The White City’s Prayer
In Tel Aviv, Shabbat is brought in with music, at the beach by people who can’t understand how you can pray without Yona Wallach and gender equality. If prayer isn’t creative, they say, “Israeliness” will collapse.
Maariv, Weekend Magazine, 3/22/2013
In the heart of Tel Aviv, in the intimate “King’s Albert Square”, Shabbat calmly descends without drawing any attention to its arrival. It is a calm, humble, festive affair.
“I was born in this neighborhood. Five streets away from here”, says Rani Jaeger Beit Tefilah Israeli chairman and one of its founders, who, an hour later will be leading Shabbat services, only a few meters away from the square.
“I am a graduate of the public school system, I went to the Alef Daled Gordon School (affiliated with the Labor movement). As you can imagine it wasn’t a religious school. Socially and educationally, I am the result of the Israeli public school system and of course of my parents’ home which back then and even today is rather unusual. My father is an orthodox Jew and my mother is secular.
After my military service as a commander in the Medical Corp, I wanted to be a doctor but ended up studying Jewish Philosophy and History at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. I was determined to leave the Tel Aviv bubble to meet new people. With the exception of one orthodox friend, I didn’t really have any religious friends.
Today I live Baka neighborhood in Jerusalem but I still come to pray in Tel Aviv. The choice to pray here stems from the fact that Tel Aviv is still home. It is now five fifteen here and that, to me, is Shabbat. People say that the “real” Shabbat is in Jerusalem but I know that it is also in Tel Aviv–you can feel it here on every level”
An Israeli Prayer
“Beit Tefilah Israeli”, a Liberal Jewish community in Tel Aviv, was founded in 2004 by Esteban Gottfried, Rani Jaeger, Yoav Rozenberg, Ezri Terzi, and the late Elisheva Grinbaum. They all came from different backgrounds but shared the same need–to be part of a relevant Israeli-Jewish community. They were people who felt, that somewhere in the space between the home and the state, they were missing a community. They never set out to be “light unto nations” or even bring Tel Avivians closer to Judaism. All they were doing, to use a cliché, was to look for their own place under the sun.
“And that’s how it really started” Jaeger tells their story. “At first we were just twenty people and a few musicians sitting in a room. We brought our families and friends. Some stayed, some left. It started here, at Alma College. It is important to note that (now MK) Ruth Calderon gave us the space. At the beginning we only did Shabbat services. Today, everything happens here. We have a Bar Mitzvah ceremony almost every Shabbat, there are holiday services, and Memorial day to Independence day Havdallah service that I am particularly proud of. It’s a service that carries great meaning and originated from almost nothing.”
“There are older people here who experienced community on the Kibbutz. Some of them were burnt by it. They left the kibbutz, but they know what it means to be part of a community.They know what it feels like to do something active on Independence day–not sit at home and watch the torch-lighting ceremony at Mt. Herzl on TV. Beit Tefilah is somewhere that people can look each other in the eye. There are many different kinds of communities–virtual and real. We wanted a place that would reflect who we are asIsraeli-Jews, a place where we could express ourselves, where we could create, where we could be conservative and non-conservative, all at the same time.”
In the past eight years, Beit Tefilah Israeli has drawn a very multi-faceted community from all over the Tel Aviv area. This, using very little, advertising, simply by word to mouth. Adults and children, secular, traditional, a whole community that takes an active part in creating a pluralistic urban space, that has made Judaism, its traditions and ceremonies, fully accessible to all. Beit Tefilah Israeli Kabbalat Shabbat services are usually held at the Alma College study hall, but in July and August, community members, head out to the sand and the sea, to the hum of the water and welcome the Shabbat at the Tel Aviv Port. These Kabbalot Shabbat draw hundreds of people on a weekly basis andhave become really popular.
“It’s not easy to start a community in a big, urban, secular environment that is packed with different attractions. It’s not easy to get people to commit. On the other hand, a lot of things that we would never have imagined happened. We never thought we’d become a community. We just said ‘let’s pray’ and we’ll see what happens. The Port, for example, is something we never imagined we would do. The first service we had there happened accidentally: we were hosting Bnei-Jeshurun from NYC–who we are very close to and influenced by–and didn’t have enough space to host everyone, so we went to the Port, and asked if we could use some of the space there, and they said yes. We had the Kabbalat Shabbat there and they asked us to come back every week” explains Jaeger.
“I sometimes feel that we’re creating a wave of a very deep cultural desire while riding it at the same time. After all, it was important for the Tel Aviv Port staff that we have a presence there. What happens in the summer is phenomenal. Every Friday we have a crowd of about 800 to 1000 people. It’s an event that now has its own reputation that truly reflects what we’re trying to be. It’s a Jewish, Israeli event in the public space. We sing Lecha Dodi, the sun sets, and all of the elements flow together in one enchanted moment.
The Courage to be Secular
Beit Tefilah Israeli isn’t about the need to find a “home”. This name of this unique community is comprised of three “unknowns”: home (Beit), prayer (Tefilah), and Israeli. The heart of the matter is a deeply meaningful and complex search–the quest for prayer. In an article published in the 49th issue of the Eretz Acheret magazine, Rani Jaeger describes his many journeys from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv in the following way: It is difficult to breathe in Jerusalem, and difficult to pray. That’s why I travel to Tel Aviv–not to escape from the sanctity but to achieve a moment when there is holiness that emanates from people rather than place, from the community of human beings from whom the prayer springs forth.
Tel Aviv is not the holy “bedrock of our existence.” As for prayer, there is no one we can count on besides ourselves. It is difficult to start from square one, but that is the beauty and the strength of it. As I see it, what we are doing touches on the Biblical idea of “An altar of earth shall you make unto me” (Exodus 20:20), a place of ritual not founded on a holy site, but a return to the earth as a basic element. This is a “reset” of the holy geography and a restart from a more basic and primal place, from which prayer emanates with the hope that “In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come unto you and bless you” (Exodus 20:20). This geographical move not only illustrates the “courage to be secular” but the essential and logical bond between the Jewish tradition and new Hebrew culture. “Settling in the first Hebrew city,” as Jaeger explains, “was to become an act of connecting with the Tel Aviv ethos-a city creating a new Jewish culture.”
Instead of bypassing it, Rani Jaeger and his colleagues have decided to set their sanctuary in the very place in which the complex relationship between the Hebrew culture and the Jewish tradition diverge. From this junction, they have calmly and optimistically untangled many strands of “Jewish-Israel culture.” This is reflected in their attempt to create a new language for prayer that is relevant and far-reaching. The Kabbalat Shabbat Siddur, published by Beit Tefilah Israeli, is a lexicon of a new Israeli-Jewish language, which combines the style of the known Siddur with contemporary Hebrew texts. The modern praying person will find Psalms side by side with texts by our greatest poets and the pinnacles of Hebrew song–treasures of prayer, poetry, songs, and musings that span across time and generations. The preface to the Siddur notes:
When choosing the prayers and the texts in the Siddur, just as we do when we pray with the community, we attempted to bring inspiring sources from the vast ocean of creators of Hebrew prayer from every generation, and make their questions are own. As Rav Kook said, there is a modest and yet brave attempt to sanctify the new and renew the old. All this is done not only bring ourselves closer to prayer but to bring prayer closer to us, in the place where the Jewish and Israeli identities meet.
Prayer, the center of the alternative Beit Tefilah Israeli experience, has become an inseparable part of Hebrew and Israeli poetry and has been bequeathed with new breath. Prayer, as we know, has great influence on contemporary Hebrew literature, but we have yet to study the process of the integration of Hebrew poetry into Jewish prayer. How then, does Hebrew poetry enrich prayer? In what ways does it illuminate it?
The Coffee Gods
There is a big argument with in the Hebrew literature, is it secular or is it religious”, says Jaeger, “in this sense I agree with Professor Ariel Hirschfeld who asks if faith is at the center of modern Hebrew poetry. It seems a bit narrow-minded to me to fit this entire discussion into secular vs. religious boxes. How would you categorize Leah Goldberg who writes: ”I saw my God in a coffee cup” and Avraham Chalfi, who presents an amazing, troubled dialogue with God. I always say that if we had a sanctuary, I would call it “Saint Chalfi Synagogue” because his collection of poems entitled “The Infidel Prays” is both a poetic and religious peak. I would even respond to your question by asking how you could imagine not include Yona Wallach, Leah Goldberg, Natan Alterman, and Haim Guri in the Siddur? The list goes on and on. After all they are our cultural DNA.
“When you start arguing with me about the Siddur and the deviation from it, I cannot see the difference between “Yadid Nefesh” which was added sometime in the middle ages and Leah Goldberg. As far as I’m concerned, prayer should be what works. There are a lot of classical Jewish liturgical hymns that are not in the Siddur but there is a treasure here that works. In the same way as we ask ‘how can a modern Jew not be familiar with the Talmud, the Bible, and the Siddur’ I ask, how can it be that a modern Jewish Siddur does not include modern Hebrew poetry? We continually ask ourselves where we should stop and how we can keep the continuity. Esteban coined the beautiful phrase ‘we are a community that acts on ‘we’ll do and we’ll hear (Na’aseh Ve’Nishma).’ We know that “Lecha Dodi” will always be included in the Siddur, but the question is what will be excluded, what can be taken out sometimes, from week to week.
In a speech given by Jaeger at Bialik’s house on the 80th anniversary of Bialik’s “Oneg Shabbat” he spoke about the meeting point of a large audience with the traditional language and the alienated feeling that comes from seeing something familiar without having the ability to identify it. A similar feeling also arises when Israelis meet the Hebrew culture– poetry, essays, and prose.
Could it be that tradition better serves Hebrew culture? Do people come to Kabbalat Shabbat and the community’s study sessions to learn more about their culture?
Not only does Leah Goldberg serve the Shabbat, the Shabbat serves Leah Goldberg. A lot of times I feel that we are doing a great service to the Hebrew culture. If we aren’t careful, Alterman may become as inaccessible as Tehillim is to some. “I had a very meaningful experience when we worked on the Memorial and Independence day Havdallah service,” he says. “It turns out that not everyone knows Alterman’s “Magash Hakesef”–Silver Platter. We argued about whether it should be including, since we thought that it was a little “worn out”. Worn out?! It turns out that the many people don’t even know it. So we provide an experience with the traditional language that also exposed Hebrew culture. There are definitely people who come to study. But a lot of times, the studying itself, happens afterwards.”
It would be difficult to say that Beit Tefilah Israeli is defined only one way; most of its members are secular and traditional, but our work is recognized by some modern-orthodox groups. “You might have noticed that the word ‘secular’ doesn’t show up a lot in Beit Tefilah Israeli texts”, notes Jaeger. “These definitions don’t work for many of us anymore. I am not sure that they reflect what we want. I know that there are people that really love ‘being an alternative’ and in reality we are an alternative. But when you say ‘I’m the alternative’, you are constantly placing yourself at the margins and everyone else is in the center.
“You can go to an orthodox synagogue that is either Moroccan or Ashkenazi and will be amazed to see that the experience is completely different. I grew up in an Ashkenazi synagogue, and when I go to a Moroccan Synagogue in Jerusalem I see how different Kabbalat Shabbat is, both in the style of prayer and in the atmosphere of the place. So what should we say, that the Moroccan is the alternative to Ashkenazi? I respect not wanting to be in the mainstream and the attempt to be the opposite of, but I don’t feel the need to fight over my cultural spot anymore. I don’t need anyone to tell me I’m legitimate”.
“In some ways we’re very close to the Reform movement and in others we are very traditional. It should also be said that over the years we have had orthodox members in Beit Tefilah Israeli, who for various reasons accepted the deviations in the Siddur as they found Beit Tefilah Israeli to be a more comfortable place for them.”
“We have an open, honest, discussion between people from the mainstream modern orthodoxy – religious Zionists – that are very interested in what we’re doing. I won’t tell you that they are completely at ease with everything, but we have no qualms about what we’re doing and we’re not seeking anyone’s approval.”
No one at Beit Tefilah Israeli expects Hassidout Satmar to get excited about our Siddur. And of course not everyone understands and accepts the changes we are embarking on. Many people, for example, do not like the fact that our Kabbalat Shabbat is accompanied by musicians or by the fact that we use microphones. But not everyone has to agree with everything,” says Jaeger. “It took me some time to accept the fact that if we give everyone everything, we won’t end up giving anything to anyone. I’ve been asked about why men and women sit together at our services. I don’t see what the question is! Separate seating is miles away from our core values. We have great respect for tradition, but there are things that we will never question – gender equality, for example, is one of them.”
And in fact, the most obvious thing in the warm Kabbalat Shabbat service with Esteban Gottfried and Rani Jaeger is that there is no fear of the community being detached from tradition. It is not the fear of the disconnect that fuels this community, but the constant movement towards pluralism and expanding the Jewish book case while drawing from the third unknown in the Beit Tefilah Israeli equation -Israeli culture that encompasses both old and new.
In the pleasant study room at “Alma” whole families– men and women, adults and children, and guests who have come alone, all sing Rabbi Nachman of Braslev’s “Shirat Ha’ssavim” which was composed by Naomi Shemer and “What a Wonderful World” translated by Ali Mohar. No one can convince them that these are not proper prayers. The religious ritual stems from complete freedom from fear and fixation. From the complete freedom that allows one to deviate from one’s self – the permission that allows one the possibility to fully express one’s being.
“I don’t live with a phobia of disconnect,” says Jaeger, “I think that this is one of the wonderful things that a Jewish-Israeli culture can offer us. We can let go of the fear of assimilation. I don’t buy that fear. You can’t ‘assimilate’ in this country. We are here now, the Shabbat is present, and we are having this interview. If we’re quiet for a minute we’ll see that it’s already here. I think it allows us to calm down a little. Of course outside of Israel that fear is understandable, you have to be on guard at all times. People ask me ‘what will happen in 200 years?’ while I’m worried that we’re mortgaging the present to support those 200 years, we constantly hold on to tradition. But if we aren’t alive, kicking, and creative, we may find ourselves handing out nothing else but canned goods to the next generation. I don’t think that that is what we are here for.”
In Tel Aviv, Shabbat is brought in with music, at the beach by people who can’t understand how you can pray without Yona Wallach and gender equality.If prayer isn’t creative, they say, “Israeliness” will collapse.