Blog  Cultural Zionism in Tel Aviv

Cultural Zionism in Tel Aviv

(Teacher) “Class, what’s the definition of Zionism?”
(All students respond in unison) “Zionism is the aspiration of the Jewish people to build a Jewish democratic state in Eretz Yisrael!”
By now, we have a good understanding that Zionism is the founding ideology of the State of Israel. Now it’s time for us to go and see this in action. We take two tiyulim – field trips – to understand Zionism in action in the late nineteenth century. This approach helps us see how the goal of having a Jewish state was reflected in the differing beliefs of the main Zionist leaders of the late 19th century.

Our first tiyul was a full day in the northern part of the country. There, in the Galilee region, we explored sites connected with the chalutzim (the Zionist pioneers) who built the first agricultural settlements starting in the 1880’s. We learned about their dream of redeeming the Jewish people through physical labor in the land of Israel.

The second tiyyul was a full day in Tel Aviv. There, we explored cultural Zionism. Founded in 1909 by 60 families who left over-crowded Jaffa to build the first modern Hebrew city, today Tel Aviv is the beating cultural and economic heart of the Jewish state. Everything, from the street talk to the cafes to the graffiti, is imbued with the modern Hebrew language. Right off the bat, we emphasize the fact that we will be speaking and conversing in Hebrew for much of the day.

URJ Heller High has always placed a special importance on the study of Hebrew. It remains a central part of our educational curriculum, led by Ulpan director Rachel Garber. Our day in Tel Aviv is a great opportunity to take the language that we’ve learned in the classroom and put it to use. Each student is handed a slip of paper with the slogan עברי דבר עברית Ivri daber Ivrit! (Jew, speak Hebrew!). This of course is a re-enactment of the early days of Tel Aviv when “Hebrew cops” would go around rudely handing out these slips to anyone who was overheard speaking in anything but the holy tongue. To add more depth to the education of this day, the Hebrew teachers also join us and explain the significance of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew. Ben Yehuda insisted on having his whole family speak nothing but Hebrew. In fact he got his children a male dog and a female cat just so that they would speak to each one in its respective gender! After learning about Ben Yehuda, the students work in groups to compose sentences reflecting his ideology of reviving Hebrew.

One of the newest additions to this tiyul is a graffiti tour of the Florentine neighborhood in south Tel Aviv. Although we’ve done this a few times in the past, the street art is different each trip! It turns out that Tel Aviv is one of the hottest cities for international street art due to the fact that enforcement of anti-graffiti law is more laxed than in other places. In fact, street artists from all over the world have added their works to the urban landscape. It is interesting to consider that Theodor Herzl envisioned that Israel would be a nation-like-all-nations, where Jewish graffiti artists would draw on the walls of Jewish buildings in a Jewish neighborhood, in a Jewish city, and be fined by Jewish police. One of the murals we saw this time even depicted a cartoon of Herzl himself with the Hebrew words לא רוצים, לא צריך Lo Rotzim, Lo Tzarikh (Don’t want it, don’t need it), which of course is someone’s commentary on Herzl’s famous Zionist slogan אם תרצו אין זו אגדה Im Tirzu Ain Zo Agada (if you will it, it is no dream).
Another captivating mural we encountered in Florentine is a depiction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem (Beit HaMikdash) painted onto the side of the old neighborhood synagogue. One of the Hebrew teachers, Ela, actually grew up in that neighborhood and explained how it once stood alone without any of the tall buildings that now stand adjacent, and how it really did seem to her like the Beit HaMikdash itself! Finally, we stood across from a large mural that was painted back in the 90s depicting the actual security camera footage that captured the tragic moment of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on Nov. 4, 1995. Unlike other pieces of graffiti, this is one work of street art that has been left untouched.

Florentine is also a great place to explain to the students that Sefardi Jews from Salonika, Greece played a crucial role in establishing the social, economic and culinary fabric of Tel Aviv. The best way to illustrate this point was to stop for a break at the famous Borekas Mis bakery where we got to partake in the delicious Balkan pastries that have become a staple of Israeli cuisine.

During this tiyyul, the most important names that we hear over and over are Ahad Ha’am and Haim Nahman Bialik, both leading figures in cultural Zionism. Ahad Ha’am was actually Asher Zvi Ginsberg, who came from a traditional Russian Jewish family. Of course, he agreed with Herzl that the creation of a Jewish state was essential for the future of the Jewish people. He did, however, approach the solution from an entirely different angle. While Herzl believed that anti-Semitism was our biggest problem, Ahad Ha’am asserted that assimilation and a loss of peoplehood is what challenged us most. He insisted that the Jewish people must have a national rebirth in Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, based on the revival of Hebrew. It was Ahad Ha’am who laid the foundation for the blossoming of a new modern Hebrew culture. Chaim Nachman Bialik took Ahad Ha’am’s vision to the next level. Often referred to as Israel’s national poet, Bialik believed that Hebrew should be the language of literature, theater, and song.
We concluded our day of learning by having a final class discussion next to Bialik’s house and delving into some challenging questions:
Is Tel Aviv a Jewish city or a city of Jews?
Is Israel a Jewish state or a state of Jews?

These were some of the big questions we pondered based on a street survey that the students conducted during lunch and free time. Up to this point in the semester, we haven’t really discussed in detail what it means to be a secular Jew in Israel, which is quite different than being a secular Jew in the diaspora. Although a large segment of the population of Tel Aviv is made up of Jews who are not religiously observant, what does is mean for their Jewish identity to speak Hebrew as one’s native language and to live in a country where Judaism is constantly a part of public life and is the backbone of the national culture? These are the questions that we hope our students will be thinking about after spending the day Tel Aviv.

David Alon M.A.,  a NFTY alum, grew up in the Reform Movement and was formerly a madrich for NFTY’s summer program and the education director at URJ Camp Harlam. He received his BA in religion from the University of Rochester in 1999, and spent the next year in Israel as a participant in the Jewish Agency’s Project Otzma for young leadership. As part of this experience, he chose to engage in a course of studies at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. David subsequently received his MA from Brandeis University in 2003 in the field of management and also pursued a graduate cluster in Jewish studies. Upon completing his Masters, David made Aliyah to Israel and enrolled for another year of learning at the WUJS Institute-Arad, focusing on Hebrew language, Tanakh, Jewish history, and Zionism. Later, he enlisted for six months in the IDF and trained with the artillery corps, where he still serves as a reserve soldier. Before coming to Heller High, David was a teacher in the Israeli public school system in the Negev. David is excited to be a part of the Jewish History faculty, where he has the great opportunity to share with the students his passion for Eretz Yisrael and being a part of the Jewish people.