There is nothing like the day of rest: family gathered casually in the kitchen, the spread of lox, cream cheese and bagels, the prospect of a long afternoon – perhaps a football game, maybe a movie – and then, in the evening, more food, this time Chinese ordered-in, with visiting aunts, uncles and cousins. But, as a religious Jew, all of this changed when I moved to Israel.
Though from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday is the Biblically- ordained Sabbath, for me, Sunday in America provides memories of a different kind of rest. No matter how modern Israel becomes, the culture-shock for an American expatriate, even after twenty-years, is constant. Never is this more acutely felt than in the late Saturday night scramble to clean dishes and scrub floors, followed by the always too-abrupt arrival of Sunday morning, the rush to get the kids to school, and then stumbling off to work. Keeping the Sabbath in Israel – where Jewish law prohibits the driving that makes American Sundays so flexible – is strangely, exhausting. True, Friday is a half-day of work and school, but for those who observe the Sabbath, the cooking and preparation – especially on short winter afternoons or even on the longer days of the summer months – seems to always go on until the very last minute before the sun goes down.
But if Silvan Shalom, the deputy prime minister of Israel has his way, all this will soon change. For years, Shalom has been campaigning privately for an Israeli version of the American weekend, and now with a grassroots Facebook campaign, his efforts seem to be gaining ground. Shalom, a former finance minister views the plan as a way of synchronizing Israeli businesses with the markets of the world, and, an added bonus, a way to make the nation more ”normal.” Though in a country where bombs blow up across from bus-stations through which one’s children daily pass and reports of missiles landing are routine – it may take more than just an American-style weekend for the nation to chill.
But the long weekend may be good for the country, and not just in coordinating Tel Aviv’s Tel-Tech with the NASDAQ and allowing for leisurely Sunday outings to cousins in distant suburbs. At once the Middle East’s embodiment of a liberal democracy, Israel – a modern political oxymoron – is a Jewish state. Church-state issues, vexed in the U.S., are even more so in Israel, with no Constitution or Bill of Rights to protect the individual, and no guarantor of a neutral and free public sphere. Without such guidelines, there are competing versions of what the Jewish public sphere should be: some knitted-kippa-clad religious Zionists with their vision of ‘Greater Israel’ see the state, even after the traumatic disengagement from Gaza, as the beginning of messianic redemption. The black-hatted ultra-orthodox, though skeptical about these messianic claims, advocate a public sphere more and more defined by Jewish law; while the secular advocate a public realm based upon toleration and universalism, though, without a native liberal tradition, sometimes failing to live up to their own principles of inclusion. With competing and incompatible ideological agendas, there is no space or time for conversation.
An American-style Sunday, without violating the holiness of Jewish time and the Sabbath, might provide an opportunity for national reflection on what an inclusive and Israeli public space may look like in the twenty-first century. To be sure, there will be labor unionists on the left and religious fanatics on the right who will object to any change, and others who will protest that Israel will import the worst of American commerce, not conversation. But an American Sunday may allow for a collective catching of breath, and maybe even unexpected encounters to break down the ideological barriers that so dominate talk about the place of religion in Israel today. Israelis may find they agree on more than they think: a Zionism without messianic pretentions, an inclusive and tolerant public realm, and a non-coercive framework of Jewish time that structures the days of the weeks and the seasons of the year.
For these reasons, as well as the economic ones which Shalom advocates, it just may be that the time for the long weekend in Israel has finally arrived.