I am culturally Jewish – a definition that works for me. It allows me to embrace my Israeli identity and practice Jewish traditions, leaving my spiritual beliefs out of the equation. This did not just happen. It has taken me many years of questioning and actively searching for answers to come up with a mechanism, if one can call it that, I am comfortable with. People’s spiritual practices, similar to their sex life, are really no one else’s business, as long as they act responsibly.
Responsibly – this is where the fine line lies.
One of my first visits to Australia fell on Yom Kippur. For years, Yom Kippur has been a difficult day for me – a jumble of deep sorrow, anger and confusion – but not for religious reasons. My Yom Kippur issues go back to 1973 @ 2 PM when the siren disrupted the sacred silence, changing our lives forever. When in Israel, one’s public conduct on the day is determined by laws of the country. When overseas, it’s a matter of personal choice.
I was not sure how to deal with the matter. Regardless of my personal Yom Kippur issues, because I am not observant I felt it would be hypocritical to take the day off for religious reasons. I mentioned this to a dear friend of mine, who grew up in the States. Her response was crystal clear and indeed set me straight. “Whether you observe Yom Kippur or not is your business, but publicly by not observing it, you are making a statement. If Yom Kippur is not important to you, why should it be for the goyim [non-Jews]?” She drew for me the fine line between personal beliefs and collective responsibility.
So there I was in country Victoria on Yom Kippur. The day before I was introduced to my site liaison, a middle-aged Aboriginal woman called Margo. I knew from the moment I met her that we would become great friends. She had a genuine manner to her. She was bright. She was fun. She was full of life. Excited about her new role in the project and anxious to get going, she offered to meet with me the following day. I explained to her that it was a Jewish holiday.
“Even better!” she exclaimed, “We can do coffee.”
“It’s not that kind of holiday,” I continued. “Actually, it’s a solemn holiday, a day of fast, so I don’t think coffee is a good idea. How about you come round to my place?”
The next day Margo arrived all smiles. As I welcomed her to my home-away-from-home, she gave me a big hug and said, “So, you’re a Muslim!”