Israeli Mothers Struggle to Keep Sabbath Tradition Alive

by Kaavya on  March 22, 2008 at 2:05 PM Lifestyle News
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It seems that good food, lively conversations and a loving Jewish mother are not enough to convince young Israelis to come home on Friday for the traditional Sabbath dinner.
Israeli Mothers Struggle to Keep Sabbath Tradition Alive
Israeli Mothers Struggle to Keep Sabbath Tradition Alive

It used to be that on most such nights, when the Jewish Sabbath begins, many extended families would gather for a noisy dinner marked by copious amounts of food and a heated political debate.

Before the feast begins, the head of the family reads a prayer and raises a glass full to the brim with Kiddush, or prayer wine, and then breaks bread with the others. A woman then lights candles to usher in the holy day.

But nowadays, it seems that more and more Israelis prefer skipping the centuries-old tradition for more intimate, quiet dinners at home or evenings out with friends.

"With the years, the family nucleus is disappearing," says Danny Halper, 30, a graphic designer from Tel Aviv who rarely makes it to his family get-together an hour's drive north in Haifa.

"I think the idea of a traditional Friday dinner is something nostalgic that reminds people of old times and of a historic Israel of 30 or 40 years ago, but it is simply no longer like that.

"My excuse is that going to my mother's place in Haifa every weekend is too much. There are other reasons, too. We are tired, we have other plans, we prefer going out with friends," Halper says.

Statistics to support the apparent trend are hard to come by.

But the decline has led a group of public figures, including a top model, artists, a basketball star, a celebrity weatherman and a former politician to form an association aimed at reviving Friday dinner.

The group calls itself Shishi Mishpachti -- Hebrew for Friday with the Family -- and has launched an expensive awareness campaign to revive the Jewish tradition.

One television ad shows grandpa and grandma eating alone at a long, empty dinner table, reminiscing of the days past of noisy family meals.

And a website offers practical advice for those who consider the family gatherings a bore, including tips for holding interesting conversation and letters from Israeli expats longing to be with their families.

"Everyone is familiar with the busy routine of modern life, a routine dedicated mainly to advancing our careers and a relentless competition aimed at making a fortune," says the Shishi website.

The traditional Friday prayers and rituals are also provided on the website, for those who have lost the habit, or never even learned it.

For those who are too busy to call to invite their family for dinner, the website provides a special e-mailing service to do the job.

According to a survey conducted for the group, one in four Israeli Jewish families do not meet even once a week even though 84 percent of Israelis believe a weekly family meeting to be "important or very important".

Oz Almog, a professor of sociology at the Emek Yesre'el academic college, says the traditional Friday dinner among Jewish Israeli families is less popular than ever.

"Compared to the 1950s, there are fewer family events nowadays. Back then there was no television, no clubs, fewer cars and restaurants and less reasons not to be with the family," he said.

"The Friday dinner today faces tough competition in the form of TV, clubs and restaurants, but it is still a very central part of the Israeli life and tradition," Almog says.

Halper believes that when he and his wife, Rona, have kids, they will return to the tradition.

"I would like to go back to having weekly meals and get-togethers with my family," he said.

Zohar Lev and fiancee Noa Zarzif see their families nearly every weekend, and they love it.

"We usually see my family on Friday evening and Noa's family for lunch on Saturday. It is the only way for us to see our brothers and sisters and their children. The food is great too," says Zohar.

Although religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews count for only 20 percent of Israel's Jewish population of 5.5 million, the vast majority of Israeli Jews practice some Jewish traditions on the Sabbath and religious holidays.

Critics say that despite its attractive packaging, the Shishi Mishpachti initiative is inadvertently distancing itself and its target audience from the traditional, Jewish origins of the Friday dinner.

"Secular advertisers are scared to death of branding something as 'Jewish'," publicist Uri Orbach, himself religious, wrote in his column on the Y-Net website.

"Even when they try to sell such a Jewish product, they shiver from fear that someone will get on to them, that someone from their cultural milieu will suspect they are trying to convert people back to Judaism, God forbid.

"One can encourage the weekly family dinner, but there is no need to hide with such zeal its links to Judaism and the Sabbath," Orbach wrote.

Source: AFP

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