I don't talk much about politics on this blog. In fact, I don't talk much about politics at all. I used to be a bit more political (not tremendously so, but a little bit), but since having children the primary focus of my world has shrunk to the size of my family and friends. I just don't often have the energy left over for the very serious business of politics. And serious it is.
Politics here in Israel is a life or death issue, with both sides believing that the very fate of the country hangs in the balance. With so much at stake, passions in this wonderful but tremendously argumentative country (as the expression goes, two Jews, three opinions) understandably run high. At the same time as the country is split right down the middle politically, there is also a huge, yawning gap between those who classify themselves as secular versus those who see the world through the eyes of religion. The size of this gap is difficult to comprehend to those of you who live in countries where there is separation of church and state. Here there is not, and the battle being waged is for the very souls of the citizens - will Sabbath observance be mandated by law or can individuals decide for themselves whether they wish to spend their day in prayer or in the mall? Do the ultra-orthodox deserve a government stipend paying them to study full-time and exempting them from the draft? Is their studying Torah in fact a higher calling so worthy that the secular majority should be financing it, or is it exploitation? Or worse, blackmail?
There are so many differences in this country. Jew and Arab. Religious and secular. Left wing and right wing. Hawks, doves. Ashkenazi or Sephardi. Rich or poor. It never ends. Everyone somehow ends up feeling like a persecuted minority for something.
Here in the blogosphere, differences can be seen in the mommy wars we hear so much about. Working versus staying at home. Breastfeeding versus bottle-feeding. Co-sleeping versus cry-it-out. Bloggers who accept paid ads versus those who don't.
So many ways to distance ourselves from each other, so many ways to define ourselves as "not them".
Several years ago I decided to become a lactation consultant. Everyone I asked said the best course, the only course worth taking, was taught by one particular woman. The year I took it, she offered the course in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The Tel Aviv class, held in a classroom at a local hospital, was nearly full, one short of capacity at 29 women. Full in fact of women very much like me - in background, in belief systems, in approach, in appearance. The Jerusalem class was given in a tiny room in the teacher's own clinic and was limited by the size of the room to just nine women. I debated which class to join. Jerusalem was much further away, but by the time I factored in traffic and (extremely expensive) parking I realized that the difference in commuting time would be a mere 5-10 minutes. At that point there was no question. The intimate Jerusalem setting was infinitely more appealing (albeit colder, MUCH colder, but that's a story for another day), sitting on rocking chairs and couches in a small circle, instead of in a sterile classroom in the hospital. I didn't realize when I made my decision how profoundly it would come to affect me.
For next eight months, I made the drive up to Jerusalem once a week, to spend 6 intensive hours (and that's before you factor in the clinical time) learning the foundation of my new profession. We could not have been a more diverse group. The teacher was an American-born ultra-orthodox grandmother. Three of the students were ultra-orthodox, extremely traditional religious Jews who try to lives their lives with minimal contact with the world at large. One was even from one of the world's most closed societies - that of Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood. This mother of ten, from a society so different from my own that I can barely conceive of what her life must be like, was one of the gentlest, kindest souls I have ever met. Three more women were modern orthodox, meaning they were observant Jews but lived and participated willingly in the outside world. The other three of us were secular, or non-observant, Jews.
We were all learning the same course materials, but we came at the discussions from wildly different places. I had never known for example, or for that matter ever even wondered, whether mother's milk is considered "pareve", which means neither milk nor meat, and therefore not affected by the Jewish dietary laws requiring the separation of the two (it is in fact). My religious fellow students had trouble grasping some of the issues secular mothers might face, things like how to balance a high-powered career with the needs of a breastfeeding baby.
We couldn't understand why they would turn to a (male) rabbi for the answer to an intimate personal question, they couldn't understand why we wouldn't. There were dozens of issues like this, when the chasm between us seemed unbridgeable.
And yet, as the weeks and months passed, something happened. We became closer. We became friends. We began to call each other between classes to discuss cases and share opinions. We talked of a monthly coffee meeting to keep the connections strong.
On the day we turned in our final exam the teacher asked each of us what we felt we had gotten out of the class.
I looked around the room at my classmates on that last day and saw not a group of fellow students but rather a group of women I was proud to call friends. Yes, friends. More than any counseling method, or breastfeeding technique, or knowledge of physiology, that realization was the most important thing I took away from that class. It was the ability to say "my friend from Mea Shearim", and to mean it.What I learned that day, and what I strive to remember every day since then, is this:
What unites us is much, MUCH stronger than that which divides us.
As a society, we need to learn that lesson. It's still not too late. We can't let it be too late. Real progress, real healing, can only begin when we stop seeking to define ourselves as "not them" and start seeing ourselves at part of a greater but wonderfully diverse whole.
This post was written for Scribbit's September Write-Away contest. The theme for this month is "learning".