Tuesday, June 30, 2009

These Last Few Days

I've been having a terrific time taking in my last few Jerusalem experiences before I leave. On Saturday night I spent the night with my friends Corinna and Debbie, playing games and chatting. In the morning I went home and went for a run around Gan Sacher where summer camps have begun to hang out - girls in long skirts and long sleeve button up tops racing down the hills under the blazing sun. After packing and cleaning for a while, I went with Debbie to the Old City to do some souvenir shopping. Debbie drives a hard bargain, so we went from store to store as shop owners flirted with us and offered us a "good price" - we each even came away with free cheap-o bracelets: "Lovely ladies, I give you for free. Come see my store I give you good price." We later met Corinna and the rest of the gang to go out for their final dinner at a nice place in East Jerusalem. I had what must have been the world's largest Fattoush. I walked back with everyone to the University and took a bus home from there, trying to put off the goodbyes until the last possible moment. I feel like I missed the opportunity to get to know these terrific people - by the time I was really spending a lot of time with them, the semester was already almost finished. I do hope I'll keep in touch with them though, and I really do expect that I'll run into them again.
Yesterday I spent the whole day cleaning. I dusted the apartment from head to toe, cleaned out the cabinets, swept and mopped the floor, and put all of my belongings into suitcases. I invited Amy, Karen, and Michael over for dinner, feeding them leftovers from Friday night's feast, and it was nice to have company for a little while after rather a lonesome day.
Today, for most of the day, I pretended to be a tourist. At 8am I walked to the shuk - nothing was open but the candy store, so I bought marzipan challahs to bring home as gifts (they are super funny!) I then stopped by the preschool to wish the kids goodbye one las time. The Gan Dror kids took turns giving me blessings: "May you go in peace and return in peace" "May you be healthy." "May you not be sick." "May you have fun." "May you not eat too much ice cream." Then they performed some of their end of the year songs for me - I think if they took the performance on tour it would be a pretty major hit.
I went for a walk to the Yemin Moshe area, then accross the street and up some stairs to the Old City. I decided to see some sites I'd never quite made it to: I began with the Tower of David Museum, which gives an overview of the history of Jerusalem from the first mention of the city in cunieform script to its reunification in '67. It was helpful to have this very basic overview, I feel like all my ducks are a bit more in a row than they were before, and it helped to clarify why and how there are so many layers of history and cultures in this one space. It was a little bit basic, but that's kind of what I was going for. Afterwards I bought myself a two liter bottle of water, as it was very hot and sunny, and I decided to walk the ramparts of the Old City. The man who sold me the ticket asked me to sit with him and drink coffee, took my hand and told me I was very nice... I suppose these are some of the side effects of playing tourist by oneself.
The ramparts walk was very nice - the views were terrific - both of inside and of outside the city, and I took about a million pictures. the walk ended at the Kotel, and since I was already there, I went in, prayed a bit of Mincha, and wrote a note to G-d saying thanks for a terrific year. I left via the Jewish Quarter, and bought myself a ticket to the Burnt House Museum. A few minutes later, I was inside the museum, in which screens and TV's hang over the ruins of a house from the 2nd Temple Period. The visitors sit in rows facing the screens and watch a somewhat hokey though at times actually quite emotional film about the destruction of the 2nd Temple and the seige of Jerusalem. From there I went to the Museum on the Seam to see their latest exhibit "Adam Adama" (Human Land) about the destructive way that humans interact with nature. The art was very interesting, though they ran out of guides in English and I had to read one in Hebrew, so my comprehension was somewhat limited. It was a combination of sculpture, video installments, photography, and painting. One photo showed the old city in the background with heaps of garbage in the foreground, one was a computer demo about how to create convincing artificial nature for movies because real nature is too unreliable, one was a beautiful hill with all of these roads and walls cutting accross it. Eventually I left the museum and walked up to Hebrew University because I had one more form to turn in in order to be able to receive a transcript later - it's a long walk and it was hot - by the time I reached the top my 2 liters of water were gone. I took the bus back to the Yemin Moshe area and walked home from there. As you can imagine, I am quite tired - though I am ready for another day of tourism tomorrow. I leave Jerusalem at 5:30 AM Thursday morning!

Click here to see some quite nice pictures of Jerusalem.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Final Shabbat

Well, I've completed all of my coursework for the semester, taken my last exam, and I only have a few days left to explore Jerusalem, gather my belongings, and fly to the other Promised Land - the "goldine medina."
In the meantime, it was with bittersweet feelings that I approached this Shabbat, wanting it to be perfect and memorable, but knowing that some of the most beautiful Shabbats of the year were already behind me. Sometimes I find self-reflexivity to be an emotionally painful task - being so aware of the last-ness of the Shabbat, I tried so hard to impress upon myself every detail of it, but knowing that the details fade quickly and that by the end of the day the sharpness of the image of its beginning will already have begun to wane in my mind's eye. It is with this in mind that I write of my final Jerusalem Shabbat, trying to preserve the important bits for just a while longer.
A friend of mine, Rebecca, had made plans with me for Friday to cook together and invite friends to my apartment. What started as a small gathering grew into the largest assembly of assorted individuals I've hosted in our apartment - the 15 bodies took up every seat that could possibly have been squished into the living room.
Knowing that we were expecting the large crowd, I began preparing for their visit as soon as I arrived home from my Hebrew exam. I started with a frenzy of cleaning - sweeping, scrubbing, putting-away, and interspersed these activities with putting sliced, spiced beets in the oven and braiding the challah. My friends Corrinna and Andrew arrived early to drop off a watermelon at the apartment and I enlisted their help in cleaning off plastic chairs, chopping vegetables, and even washing dishes. You know you have good friends when they'll do your dishes for you!
While we were cooking I received a phone call from my friend and neighbor Amy, telling me that at the corner between our apartment buildings, where an organization often leaves used books for passers-by to browse and take, there were stacks and stacks of Yiddish books. Corrinna and I left Andrew to watch after the challah in the oven and we ran down to the book drop-off area. Corinna picked up a copy of Ethan Frome in Hebrew, among other gems, and I found an astonishing wealth of Yiddish texts to choose from. I may not be able to carry all of the books that I took back to the US, but for now I have several Yiddish journals dating from 1943 to 1961, most of them issues of Yiddishe Kultur or Di Tzukunft (the Future) as well as a 1938 copy of David Pinsky's travelogue of a trip to Israel from the summer of 1932 to the sumer of 1936, published in Warsaw, a 1966 copy of Nachum Sutzkever's Personalities and Folk, published in Jerusalem, a 1996 copy of "Human Salad" by Joseph Hayblum, which was published in Israel with the assistance of the Mutlicultural Program of the Department of the Secretary of State of Canada, and a 1986 printing of "Tear and Smile" a collection of poetry and songs by David Shav-Artza, published in Israel. I'm very excited about all of this, though it would take me forever to read even one of these books.
By the time Rebecca arrived at 3:30 pm, two veggie dishes were complete, the challah was in the oven, and the apartment was on the verge of cleanliness. Then the real work began. On a 98 degree afternoon, we kept the oven and stovetop going for hours, our hands never free from work and our feet aching from it. We made guacamole with sliced vegetables, mujedra, oven-roasted potatoes, lentil soup, chocolate cake, apple appricot tart, cole slaw, and more. We rearranged the furniture into a 15-person circle, put out the Shabbat candles and wine, and waited for the guests to arrive.
The dinner was definitely a success - there was plenty of food and a lot of conversation. The guests were an interesting mix between those traveling to Jerusalem for the summer, or just for a quick vacation, and those who are here for a year or more, some older and some younger, some Jewish and some not, and I was surprised how willing people were to get to know new people. I was very sorry, though, to say goodbye to Paola at the end of the night, as I don't think we'll see each other again before we leave. I am so grateful to have had her friendship this year, and I do hope that one day I'll go to Italy to visit her!
The last remaining guests helped me clean a bit, though there's still some cleaning work to do, and pretty late at night. I woke up and dressed for services at Har El. It was a small congregation - a bar mitzvah with a tremendous voice read from the Torah, and I was given an aliyah during which Rabbi Ada blessed me and wished me a safe journey and that I should consider Har El my home in Israel.
In the afternoon, Atar Katz (my neighbor) took me on a tiyyul around Jerusalem, to catch some sights I had not yet seen. He was born in Jerusalem and has lived here is whole life, and his mind is filled with stories of Jerusalem's history. As we drived around the city he told me story after story (this was my real Hebrew final exam!) of ancient history, the building of the state, of the people and events that happened in this city with its layers and layers of pasts and cultures. We drove up to Mt. Scopus, driving on the road where the 1948 Mt. Scopus bus attack occurred, and stopped at an overlook to see East Jerusalem and the desert beyond, reaching toward the Dead Sea. Mr. Katz gave me a geography lesson, using the knuckles of his hand to represent the grooves of the valleys and mountains of Jerusalem. According to Mr. Katz, Mt. Scopus gets its name because it was the mountain from which the priests used to watch the sky to determine if the stars were out and the holiday had begun, lighting a bonfire that would signal to other watchmen to light their bonfires on other mountains so the word could travel that it was time for the holdiay to begin. We then drove to the Mt. of Olives, where 150,000 Jewish bodies lie in graves, awaiting the coming of the Messiah and the resurrection of the Jews. Ancient and modern tombstones alike form the necropolis. Mr. Katz told me a story that when the Messiah comes, there will be two bridges from the Mt. of Olives to the Temple Mount - one made out of iron and the other out of paper. Those who lack faith will take the safer-looking iron bridge, and it will break and they will fall, returning to death. The faithful will take the paper bridge, which will lead them to the Temple Mount. Mr. Katz pointed out to me the Seven Arches Hotel (formerly the Intercontinental Hotel) which, he says, we can see from our balcony. The hotel was constructed during Jordanian rule over East Jerusalem along a road that he built in violation of the 1949 Armistice agreement accross the cemetary, destroying thousands of graves, some dating back to the First Temple period.
We drove down to the bottom of the Mt. of Olives (the Kidron Valley) to see Absolom's Pillar, traditionally believed to be the tomb of Absalom, son of King David. It's archetectural style shows Greek influence, and it is now believed that it may have been the tomb of Temple priest Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist.
We drove past the Dung Gate and through the city to Talpiyot, a neighborhood in southeast Jerusalem. Mr. Katz pointed out Machane Allenby, the former British army camp, and told me stories of the British conquest of Jerusalem. He also showed me the former home of the British High Commissioner to Jerusalem, now the headquarters of the UN in Jerusalem.
Mr. Katz and I walked through a park to see the remains of a Herodian aqueduct, where a hole showing the ancient ducts is situated on a mosaic map showing its ancient route.
It was a whirlwind tour of about two and a half hours, after which I took a long nap, and woke in time to write this post before going to play some board games with friends who leave Jerusalem tomorrow, heading home to the US.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Jerusalem Pride and Tolerance March

This afternoon I attended the Jerusalem Pride and Tolerance March. I walked down King George Road alone, headed toward the park, and was surprised to find that accompanying me on the sidewalk were at least seven reporters, all heading toward the march. On the way we encountered a small Haredi counter-protest, which was in a visible location, but was pretty quiet.
At the front gates of Liberty Bell Park a variegated crowd of women holding babies, men in short skirts, students with matching t-shirts, older couples, and even a few tourists stood in slow-moving security lines. The police officers made separate lines for men and women, which caused no small amount of protest: "What is this, Mea Shearim?" "But I don't know which one I am!" "How could you do this here?"
At the other end of the security, which was the most strenuous security I've experienced here - thorough searches of bodies and bags - I entered a park that was full of people - something like 2000 people were reported to have attended the parade. Merchants selling pins, flags, and scarves with rainbows and stars of David were scattered throughout an excited crowd. I ran into several people I know - a preschool teacher, my language partner, a friend who goes to RRC, and some friends of friends that I know from assorted places. It was fun to bump into people - I didn't expect to see anyone I knew!
Before the parade began one of the organizers silenced the drums for a moment to say that he was very proud of the march and that we shouldn't be bothered or afraid by anyone who protests us, but should just walk from one park to the other peacefully and proudly.
And then the march began. It was short and strangely solemn. Though in the beginning groups were chanting slogans like "We won't go back in the closet. We won't live without equality" (It rhymes in Hebrew), or "Gays and Lesbians want to Live/Be/Exist in Jerusalem" or "We demand rights and equality. In the workplace - rights and equality! In our studies - rights and equality! In our families - rights and equality!" etc. but as the march proceeded, a quiet settled in. We encountered only one protester, with a preposterous sign saying "Homosexuals Spread AIDS" - I think the police had cleared out most of the people from the roads. The security was tight all along the route and in both parks.

At Independence Park there was a short conference and a drag show, in addition to vendors selling beer, clothes, movies, and memorabilia, but I think the highlight for me was listening to the speeches of the current and past presidents of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, the head of the transgender organization, and others. They spoke of Jerusalem as the "city of freedom," talked candidly about the many challenges they face, and celebrated the vast strides that have been made in the past few years, as demostrated by the peacefulness of the parade itself.
There has been an annual gay pride prade in Tel Aviv since the 1998 (there was one yesterday) and it is a huge event with something like 100,000 people. The annual parade in Jerusalem began in 2002, and is often met with severe violence from the religious community - in 2005 a participator was stabbed to death at the Jerusalem gay pride parade, and in 2006 the parade was cancelled, ostensibly because of the second Lebonese war, but many claim it was also because of protests from the religious community. Tensions around the 2006 parade were particularly high, sparking riots in religious communities including burning dumpsters, throwing stones and dirty diapers, and a 'beast parade' in which Haredim marched goats and donkeys along the parade route a few days before the parade was scheduled. When the Jerusalem Open House announced that it planned to reschedule the march, they did so planning for worst-case scenarios of violence and murder, but the rescheduled march was conducted peacefully. Since then, the parade has met with little protest.

Preschool Goodbye (Part 2)

I said goodbye to the older class today - it was a little anticlimactic as the teachers didn't remember that it was my last day...

Anyway, some pics from Gan Dror: here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Preschool Goodbye (Part 1)

I said goodbye today to the kids of Gan Pashosh. The teachers made a presentation to the kids, telling them that I had come all the way from America and was going home for a few days. They asked the kids, "So tell us about Jessica. What did she do here?" "she played with us." "she was our friend." "she was even your friend (to the teacher)" and then all the kids said thank you, gave me hugs and kisses, and the teachers gave me a present: a t-shirt that says 'bazooka bubble gum' in Hebrew and a booklet with drawings that all the Gan Pashosh kids made for me.

As it was the last day, I finally brought the camera and took some pictures of me and the kids outside in the playground - enjoy!

a brief summary of activities

It's been a while since my last post so I decided to update you on some of my activities in my last few weeks in Jerusalem.

First of all, some of you may have been reading that tensions between secular and Orthodox Jerusalemites have been running high recently because of a debate over a parking lot. Early in the month, the Jerusalem municipality announced that they would keep a parking lot open on Shabbat to alleviate the parking shortage for tourists wanting to go to the Old City. The lot would be manned by non-Jews to avoid breaking halacha in keeping the lot open. On June 6 (a Saturday), thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews from the neighborhood of Mea Shearim held a violent demonstration against the opening of the parking lot, which they feel is a desecration of the holy day. They threw rocks and dirty diapers at policemen and set fire to dumpsters in order to protest the opening of a municipally-owned parking lot in Safra square, near the Old City, on Shabbat. Officers on mounted horses pushed the protestors from the parking lot back toward their neighborhood in a tussle that lasted the whole day. Police did not make any arrests on Shabbat itself, but after 8:30 pm they arrested several protestors. The mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, promised not to open the parking lot for two weeks, folliwng the recommendation of police, in order that some solution could be reached. Many secular Jerusalemites see Barkat as caving in to the ultra-Orthodox population by listening to the radical and extralegal voices of a belligerant minority. On June 13, hundreds of secular protestors gathered at the city hall in order to protest Barkat's decision to keep the parking lot closed while he negotiates with Orthodox leaders. I haven't read of any compromise being reached yet, so I imagine that this weekend might see a resurgence of protests. While I haven't seen or participated in the protests, they are certainly in the air here in J-lem!

Things are winding down for me - I have only a few more days of class and a few more assignments to complete, and then I'll be flying out of Tel Aviv in about a week!

Last Tuesday I had the Katzes (the neighbors) over for dinner. They gave me a parting gift - a necklace that their daughter (who makes silver jewlery) made - it's a small magen David with a purple gem at its center, and they wrote me a short poem wishing me well, which they read to me proudly. After they left I pulled out my Hebrew English dictionary to be sure I'd understood it completely. The Katzes are warm and patient people and I am continually surprised by their willingness to talk to me even though my Hebrew is far from fluent. We talked about religion, about education, and about History. They told me stories about their pet turtle and their family. It was very pleasant.

On Friday night I went to Kabbalat Shabbat services with my friend Amy in a little one-room prayer space near Betzalel Road. A sheet hanging in the center of the room served as a mechitza, and though the space was evenly divided between men and women, it was a small and crowded space nonetheless. The leader was modest, offering only a few words of reflection before diving headlong into prayer. His voice was smooth and soft but he prayed with intensity, banging his fists on the table and rocking back and forth, facing the ark. The prayer moved fluidly from one tune to another, slow and fast, sad and happy, and in the womens section, pressed against one another, we rocked back and forth, closed our eyes, tapped our feet, at one point we put down our prayerbooks and danced. Something about the closeness of the situation, the familiarity of the words, the evocative tunes, the modest leader, the noise level of the music such that you could stop hearing yourself sing and become one piece of a larger organ... it was all very moving. As we walked home to Amy's apartment for dinner, we asked ourselves how that energy could be brought to liberal congregations in the US - it isn't an easy question.

On Saturday morning I headed to the beach in Tel Aviv with a group of friends from the University. In Tel Aviv the stores are open, the beach is full of loungers, and everyone is scantily clad and darkly tanned. Though we were stung by jellyfish when bathing in the warm water, we had a terrific time basking in the 90 degree weather, with plenty of sunscreen of course.

Otherwise I've been working on papers, reading books (I just finished The Rise of David Levinsky, which was terrific) and winding down. Today is my last day in Gan Pashosh (the younger class) and Thursday will be my last day in Gan Dror (the older class). On Friday I'm having a lot of folks over for dinner, and on Saturday I have an aliyah at Har El. In the afternoon on Saturday the Katzes are taking me on a small tiyyul, about which I am very excited.

The other thing I am very much looking forward to is the Jerusalem Pride and Tolerance march on Thursday - I can't wait to go and I'll be sure to take pictures! The assembly meets at 4pm at Liberty Bell park, the march starts at 5pm, and ends with a rally at the park at 6pm. In the past these parades have met with a lot of opposition, and I am so thrilled that one of my last experiences here will be to walk alongside the brave men and women who proudly maintain gay identities under what I can only assume are very difficult circumstances.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Book Recommendation

I think my favorite experience in the world (OK, one of my favorites) is reading an academic text that is so captivating that I can't put it down. With fiction this isn't so rare, I get caught up in the story and lose sense of time and place, but with an academic text, even a good one, I usually need a cup of coffee and a lot of breaks in order to get through the reading. I just read Call it English by Hannah Wirth-Nesher. I have wanted to read it for a long time and when I saw it on the New Acquisitions shelf of the Rothberg library, I couldn't resist. I knew it would be interesting, but I was surprised that I found myself staying up late and waking up early just to read one more page... I finished it this morning before school, with the kind of adrenaline rush of coming to a fitting and satisfying conclusion mixed with the disappointment that the book had ended - and that I would have to return it to the library. For anyone interested in Jewish American Literature, this is a must-read. It's a sweeping but detail-driven study in the multiple ways that Yiddish and Hebrew enter Jewish American fiction written in English, and how immigrant-spoken (accented) English is represented in this fiction - not only in terms of the mechanics of it but also the meanings behind it; the wordplay, the alienation, the opportunity, the limitations. It focuses on the complicated relationship that Jewish American literature has to English, Hebrew, and Yiddish, and the multilingual nature of the literature, even as fluency in Yiddish and Hebrew fade among American Jews, and it explores the translation of Jewish concepts and languages to a non-Jewish audience, as well as to a Jewish audience alienated from knowledge of older Jewish traditions and languages. It is beautifully written, deeply insightful, risk-taking, ground-breaking, broad-ranging... OK, it's just really, really good.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Movie, A Book, A Play

This morning I attended a terrific literature class in which we watched a film by Amir Goren called "66 Was a Good Year for Tourism" and discussed snippets from a novel by Yitzchak Goren that tells a counternarrative to Israeli European-ness by portraying the lives of a family of Sephardic Jews one summer in Alexandria as remembered by a man who now lives in Israel. Our conversation centered around building identity in multiple places, the meaning of nostalgia, and as per the theme of the course itself, on masculinity as defined by these texts. Anyway, I very much enjoyed the Goren texts and encourage you to check them out if you have a chance.
I skipped the rest of my classes because my friend Nicole and her amiable husband Joe were in town and wanted to meet me for lunch. Together with Nicole and Joe I enjoyed the pleasant if a bit overwhelming summer sun as we strolled to the shuk to buy bread, hummus, vegetables, and halva, and then went back to my apartment to eat our plentiful lunch. It was such a pleasure to see both of them, and I am very much looking forward to spending time with them in New York. It's very exciting to feel that good friendships can be picked up again after so long - the conversation came easily and comfortably, and I think we all had a lovely time.
After an afternoon of Hebrew homework (most of it should have been completed long ago, but I keep putting it off), and reading a book I'm very much enjoying, I went to see a performance of the drama club at Har El synagogue. As I suspected, the performance reminded me a bit of the plays that my grandfather used to participate in with his retirement community, only this was in a less comfortable performance space, was ostensibly a more serious play, and was of course in a language that I don't know very well...
The play was called Dreyfus, by Jean-Claude Grumber. I think it was originally written in French and then translted into Hebrew, but as the characters are in 1930's Vilna I suppose they are meant to be speaking in Hebrew (and the non-Jews in Polish?) so language was a bit confusing.
The premise of the show is that a group of amateur actors in Vilna stage a play about Dreyfus, and the actors don't find the theme relevant to their own situation. It is a comedy, in part, as they perform poorly and a frustrated director corrects their follies, but it is also a tragedy as the actors do not heed the warning inherrent in the Dreyfus story, claiming that nothing of the sort could happen in Poland. They stress the differences between Eastern and Western Jews, don't relate to the notion of Zionism, etc. In the end, two anti-Semitic non-Jews enter the playhouse and start harassing an actor, threatening to cut of his beard, etc. The actors gather their courage and, brandishing fake swords from their costumes, they get rid of the agressors. Ultimately, though, they don dark coats, carry suitcases, the lights grow dim, and serious faced they stand together while the sound of a train echoes in the performance space.
I don't know what I think of this play. It was replete with silly and hysterical women, and with notions of Polish Jews being naive and comic. At one point an actor suggests that the Dreyfus play would be better with some catchy music, and she starts humming "If I Were a Rich Man" a gross anachronism and a symbol for the way that Jews today resort to pop culture to invoke a sense of history... But on the other hand, it was a play that mixed the seriousness of the history (if mitigated by the anti-Semites speaking Hebrew and not acting very violently) with the humanity and humor of everyday life in what is perhaps a more genuine representation of the past than one that looks at the whole long history of East European Jewry as inevitably and bleakly leading to destruction, a sad and downtrodden people without resilience of spirit or the will to creat and enjoy beauty and life.
I slipped out of the synagogue as fast as could be possible when most people in the sanctuary were walking very slowly with canes and we were all heading to the same exit. When I got to my apartment I knocked on the neighbors' door to invite them to have dinner with me Tuesday night - I keep meaning to do something with them before I leave but forgetting, so I'm very proud of myself for setting a date. They made me promise I wouldn't go to too much trouble to cook for them, so I'll have to think about what to make. Suggestions?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Abortion in Israel: Flexible Attitudes in a Pronatalist Environment

I thought some of you might be interested in this paper I wrote for my Anthro/Sociology class...

Jessica Kirzner

Spring Semester, 2009

Anthropological and Sociological Perspectives on Israeli Society(ies)

Abortion in Israel: Flexible Attitudes in a Pronatalist Environment

In Israeli society, motherhood is constructed as women’s central role, and parenthood is part and parcel of Jewish and Israeli collective identity and societal patterns. Women’s “national mission”[1] of mothering more than one child is built upon the religious commandment to “be fruitful and multiply”, fear of the loss of a child in war, as well a desire to enlarge the Jewish population in order to repair the demographic losses resultant from the Holocaust.[2] In addition, and perhaps most powerfully, national Zionist ideology encourages a high fertility rate in an effort to maintain a Jewish majority in a political situation of conflict and tension with neighboring populations with higher fertility rates, a situation referred to as the “demographic time bomb.”[3] In the context of these strong sociocultural attitudes in favor of high fertility, it is unsurprising that the fertility rate in Israel is higher than in other developed countries, with a Total Fertility Rate measured at 2.7 in 2000, in comparison with estimated Total Fertility Rates of 2.05 in the United States, 1.98 in France, and 1.31 in Italy in 2009.[4] To encourage this high fertility, the state has implemented strong pronatal incentives, including giving new mothers birth grants to cover the cost of childbirth, as well as a birth allowance to pay women for a short period following childbirth.[5] The government also funds expensive fertility treatments for both single and married women until two living babies are born.[6] The state not only shapes women’s reproductive decisions through these pronatalist incentives but also by “delegitimizing alternative life courses in which motherhood is not as prominent,” as women’s responsibilities as mothers are prioritized over their careers.[7] In light of this strong cultural and state-sponsored pronatalist stance, this paper seeks to explore the issue of elective abortion in Israel, seeking to understand the experience of the choice against motherhood in a climate that strongly encourages women to become mothers and to have multiple children. The paper will provide an overview of the practice of abortion in Israel and the religious and civil laws governing it, and will pose questions about what abortion means for Jewish women in Israel.

The Law Concerning Termination of Pregnancy which was adopted by the Knesset on January 31, 1977 legalizes abortion in a recognized medical institution if it fits one of five conditions: the woman is under legal marriage age (17) or over the age of 40; the pregnancy resulted from an illicit (rape, incest) or non-marital relationship; the fetus is likely to have a mental or physical defect; continuing the pregnancy may endanger the woman’s physical or mental health; or an abortion is needed because of family or social circumstances.[8] Although public opinion polls suggest that a majority of Israelis would support such a clause,[9] the final article allowing a pregnancy to be terminated for ‘social reasons’ was removed from the law in 1979, at the request of Agudat Israel, a small but powerful religious party, during coalition building for a new government.[10] The decision as to whether a woman is qualified for an abortion based on these standards is made by committees composed of two doctors and a social worker, established in authorized hospitals and clinics. In 1995, medical committees known as Abortion High Committees were established in Israel in order to consider specifically the issue of ‘late’ terminations, an issue most often involving selective abortions due to genetic defects.[11] These regulations on abortion establish a liberal or flexible view of abortion (legalizing the practice for a variety of reasons that in other Western countries might be quite controversial) that may seem contradictory to the traditional pronatalist stance of the state. Neverltheless, the attitude toward abortion remains conservative insofar as the power to decide a woman’s qualifications for abortion is in the hands of the (largely male) government-approved medical establishment, thus “subjecting individual choice to authoritative scrutiny and approval.”[12] As a result, illegal abortions are not uncommon – in fact, most women who are denied (or suspect that they may be denied) legal abortions in Israel do obtain illegal abortions.[13]

Although the majority of women who obtain abortions and the majority of medical professionals who perform them are secular, they, their society, and the laws of their country are strongly influenced by religious ideas which “function as moral-mental structures”[14] guiding their approach to the meaning of abortion. Thus, it is imperative to outline the attitude toward abortion in traditional Jewish law not only in order to understand the attitudes that religious Jews hold toward the issue, but also to understand the framework in which abortion is viewed throughout Israeli society. According to Jewish law, the fetus is considered an organic part of the mother, and is not considered a nefesh adam (human person) at any stage in the pregnancy, thus abortion is not considered murder.[15] Unlike in other Western countries, influenced by the Catholic notion that the soul enters the body at the moment of conception, traditional Jewish law legislates that life begins on the thirtieth day after the birth, when the baby has begun to exhibit the human characteristics that demonstrate that it was made in the image of G-d.[16] Abortion is not permitted without reason, as life is of supreme value, but in a case where the woman’s life is endangered by the pregnancy or childbirth the fetus can be considered an ‘aggressor’ which may be killed in defense of the mother – the mother’s life is more valuable than the potential life of the not-yet-human fetus.[17] Simply put, abortion is permitted if carrying the pregnancy to term could cause harm to the mother. The interpretation of the needs of the mother’s life in the halachic tradition have varied from a narrow interpretation that abortion is only permitted to physically save the mother to a broader interpretation wherein abortion is permitted if the birth would harm the woman’s psychological wellbeing, cause her shame, or harm the prospective wellbeing of the child.[18] Within these parameters, the debate over the fetus’s “right to life” which is so prominent in the abortion debate in other Western religious contexts, is irrelevant – the fetus’s right to be born is relative to the welfare of the mother.[19]

Instead, the debate centers around arguments concerning the “demographic time bomb” on the one hand, and social distress on the other.[20] The 1977 abortion law emerged from a context in which family size became a mark of low social status and of poverty: at that time 10% of all Jewish households reared close to half of Israel’s children, often under severe socioeconomic conditions.[21] Permitting abortion was seen as a way to relieve this social problem, though concerns were expressed that by encouraging a lower fertility rate in these families, abortion would make the threat of the “demographic time bomb” even greater.

In general, the Israeli abortion debate lacks a strong ideological component on either end of the spectrum, with more liberal segments sympathetic to the demographic argument and more conservative segments approving of abortion under specific, limited circumstances, such as if the potential mother’s life is at risk as a result of the pregnancy.[22] The strongest anti-abortion voice in Israel has been Efrat – the Right to Life Association for the Encouragement of Increase Birthrate among the Jewish People. When Efrat began in 1962, it was without the notion of “Right to Life” and stressed instead a concern about fertility imbalance between Jewish and non-Jewish communities (ie. the “demographic time bomb” argument). Although, through the influence of American immigrants, Efrat introduced the American “right-to-life” strategy in the 1980’s, their primary concern and argument remains demographic, as evidenced by their acceptance of embryopathic abortions, a position that conservative right-to-life organizations in other Western countries would be loathe to adopt.[23] Efrat posits itself as “the real pro-choice organization,” offering money to women so that they won’t terminate their pregnancies for financial reasons. The assumption here is that the “first choice” of most women is to have their babies, an assumption in line with the pronatalist environment of Israeli society.[24]

With a debate focused on demographic issues, the feminist perspective of the right of the woman to control her own body is not strongly represented in the Israeli debate. While in other contexts, “imposing an absolute maternity duty on a woman…was seen as denying her freewill and judgment in matters pertaining to her own life,” in Israel, feminist groups are loyal to Zionist ideals, and as such are followers of the demographic argument.[25] With the lack of feminist struggle in the debate, women’s bodies, even in the context of abortion, are controlled by the state and the medical establishment. Women who wish to exercise their right to an abortion are subjected to intrusive interrogations and “stigmatized as transgressors,” although gynecologists are generally cooperative with women’s choices and abortion committees are generally permissive.[26] Although since 1979 the clause permitting abortion in the case of pregnancy outside of marriage has been invoked in approximately half of all abortion requests, under the abortion law medical experts are called upon to determine a woman’s qualifications for the procedure, thus suggesting that “non-normative” sexual behavior is a kind of illness and giving abortion committees (largely male) moral and physical authority over women’s bodies.[27]

Abortion is widely available in Israel, statistics show that 95% of Israeli women have access to moderately priced abortion and that over 95% of the women who apply for legal abortion are given positive answers.[28] Nevertheless, rates of abortion are relatively low, with the average number of abortions for Israeli women at 0.6 compared to about 0.9 in the US and between 2 and 5 in Eastern Europe, rates that may be explained by the pronatalist atmosphere of Israeli society and by widespread and effective use of contraception.[29] These low and decreasing abortion rates have contributed to the lack of public conversation and debate about abortion.[30]

Because abortion is “silenced in both public and private realms,” women who have undergone the procedure report that they “hardly ever” discussed their pregnancy and its termination after they had undergone the abortion.[31] Many Israeli women who underwent an abortion felt that the institutional involvement in their abortion was justified because “a woman should feel social responsibility when children are concerned.”[32] They tended to see the abortion as a personal failure in responsible sexual behavior. As one Israeli informant of Larissa Remennick and Rosie Segal’s study expressed, “Intelligent women who take good care of themselves and have caring partners don’t get into this…”[33] The issue of non-vital abortion, particularly when pertaining to the clause that allows abortion as a result of out-of-wedlock conception, incest, or conception under illegal circumstances such as rape, is a taboo subject, and the women who undergo the procedure express feelings of guilt and self-accusation for their unwanted pregnancies. This guilt often stems from self-criticism for lack of use or misuse of contraception, rather than guilt regarding non-marital sex, or the choice to abort itself.[34]

Abortions are most often sought by secular, Ashkenazi, middle-class, educated women. While many secular women see a large number of children as a detriment to a good marriage, many religious women perceive a large number of children as an important factor in building a stable family.[35] There is a strong inverse association between religiosity and the acceptance and practice of abortion - religiosity is the single most significant determinant in the practice of abortion.[36] In the 1960’s and 1970’s, as the abortion law was being established, Jewish women of Afro-Asian descent were less likely to have access to family planning services and were also less likely to use abortion services than Ashkenazi or Israeli-born women, thus resulting in high fertility rates for these populations.[37] However, these immigrant groups experienced rapid fertility decline due to increases in the use of fertility control and integration into Ashkenazi social norms such that fertility differences between Ashkenazi and Mizrachi communities decreased in significance.[38] Nevertheless, the country of origin of the woman obtaining the abortion remains a strong factor deciding the practice of induced abortion.[39]

Studies show that Russian immigrants to Israel held a markedly different view of abortion than Israeli-born women. Abortion was very frequent in the USSR as a result of limited contraceptive means, an exaggerated perception of the dangers of modern contraception, underestimation of the dangers of abortion as performed in the USSR, and inadequacy of sexual education programs.[40] In the USSR, abortion had never been seen as an ethical, religious, or political issue, and was instead considered a routine procedure, the most readily available birth control method: Soviet women typically had as many as 35 lifetime abortions.[41] These patterns of attitudes toward and practice of abortion are a striking contrast those of Israel, in which abortion rates are reportedly among the lowest in the world (around 13 per 1000 women of reproductive age).[42] The rate of abortion in Soviet immigrants to Israel declined over time as they have become more accustomed to preferred Israeli contraceptive methods, but a difference remains.[43]

Differences in attitude toward abortion were reflected in Larissa Remennick and Rosie Segal’s study on Russian and Israeli-born women’s experiences of abortion in Israel. Because they regarded termination of marital pregnancy as normal ‘birth control,’ Russian women interviewed in this study negative about what they felt was unnecessary and intrusive bureaucratic involvement in their private decisions about fertility, unlike Israeli-born participants in the study.[44] They tended to see abortion as a misfortune, and to understand themselves as victims. As they were not socialized to see abortions as contrary to ‘responsible sexual conduct,’ they did not experience the same sense of personal failure that was reported from Israeli-born women, and did not express feelings of loss of self-esteem or dignity.[45] Nevertheless, they experienced discomfort as a result of the perceived disapproval of health and welfare workers toward Russian women obtaining abortions. Popular stereotypes of Russian women as sexually irresponsible made coping emotionally with the abortion process difficult for Russian women.[46] This indicates that although abortions were a normal and even a routine aspect of Russian society, Israeli attitudes toward abortion, motherhood, and sexuality influenced Russian women’s experiences about the procedure.

Although religiosity is the most significant indicator of the likelihood of a woman to pursue an abortion, in the case of the potential for health problems with the fetus, women of many different backgrounds, including religious, undergo abortions. Religious leaders approve of this practice, encouraging or permitting members of their community to undergo prenatal testing in order that they will be more comfortable with having children at an older age, when health risks for the fetus are higher.[47] Israel has among the highest rates in the world of termination of abortion due to genetic defects found in the fetus.[48] In 2003, 3,476 pregnancies were terminated for this reason– 17% of all abortions in Israel.[49] Elective genetic testing is more common among educated middle class Ashkenazi women, and is often refused among non-Ashkenazi women.[50] The costs of testing are also a limiting factor, making such tests less popular among women in lower social stratum.[51] Women who chose against testing do so for ethical or moral reasons, for the cost, or because of poor understanding of the meaning of the tests.[52] Women who do chose prenatal genetic diagnosis do so for a number of reasons including fear of having a sick or socially unaccepted child, concerns about lack of government and communal support for the raising of such a child, and apprehension regarding Ashkenazi genetic make-up due to high incidence of certain genetic disorders.[53]

Genetic testing has become socially constructed as part of “good motherhood,” insuring the health of the child, even before it is born.[54] This is an important point, as motherhood is so central to Israeli women’s identities and social roles. Genetic screening has become part of the normative behavior of expectant mothers, and compliance with this behavior is seen as indicating responsibility for the future of the child. Refusal to comply with this behavior may be labeled, conversely, as irresponsible.[55] Because Israeli culture is very informal, women who discuss their decisions not to partake in prenatal genetic testing face social disapproval expressed both tacitly and openly by their peers.[56]

Acceptance of prenatal genetic testing and selective abortion is made possible by the low tolerance of disability in Israeli Jewish culture, which results not only in families dreading the idea of having a child with special needs, but also with the low level of support given by the government to families with disabled children. In a society that does not provide adequate support for children with disabilities, parents fear that a child with disabilities will be too great a burden, emotionally and financially.[57] As, according to Jewish law and popular Israeli perception, a fetus is not yet a child, deciding to abort a child because of possible disability is not viewed as a discriminative practice, but instead as a way to insure a high quality of life for children born in Israel.[58] Willingness to abort a fetus because of a possible defect may also be explained by Jewish attitudes toward suffering. Unlike the Christian tradition, in which suffering is punishment for the original sin and dealing with suffering is seen as a challenge from G-d, the Jewish tradition does not glorify suffering and tries to prevent it.[59] In this context, there is no meaning behind the suffering of a child with a disability and its family, and prevention of the suffering (perceived as greater in Israel because of the low tolerance for disabilities) is merciful and responsible.

Genetic testing and selective abortion have become so much the norm in Israeli society that children born with disabilities or their parents are able to bring lawsuits to court on the assumption that, had they received accurate information, they would have aborted the fetus. “Wrongful birth” suits, in which parents sue genetic counselors or gynecologists, claiming that they would have terminated the pregnancy had they been properly informed of the fetus’s diagnosis, and “Wrongful life” suits, in which the infant sues the medical agent because of an incorrect diagnosis, claiming that had the parents been given accurate information the claimant never would have been born and would not have to suffer living with a disability or hereditary disease, have both been accepted in Israeli courts.[60] Israel’s permissive stance on abortions because of possible defects found in the fetus allows for the assertion that the parents, with the right information, would have aborted the child, thus making the “wrongful life” and “wrongful birth” arguments possible.[61] Yael Hashiloni-Dolev notes that while Israeli law does not acknowledge that a fetus has any rights to life, under Israeli law the fetus does have the retroactive right, determined in a “wrongful life” case, not to have been born handicapped.[62] The existence of these legal precedents may lead genetic counselors to encourage women to partake in genetic testing and to abort a fetus with a possible defect, for fear of a lawsuit should a child with a defect be born.[63]

The issue of abortion in Israel walks the tightrope between the state’s pronatal attitude, influenced by religious and political dimensions, and the nature of Israel as a modern, Western country wherein families adopt lifestyles that involve low fertility. The low abortion rates in Israel coupled by the lack of moral argument because of the fetus’s non-human status in Jewish law means that abortion is a low-profile issue in Israel, but it is nevertheless an important one. Bridging the gap between abortion as a choice against motherhood and the cultural celebration of the role of the mother stands the issue of prenatal genetic testing and selective abortion, wherein the choice not to carry a pregnancy to term is constructed as one align with the concept of “good motherhood.” In this case, the choice not to have a child, and thus not to become a mother, can itself, somewhat paradoxically, be an act of good motherhood. This changes the nature of motherhood in Israel - the mother is unsure if she will carry the fetus to term because of the possibility of selective abortion for genetic reasons, transforming a pregnancy into a tentative experience. The mother may feel that she cannot bond with the baby for fear that she will have to make the decision to abort it, and the lack of bonding leads to a further construct of the fetus as not-human, making an abortion more of a possibility.[64]

If the decision to abort a pregnancy can be constructed as “good motherhood,” this may have implications for women who lost their fetuses in a miscarriage or during the first 30 days of the baby’s life, when according to traditional Jewish law and to the law of the State of Israel, the baby was not yet a person.[65] Although pregnancy loss and death of a newborn may continue engender a feeling of failure to fulfill the social ideal and expectations of motherhood, perhaps a growing body of women who have chosen to abort their pregnancies in order to prevent the suffering of their children will lead to a new societal category of almost-mothers, a category that will give these women a place to speak and acknowledge their identity as “good mothers” even though they never had the experience of giving birth to a baby that survived to be acknowledged as a person in society.

Abortion in Israel, however, is not only a question of good motherhood, or ensuring that the potential mother has an opportunity to prevent the suffering of her potential child, but is more often a question of the potential suffering of the mother herself. The flexibility and conservatism of Israeli law and interpretations by individual abortion committees centers around the question of how much carrying the pregnancy to term could harm the mother physically, psychologically, or in terms of causing her shame (in the case of a pregnancy conceived outside of marriage). In a debate not centered on feminist ideals, the woman’s right to choose is not in question. It is the medical institutions and the government that set the framework for whether a pregnancy can be aborted, based on guidelines about how the pregnancy may harm the potential mother. These decisions include moral decisions about acceptable sexual behavior and construction of families, such that a pregnancy conceived out of wedlock is considered a great enough shame to merit abortion, and the idealization and elevation of motherhood such that the pregnancy of a healthy married woman legally must be brought to term, as it is inconceivable that such a pregnancy could harm the potential mother. An intrusive and paternalistic system controls the bodies of the women themselves, a practice to which Israel-born women seem not to object to but that Russian-born women who come from outside of Israeli societal norms find uncomfortable and unnecessary. Despite the intrusiveness of Israeli law regarding abortion, women who do obtain abortions are able to do so in an environment where their decisions are considered acceptable and the question of a fetus’s right to life is not present. In abortion for reasons other than the clause regarding possible defect in the fetus, the abortion does not occur in the context of “good motherhood” but it also does not occur in the context of murder or immorality. Rather, judgment is centered around questions of sexual responsibility, issues that are easier for women undergoing the abortion procedure to handle emotionally. Women undergoing the crisis of problematic pregnancy may be able to recover faster and more fully in Israel than in other Western countries with more conservative attitudes toward abortion.

The issue of abortion in Israel shows the convergence of conservatism and non-Christian perspectives that in other contexts might be considered liberal. A paternalistic and conservative attitude toward fertility does not prevent the legalization of abortion because of a conservative attitude toward religion – in this case a religion that is permissive and flexible on the issue of abortion. Women who undergo abortions in Israel do so in this framework in which the fetus is not considered fully human, but in which the decision to abort may be perceived as going against women’s “national mission” of motherhood. Thus, the issue of abortion in Israel involves a balance between the pronatalist attitude of the state and the flexible attitude toward abortion as professed in the official state religion and as adopted by a modern, Western, secular society.

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Okun, Barbara S. (1997) “Innovation and Adaption in Fertility Transition: Jewish Immigrants to Israel from Muslim North Africa and the Middle East.” Population Studies, 51:3 (317-335)

Remennick, Larissa I. (2006) “The quest after the Perfect Baby: Why Do Israeli Women Seek Prenatal Genetic Testing?” Sociology of Health and Illness, 28/1 (21-53).

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[1] Sered 22

[2] Birenbaum-Carmeli 102, Toren 64, Landau 74

[3] Yishai 217

[4] DellaPergola 33; Central Intellegence Agency: The World Factbook

[5] Sered 25

[6] Landau 71

[7] Birenbaum-Carmelli 110

[8] Wilder 137

[9][9][9] Wilder 137, citing public opinion polls published in Yishai Y. (1993) “The hidden agenda: Abortion politics in Israel.” Policy Studies Journal, 7 (270-289).

[10][10] Wilder 137

[11] Hashiloni-Dolev, A Life (Un) Worthy of Living 86

[12] Yishai 214

[13] Wilder 138

[14] Hashiloni-Dolev, A Life (Un) Worthy of Living101

[15] Davis 316

[16] Hashiloni-Dolev “Reproductive Genetics…” 136

[17] Hashiloni-Dolev “Reproductive Genetics…” 136

[18] Hashiloni-Dolev “Reproductive Genetics…”136, Davis 318

[19] Hashiloni-Dolev, A Life (Un) Worthy of Living 99

[20] Hashiloni-Dolev, A Life (Un) Worthy of Living 97

[21] Yishai 217

[22] Levine 322

[23] Levine 391, Hashiloni-Dolev, A Life (Un) Worthy of Living 98

[24] Friends of Efrat website: www.friendsofefrat.org

[25] Yishai 209. 223

[26] Birnbaum-Carmeli 106

[27] Sered 35

[28] Wilder 139 Remennick and Hetsroni 195

[29] Remennick and Hetrsoni 195-196, citing Sabatello, E. F. (1993) “The impact of induced abortion on fertility in Israel” Social Science and Medicine, 36, (703-707) and The Alan Guttmacher Institute (1999) “Sharing Responsibility: Women, society, and Abortion Worldwide”, NY, The Alan Guttmacher Institute. In Israel, in the 1950’s and 1960’s abortion was used as a standard method of limiting births. The decline in number of abortions is linked to the adoption of new contraceptive practices. (Wilder 140)

[30] Remennick and Hetsroni 195

[31] Remennick and Segal 56

[32] Remennick and Segal 57

[33] Remennick and Segal 60-61

[34] Remennick and Segal 62

[35] Landau 68

[36] Wilder 141, 155

[37] Friedlander 123

[38] Okun 333

[39] Wilder 154

[40] Sabatello 118

[41] Remennick and Segal 51

[42] Remennick and Segal 52 citing David, H. P. (1992) “Abortion in Europe, 1920-1991: a public health perspective. Studies in Family Planning, 23 (1-22); Sabatello, E. F. (1993) “The impact of induced abortion on fertility in Israel” Social Science and Medicine, 36, (703-707); and Central Bureau of Statistics of Israel (CBS) (1998) Demographic Characteristics of Applicant for Pregnancy Termination (Jerusalem: CBS)

[43] Sabatello 12

[44] Remennick and Segal 57, 62

[45] Remennick and Segal 60

[46] Remennick and Segal 60

[47] Yefat

[48] Yefat

[49] Hashiloni-Dolev “Between Mothers, Fetuses, and Society” 131

[50] Remennick 21

[51] Remennick 22

[52] Remennick 21

[53] Remennick 21, 26

[54] Remennick 21

[55] Remennick 26

[56] Remennic 46

[57] Remennick 26

[58] Hashiloni-Dolev “Between Mothers, Fetuses and Society” 130-131

[59] Hashiloni-Dolev A Life (Un)Worthy of Living 128

[60] Hashiloni-Dolev A Life (Un)Worthy of Living 119-120

[61] Remennick 123

[62] Hashiloni-Dolev A Life (Un)Worthy of Living 124

[63] Hashiloni-Dolev A Life (Un)Worthy of Living 124

[64] Remennick 22

[65] Gazit