In Israel: my tank top, their black coats and our oneness

Jane Gladshteyn

The sight of an Orthodox Jewish clan strolling down a street in the Bay Area would be a mismatched puzzle piece, out of place to say the least. Some would giggle, a few might cringe, others would stare and several would simply pay no attention at all. Yet such a sight is not uncommon in Israel, especially on Shabbat evenings in Jerusalem.

I recently took a 10-day trip to the Holy Land with 25 Bay Area teenagers. We are an Israeli advocacy group called Write On for Israel, which aims to produce pro-Israel documentaries and prepare Jewish teens for the anti-Semitism they will face on college campuses. Our journey began in Tel Aviv and ended in Jerusalem and — despite the stark differences — the same underlying commonality exists.

Lucky for us, we experienced one such Shabbat evening in Jerusalem, the essence of Judaism. There, Orthodox men strolled the blocks in their black garments, tallits, sidelocks and shtreimels while I stood in my tank top and mini-shorts, not even wearing my Magen David necklace. Sure I felt Jewish, but in comparison, I felt like an amateur. They weren’t the elephants in the room; rather, I was.

They have different social mannerisms than I do and are willing to completely devote themselves to God. They are willing to reject any form of modern culture and see intermarriage as a rejection of Judaism. And yet, as “different” as they are, it astonishing to see how integrated they were in daily life. They bought their fresh-baked challah, strolled through the supermarkets and flew on El Al Airlines to Israel just like we did. We were so unlike and yet, we prayed for Israel’s peace as one.

Unlike Jerusalem, Tel Aviv wasn’t the “Jewland” we had previously seen, but rather an all-around incredible city — great beaches, tall buildings, busy nightlife, theaters and markets. Everyone was a Jew, yet here you found secular, Reform and agnostic Jews. This city was young, excited, optimistic and bright — the “miniature Los Angeles,” as the newspaper the Economist calls it.

It was surreal. It didn’t feel like the Israel we always hear and read about, for that Israel is allegedly a bloodthirsty monster. Was it possible that L.A., too, was just as vicious, with all that sun, energy and high-tech? Or that the Israeli

people were born unlike the rest of humankind, with an evil and vicious core?

I thought back to IDF soldiers we talked to; the weeping man in Sderot who lost a daughter to the Qassam rockets; the Iron Dome, Israel’s new mobile air defense system; the border kibbutz that was a constant target for Qassam missiles, fired at Israel with the intention to kill; and how close we had stood to Israel’s borders with Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank.

It was intimidating at first, even frightening.

The military is certainly present in daily life. Both men and women must serve at 18 for at least two or three years. But Israel, like every country in the world, does what it has to do in terms of military precautions. If its borders are being attacked, Israel will protect them. If people invade and start killing Israeli citizens, Israel will fight back. The only difference is that Israel is always playing on the defensive, something its enemies try very hard to cover up.

Almost every Israeli understands that if they don’t serve in the army, Israel may very well cease to exist. And for that reason, almost every Israeli wants to serve. And so, with that passion and patriotism, Israel holds up its flag with its dignity, ethics and morals.

And so I can’t help but wonder how it is that we see such different Israels.

Israel isn’t perfect; no one says it is. Like any country, it does make mistakes. But I know that only one such Israel exists, and it is the Israel that the rest of the world has yet to learn of.

The rest of the world sees Israel, when it isn’t “too busy blowing up its neighbors and segregating Palestinians,” as a bunch of fervent, sidelocked rabbis. So at last we face our dilemma. How do we portray that Israel is more than just that?

Israel is the home of Project Better Place and electric cars, the “gay capital of the Middle East,” according to Out magazine, home of Intel and the revolutionary computer chip. We must find a way to tether everything together: the Orthodox rabbis with the CEO of Teva Pharmaceutical Industries with rebellious, navel-showing Israeli teenagers. For we are one and the same — Jews.

Jane Gladshteyn, 17, is a senior at Terra Linda High School in San Rafael. She is the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, the Voice, and she joined the Write On for Israel program in December 2010.