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Men in black

Summer has arrived in the Holy Land, and with it many visitors. The headlines may be full of Hamas, but from January through May, close to 884,000 tourists from around the world made their way to our shores—a 25 percent increase over the first five months of 2006.

Men in Black image
Summer has arrived in the Holy Land, and with it many visitors. The headlines may be full of Hamas, but from January through May, close to 884,000 tourists from around the world made their way to our shores—a 25 percent increase over the first five months of 2006.

Israelis treasure every tourist, but are particularly gratified by celebrity visitors. When Will Smith visits the Western Wall (and "crashes a bar mitzvah," as reported by Fox News), it signifies that we are an attractive destination, not a war zone. Uma Thurman showed up for the wedding of a friend, who happens to be the granddaughter of Moshe Dayan. Best of all, major stars of the pop-music firmament included Israel in their international tours—ending an intifada-induced dry spell—and played to large and appreciative crowds.

My teenage daughter and her friends grooved to Black Eyed Peas (of whom I had scarcely heard) at the Bloomfield Stadium in Jaffa. The gansta rapper 50 Cent thrilled an audience of 15,000, which (I am not disappointed to report) included neither of my kids. And my wife and I and friends drove to Ramat Gan for a fabulous performance by Sting, who, as described by a poster-flashing fan, is "55 AND STILL HOT."

Opening for Sting—only in Israel—was Matisyahu, the hugely popular and highly implausible Brooklyn-based Hasidic reggae rapper whose debut album, "Youth," was ranked No. 4 on the Billboard chart earlier this year. As I heard him sing of Hashem and Moshiach in a faux-Bob Marley Jamaican accent, I thought inevitably of Al Jolson in "The Jazz Singer," doing "Mammy" in blackface, but Matisyahu's shtick is much more complex. For one thing, real "roots" reggae is all about Jah and Zion and redemption—not so far away from the messianic message of Chabad. And by going "black" in a Jewish sense—hip-hopping across the stage in full ultra-Orthodox regalia, his tzitzis flying with the beat—he manages to convey a zany authenticity that fortifies his crossover appeal to Jews and gentiles alike. Dressed differently, methinks, he'd be a minor-league impersonator.

The high point of the evening was when Matisyahu returned to the stage at the end of Sting's dazzling concert and joined the master in a rendition of "Roxanne," a classic hit of Sting's former band, The Police. The two singers achieved a strangely transcendent synergy, which reached a startling climax when Sting chanted: "Moshiach! Moshiach!"—as if he knew what it meant, and really meant it. Kitsch yes, rock theater yes, but it sent a collective tingle up 20,000 Jewish spines.

Ten days later, and on a far quieter note, I found myself a tourist in my own home town. The occasion was a guided walk through the Jerusalem neighborhood known as Kerem Avraham, which is the location of Amos Oz's widely celebrated boyhood memoir, "A Tale of Love and Darkness." When Oz, perhaps Israel's best-known author, was a child in the 1940s, the neighborhood was home to a mix of religious and secular Jews; today, virtually all the men there look like Matisyahu.
Our leader—a professional tour guide so enchanted by the book that she had read it ten times—walked us through drab, nondescript streets that turned mythical as she recited passages of Oz's stunning, evocative Hebrew prose. The ultra-Orthodox locals, glancing with mild curiosity at our group of plainly not-so-Orthodox men and women, seemed for the moment—to me at least—to be characters in a folktale, rather than fellow Jerusalemites whose cultural and political agenda differs, often sharply, from my own.

The afternoon's big surprise was a stop at the original Kerem Avraham—"Abraham's Vineyard"—which in the mid-19th century was the home of James Finn, British consul in Jerusalem, and his wife Elizabeth. The area was countryside, beyond the walled city, when the Finns established a farm here and employed up to 200 religious Jews, aiming to teach them productive skills but not, remarkably enough, to convert them to Christianity.

Not long ago, the property was purchased by a Hasidic sect called Karlin-Stolin, who renovated it elegantly and turned it into a seminary for girls. Many of the students, explained our guide, are immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have come to Israel without their parents. The Karlin-Stolin, she said, are relatively open-minded, as compared to many other Israeli Hasidim. They have preserved intact, in the cellar of the Finn home, an ancient Roman columbarium, whose niches once held doves or pigeons, or perhaps cremation urns. More striking still was the Israeli flag displayed in the main hall. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, as a rule, consider the Jewish state illegitimate on theological grounds, since only the Messiah is empowered to restore Jewish sovereignty. Overall, I was charmed.

Another tourist yanked me back to real life. This was a young man from Chicago, a Jewishly educated high-school student visiting our beautiful land for the first time. What in Israel has surprised you most, I asked. It was the Kotel, he said, the Western Wall; he had not expected it to be—as he put it—so "black."

Yes, it is rather arresting, the extent to which the Western Wall, in recent years, has become an ultra-Orthodox protectorate. Many Israelis who once viewed the Kotel as a central symbol of nationhood now keep their distance. Thousands of secular Israelis may have cheered Matisyahu in the Ramat Gan stadium, but few indeed, alas, are inclined to view Hasidic Jews as charming, folkloric, or entertaining.
Ultra-Orthodox politicians, while maintaining their opposition to Zionism, see to it that Jews who marry in Israel may do so only in Orthodox ceremonies supervised by the Chief Rabbinate. Chief Justice Aharon Barak, who is about to retire after 28 years on Israel's Supreme Court, flatly declared, in mid-June, that "the lack of civil marriage in Israel is a major violation of human rights." Reform and Conservative rabbis cannot perform legally binding weddings in the Jewish state; even the children of such rabbis, young people steeped in Judaism, end up getting married in Cyprus, by gentile clerks.

Moshe Katsav, president of Israel, refuses to address Reform rabbis—not just the Israel kind, the most distinguished American ones too—as "Rabbi." Interviewed on TV some months back, he said that since the Chief Rabbinate doesn't recognize them, he won't either. Katsav's term runs out next year. His successor, as always, will be chosen by the Knesset, not by popular vote; Israel's president is a symbolic figure, akin to the Queen of England. A front-runner for the job, according to recent reports, is Rabbi Yisrael Lau, the former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi, a staunch traditionalist and charismatic individual who is widely respected in Israel, and by a great many Jews worldwide.

Proponents of Rabbi Lau's candidacy argue that he could mend the rift between Orthodox and secular Israelis, the black-hats and the bare-heads. Others worry that he would exacerbate that rift, and that installing a rabbi as the global figurehead of Jewish statehood would send the wrong message to overseas Jews and non-Jews alike.

Theodor Herzl, in his visionary tract of 1896, "The Jewish State," had this to say on the subject: "Shall we end by having a theocracy? No, indeed. Faith unites us, knowledge gives us freedom. We shall therefore prevent any theocratic tendencies from coming to the fore on the part of our priesthood. We shall keep our priests within the confines of their temples." If you want my opinion—if the president has to wear black, I'd rather have Matisyahu.

Stuart Schoffman is a columnist for JUF News and an associate editor of The Jerusalem Report.

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