Datlashim: can there be a second generation?

by Brian on August 4, 2019

in A Parent in Israel,Jewish Holidays and Culture,Only in Israel

Last year, I wrote a column that asked the question: “how do datlashim – the Hebrew acronym for formerly religious Jews – want to raise their children?” The main response I received during the course of my research: “to be just like them”– that is, to also be datlashim.

This poses a dilemma, as to be formerly religious is, by definition, a one-generation, non-transferable identity. 

Or is it? 

It turns out I’ve been looking at the categories of religious and non-religious all wrong. 

Demographers have typically tried to classify Israeli Jews into four main groups: secular, traditional, religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox. 

That’s out of date, says Shmuel Rosner, the author of the new book Israeli Judaism: A Cultural Revolution.

“Those groups still exist, and they have some importance,” Rosner says, “But it’s more illuminating to look at Israeli society not by dividing it according to religious affiliation, but by a mix of tradition and nationalism.”

The state of Israel, Rosner explains, represents “an unprecedented reality for the Jewish people. Never before was there a civil, secular Jewish state. One would expect that special circumstances such as these would result in a different type of Jewishness.”

In Rosner’s book, which he co-authored with veteran Israeli statistician and pollster Prof. Camil Fuchs, there are still four groups. They’re just very different.

“Israelis” (15% of the Jewish population) are the first group, Rosner writes. They’re nationalists (in the broad sense of the term) who are secular and don’t adhere to much Jewish tradition. 

“Jews” (17%) consist of the ultra-Orthodox who place great emphasis on tradition but are less enthusiastic about national Israeli customs and culture.

“Universalists” (13%) are the farthest left-leaning Israelis. They’re often alienated from both Jewish tradition and other Israelis.

The largest group (a full 55% of the Jewish population) Rosner dubs “Jewsraelis” – those who walk the tightrope balancing tradition and nationality

The Jewsraeli group is not monolithic and includes within it a spectrum of practices and values. On its right flank are the religious Zionists; on the left are secular Israelis who are still engaged in Jewish tradition.

Jewish tradition is hard to avoid in Israel, Rosner points out, which is one reason the Jewsraeli group is so large. Tradition is baked into the symbols and calendar of the state. Yom Kippur is a national day off but clearly comes from Jewish culture. Jewsraelis are connected to Jewish tradition but don’t necessarily feel obligated or limited by religion.

Are you secular but attend a Passover Seder? You’re a Jewsraeli. 

Do you scrupulously observe the commandments but also believe it’s important to serve in the IDF and raise the Israeli flag on Independence Day? You’re a Jewsraeli. 

Do you have a Friday night dinner with family or friends, then retire to the living room to watch a movie? You’re a Jewsraeli. 

Get dressed up for Purim and then go out drinking at raucous party in a Tel Aviv bar? Jewsraeli.

Seen in this light, “datlashim are squarely in the Jewsraeli camp,” Rosner says. “Most datlashim, when they leave religion, become secular yet somewhat traditional.”

Once you define Jewsraelis as the country’s dominant category, it becomes clear that, rather than becoming more and more polarized, Israeli society is actually converging around a consensus, one that blends nationalism and tradition. 

So why does everything feel so fraught these days? “During an election campaign, politicians have to flag the differences to attract voters,” Rosner says. “But if you sat [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennet together in a quiet room, you’d find that they agree on almost everything.” After all, they’re Jewsraelis, each in their own ways.

Rosner hit on the idea for his re-categorization while walking his dog in Tel Aviv. 

“I noticed that on Fridays, people bring their dogs [to the park] a bit earlier,” Rosner told The Jerusalem Post. “Everyone in the area is secular. I started asking people why and they explained that they have to walk the dogs and then have Shabbat dinner.”

Eighty percent of the Jewish population in Israel has a Friday night dinner, Rosner notes. “Even if they don’t recite the kiddush, it is still a Jewish thing to do.” In Israel, Jewish customs are a part of life. “It’s something we do without having to think about it.”

Rosner’s research has a personal component. He was raised Orthodox; his wife grew up secular. Defining themselves as Jewsraelis helps make sense of their “mixed marriage.” 

That’s my life, too. Since I began moving away from observance a decade ago, I’ve struggled with where I fit in. I’m no longer religious but I still eagerly attend lectures on Jewish topics. Our home remains kosher, Shabbat and holidays are observed, and I’m in a mixed marriage of my own.

What Rosner helped me understand is that I didn’t leave one category (religious) for another (secular). I simply shifted within the spectrum of the Jewsraeli camp. 

Moreover, the big tent of Jewsraelis is growing. Studies show that up to 50 percent of young Israelis raised in religious Zionist homes eventually become datlashim. In a Jewsraeli context, that’s not something religious parents should fear but rather embrace. 

“National religious families have many children,” Rosner says. “In a sense, they’re like a factory for providing more Jewsraelis to Israeli society.”

Returning to the paradox of what datlashim want for their children, there’s now an answer that makes sense. Their children will indeed be “just like them” – Jewsraelis. And that’s an eminently transferable identity.

I originally wrote about datlashim and Jewsraelis in The Jerusalem Post.

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