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January 22, 2012 5:33 pm

Jew Versus Jew

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Orthodox father and child with secular soldiers. Photo: Adam Jones.

There’s a cute joke doing the rounds in Israel at the moment that my friend, Edward Cohen, sent me. It’s an adaptation of a very old one, as most jokes are, recycled to meet current issues. But it is highly emblematic and actually explains why, despite all the ghastly negative press religious life in Israel has been getting of late (and indeed the actions of fanatics of all sorts), I am surprisingly sanguine, even optimistic.

It’s on a bus, crowded with Charedi young men traveling from Benei Brak, the Charedi enclave outside Tel Aviv, to Jerusalem. It’s packed with young men who devote their lives to study. And all of a sudden a very scantily clad young lady gets on and sits down next to one of the students, who shows no sign of registering her presence. After a while, to her surprise, he takes out an apple and offers it to her.

Here’s an interlude! Dramatic effect! In the current Israeli version it is an apple. This only goes to show that the originator of this version was a secular Jew with limited knowledge of Talmudic or indeed historical sources. The Torah itself does not mention what fruit it was. The version of the joke I received actually adds the text as a footnote, so the secular narrator at least knows a Biblical text in the original Hebrew. In Western culture the fruit is always an apple. Why? Because in Latin apple is “malum” and “malum” also means “evil” and this fits the Christian concept of Original Sin. Eating the fruit condemned all humanity to be sinners from birth unless redeemed by accepting Jesus as their savior. Hence Adam and Eve ate the apple. But in fact there were no apples in the Middle East in Biblical times. The Hebrew word “tapuach”, means “swollen” or “blown out” and the most likely fruit that was readily available would have been an orange, a fig, or a pomegranate. The Greek myth of the Golden Apples of Hesperides that Hercules had to gather also suggests oranges rather than Cox’s Pippins (or the ubiquitous cardboard Golden Delicious).

To continue with the joke. The lovely, scantily dressed young lady on the bus then asks him why he is offering her a fruit. He replies, “Before Eve ate the fruit in the Garden, she did not realize she was naked.” A snide reference to her revealing attire!

The next week at the same time, on the same bus, the same young girl boards, but this time very modestly dressed, and sits down next to the same yeshivah bochur, and in due course offers him a fruit. And he asks her why she is offering it to him. And she says:

“Before Adam ate of the fruit of the garden, he didn’t know he would have to work for a living.” Her dig back at the Charedi man in Israel who studies and never gets a job.

Of course, this gives away the age of the original joke, because nowadays she would have caused such an uproar just trying to get on the bus altogether that there would have been a riot that would have brought it all to a halt. But still, nothing better exemplifies the current situation. Two different world outlooks, both fighting for supremacy in Israel today. One based on Torah to the exclusion of all else and one based on secular values to the exclusion of the religious and yet both drawing on a great deal more of each other than they are often prepared to admit.

The fact is that Israel has always been divided between those who wanted to shut the page on the Ghetto past and those who wanted to keep its flame alive. And both sides have always had their extremists, their provocateurs, their louts and thugs. I remember the 1950s when I first experienced Israel; in those days the secular Zionists were totally in control. You would not find one person wearing a kipah in any government employ or office. Now the pendulum is swinging the other way.

In all such culture wars the strongest, the most single-minded, the most ideologically certain gain control of the battlefield initially and then, regardless of which side, over time there is a reaction. Sometimes the reaction comes because people do actually put up a fight and push back. Sometimes it’s because of the zeitgeist, the mood of the times. Think of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Counter Reformation. Think of Georgian England and Victorian. Think of the attitudes that led to the witches of Salem and think of the Founding Fathers and their open-minded, tolerant utilitarianism. Think of the French Revolution and then the Reign of Terror. Think of the Czar, Lenin, and now, Lord help them, Putin. That’s how human society has always worked. Sometimes the process takes longer than others, but always there is a reconciliation before the next cycle starts again. Even the collapse of Rome was followed by a reconstructed Holy Roman Empire. History never ends. It always revolves.

I believe the unsavory battles going on in Israeli society today mirrors what is going on around the world. Once “The God that Failed” was communism, now it is liberal self-centered materialism. Wherever you look in Europe or America groups with a mission–be they Muslims, Baptists, Libertarians, pro-lifers, pro-choicers, Tea Party activists or unionists–are all fighting their grounds, giving absolutely no quarter, paralyzing the legislature, starting from an extreme rigid and unbending position, knowing full well that in the end they will have to modify and compromise. This will happen in Israel simply because you can no more impose religious standards on a significant section of a population any more than you can try to force them to give up their traditions.

In the meantime, most rabbis are not willing to compromise. Muslims demand the rule of Sharia everywhere not just in Muslim countries. Occupy Wall Streeters want to dismantle the financial sector, and unions resist any modification to educational practice in the name of protecting teachers while their very charges suffer. That is the nature of humans and human society. We admire freedom and we admire choices, while at the same time we want control and we want black-and-white solutions. All or nothing situations never last forever. Eventually Mugabe, Assad, and Ahmadinejad will go the way of Mubarak and Gadhafi.

Look at us. From Moses through the Judges we were divided, contentious, and rebellious. A brief united kingdom under David and Solomon split into two warring countries of Jews. We were divided geographically and between Israel authority and Babylonian. Then came the Sadducees, Pharisees, Karaites, Rabbinates, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Eastern European, and Western, Orthodox and Reform, Zionist and anti-Zionist. We have had plenty of our own Savonarolas, our Pinchas zealots. Intransigent rabbis have always been driven out of town, attacked for their views, and ostracized.

Yet we have always adapted, survived, and found a way of coping–not without our tragedies, but we have come through. That very struggle has kept our tradition alive, as well as our divisions and our varieties. We are forged in fire! “And that, My Lord, is the case for the defense.” It is why, for all our crimes and misdemeanors, we are so bloody good and I wouldn’t change us for anyone!!!!

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  • jeremy rosen

    The problem is that most genuinely spiritual people I know are not bullies.

    • frania kryszpel block

      The others count on that ! I truly believe G-d waits to see how much passion we put into our beliefs. There is a right and a wrong. The truly spiritual believers in a moral code, have the right to go forward. What is a Beit Din for? What did the Jewish Defense League fight for…and some died for? Uncorrupted rabbis can bully the unrighteous ,courts,exposure. Bullying for good. I am all for it. The best people I knew fought for right and wrong. And when one must go against bullies, you bring your own bullies. I was taught early that you do not close your eyes to bad. It keeps coming at you and others. Those bullies for right also have turned out to be the best,moral people. And strong. I respect that.

      • jeremy rosen

        I would not use the word “bully” to describe someone fighting for his or her rights and freedoms. A bully by nature imposes his or her views on others by force, not persuasion.

        • frania kryszpel block

          When dealing with bullies there is no way to persuade them
          Since they are shameless,unprincipled,and morally depraved.e able to have freedom from any responsible behavior so continue to tyrannize,oppress and torment knowing they will not be held accountable. In regular society, these deviants also wear masks. I am concerned here only with ones who present themselves as religious. As you suggest,we will leave the word bully for the bullies. How is this? Any assemblage of clear,moral minded,able bodied,persuasive,dedicated ,courageous people to turn on the heat,disclose and unmask the tormentors and have them be accountable. By doing nothing we will lost the best people.

  • frania kryszpel block

    The poetry in your soul ,I also have. You see the world through the ages, through history and then put it together in a beautiful package with a big ribbon around it and it is done. The day to day reality is what is now. All through the centuries, thinkers who contemplated the human condition as it pertains to Judaism have left the religion. We need to have people in Judaism that know what is right and what is wrong, what is moral and what is heinous. And have strength of character and body to get together ,find out what has happened and not be wishy washy, not stay involved, or what’s in it for me

  • frania kryszpel block

    Jeremy, I must say that no blanket statement can be made of any group of people. But there is such a lack of good morals permeating that it is not hard for me to understand the very vocal expression of disgust .The bullies and thugs should be “outed”. Their coreligionists should care what these deviants are doing. Instead to help the people being bullied and overrun by these sociopathoc individuals in their midst they do nothing. Lack of character, not standing up for anything, allowing the bullies to thrive and not getting together to stop them. I know the good orthodox people you speak about. I was raised with them. But this is way different. These are people masked in religious clothing, who are hiding their badness. And when good men do nothing, they become guilty of aiding and abetting. Where are the bullies to protect the weak? What kind of Jews have we become. Only seeing straight ahead, too unsure of our own _strength of morals and too afraid of the bullies. What kind of Jews are we now?

    • jeremy rosen

      Yes Frania
      I do indeed agree with what you have written and you have expressed elegantly and in measured tones what I suspect Haim wanted to say, without tarring everyone with the same brush. Jeremy

      • frania kryszpel block

        Dear Jeremy, I think in different languages and then translate into writing. Please allow me to make sure I expressed myself correctly in what I had commented. Across the spectrum, all people who deem themselves and present themselves to the world as a religious person. Not any particular group but every group. There are the truly pious,religious, good people in all the different parts of orthodox Judaism. Of course, no question. The religion now needs bullies. Bullies to fight for right morals . Strong, righteous fighters, for no other reason but to get rid of the masqueraders,to right was is wrong. . No reason but but that and no fear, except from G-d. Then we would be a light to the nations.

  • Haim

    I generalize nothing. Like it or not, it’s those thugs who most vocally and unabashedly claim possession of the only true Judaism. Nobody challenges them from within the Orthodox community.

    • jeremy rosen

      Then you misunderstand the word “generalization.” Would you say that because there a lot of Black men in Jail that all Blacks are criminals? I hope not.


      I suspect you do not understand what “generalization” means.Would you say that because there are many black men in prison that all blacks are criminals? Would you say that because Madoff was a Jew, all Jews are crooks?

      You are right about three things. There are mindless thugs within the Ultra Orthodox/Charedi community and you are right that they ( and far too many secular superstitious Jews) think they are the expression of true Judaiusm and you are right that not nough genuine Chsredi Jews speak out or try to rein in these yobs. But still to suggest all Charedi Jews are the same is patently untrue , dishonest and a smear.Jeremy

  • jeremy rosen

    You really cannot get away with such a crass generalization. You couldnt get away with it calling all Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims all obnoxious thugs.Yes I agree amongst the Ultra Orthodox there are a lot of unsavory bullies and thugs. But I also know having lived amongst them for six years there are far more good, charitable, caring, spiritual men and women. It is a highly charitable caring supportive and moral community but of course no community is perfect. In almost every case we know the press can distort and you only read about man pushing old lady off a bus, never about man helping old lady onto a bus. J

  • Haim

    It’s all well and good. Meanwhile, in Israel, Judaism is increasingly associated with gangs of smelly, obnoxious, violent thugs who wish to do absolutely nothing to help the general public, to respect civilized norms of behavior, to earn their keep. Frankly, if this is Judaism, Protestant Christianity looks more and more appealing.