The many types of Jewishness that exist in the US are sometimes misunderstood by our families and friends in Israel. Here we must set ourselves apart and actively build a place for religious and ethical acts which strengthen us as Jews. Every shabbat on which we rest, light candles, think of others and remember who we are is a forceful act that takes energy and creativeness and planning.

    Welcome, welcome to the US and to our different but vibrant religious community. L. Craig Williams

  4. Ellen Brazer says:

    Ornat, thank you for holding up a light and reminding me again why I love Israel and why I feel so suspended in time and place when I am there. Shabbat in Israel is a decision, a collective one and even those who are not observant participate in some way. Here in America I go to synagogue. I study Torah but I am not observant. When I think about not answering the phone, or driving I feel like it is too difficult, too radical. How can I not go and see my grandchildren? Yet, somewhere in my soul I long to make that commitment. Then I think about being Kosher and the first thing that comes into my mind is that I am too lazy and spoiled to do that. I want to go out to dinner with my friends. I know all of this is a cop-out but I just wanted to put it out there. I am an author of Jewish historical fiction. I love that I am a Jew with a voice. I just read the following article and I am enclosing it. We have to remain vigilant !

    Two French teenagers walking to synagogue with their grandfather last week to take part in the Shavuot tradition of staying up all night studying Hebrew texts were chased by an axe-wielding man and three accomplices, JTA reports. No one was injured in the incident, which took place in the French suburb of Romainville. The three were wearing yarmulkes, making this the latest in a series of assaults on visibly identifiable Jews across Paris.

    The teens, aged 14 and 15, said they were walking to the Lilac Synagogue with their grandfather to attend Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a custom in which Jews study scripture all night. While crossing the town’s Market Square, the two boys and their grandfather, all wearing kippahs, said they were followed by a tall man in his 20s wearing a long beard. They described the man as having an athletic figure and an Arab appearance.

    Producing a hatchet, the man began to chase the two boys, according to the BNVCA report, then whistled to three other men who joined the chase. The boys and their grandfather filed complaints with police, BNVCA President Sammy Ghozlan wrote.

    The recent report that a whopping 75 percent of French Jews have considered emigrating is contextualized by recent incidents such as this one. Last month, a Jewish woman with a baby was attacked at a Paris bus station by a man who shouted “Dirty Jewess” at her. In March, a Jewish teacher leaving a kosher restaurant in Paris had his nose broken by a group of assailants who also drew a swastika on his chest. One week earlier, an Israeli man was attacked with a stun gun outside a Paris synagogue, and a week before that a 28-year-old Jewish man was beaten on the Paris metro to chants of “Jew, we are going to lay into you, you have no country.” In a chilling video from January, anti-government demonstrators shout “Jew, France is Not Yours” as they march through the streets of Paris.

    Previous: Nearly 75 Percent of French Jews Considering Emigration
    Rising Number of French Jews Making Aliyah
    Related: Is It All Doom and Gloom for Jews in Europe? Student Leaders Say No.

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