Israelis skip matzah, skimp on Judaism

A new poll of Israelis has forced me to rethink many longstanding axioms about Israel, Israelis and Judaism.

Almost one quarter of all Israeli Jews eat bread during the Passover, according to a Gallup poll released just before the holiday. One quarter of that quarter — about 6 percent — eat bread not only during the holiday, but actually at the Passover seder itself.

And for the purpose of the survey, 3 percent of that group described themselves as traditional Jews.

Well, you might say, they may be eating bread, but at least they have a seder. Well, I'm sorry, that's not good enough!

Until now the thinking was that only in Israel could Judaism be salvaged from the devastation of assimilation. It was thought that there was no real way of creating a non-ghettoized Jewish experience in the diaspora, that only within Israel could Jews be free to practice without stigma or shame.

But now, with the results of this survey, the situation looks very different to me. I am fearful that the very status of the Jewishness of Israel may hang in the balance over the next few years.

The poll also contained some obvious results, but nothing that can calm my fears about the future of Israeli Judaism. For instance, the poll reported that those who called themselves "religious" and "haredi" said that they did not eat bread on Passover.

But the big surprise, again, was that 47.4 percent of those who considered themselves neither religious nor fervently religious said they consumed the forbidden leavened bread on Passover, the festival that commemorates religious freedom from persecution and affliction.

For decades, irrespective of religious preference or belief, Israelis conducted themselves as Jews in traditional observance. It was a given.

Israelis lit Friday night Sabbath candles and blessed the wine over kiddush even if they did not adhere to other Sabbath observances. They fasted on Yom Kippur — even if they did not enter the synagogue for prayer. They abstained from eating chametz on Passover — even if they did not purge their homes of the unleavened bread.

For decades, the civil religion of Israel dictated that there were basic, fundamental religious observances that every Israeli Jew performed as part of being Israeli. It had nothing to do with religious observance or lack thereof. It was just done. Not just for Jewish reasons, but for historical and cultural reasons. For Jewish reasons. For Israeli reasons.

Israel is a society constantly struggling with its own identity. How Jewish vs. how democratic should the country be? What is Jewish, or for that matter, what is democracy? What role should Judaism play in a democracy?

But now, the overriding question is: How can Israel be Jewish if almost nothing Jewish takes place in Israel? If the very simplest and the most basic Jewish acts are abandoned, what remains of Judaism within Israel?

It is not good enough that Hebrew is spoken or that the calendar is run according to the lunar cycle and therefore according to "Jewish" time. If so few Israeli Jews understand the reasons behind such decisions, even those practices will disintegrate with time.

Over the past few years much energy has been spent by non-observant Israelis bemoaning their lack of knowledge of basic Judaism. Many Israelis are only exposed to Judaism and Jewish learning when they travel abroad on sabbatical and they see how other Jews — those whom they assumed to be assimilated into foreign cultures — observe their religion.

The phenomenon is not new. My father-in-law, of blessed memory, was the president of the Histadrut Ivrit of America, an organization dedicated to the preservation of the Hebrew language. He passed away 18 years ago.

During his tenure as president, he was approached by groups of Israeli parents living abroad, fearful for the future of their children. These parents had so wanted to raise "children of the world" that they had neglected to teach their children the basics: the Hebrew language and simple acts of observance.

Today in Israel, the "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" fever has spread. A similar program begins with simple questions. As the shekel value increases, so does the difficulty of the question.

On Israeli television the simple questions are often related to religious observance. One Israeli reached fame after failing to answer the simplest question: On what holiday do we say Kol Nidre.

Apparently, this Israeli is one of a growing number who does not enter a synagogue on Yom Kippur. I bet many non-Israelis and most non-Jews could have easily answered that question.

"Man does not live by bread alone." He lives through tradition and connection with a societal whole. And on Passover, Jewish men and women eat matzah.