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Jewish Journal

A letter to my secular friend in Tel Aviv

by Orit Arfa

March 13, 2008 | 6:00 pm

This letter is directed to a friend of mine in Tel Aviv and to all those who can relate to what she said to me.


I know you didn't mean to be insensitive. I know that you seek to be a good person and to improve yourself and the world in your own way.

I'm no angel, either. I admit I wasn't as sad or shaken over the suicide bombing in Dimona last month as I was over the massacre at Yeshivat Mercaz Harav.

But I wonder what has allowed you to say, rather glibly, "I'm not so upset by the attack, because I can't identify with yeshiva community."

Is it acceptable, even fashionable, to say that you can't identify with religious Zionist yeshiva students? How is it possible that good people can forgive the sickest of Arab murderers but can't mourn the deaths of their fellow Jews because they wear knitted kippahs or grow payot?

Or does this reflect the sad reality of the sharp divisiveness of Israeli society, in which we box each other into compartments so that we can't see one another's basic humanity? In which we are so self-absorbed that we can't break our daily routine to care for our countrymen? In which you can't feel for mothers with Jewish head scarves weeping over their sons' freshly dug graves; brothers and sisters who will forever face an empty seat at their Shabbat table; teenagers who will have to go back to school to study a page of Talmud without their hevrutas?

Let me tell you why you should feel for these yeshiva students: Because while you don't identify with them, they identified with you. I'm sure they might have reserved their own, passionate critique of your secular Tel Aviv lifestyle, but they sat in that yeshiva not merely because it gave them joy and a spiritual high, but because they wanted you to be safe.

They deliberately studied in that yeshiva to celebrate the month of Adar, the month in which Jews were saved from a horrible genocide. Because they would have understood that the Arab terrorist and his gang didn't target them because Jews stole their land, but because they proudly, defiantly celebrated the tradition for which Jews have been murdered, lynched and torched for centuries. It's a tradition you reject, but which the enemy doesn't reject in you.

They studied in that yeshiva so that their minds and spirits could be armed with the Jewish pride, wisdom and conviction necessary to spur them to join the best units in the Israeli army and to fight our enemies with valor, so that you can freely enjoy your secular lifestyle, no matter that it's contrary to theirs.

And if, God forbid, you would have met a similar fate, they wouldn't have said, "I'm not so upset because I can't identify with secular Tel Avivians. Let's go study." They would have scrambled to that same study hall in which they were mercilessly shot in cold blood, and they would have recited psalms with full emotion in your memory.

Those 15-, 16- and 18-year-olds bore more wisdom and sensitivity than any of those beer-guzzling men who like to pick us up at the bars we frequent in Tel Aviv. And if those pure, wholesome young men had been given the chance to grow up to be their age, they wouldn't have degraded us by sizing up our bodies, asking for our number, taking us out to get us drunk and fool around, only never to call us again.

Their worst offense might have been persuading us rationally of the beauty of Shabbat, of the wisdom of the laws of family purity, of the wonder of the Land of Israel.

They would have seen past our immodest clothing, not to figure out how to touch our flesh but how to awaken our vibrant Jewish soul, which, by living in this land, has already realized a part of the miraculous Jewish dream you don't recognize or honor.

I know it's not always pleasant to be reminded of an identity and religion that is associated with so much limitation, strife, hatred and tragedy. Maybe you don't like that they tenaciously held onto the Book for which we are being killed. Maybe we should burn the Book, so that our bodies aren't ripped apart by bullets.

Why bother studying ancient ideas when the contemporary wealth of Tel Aviv is at our disposal -- the hot bars on Lilienblum, the stylish fashion boutiques on Dizengoff, that great seafood restaurant on the corner on Ben Gurion? Most of all, why bother caring deeply for people who studied those ideas?

I'll tell you why you should bother: Because the day is not far off when events in this country will spiral into even bloodier destruction, and you will be forced to turn your focus from a night out on the town or from making love with your boyfriend or from making the month's rent to the national, physical and spiritual survival that these Jewish boys have sought to secure for you, for us.

I can't make you believe what I believe, but I hope, at the very least, you can open your heart to people who are different from you, and who, I'm sure, are now praying for you and me in heaven, even as we forget them. For we need their prayers -- and we need them far more than they needed us.

Orit Arfa is a Jewish Journal contributing writer based in Jerusalem. Her Web site is http://oritarfa.net/.

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