The Day I Left Orthodox Judaism

The Day I Left Orthodox Judaism

[Today – the 12th of July – I celebrate my fourth anniversary of leaving the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. I have never written before about my story in detail. If I ever decide to publish a memoir of my journey, this is what a first draft of some chapters might look like.

Image: my last day in yeshiva]



It was motzei shabbos (Saturday evening) the 24th of Tamuz, 5775 years to what I now knew was not the creation of the universe. Sahbbos had just gone out and the narrow yeshiva dormitory corridors were abustle with boys readying themselves for the new weak of study to come. I was also getting ready, but for something of an entirely different nature – for something far more consequential.

The long shabbos afternoons of the summer always gave me plenty of time to think. And when I thought I introspected and when I introspected I discovered uncomfortable truths. It had been over three months now since I admitted to myself that I didn’t believe that Orthodox Judaism was true, but since then I’ve been hanging in limbo. I was no longer a believer in any meaningful sense of the word, but I was still a fully practising orthodox Jew and, by appearance, even a chassidic Jew – although I had given up any internal adherence to chassidism two years earlier.

It is one thing to lose your faith intellectually – not that that was easy: it took years and years of torturous and guilt-ridden thoughts to seriously question the religion of my upbringing. It took further time to explicitly admit to myself that I am not a believer. But even after that confession nothing changed in my outward practice. Practising orthodox Judaism, I discovered, was not really a matter of faith or conviction, but of deeply ingrained habit. It was a way of life – an exclusive way of life. What would it even mean to not make a blessing before eating? How does one even go about putting non-kosher food in their mouth? These were things that I could not comprehend even after losing my faith. All my life I lived a specific lifestyle with a specific set of rules and norms. I didn’t know of any other way to live. I have never seen anyone living differently. Even the thought induced a shudder through my body.

But this is the blessing of shabbos: not being able to do any work or to get anything done, you are forced to reckon with yourself and confront those personal inconsistencies that you’d rather leave undug. And so I thought. I thought about my future and about my prospects. They looked grim. I could not see myself living my life as an Orthodox Jew in an Orthodox Jewish community. It was not the personal practice that bothered me, but the idea of living a closeted life, not being able to be open about my beliefs. I knew that the instance that my heresies became known would be the end of my social life. No one would want to be seen talking with me, I would have no marriage prospects and the yeshiva would most definitely kick me out. 

Even as things were, my social and marital prospects were very dire. No one knew yet at that point that I am not a believer. But people suspected that something fishy was going on. Rumours were flying around in yeshiva and people would quote me saying things bad enough to classify me as someone with heretical leanings, if not as an outright heretic. The chassidic boys in yeshiva attached to me the title “oifgeklerte”. To be ‘oifgeklert’ is to be enlightened, but not in a good way.

The word ‘oifgeklert’ entered the Yiddish lexicon from the German ‘aufklärung’, which, in chassidic communities – still traumatised from the haskalah and the havoc it wrought on traditional orthodox Jewry – came to symbolise everything that is bad with freethinking and rationalism. The questions that I asked and my sceptical freethinking – even though I was careful not to be outright heretical publicly – were enough to give me the reputation of an oifegeklerte. Consequently, the pious boys would keep away from me. Being oifegeklert also meant that I was radioactive from a shidduch (match-making) perspective, as no respectable parents would risk giving me their daughter in marriage. How could they rely on me to give them pious and chassidic grandchildren?

The option of continuing on as I had done over the last three months was therefore unsustainable. But what was the other option? By then I had already been in contact with people outside of the community to discuss the possibility of leaving. Until not much earlier I didn’t know anyone who was not an ultra-orthodox Jew. I had discovered the internet in March of that year and immediately started searching for outside connections. I entered into Google every combination of the terms “Jewish heretic”,“ex-Orthodox Jew”, etc. and followed whatever results I got. At the time the ex-Ortohdox community in the UK was not yet well established and I got no local results. But I did get in touch with a New York based organisation called Footsteps and asked them for help.

Footsteps said that they have no overseas services. But I was desperate. I said that I would fly over to NY so that they can help me leave the orthodox world. When they asked if I had money to pay for the ticket, I said that I didn’t: as is the case with most chassidic bachelors, I was completely dependent on my parents, without any belongings of my own. The person on the other side of the phone apologised and was about to discontinue the call. But then she remembered something. She had heard of a new organisation in the UK called Mavar who were trying to do the same thing that they were doing in NY, but in the UK. They were quite new, she said, so they didn’t have a strong online presence, but that it is worth giving them a call.



By the time I was having this conversation with myself on this afternoon of shabbos parshas Pinchos (the specific weekly portion of the Torah read that week), I had already gotten in touch with Mavar. They had laid out for me all the options. We assumed that I’d be homeless once I left, so they were looking at finding temporary accommodation for me until I could find work and start renting my own place. I would also have to somehow catch up on high-school education, since I told them that I wanted to go to university. It all sounded very alien and foreign to me and I was scared.

Up until this point I had been waiting for a catalyst to bring about my breakaway. I now realised that I need to make it happen. I still had no clue how I was just going to get up and leave yeshiva. How was I going to inform my parents? My mentors? My friends? But on this shabbos afternoon I decided that the time is up and that I am going to start taking practical steps towards leaving. The first thing I was going to do was to stop observing Orthodox Judaism in my personal life.

The thought was frightening, in fact, terrifying. This was going to be the most consequential decision I have ever made in my life. I was going to take all my hypothetical, theoretical and intellectual heresies and actualise them in the real, practical world. Thoughts can always be reversed and one can just have a change of heart about things. But actions, we were taught, are permanent. They leave a permanent stain on one’s soul, a stain that cannot be removed even through repentance.

Of course I no longer believed in souls and sin. But that was all theoretical. Twenty years of indoctrination have left me trembling and shivering of the thought of deliberately sinning. I had never done this before. To be sure, I wasn’t perfect. Nobody is. Of course I had occasionally been late to prayer, made a blessing without intention, recounted a juicy item of gossip; but never before had I sinned because I wanted to. Never before had I sinned for the sake of sinning, for the sake of rebelling. 

But this terror that I now felt confirmed to me the importance of my decision. Why was I so scared? It had been months since I believed. I knew that there was no God out there who was going to care about my transgressions. So whom was I so afraid of? This fear was purely psychological and irrational. It was a result of brainwashing and I knew that no amount of theorising would get rid of it. The only way to get rid of it was to negate it by acting against it. I needed to go out there and transgress, or I would forever be held back by fear.

There was also another reason for my fear – a more rational one. This decision was going to confirm my breakaway once and for all. This was the first practical step towards physically leaving the community. I knew that by doing this I am stepping out onto an unknown and treacherous journey, the destination of which was utterly unknown and mysterious. From my recent online research I had learned that the suicide rate in the “off the derech” (orthodox apostate) community is really high, which is unsurprising given the shunning, the shame and the struggle with making it in a world that has been consciously alienated and otherised in all of our years of upbringing and education. There was no guarantee that my journey will be any more successful. I too was going to have to make it in a world that I have never been allowed so much as a peak into; where I have no relatives, friends, or even acquaintances; that has been vilified and portrayed in the darkest and most morally corrupt colours throughout my life; that functions by radically different norms, values and rules, which I have never learnt to make sense of. A terrifying prospect indeed. But I had made up my mind.

That night – it was well past midnight – I lay down to sleep. I did not say the Krishma (bed-time prayer). For all my life – ever since I could utter my earliest words – saying the Krishma was part of going to bed. No matter how tired I was, no matter how drunk I was (if it was the evening of Purim), there was no going to bed before saying it. It is the prayer in which one asserts the oneness of God as the last thought of the day. You are not meant to talk afterwards, so as to fall asleep with thoughts of the Almighty in your mind. In it you also ask for God’s protection for when your soul is gone and your dreams take over.

Nighttime is scary and mystical time. Your soul leaves your body and there is no guarantee that it will be returned to you in the morning. The angel of death and his demons roam about freely and the impure powers rule. In the Krishma you pray that God and his good angels protect you from them. That night I had made a pact with the impure powers. I no longer needed the good angels to protect me from them. I peacefully slept through the night.


The sun was shining through the thin curtains of my room in the yeshiva dormitory. It was the morning of Sunday the 12th of July 2015. That day probably also had a Hebrew date associated with it. But not for me. From that day on it would be the Gregorian calendar that dictated my dates.

I woke up unusually peacefully. A “normal” morning would involve quickly checking the clock to see how much time is left until the deadline for the morning Krishma. One needs to wake up to God, just like one goes to sleep with God. In the morning there’s a deadline – a certain number of hours after sunrise –  by when one needs to have said the morning Krishma. Usually, this requirement would give me stress in the mornings, especially after a sleep-in. But this morning I was free from that. 

Although I could’ve rolled back into bed today, not having to get up and prepare myself for the Krishma, I chose to get up. I didn’t want to oversleep the deadline – which has happened to me several times in the past and after which I would always carry the guilt and repent – I wanted to miss it. I was going to stand there ready, looking at the clock as the deadline approaches and not say the Krishma. It felt naughty. It felt good.

I have never said the Krishma since.  

The life of an Orthodox Jew is dictated by endless rules and laws. These affect the most minute and intimate parts of your body and life. There are rules for everything: how you get dressed, how you eat, even how you go to the toilet. During millennia of isolation and prevention of taking part in worldly affairs, the Jewish community had created its own fantasy world, which ran according to its own rules; where none of the injustices of the world existed and where things made sense. 

Every morning I would get dressed according to a prescribed halachic-kabbalistic formula: shirt first – right sleeve then left sleeve – buttoned up right upon left. Then came the yellow tzitzit on top of my shirt. Next up the trousers – right leg before the left. Right sock, left sock. Right foot slipped into the right shoe, followed by the left. Left shoelaces tied, followed by the right. 

This order is intentional and specific. Hundreds of pages and books are written about this topic alone and every part of it has a reason. You see, had I been right-handed, then I would tie my right shoelaces before the left. Being left-handed changed that, although it didn’t change the order of sleeves and trouser-legs: those were still right first, then left. 

This pattern had been so entrenched in my dress routine, that it was now just habit. I wanted to unlearn this habit. Not that there is anything wrong with tying one’s shoes one way rather than another, but I knew that if I do not consciously uproot this habit then I will forever be a slave to my past. I was going to retrain myself and my habits back to neutrality and then let nature dictate my behaviour. That morning I followed the formula exactly in reverse.

The tefillin are a pair of leather boxes and straps that the Orthodox Jewish male fastens on his forehead and arms daily. Failing to put them on is not just the passive failure to fulfil a commandment; it also affects you on a physiological level. The Talmud says that “a scalp that does not wear tefillin is amongst those who sin with their body”. Failing to put on the daily tefillin is akin to committing an active sin with your body. Consequently, the daily laying of tefillin has become a hallmark of observance. You know that one is a serious sinner when one no longer puts on tefillin. That was me that day and from that day on. 

But I had to be careful. Following the rumours and suspicions about me that were making the rounds in yeshiva, boys would occasionally go into my cupboard and sift through my private belongings to see if they can find any evidence of contraband. For instance, there was a rumour going around that I was reading heretical books (think, say, a book about evolution). After going through my belongings all that was found was a book on the history of British monarchs – I was trying to familiarise myself with British history that I had never learnt in cheider (Jewish primary school). It wasn’t quite what they were looking for. But it was bad enough. After all, why is a chassidic boy reading about goyishe (non-Jewish) rulers in yeshiva? Moreover, it had pictures of women in it, God forbid!

There is a story that was told about this boy in the Volozhin yeshiva of pre-war Lithuania. Rumours had been going around that he had fallen prey to the secularising currents of the haskalah and that he was no longer observant. His friends came up with a way to verify this. They stuffed tissues into his tefillin case and waited. A couple of days passed and they checked the case. The tissues were still there untouched. This was proof that the boy had not been laying his tefilling and he was expelled from yeshiva. 

Knowing that people were going through my personal belongings I feared that they would subject me to a similar test. I therefore checked my tefillin case everyday, ready to remove any tissues that would be put there. I never found any, but I had to be cautious.


As the days passed by I started looking for more active opportunities to transgress. Yes, I haven’t been saying the Krishma, praying, or laying tefillin, but I wanted something more. I wanted to commit as many sins as possible to get rid of the aversion, fear and disgust associated with these acts. I wanted to liberate myself from any psychological barriers and phobias. But how many opportunities for sin are there in yeshiva? I had to get creative.

One morning whilst eating my cereal at breakfast I had an idea. I poured some milk into a plastic cup and took it back to my room. That day, meat was served for lunch. Immediately after eating, with some meat still stuck between my teeth, I hurried back to my room and gulped down the cup of milk. This was a sin, since eating meat and milk is forbidden. In fact, our custom was to wait six full hours after eating meat before consuming any milky products. And here I washed out my meaty mouth with milk!

During this week I also started exploring my sexuality. But before I could get about doing that I had to learn what that was. You see, sex and sexuality does not exist in the chassidic community – not in any acknowledged form anyway. Chassidic Yiddish doesn’t even have words for sex, intimacy, or the sexual organs. All of these concepts are referred to in euphemistic Hebrew terms, intended for scholarly and Talmudic use. The penis is referred to as “the limb”, or “the covenant”; the vagina is “that place”, or “the nakedness”; the act of sex is “activity of the bed” – no specifications were ever given for us bachelors as to what this “activity” consists of.

The chassidic boy is required to keep his thoughts pure at all hours of the day. From immediately after our barmitzvahs at the age of thirteen, we kept on being reminded of this. It was never quite specified what exactly “impure thoughts” were, but we knew that it had something to do with looking at, or thinking of, women. My prepubescent self did not quite understand why women were impure, but it made sense. After all, women are second-class members of the community, being denied any community leadership roles and being placed behind partitions in the synagogue. Perhaps there was something inherently impure about them?

Then odd things would start happening to me. I would walk to yeshiva, eyes down as instructed, and from the corner of my eye something would catch my attention. I would try ignoring it and diverting my thoughts to the Talmudic topic that we had been covering that week. But this mysterious pull was stronger than my will to keep my eyes pure. I would eventually give in and lift my head just to be confronted with a huge scantily-clad female model on a billboard. Nothing else on the street interested me, only the source of impurity. 

Why? What is wrong with me that out of everything that I can look at, it is exactly the impure woman that I am attracted to? 

And then I felt it in my pants. 

I had long made the connection between impurity, women and my penis. The earliest memories that I have of my granddad is him catching me itching  my crotch through my trousers. With a stern look and a serious voice he told me, “Yitzchok, a Jewish boy does not touch himself there”. 

“Why?” I asked naively. 

“A Jewish boy doesn’t ask why. A Jewish boy listens and obeys.”

Never since did I touch my penis. Not until this week – my week of sin. 

Finally now was the time to explore that part of my body too. But where to begin? 

Next time I went online I brought up the Wikipedia entry on “penis”. From there I was led to “masturbation”. And so it was one afternoon that I found myself heading to one of the public toilets in yeshiva to put my hands to the test for the first time. I was twenty years old.

I had not yet had the chance to learn about the abundance of digital stimulants online, nor did I have anything stored in my imagination to fall back on. It was just my two hands and I. The effort was arduous and did not immediately yield the desired results. It would be some time before I perfected the craft. I will spare you the details.       


It was Friday evening of the 17th of July. The sun was about to set. Everywhere there is rushing and hurrying. Chassidic boys are running, their wet peyos (side locks), fresh out of the mikve (ritual bath), dripping over their shiny silk bekitches. Non-chassidic boys, freshly clean-shaven, are helping each other secure their colourful ties around their necks. Freshness and purity is in the air.

As far back as I can remember, Friday evening was my favourite time of the week by far. The radical transition between hectic Friday and serene shabbos that occurs as the sun sets, always had a magical climactic effect on me. As soon as shabbos arrived everything came to a sudden standstill. Whatever has been done was done, and what was still unfinished would have to wait until tomorrow evening to be continued with. For now, everything was as if it was completed. “When shabbos arrives,” the Talmud says, “rest as if all your work had been done”. And that’s exactly how it felt every single week.

Shabbos was even more beautiful in yeshiva . At the time designated for the evening prayer to begin, the beis midrash (study hall) was packed wall-to-wall with boys dressed in their finest, ready to welcome in the shabbos with prayer and song. At no time during the week was the beis midrash so full and at no time during the week was everyone so bright, cheerful and fresh. 

The Friday evening prayer is the most beautiful of all prayer sessions: it is concise, collaborative and full of songs. The pinnacle is reached just before the silent Amidah (standing prayer), when the whole community erupts in the melodious tune to the words of “Veshomru” (“they shall observe [the Sabbath]”). The minute or so during which the whole community sings this melody in unison was without a doubt my weekly highlight. I never got tired from participating in it. It gave me goosebumps every single week. Even when my prayer attendance was lax, I never missed a veshomru. If I was late to the Friday evening prayer, I was never late enough to miss it. That is, never until now.

This week was different. 

This week was going to be the first shabbos of my life that I would not observe. Shabbos is a covenant between God and His people and I was eager to break this covenant. This week, instead of rushing to the beis midrash to catch the veshomru, I headed to the toilet and pulled out a smartphone.

Smartphones are strictly forbidden in yeshiva, but I had been using one for the last three months. What made this time different is that I was using it on shabbos. Use of any electrical devices on shabbos is strictly forbidden in Orthodox Judaism. This was never cumbersome or a bother. To the contrary, I cherished the rest and isolation of shabbos. But in this, my week of sin, shabbos had to be desecrated. In later years I would learn to synthesise shabbos observance with my new secular lifestyle. But for now it had to be destroyed before any thought of rebuilding could be considered.

And so there I was locked up and hidden. I was writing an email to JM – an individual who had left the community several years previously. I shared with him my situation and asked him for advice. As I am sitting there and writing I can hear the sound of harmonious prayer emanating from the prayer hall. At that point I knew that there is something that the whole community is having right now that I no longer have. Suddenly I was alone, left behind in the mundaneness of the week. My friends and the whole community are in a different metaphysical plane – the plane of shabbos – and I have chosen to stay behind.

The Torah already warns of those desecrating the shabbos, “Their soul will be cut off from their people.”

I had no way of knowing how lonely and isolating being cut off from my people would be.



Saturday morning, the 18th of July. My roommates have just left the room to join the long shabbos morning prayer. I put on my bekitche and fasten the gartel (belt). After locking the door to make sure that nobody comes in unexpectedly, I grab my wallet and push it deep inside one of my pockets. I check to make sure that no bulge is visible and make my way out of the yeshiva building. 

The streets of the Jewish neighbourhood are deserted. The men are in the synagogues and the women are looking after the children at home. After a ten minute walk the quiet Jewish streets fade away and I can start to feel the noise and pollution of the city centre. I head directly to the big Tesco at the centre of the shopping mall. 

There are no Jews around, as shopping on the shabbos is strictly forbidden. I can ease my tension; no further precautions are needed here. I head directly to the food section and pick out a ham sandwich.

It didn’t have to be ham, but it had to be made of pork. Pork is a food item that any good Jew would not only refuse to eat, but be disgusted even by the thought of it. I was going to try it. Not wanting to call attention to the odd sight of a chassidic Jew – peyos, beard and all – buying a ham sandwich, I used the self-checkout and paid for my purchase.

The Jewish mind, we were taught, is pure and clear. The reason that only the Jew acknowledges the truth and glory of the Jewish faith is because he keeps his mind and thoughts clean. A goy’s (non-Jew’s) mind is farshtopped (blocked) because he fills his belly with impure and non-kosher food. Jews are obsessively careful when it comes to the kosher status of their food consumption because they know that even a microscopic particle of non-kosher food can contaminate their mind and stop them from thinking straight.

I no longer bought in to that. The ham looked healthy. I was going to eat it.

And so I locked myself, once again, in the toilet of Tesco. I opened up the packaging and took a bite. It felt strange and tasted odd. But it is not good taste that I was after now. I finished the sandwich, letting it dull my feelings of disgust. I needed every bit of desensitisation, for there were many more ham sandwiches to be consumed in the days and years to come. 

Perhaps the pork was numbing me from experiencing the severity of the sin; from letting my inner holy spark cry out in protest? Perhaps it was just cognitive-behavioural therapy, getting rid of irrational disgust and phobia? 

It didn’t really matter. 

I headed back to yeshiva. My week of sin had concluded. I had left Orthodox Judaism. I never looked back.     


Autobiographical Talk at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, London – 20th of March 2019

(Note: I took minor artistic licences in the telling of my story. As it was intended as story sharing with moral lessons, I did not put emphasis on some of the nuances and complexities in charedi beliefs. All of the details are correct, but for a more objective picture some nuances need to be taken into consideration) 

Tonight’s theme is “transitioning to one’s authentic self”. I am not sure what an “authentic self” is and I definitely haven’t found mine yet. But I can tell you about my transition: a transition from chassidic yeshiva boy, to secular university student.

My name is Izzy Posen. I am a second year physics and philosophy student at the University of Bristol and the founder and president of the Bristol Free Speech Society. As you can probably tell from the fact that I am speaking at a Liberal synagogue, I am not a chassidic ultra-orthodox Jew. But that is exactly how I spent the first twenty years of my life. How did I get here? Following is the story of my transition.

I grew up in the chassidic ultra-orthodox community of Stamford Hill, East London in a family of rabbis and Torah-scholars. My parents raised me to be a God-fearing Jew and hoped that I would go in the paths of my dad, grandad and many of my uncles and cousins to be a Torah scholar.

My community led a life insulated from the outside world, trying to guard themselves and their children from outside influences, considered profane and immoral. We spoke only Yiddish and read only Yiddish books published by fellow ultra-orthodox Jews. The themes were all about the righteous and the God-fearing. Not much general knowledge, history, or science made it in there. We had no access to TV, films, radio, or newspapers. The world was corrupt and we preferred to know about it as little as possible.

Instead of primary school, we attended Cheider. Cheider was like school, except that there was no secular education and corporal punishment was used to discipline us kids – oh, and my cheider was also illegal.

I didn’t like cheider. Not the hours of sitting and studying texts and not the constant hitting and abuse. When I would come home crying, my dad would tell me that he went through the same. ‘It is normal,’ I thought to myself. ‘This is just what childhood is meant to look like.’ I couldn’t wait for the day that I would no longer be a child and the big adults would no longer be able to abuse me. But I knew that I wouldn’t let the same happen to my own children.

When I turned thirteen I had my barmitzvah. From then on I was considered an adult and was going to devote every second of my day to the service of God and to the study of His Torah. Indeed, I started yeshiva, where I spent fourteen hour days studying Talmud and Jewish Law. But that wasn’t enough for me.

I wanted to learn about some of the things that weren’t in the Talmud. I wanted to know why rainbows form, why birds fly, why the world goes round. I was told that the answers to all of these questions are contained in the Talmud and that if I study hard enough they’ll be revealed to me. I did. They weren’t.

I had other questions as well. Forbidden questions. Why does the rest of the world think differently to us? How do we know that our way of thinking is right and their’s wrong? These were scary questions. Heretical questions. I didn’t dare ask them. But they bothered me.

As I grew older I grew more bold in the questions that I’d ask and in my quest for forbidden knowledge. I got hold of a dictionary and some English books and started teaching myself the language. Seeing my quest and thirst, my mom bought me some science books to read. Before giving them to me she’d kosher them by censoring out all heretical words, such as, ‘evolution’, ‘the big bang’, or any number greater than 6000.

When I was 18 I left home for yeshiva up North in Gateshead. Away from the pressures of my parents and my community, I started frequenting the library to quench my thirst in philosophy, theology and science. In yeshiva I also discovered the internet, which opened up for me a world and wealth of information. My faith didn’t last long.

It soon became evident to me that the Torah was a man-made document and did not miraculously appear on a mountain, that the Talmud did most likely not contain all scientific truths and that Ultra-orthodox Jews do not have a unique claim to religious truth. I knew that I wanted to go to university and I started planning my next steps. I was still in yeshiva when I stopped practicing orthodox Judaism.

An organisation called Mavar helped me integrate in secular society and catch up on my education. Working during the day to support myself, I did my studies in the evening. I did some GCSEs in my first year after leaving and a foundation course in maths and physics in the second year. In the third year I was studying physics and philosophy at the University of Bristol.

My family and community had rejected me as soon as I left and three and a half years later I am still not in touch with my grandparents, my dozens of uncles and aunts, hundreds of cousins and eight of my siblings.

Transitioning to secular society is a little like being an immigrant in your own country. I had to learn the language and cultural norms. But in addition to that, I discovered fifty percent of the population whom I knew nothing about: women. It took me a while to get the hang of modern dating culture. Last summer, three years after I left, I met my girlfriend. We’ve been together since.

My journey has taught me never to leave societal views unquestioned. The thing about frameworks of knowledge is that when you are in it, it is very difficult to see whether it is right or wrong. Growing up there was nothing more certain to me than the truth and rightfulness of my way of life. This is still the case for my former community members. They cannot see that what they believe in may not be true and right because they are on the inside. It is only from the outside of a framework that one can see how well it does or does not fit in with reality.

We all have frameworks of knowledge and morality. It may be our belief in science, in democracy, in justice. There is nothing wrong with having a framework. But my experiences have taught me that every now and then it is worth dipping out of the framework for a brief moment to examine it from the outside. We shouldn’t be afraid to be somewhat self-sceptical. We shouldn’t be afraid to be somewhat irreverent, somewhat sacrilegious and to question our own sacred cows.

Each and every one of us has some mistaken beliefs and we can never hope to be right about everything. What we can do though, is try to be less wrong. We can try to have as few false beliefs as possible. How do we achieve that? One way is to broaden our horizons, by meeting different people with different beliefs and values. This helps us to put our own beliefs in perspective and to perhaps come across different and better alternatives.

To this end I have founded the Bristol Free Speech Society at my university. We come together weekly to discuss a wide range of topics and to question our frameworks and entrenched beliefs. This, for me, is the ultimate heresy. It is not about the rejection of God, or religion, but about a general openness to challenge one’s own beliefs and to be sceptical of one’s societal frameworks.   

In my journeys I also discovered the Jewish people. This may sound paradoxical, given that I left a Jewish community to secularise. But the community of my upbringing didn’t see themselves as part of a larger community of Am Yisrael. They excluded based on practice, beliefs and lineage. For them being Jewish was synonymous with being ultra-orthodox. It is only after leaving that I have discovered my people. My lovely, diverse and vibrant people. Jews of all beliefs and practices, of all shapes and colours and of all walks of life. I am proud to be part of the Jewish people. I am a Jew. A secular Jew.


עשתונות ירושלמיות, מדינת ישראל – Jerusalemite Thoughts, Israel

עשתונות ירושלמיות, מדינת ישראל – Jerusalemite Thoughts, Israel

Practical matters have always been a weak point for me and I have always tried to stick with the theoretical side of things. However, when it comes to talking about an issue as current and real as the Israel situation, the boundaries between theory and application blur, as every philosophy translates into another possible reality on the ground. Notwithstanding, I have nothing to offer in terms of practical solutions, just thoughts and musings.

I have touched in my previous post on the various streams of Zionist thought and their respective goals. Depending on what your Zionist agenda is, your vision of a State of Israel will be very different. If you are a Religious Zionist (i.e. your Zionism is motivated by religious reasons – not to be confused with the religious Zionist, who is a Zionist who just happens to be religious), then your Jewish state is most likely to be a theocratic state governed by traditional Jewish law. If you are a Political Zionist then you might be happy with a democratic, multi-cultural state, so long as it is governed by Jews, or by Jews as well, who can ensure that it remains a safe haven for the persecuted Jewish population – i.e. a state for the Jews.

However, for a Cultural Zionist like myself, a state for the Jews is not enough. The revival of the Jewish national consciousness must result in an ethno-national Jewish State, a place where Judaism and Jewishness flourishes, not as a matter of individual preference and freedom, but as the national cultural identity. If the modern State of Israel is the Jewish state, then its citizens are not ‘Israelis’, but Jews, and likewise, diaspora Jews are almost automatically citizens of this state who happen to be living abroad.

Having said that, you might think that I would be a believer in Israel’s “right” to exist, whether for natural, historical, or legal reasons. That is not the case. From an objective, outsider’s view, I do not think that either side is more right in the argument between Jews and Palestinians over the ownership of the land. This is a matter of dual narratives in which both sides have legitimate claims. (See what I have written about dual narratives in an article for the Jewish News/Times of Israel here.) All that I am doing is presenting my Zionist narrative, not claiming that it is the only one.

In spite of this, I may not think that Jews necessarily have a right to the land, but I do think that we have a claim to it. That is, alongside the Palestinian natives, we too have claims that cannot be dismissed. It is historical fact that the geographical area of modern day Israel/Palestine is the birthplace of the Jewish people and it is historical fact that the Jews, or proto-Jews had a sovereign kingdom in Judea and Samaria with its capital in Jerusalem until it was conquered and they were forcibly exiled. It is also true that Jerusalem and the land of Israel have remained in the Jewish national and religious consciousness ever since.

And now a word on the current situation in Israel. I am by no means a supporter of the current government and there are many things that it does that I think are wrong, and yet there is a difference between disagreeing and demonising. Israel currently illegally occupies Palestinian territories and I do not think that it should, but I still understand that it is not doing so out of malicious intent. There is a delicate security issue at stake and criticism through understanding and empathy is more effective and truthful than blind demonisation.

As for the claim of Israel being an “apartheid state”, that is an outright lie. All Israeli citizens, be they Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists, Arabs, Bedouin, Druze, etc, are treated with absolute equality under the law with full rights and protection. During my visit to Israel I have spoken with Israeli Arabs and Muslims in East Jerusalem, Arad and Jaffa – none of them had a bad word to say about Israel. Of course for non Israeli citizens under occupation things are not great, but how do you expect them to be treated by a regime that they actively and oftentimes violently oppose? Do you expect them to have free movement in and out of a country that they self-profess to want to destroy?

By all means criticise Israel! Question its actions and question its right to exist, especially as an ethnically Jewish country, but stay away from two things: denying history and invalidating narrative, and blind demonisation – usually based on lies or a refusal to acknowledge complexity and nuance. You may think that it is wrong for Israel to exist on Palestinian land, but do not deny historical Jewish presence in the land and do not block your ears from hearing the Jewish narrative. You may think that the Israeli government is doing wrongs, but do not oversimplify a complex situation and do not buy into any report just because it validates your side of the argument. As ever, with nuance and acknowledgment of dual narratives, our discourse can become much kinder, more compassionate and much more productive.

And thus I conclude this series of Jerusalemite Thoughts. I have shared thoughts on nationalism, on Zionism and on the modern State of Israel – many of which were formulated during, or inspired by, my recent visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. I enjoyed writing this and I hope that you enjoyed reading it!

עשתונות ירושלמיות, ציונות – Jerusalemite Thoughts, Zionism

עשתונות ירושלמיות, ציונות – Jerusalemite Thoughts, Zionism

Amongst my many and multi-faceted identities, Zionism probably ranks highest on the list of misunderstood and/or misconstrued. For many, to be a Zionist is to be racist, colonialist, a Jewish supremacist and many similarly unpleasant things. Off course I am none of these and I go to great lengths to boycott anything that smacks of these ideas, to the point of refusing to recite certain liturgical prayers that have in them traces of traditional Jewish supremacy. Neither were any of the great Zionist idealogues and founders racist or anything of the like, an accusation of which would make them shudder.

Zionism is best understood as a historically contextual phenomenon, which was born as a response to the Jewish situation in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century. As I am not a historian, the retrospective dissection of the complexity of historical stimulus for the development of Zionism is of minor importance to me. Rather, I am interested in the historical aspects that shape my identity today. (I allow myself to do this because I see Zionism as a narrative belonging to the realm of myth, rather than history and the significance of myth is in its meaning, not in its historical accuracy.)

The Jewish Enlightenment of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries left most European Jews secular and yet seen as Jews in the eyes of their non Jewish neighbours. The question that these Jews asked themselves was what it means to be a Jew without the Jewish religion. Zionism was to provide an answer to this question. Judaism was no longer to be seen as a religion, but as a national identity, one going back to its sovereign days in its national homeland Judah (in the geographical location of modern day Israel/Palestine).

(Of course for the political Zionist, Zionism was much more about solving the “Jewish Question” and about providing Jews with a safe haven from anti-semitism, rather than coming to solve a Jewish identity crisis. Likewise, for the religious Zionist Zionism was all about bringing about the fulfillment of God’s promise of the Holy Land to His Chosen People and about heralding in the Messianic age. The Zionism that I am describing here though is the Cultural Zionism of Achad HaAm, a secular ex-Chassid like myself, which – probably due to our shared backgrounds – speaks to me the most.)

Zionism is thus Jewish Nationalism, but not nationalism to be compared to, say, American Nationalism, or German Nationalism, for unlike those nationalisms which are by nationals already living in their national country amongst their national people, the Jewish nationalism of the nineteenth century was for a people that needed to be reminded of their peoplehood and that needed that nationalism if they were ever to achieve land-based nationality, i.e. statehood.

The culmination of the zionist quest came on the fourteenth of May 1948 with Israel’s declaration of independence as a country for the Jewish people. More on this in my next and final post of the series: Jerusalemite Thoughts – Israel.

(Image is of Achad HaAm, father of Cultural Zionism)

Jerusalemite Thoughts, Nationalism – עשתונות ירושלמיות, לאומיות

Jerusalemite Thoughts, Nationalism – עשתונות ירושלמיות, לאומיות

When I come to describe my Jerusalemite thoughts, the most basic emotion experienced and all prevalent in Israel was nationalism. I used the term emotion for a reason and this is what this post will be focussing on.

I will be talking about Zionism – i.e. Jewish nationalism – specifically in my next post, but here I want to talk about nationalism in general – all nationalisms.

Nationalism has become somewhat of a dirty word in liberal circles and for good reason. So much evil has been done in its name in the last century and its particularistic message seems to be in direct contrast to the humanistic-universalistic approach.

But even universalists group themselves in particularistic groups of fellow universalists! How do you think a humanist feels towards her fellow humanist in contrast to how she feels towards a non-humanist? The humanistic-universalist also has an in-group and an out-group – an in-group based on the idea of abolishing in-groupness!

Does that make out universalists to be hypocrites? No, for here is the important distinction: universalism is an intellectual idea, whereas emotionally people will always group themselves with likeminded people with whom they share a common goal or vision.

As an intellectual humanistic-universalist myself, who believes that the feelings of all sentient beings are equally valid, I would still consider myself an emotional nationalist. The transcendent feeling of nationalism that I felt in Israel and how I fell in love with it made me realise that belonging to an in-group is simply an emotional necessity for me. It is the same feeling that I felt when attending the Humanist conference this spring and it is the same feeling that I feel everytime I attend a synagogue service.

I am a feeble little man in a massive world and feeling a part of something much bigger feels like receiving a massive, reassuring hug from the universe. That must be the power of identity: belonging. Us liberals are very good at validating and respecting identity, but it must not stop at nationalism – nationalism, not as an exclusionary, intellectual ideology, but as an emotional identity of belonging.

It is a shame that I had to fly to Israel in order to feel love for a country and a sense of belonging to it. My country is the United Kingdom and I should be able to feel part of it. Our country is so great and we have so much to be proud of it, we just do not stress it enough. How can I express my patriotism towards my country if displaying a union jack on my window would automatically brand me a racist?

We need to reclaim nationalism and patriotism from the haters as a sentiment that goes hand in hand with universalistic compassion and empathy and not as something that is in conflict with it. Perhaps a good start would be to introduce a year of mandatory community service for school leavers, so that young people feel like they have a part in building our great country, which will cause them to care more for it later in life after having invested in it.

Having destigmatised nationalism I will be talking in my next post about a specific nationalism: Jewish Nationalism, also known as Zionism. I will see you then.

Jerusalemite Thoughts, Introduction – עשתונות ירושלמיות, הקדמה

Jerusalemite Thoughts, Introduction – עשתונות ירושלמיות, הקדמה
In the following three-post series I will be expressing some of my thoughts on Israel. Some of these are ideas that I have had before my trip to Israel this month, but which have been consolidated and expanded on during my visit, and others are ideas that have developed in response to what I have seen and learnt on my visit.
The three parts of עשתונות ירושלמיות – Jerusalemite Thoughts will be as follows:
  • Part 1: לאומיות – Nationalism
  • Part 2: ציונות – Zionism
  • Part 3: מדינת ישראל – Israel
The philosophical justification for the modern State of Israel as a Jewish state is the ideology of Zionism, which is Jewish nationalism. Working my way backwards I will first give some thoughts on nationalism, then moving on to Zionism and finally talking about the State of Israel Itself.

Israeli Logs – רשימות ישראליות

Israeli Logs – רשימות ישראליות

Starting from the 20th of August, I spent seventeen days in Israel exploring the land, its culture and its people. For the first 10 days I was with Birthright-Taglit – a Zionist discovery programme, but I stayed on to visit the Palestinian territories and to see friends.

Over the course of my visit I uploaded 13 logs to my Facebook page, chronicling my trip with some analysis. In this blog I have collected all of them and I am publishing them as a complete creation. I have not changed them at all, just added dates and titles. Enjoy!

ISRAEL LOG 1: Monday, 21st August

Pre-Dawn Musings – הרהורי טרום שחר

Tel Aviv 5:45am: The beer that I drank last night at 2:30am turns out to have been a stupid mistake, as I’m now rolling sleepless in my bed, listening to the rythmic breaths of my two sleeping roommates. They were wiser than I and will not be as fucked as I will be today with only 3 hours sleep.

In fairness though, the totally inappropriate mattress that is meant to serve as my bed is probably as much to blame for my insomnia as the cheeky midnight beer: if its physical discomfort is not enough to keep one awake, the threat of falling off its narrow sides with the slightest turn or roll keeps one constantly alert.

The Talmudic sages say, “The Land of Israel is acquired through suffering” (Babylonian Talmud: Brachot 5;1), which makes me wonder if they would have been referring to my slow-charging phone, the uncomfortable mattress in my air-conditioned room, or the stomach upheaval I am about to experience just thinking of the copious amounts of hummus I will be downing over the next few days.

ISRAEL LOG 2: Monday, 21st August

Meeting the Land – פגישת הארץ

Mount Tabor, 22:10
I’m leaning on the swinging bench in our hotel’s courtyard, beer in hand. I know, I told you that yesterday’s night-beer was a mistake, but yesterday was yesterday and today is today, and today I want to have a beer.

Many things happened today and it would be nice to recount them all, but as you may recall, my phone’s charging habits have been questionable, so some selective highlights will have to do instead.

The Mediterranean sun greeted us this morning standing on our room’s balcony. The interplay of sunlight with the misty, Tel-Avivian air was a breathtaking sight to behold and on the balcony next door the swaying of our religious instructor in his morning prayer interfered with our attempts at capturing panoramic photos.

After a breakfast that puts many a restaurant’s to shame, we left to do some volunteer work in an Israeli food bank. It’s not as if I was given a choice, so the involuntary volunteer work began. The rhythmic and monotonous separating of onions – rotten from really rotten, the former of which will be fed to the poor – turned out to be really therapeutic and the physical movements involved made for a really good morning workout.

From there we left for Ceasaria, the place where the really good, but simultaneously really bad, Judean king Herod built impressive structures in honour of his Roman overlords. An intense discussion on the journey resulted in my rethinking of important aspects of Zionist history, to not so favourable conclusions. Jesu… I mean, Hertzl! Was that intense!

In the evening we arrived at our new living courters, just in time as my body was about to run out of its chemical fuel. After dinner, seconds and thirds we had some Jewish songs contests, which I won for my team by performing a rendition of an old Chassidic song in Yiddish which encourages the listener to keep on drinking vodka, lest they die and forfeit the ability to do so.

Thus ends the story of how I came to be anti-socially blogging on my phone at this very moment, whilst my newly-made friends seem to be carrying on with their social life. I better return to them before they find out that they don’t need me. Yalla, bye!

ISRAEL LOG 3: Tuesday, 22nd August

Social Anxieties – חרדות חברתיות

Mount Tabor 22:50:
With my phone thematically dying, I had to give up my blogging spot on the hotel’s outdoor swinging bench. Instead I am cooped up in a corner indoors, attached to the wall through my dodgy charging cable who refuses to be milked of charge unless violently prodded and pulled into submission.

Today social anxiety finally kicked in. Through my experiences the point at which that happens to me is the point after which the initial introductions have been made, names and occupations exchanged and now real relationships will need to form. Unlike many others, I find initial encounters quite straightforward and easy. What I struggle is taking the next step in the befriending process.

As ever, I spend too much time thinking about myself, so I have had the chance to come up with a couple of theories as to the reasons for this phenomenon. The hypothesis that the evidence seems to be supporting at the moment is that it is the fear of rejection and judgment that is at the heart of my inhibitions. During first encounters people are unlikely to be rejecting, as they make an effort at first impressions, and it doesn’t take more than a simple defence system for me to hide behind in order to be comfortable that I come across well enough to someone who doesn’t know me. From then on however, people start letting down their initial politeness, rejection becoming an ever looming threat, and, likewise, my defences get gradually eroded as people get to know me better and the obsession with how I am being judged starts taking roots.

Of course, as a straight, single male in a pool of available girls, sexual tensions and anxieties run high too, but I feel less comfortable discussing it or expressing it due to societal and psychological reasons that are forever beyond my reach.

In a corner of an adjoining room, strategically situated in a location with maximal Wi-Fi exposure, two co-travellers are watching the latest season of Game of Thrones on the Chromebook that I have lent them. The mix of High Vallerian and Dothraki emanating from my device’s loud-speakers are – quite ungratefully – distracting me in my writing attempt, but I am yet to tell you how and where we spent the day.

Brutally and prematurally awakened from a crucially replenishing, and – according to my roommate – a snoring-filled, night’s sleep, we headed to the Golan Hights, where – the background sound of shell and mortar explosions notwithstanding – we enjoyed a spectacular mountain hike, during which I could almost watch my tan darkening. My wrist-watch, besides for faithfully keeping me up to date with the time, also serves as a living testimony for this, as when removed it exposes some pale, Ashkenazi skin.

At lunchtime we got to taste wine and make cheese. Both were awful, but at least for the wine we could blame others.

In the afternoon our hot and sweaty bodies had their first taste of water. Rafting in the Jordan was fun, although my belly almost burst open when I tried jumping in from a tree swing, just to hit the water flat on. You don’t need to know much physics to understand that that was painful and embarrassing.

Back in our hotel, after a talk on the regional geo-politics that I found to be unexpectedly impartial, I am about to sign off for the night to get some sleep, or, should I get a beer? A beer it is! See you again tomorrow.

ISRAEL LOG 4: Wednesday, 23rd August

Holy Shit – חרא קדוש

Tell Aviv 12:05am:
Like animals released from their encagement, we descended on the streets of Tell Aviv to make the most of the two hours of freedom that we have been given. These were and will be our only hours of (semi) free leisure throughout the trip and we weren’t going to miss a second of it. Too bad that I bumped into my housemate (Francesca) and into my North London friend (Fabianne); a quick selfie just had to do and onwards we ran to the nearest club that we never found.

Of course this was only the culmination of a long day; its start was rather different. The hilly town of Tzefat greeted us in the morning with its white and dusty streets. The theme of the day was Jewish mysticism – Kaballah – and Tzefat was going to tell us its story.

Bullshit, unlike the common misconception, is not a category of homogenous entities of crap. There is bullshit and there is bullshit, and Kaballah is amongst the latter. The Chabbad rabbi who lectured us on it didn’t see it that way though and I did eventually apologise to him for ridiculing his superstition. Some people are superstitious and some people are rude.

From Tzefat to Tell Aviv was a long drive, which we spent in mounting anticipation for the encounter with the hub of Israeli civilisation and culture. If my phone would have worked I would have taken spectacular images of the landscape as we were arriving, but unfortunately it had run out of power before it could utilise its full potential: only the good die young.

In a restaurant on Alanby, Tel Aviv, which we settled on after chasing our imaginary club, I got to meet up with fellow Brit Nathan Sharp who bought me a beer, thus completing my day on an appropriate note and diet.

I may have not learnt much in terms of mysticism from the rabbi in Tzefat and my legs are still itching over a missed dancing opportunity, but the rabbi’s calmness and friendliness in responding to my harsh criticism impressed me just as much as the patience of the Tel-Avivian bar-tender. They have both shown exemplary levels of patience in the face of unexpected challenges. I am grateful to them both.

ISRAEL LOG 5: Saturday, 26th August

From Religion to Independence – מדת לעצמאות

Jerusalem 20:00:
It’s been a while since I checked in with my log, which means that some of you must have been driven to depression. As I don’t want blood on my hands, here I am back to give meaning to your life.

With boundaries breached and barriers broken, my social situation has improved beyond compare. Of course this means that I have less time to write, being busy jumping on beds and in beds, but it also means that my anxieties have ceased: bad for you; good for me.

As for my sickly phone, well, I had less time to be on it – of course other than during our multi-houred karaoke session last night when it sadly passed away whilst I was looking up the lyrics for Elsa’s Let It Go. At that point beer no longer did it for me, but – no worries – some of his stronger relatives were there to the rescue.

It was back on Thursday morning in Tell Aviv and we went to see Independence Hall. The setting of the place where Israel declared independence on the 5th of Iyar 1948 has been preserved and the experience of singing there Hatikva was immensely powerful.

Something about the Jewish story of the last two-three centuries is immensely inspiring to me as a formerly religious, secular Jew. I see my journey from religious fanaticism to secular enlightenment as a micro-history of the modern Ashkenazi Jew.

The transformation of Judaism in the Jewish enlightenment from a superstitious, Yahweh-worshipping religion, to a secular humanistic peoplehood culminates in the establishment of the secular Jewish state of Israel. Judaism hasn’t died out, but it has heen reformed, transformed and restored. I think that amongst the host of my fictitiously constructed identities, this myth would rank pretty high.

Gotta run now. More rambling later.

ISRAEL LOG 6: Sunday, 27th August

Dance of Joy – ריקוד של שמחה

Jerusalem 8:30am:
I’ve always loved dancing and the opportunity for free self expression that comes with it. Of course the Chassidic dance is very different to modern party dancing and they each have their advantages. In the circle dance there isn’t so much room for expression of individuality and creativity, but there is the kind of inclusion and embrace of everyone involved that is lacking in the clubs where one has got to work in order to be seen.

Last night, in a club in Ben Yehuda, feet really lifted. The friendship-acceleration process endemic to a trip like Birthright, ensured that dancing with people whom I hadn’t known a week ago felt like a neo-chassidic dance.

Going back to Thursday, we left the Independence Hall and arrived at the Taglit Innovation Centre. It was interesting learning about Israel’s technological and scientific achievements and the word ‘boastful’ took on a new meaning. As the Israeli entrepreneur lectured us about his achievements in the ‘start up nation’ I dosed off, the fact that I was sitting in the front row notwithstanding.

On Tel Aviv beach a little bit later in the day I undressed to discover that all my anxieties about my beach-imperfect body were unfounded, not because I have magically developed abs overnight, but because my idea of a perfect body came from a tiny, over-represented minority in society and it evaporated as soon as some regular skin was seen.

Now we’re on the way to Yad VaShem holocaust museum and to Mount Hertzl and as a matter of respect and reverence there’ll be no beer consumption today. But I swear that if my phone plays up I’ll bury it alongside its fellow Jewish fallen.

ISRAEL LOG 7: Monday, 28th August

Holocaust and Heroism – לשואה ולגבורה

Arad 4:50am:
Hey world, this is actually me, up and awake – who would have thought that I would ever be capable of breaking up with my bed so early on in our night’s relationship. We’re off to Masada and perhaps our tour guides are trying to get us into the suicidal mood that its occupiers were in. They’re not far from succeeding with me.

Yesterday was spent in Jerusalem on Mount Hertzl. We somberly walked through the Yad VaShem holocaust memorial and museum with our oldish guide who was inappropriately funny for the occasion. We then spent some time with the remains of the leaders and fighters of the modern Jewish people, Hertzl, Zabotinski, Channah Senesh and Rabin amongst them.

I had learnt about the holocaust a lot before, so the experience of reliving the tragedy wasn’t as traumatic for me as it was for others in our group, but at Hertzl’s gravesite and memorial my emotions were overflowing. I also connected a lot with the Jewish and human heroism shown by resistance fighters like Mordechai Anilevitch and his fellow Warsaw Ghetto brethren. This was a part of holocaust education that they didn’t teach me in my religious education, as it doesn’t fit the narrative of Jews as submissive sheep surrounded by aggressive wolves.

Of course my type of Jew now is the sheep-turned-lion, who stands up to the bullies and fights back for her dignity, even if to the death and that is one of the things that I find so inspiring about the Zionist narrative, whether real or fictitious.

Hertzl was my kind of Jew: proudly Jewish and yet passionately universalistic, faithful and committed but enlightened and secular. He didn’t see Jewish nationalism as conflicting with his liberal humanistic values and neither do I. He saw Jews not as better or special, but as unique in their own way – so do I.

It’s nice floating around in the realm of idealistic mythological identity – especially from my moderately comfortable coach seat, but I’ll soon be brutally brought back to reality with the burning salt of the dead sea on my numerous cuts and bruises. Not looking forward.

ISRAEL LOG 8: Tuesday, 29th August

Identity Narratives – סיפורי זהות

Negev, 15:00:
We’re on the way back to Jaffa for our final night on the trip, my hands constantly travelling to my back to scratch off the peeling skin from my sunburn on Tel Aviv beach. Earlier we have left S’deh Boker where Israel’s founder and first prime minister, David Ben-Guryon lived towards the end of his life and where he is buried.

Identity narratives that we tell ourselves are fictitious reconstructions of historical events, where objective reality is used to forge subjective meaning. Reality is far too complicated to be given to precise characterisation and stories are too short and simplistic as to accurately reflect complex, non-linear events. And yet, we need these identity narratives and on a broad and holistic level they sometimes do give us a rough idea of overall historical trends and journeys.

An example of such an identity narrative for me is Zionism. By a retrospective and selective reading of historical events, a really moving narrative of human courage, resistance and hope unfolds. The narrative is based on historical events, but is largely an idealistic reconstruction. I don’t need, or want, the injustices and wrongs done in the name of the Zionist idea as part of my narrative. I don’t need complexity and accuracy as part of my narrative. All that I need is a simplified and purified version of events to aid my identity, as identity narratives belong in the realm of myth, not history.

It is in that sense that Ben-Guryon stands out as the lion fighting for his people. As an atheist in love with the Hebrew bible, he surely understood the power of mythological narrative. He didn’t need the Tanach to be perfect in order to love it and I don’t need Ben-Guryon to be perfect in order to love him. And besides, he might not be perfect in history class, but he’s perfect in my fictitious mythology.

One thing to be careful though when dealing with mythology is that they are recognised and identified as such. As fictions they can’t be used to support any claims about reality. They are there for the sole use of providing us with meaning, identity and a sense of belonging, but cannot guide us in matters of right and wrong, true and false. Many don’t follow this principle, abusing the purpose of mythology. Mythology is a dangerous weapon in the hands of literalists.

ISRAEL LOG 9: Wednesday, 30th August

Jerusalem the Beautiful! – ירושלים, היפה!

Jerusalem 21:15:
It’s been a long and exhausting day and I am resting my tired feet on the bus towards my accommodation in my mate Amir’s flat in Hebrew University’s halls.

The Israel Museum, located right next to the Knesset and Supreme Court, closes at nine, making my wish to stay there overnight to nourish my soul with its historical, cultural and artistic specularity impossible. My four hours there were enough to send me into a euphoric trance though.

Jerusalem has awe-struck me with its beauty. If God were to exist this would no doubt be the place on earth He would choose as His dwelling and if the term “holy” has any meaning, its meaning will have to be Jerusalem.

It’s been an emotional day for me on another level as well. Earlier this day I had to say goodbye to a few tens of people whom I have met only ten days ago but who have nevertheless made me feel as if I can’t live without them. I’m consoled by the hope that I have made some long-lasting and meaningful connections and that I’ll get to see some of them again shortly.

I am attaching some photos of our trip yesterday to the Ein Avdat Canyon, where hundreds of millions of years in the geological record unfolded in front of our eyes, as well as some beautiful scenic pictures of the old city of Jaffa, where we experienced beautiful and hope-infusing coexistence and baseless love between the Arab and Jewish populations of the city (photos not attached in blog edition – see Facebook).

(ISRAEL) [PALESTINE] LOG 10: Friday, 1st September

Blurring the Boundaries – טשטוש הגבולות

Jerusalem 9:15am:
I want to start writing about yesterday, but there are so many thoughts and feelings that I don’t know where to start. What a transformative day it was! What a contradictory day! What a confusing day!

I started off the day by ascending the Temple Mount, or – as the Muslim serviceman corrected me, denying any historical Jewish presence in the area – Haram esh-Sharif. The only other time in my life when I felt that my identity as an atheist would be safer than as Jewish was at the Humanist convention earlier this summer.

I then made my way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where a priest ordered me to remove my hat before entry. At the Western Wall I was asked the opposite – to cover my head – but there I did not conform, as I don’t think of the Wall as a religious site, but as a national one. It was also in protest for the Orthodox monopoly on what should be a monument for the whole nation. Here at the church, however, I removed my hat and enjoyed the beautiful architecture and art that God absently inspired in partnership with His Son.

After being told by virtually every Israeli who we discussed it with that we will not return alive from Ramallah, my friend Flo and I nevertheless decided to go. One Israeli who mistook us for romantic partners told us that if we want to get married to each other we should value our lives and not go. When we corrected him that we are friends he said, “if you ever want to get married to ANYONE, don’t go!”

The local residents were exceptionally friendly – granted that we did not reveal our Jewish identity. We got invited in for tea and got taken around. With one exception of a young resident who refused to call murderous attacks against Israeli civilians terrorism, all other people we were talking to seemed to be balanced and non-violent peace seekers.

At the Yassir Arafat Museum we got to learn of the other side of the conflict. The narrative was obviously one sided, but not more so than the Zionist museums in Israel.

Back in Jerusalem, after a theological debate with an orthodox friend over some beers, my day was coming to a close. It is going to take me a long time to process what I have taken in on this day; for now I am not jumping to any conclusions, just learning, listening and taking in.

ISRAEL LOG 11: Saturday, 2nd September

Freedom from Religion – חופש מדת

Jerusalem 9:10am:
It’s shabbat in Israel, which means that there is no public transport. I’ll either have to walk places, or I’m stuck at home. It upsets me that religion is enforced here in this way; is Israel a theocracy or a democracy? But rather than wallowing in morbid thoughts, I want to catch up on a day in our trip that I haven’t covered yet.

Last Friday we started off by exploring the area around the ancient Jewish temple, where the Temple Mount and Western Wall are located. We saw the remains of Jewish life and ritual, evidence of a period of Jewish sovereignty in the land. Whether or not that justifies modern Jewish control there is a good question, but denying history – like so many anti-Zionists do – is simply wrong and unhelpful. Obviously, the same goes to denying historical Islamic and Palestinian presence in the area.

As we entered the Western Wall Plaza, the girls were asked to cover their shoulders and knees. Apparently God can’t handle a pair of sexy knees. As I always thought of my own knees as sexy in their own way, I decided to cover them and put on a skirt as well. The Modesty Patrol didn’t seem to like the idea though.

We then went to Mach’neh Yehuda market, where we bought our Shabbat needs and ate an overpriced lunch.

Later in the evening we returned to the Western Wall to welcome the Sabbath. We sang and danced euphorically and I got myself into trouble for using my device to capture the moment. Many of the worshippers – it seemed – had strong opinions about using electronics on shabbat. I generally believe in respecting others’ sensitivities, but I think that I get some lee-way when it comes to the ideology that physically and mentally abused me. I’d much sooner be respectful towards Mormonism and scientology than towards Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, not because the latter is crazier than the former, but because the latter abused me where the former have not.

After Friday night dinner back in our hotel, we drank and partied like crazy, but I have already written about it in a previous log (5).

ISRAEL LOG 12: Sunday, 3rd September

Sea, Mountains and Desert – ים, הרים ומדבר


Netanya 17:20:
I’m on the “public taxi” service on the way to Tel Aviv to meet up with my mate Eylon. Later in the evening we will be partying in Tel Aviv in what My Israeli buddies predict to be “lit”. My ass – or as they call it here, yashvan – is one big rash from today’s adventures, which I want to tell you all about, but first I must repay a debt that I owe from last week Monday.

We got woken up at 3 and rushed to the dining hall where there was cake and coffee for us that we were all too tired to eat anyway. After reaching the bottom of Masada with the bus, we climbed the mountain in the dim light of pre dawn. The world truly looked like a purer place at that moment.

With trepidation we awaited the magnificent Mediterranean sunrise, the beauty of which exceeded all our expectations. We then toured the site of the last Jewish resistance against the mighty Roman army in the early years of the common era, discussing what moral value to ascribe to their desperate choices.

Still in the early hours of the morning we arrived at the dead sea where we got to float in what felt like a boiling, salty soup – my many rashes and wounds causing me to shout out in agony as the salt sucked on my blood.

In the afternoon we stopped in the Negev for what was going to be our “Bedouin Tent Experience”. After a cultural exchange with our Bedouin host, we all jumped onto the back of his camels who grudgingly – it seemed – took us on a ride around the encampment.

As night fell we went out to the hill for some meditative star-gazing, which was a powerful experience for many. Before laying our exhausted bodies on the tent floor for some sleep, we sang and told embarrassing stories about ourselves around the campfire, all the while chewing on half-roasted-half-burnt marshmallows.

By now I have arrived in Tel Aviv, so I’m going to sign off. See you in my next, and perhaps final, Israel Log.

ISRAEL LOG 13: Wednesday, 6th September

Difficult Farewell – פרידה קשה

London 18:40:
Big Busy London grimly welcomed me last night as I stepped out of Heathrow Airport. My 17 day adventure sadly came to an end, but I can’t say that I’ll miss living out of a stinky, mold-scented suitcase.

My last few days in israel were a blast and this is what this 13th and final log is about.

On Friday evening I attended a beautiful egalitarian kabbalat shabbat at Kehilat Zion with my newfound friend and radical Yael. Afterwords we had a heavy-discussion-filled dinner at her hilarious mom’s Nicky.

On Saturday afternoon I wondered around the Ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood in Jerusalem, where – in keeping with ancient biblical law – I literally got stoned for using my phone to take some pictures. (Yea, you didn’t know this, but they had phones in biblical times.) I then joined a counter protest for religious freedom and secular democracy.

On Sunday at the crack of dawn my mate Amir and I headed out on a bikes from Netanya with the intention of cycling down the 25km trek to Tel Aviv. By he time we arrived in Hertzelliah it was past 9 and it was too hot to continue, so instead we stopped there and cooled off in the local beach.

Monday morning I woke up just to discover that my wallet with all my money and cards has gone missing. I was totally fucked, but the experience has taught me never to underestimate the tranquilising power of a good wank. After cancelling my cards and borrowing some money from a friend, I went to the Yitzchak Rabin Centre in Tel Aviv where I shed some tears on the peace that was murdered by religious fanaticism. At Yad VaShem I didn’t cry, on Mount Hertzl I didn’t cry, but here I cried for Rabin and for his heroic idealism.

Yesterday morning, hours before my flight, I visited the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv. It’s an informative and content-rich museum, but also very run-down and neglected – the symbolism was unavoidable.

And thus my great Israeli adventure comes to an end. Now I am headed home from the Yachad Students Conference, where we discussed pro-Israel-pro-peace issues; what a way of returning to the diaspora!

Stay tuned for my next post in which I will be sharing some final thoughts and impressions about the issues that spoke to me during the trip. See you then!