Anyone in the Old Country who still believes that Israel is a creamy "blending of the exiles" should get on the next plane to Ben-Gurion airport, hop a cab to Ma'asiyahu prison in the nearby town of Ramle, and geb a kuk, as my grandmother used to say, at what's going on.
Ma'asiyahu is on everyone's map these days thanks to its new celebrity tenant, former interior minister and Shas party boss Rabbi Aryeh Deri, who in early September began serving a three-year sentence after the Supreme Court upheld his conviction on corruption charges. Deri's supporters are convinced he was framed, and in a display of solidarity a group of them immediately pitched tents adjacent to the prison compound and proudly named their encampment the Sha'agat Aryeh yeshivah, meaning "lion's roar."
The roar is what hits you when first you arrive. Thumping Middle Eastern songs with religious Hebrew lyrics pouring from big speakers. Piercing, passionate riffs of ultra-Orthodox revivalists extolling the virtues of Deri and exhorting the Jewish people to return to old-time religion. And then there's the crowd, at least 1,500 people on the relatively slow night a friend and I paid a visit - men and women (the women reverently watching the main stage on a huge video screen), Ashkenazi and Sephardi (overwhelmingly the latter), virtually all of them Orthodox, Charedi or on the verge of rekindled religiosity, chatting and praying and cheering so loud I could barely hear my cell phone. Elmer Gantry and Jimmy Swaggart would be right at home here, if they spoke Hebrew.
The media lost no time in dubbing the revival campground a "Charedi Woodstock," which is a fair enough label. Certainly the Deri phenomenon constitutes a spontaneous Israeli counter-culture of pilgrimage and protest, and there was enough mud and litter to do any rock festival proud. (The organizers plan to bring in mobile homes during the rainy season.) Although the Sephardic Shas movement originated under the wing of the sternly anti-Chassidic Lithuanian branch of ultra-Orthodoxy, the religious orientation of Sha'agat Aryeh is an equally improbable hybrid of Oriental-style Orthodoxy and Bratzlav Chassidism, a mystical brand of Judaism especially popular with ba'alei teshuvah (returning Jews).
Makeshift stalls offered all manner of goods for sale, from volumes of Talmud and Midrash to amulets to computer toys, plastic plug-in teakettles, cheap costume jewelry, colorful pictures of kabbalists and other holy men, and a great smorgasbord of Bratzlaver bric-a-brac including candles, incense, charm and oversized white knitted skullcaps embroidered with a popular mantra based on the name of Rabbi Nahman, who died in 1810 and is buried in the Ukrainian town of Uman. As the preachers on the stage wrapped new penitents in prayer shawls, young Charedim went around seeking donations for a High Holy Day pilgrimage to Rabbi Nahman's grave, while other entrepreneurs hawked raffle tickets payable monthly by automatic bank withdrawal: Support a yeshivah, win a car.
I am no stranger to Talmud and Midrash, and am a longtime admirer of "Likutei Moharan," the collection of Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav's homilies which, Rabbi Yehuda Deri informed the assembled, is among the holy books that his brother Aryeh studies for 12 hours a day behind bars. Nonetheless, I felt rather out of my customary element that night at Ma'asiyahu, especially after enduring earfuls of anti-Ashkenazi sentiment from various folks with whom I struck up conversation, or they with me: Why is former President Ezer Weizman, who received questionable gifts of money from a wealthy French Jew, sitting in his villa in Caesarea, huh, while Deri, a pure and holy man, sits in jail? Why was industrialist Eli Hurvitz exonerated of tax-evasion charges?
"The Ashkenazim take," one woman said to me, "and it's all whitewashed."
Over and over I heard the same complaints, the same resentments, the same pain, the same words: culture war, Sephardi revolution, ethnic prejudice, religious discrimination.
"Tell your readers that Torah Jews shouldn't move to Israel, they'll be persecuted," insisted a young Swiss Charedi, a black-coated Ashkenazi.
A stocky Sephardi in a tight T-shirt begged to differ: "What business do the secular have living here? They should leave!" Chimed his friend: "The Ashkenazim are finished!"
At one point, surrounded by a growing circle of angry fellow Jews, each with a long-festering gripe of his own - Ben-Gurion's conduct during the Holocaust, the Lavon spy scandal of the 1950s, the Labor Zionists' condescending treatment of Yemenite immigrants - I felt a sudden need to change the subject and shouted out a leading question: Do you think Deri could be prime minister some day?"Absolutely!" rang a chorus of voices, with one man adding: "Exactly like Mandela!"
The political prisoner that came first to my mind, however, was from a different era: Shabtai Zevi, the charismatic false messiah jailed by the Turkish Sultan in 1666. "The Jews flocked in great numbers to the castle where he was imprisoned," wrote a 17th-century English diplomat named Sir Paul Rycaut, "on all whom, as a reward of the labors and expense of their pilgrimage, Shabbethai bestowed plenty of his benedictions, promising increase to their store and enlargement of possessions in the Holy Land."
Now there's something to chew on. You don't have to be an orthodox Marxian determinist to recognize that the newborn Deri cult has much to do with economics. Rapid privatization has sharply increased the gulf between haves and have-nots in recent years, and religious revival is one way for the underprivileged to feel empowered.
"Deri brings forgiveness for sin," one woman said. "On his account 400 people return to Judaism every day. Then Barak falls, it's the end of Zionism, and the Mashiach comes."
What does all this signify? Some observers think Deri will be pardoned by President Katsav; most don't. Some believe that in either case, Shas will leap to greater heights in the next election - which may well be coming soon - while others argue that internecine rivalries within the party will undermine its power.
Much more important than political speculation, however, is the necessity for us modern, worldly types to look beyond the alienating trappings of the Deri jamboree, and even set aside, for a moment, our fundamental distaste for people - be they cynical or benighted - who turn a convicted felon into a suffering saint. We need, at long last, to fathom the dimensions of the resentment harbored by what some pundits call "the other Israel," and to do what we can to heal what hurts. If we are deaf to the lion's roar, it will surely continue to be harnessed by demagogues.
Stuart Schoffman is an Associate Editor of the Jerusalem Report and a columnist for the JUF News of Chicago. His e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org