As I write, it’s Shabbat in Israel. Even in secular areas, the country is becalmed. And even as the war starts anew, there is a kind of atmospheric peace—at least in those areas where the sirens haven’t gone off and Israel’s interceptors have been busy shooting down Gazan rockets. Here in Tel Aviv, where there have been no sirens yet—though yesterday I could hear the distant pops from them travel through the air from Holon, about 8 miles away—the streets are rather still, but not in the depressing way they were on Monday when I first arrived. It’s quiet because it’s Shabbat.
Shabbat in Tel Aviv reminds me of a great song about a different kind of Sabbath—a song.written in 1963 when “blue laws” were still in effect and kept most stores closed in observance of the day of churchgoing:
“New York on Sunday…Big city, taking a nap. Slow down, it’s Sunday, life’s a ball, let it fall into your lap.”
The song is called “Sunday in New York,” it’s by Peter Nero and Caroll Coates, originally sung by Mel Torme, and you should listen to it a hundred times—and only then you will have listened to it a fraction of the number of times I’ve listened to it in my life. Since I never really experienced that kind of Sunday in New York, I especially prize the experience of the Sabbath in Israel, even as a Jew who doesn’t himself keep the Sabbath.
What I did with my day was go to ANU: the Museum of the Jewish People, located on the campus of Tel Aviv University, one of the few places open on Shabbat. Once called the Diaspora House, or Beit Hatfutsot, this effort to commemorate the history of the Jewish people in exile before the creation of the state in 1948 has been in existence for 45 years. But it was a modest production, and a decade ago it began the process of transforming into a heritage museum whose subject is Jewish survival through the ages across the world.
ANU reopened in 2021, and it is unquestionably a major site now for Jews and anyone else interested in Jewry. I left after about 90 minutes in a condition approaching awe.
How, you have to ask yourself, did the Jewish people remain on this earth to build this country? Walk through the museum, which is largely dedicated to figures in history who managed to make a difference under the most difficult of conditions, ranging from official discrimination to the occasional but ever-possible pogrom, and you cannot but marvel at the simple fact that the museum even exists, and that it exists on a large college campus, and that it exists on a large college campus in the center of an important world city that is itself barely 100 years old. Here I was, on the Jewish Sabbath in a Jewish city in a Jewish country on a planet of 8 billion people, out of which the 14 million surviving Jews make up two-tenths of one percent, and the subject of my afternoon was: We’re here. And we’ve always been here.
Jews survived in the tiniest numbers, atomized throughout the world, through the two millennia following Christ. One exhibit features the findings of the 12th century Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela, who went from Spain around the world visiting Jewish communities, around 300 in all. He found a few hundred Jews in Greece. I myself know two Jews of Greek origin today whose ancestors must have been among those who met Benjamin on his travels. There were some in Marseilles. Some in a town called Taranto. The biggest surprise is that by far the largest Jewish community in the world seemed to have been in Yemen. Any one of these 300 communities could have been wiped out by plague or famine or just a general falling-away and assimilation into the general surrounding population and maybe some did. The point is that the Jews survived. They were tiny in number then. They are tiny in number now. And yet here we are.
It is the primary contention of our Jewish Commentary columnist, Meir Y. Soloveichik, that the creation and the flourishing of the state of Israel are themselves proof of the existence of the Jewish God. Being in Israel itself can make it hard for someone who does believe in God not to see this. Where once—maybe a little more than a century ago—there was almost nothing, there is now something powerful and beautiful. Where once two Temples stood and were destroyed 500 years apart, with the people who worshipped in them scattered in exile and then returned and then scattered again and then returned again and then scattered seemingly forever, there is the 28th richest country on earth. And all this on a planet where, twice in another 500 years, non-Jews sought to eliminate the existence of Jewry on the Iberian peninsula and then in Europe, there is Israel—facing eliminationist foes again but never to be eliminated as long as it is determined it will not be.
October 7 reaffirmed that determination. This is a small country and, even on the Sabbath, it’s not taking a nap. Rockets are going off and they’re being destroyed. Soldiers are fighting in Gaza. Israel is going to save itself from its foes and emerge the stronger for it. Such is the lesson of Jewish history.