Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Holy Land Diary: Russell Shalev

A young Canadian-born Jew explains why he moved to Israel, the land of his forefathers?
Holy Land Diary: Russell Shalev

On my recent trip to Jerusalem and the Holy Land, I did a few interviews with local people for my upcoming book about re-enchantment. One of them was with Russell Shalev, 31, a reader of this blog who reached out to me. He moved to Israel eight years ago from Montreal. We had lunch in the Mamilla shopping mall, just outside Jerusalem’s Old City. I talked to him about what drew him from Canada back to the land of his ancestors.

Rod Dreher: Tell me why you came here.

Russell Shalev: I grew up in Montreal in a non-religious but traditional family. Our house was kosher, but my family didn’t keep kosher out of the house. We had Friday night dinners, and celebrated the holidays. I grew up in a very Jewish bubble — non-religious, but I went to Hebrew school, summer camp, everybody around me was Jewish. But at the same time, I grew up in Quebec, where issues of identity are very much in the air. On the one hand, this story of French vs. English really isn’t my story. And my grandfather’s family was Israeli. They were originally Spanish Jews who came to Israel about 200 years ago from north Africa. He moved to Canada in the Fifties. He never really thought he was going to be there forever. So I grew up very, very connected to Israel.

As I was growing up, I was always very connected to my Jewish identity, but it didn’t make sense to me that we were learning about kosher, and our house was kosher, but we didn’t do it outside. Or that we were members of a synagogue, but we only went there on the holidays. In my head, Israel and Judaism and Zionism were all one, and my family roots, it was all one big thing mixed together. I always wanted to come and live in Israel. There’s just this feeling of being at home. Even on the most basic level, it’s Passover now, and signs everywhere say, “Happy Holidays,” and there’s kosher food everywhere.

I live in a suburb near Tel Aviv. It’s mostly religious, but it’s a mix. There are native Israelis, but it’s a mix. There are native Israelis but whose people come from Eastern Europe, from Arab countries, from Iran. There are also recent immigrants from North America and France. Everybody’s difference, but there’s this commonality. Every time I came to Israel when I was younger, there was always a war or something. The first time I came was in 2006, during the Second Lebanon War. We got here, and this war started, and we had no idea where we were staying. Suddenly there was this commonality, this shared experience. The war was in the north, but we were in Eilat, the most southern part. People who had left their homes were there, spending a few weeks. There was this feeling that we were all one people, we were all in this together. It was a very powerful feeling.

I have two kids, a four and a half year old, and a ten month old. My daughter’s kindergarten, she comes home every day and tells us the story of the Exodus from Egypt. She’s like, “Abba, don’t leave my room, I’m afraid the Pharaoh is going to attack me.” It’s just very powerful.

Tell me more about the call of the land itself. Lots of Jews who have a very intense Jewish life in Israel, and other places. Why was it important for you to come back to the land? 

A few things. Historically, Jewish religion and nationality have been one and the same. It’s mostly a recent thing, in terms the the Emancipation. For example, you can be French citizens, but you’re French citizens of the Mosaic faith. Jews had to give up Jewish nationality. Part of the modern birth of the Zionist movement were mostly secular Jews. They weren’t keeping Jewish religion, and they didn’t have room to express themselves as Jews, with Jewish nationalism, in Europe. You’ve heard of Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of [Palestine under the British Mandate, 1920-48], the father of religious Zionism? He talks about how, in many ways, the Jewish nation was a nation under God, and that there’s no way to separate Jewish nationalism from Jewish religion.

And you agree with that?

Yes. And Jewish nationalism, while outwardly secular, inside it’s holy. The roots of Israeli national symbol are ultimately religious symbols. The [blue and white] Israeli flag is supposed to evoke the prayer shawl. The national language, Hebrew, is the holy language. And so, you see today in Israel, there isn’t necessary a return to religious observance, but there is a return to tradition. My family is here visiting from Montreal for the holidays. We went two nights ago to a concert in a big park in Tel Aviv. The singer is a popular religious singer in mainstream Israeli society, but all his songs are religious songs. There were average Israelis at the concert. One of the most popular songs he’s singing is a song of praise to God. And it’s just on the radio. I don’t know, it’s just a powerful thing.

In sounds like some form of what I call the Benedict Option. You’re all together in one place with your people, and you worship together. It’s not paradise, but nevertheless it’s a place where you can feel connected horizontally to others, and vertically to God, in a place that you just can’t do anywhere else, if you’re Jewish. What made you make the decision to come?

I remember the first time I said out loud that I wanted to move to Israel. The first time we were in Israel and I went to meet my mom’s aunt and uncle and cousins who live near Tel Aviv. My mom had a small family in Montreal, and she always spoke about [her Israeli family]. I met them for the first time, and I was talking to them. I realized that I wanted to live in Israel. It was a feeling of being at home. Canada is a very good place for Jews to live. It’s a free country, there’s not a lot of anti-Semitism, and it’s a safe place for Jews. Still, you know that you are a minority. You walk around at Christmastime, and Christmas is everything. Suddenly, being here, and almost everybody you see on the streets is Jewish — that’s really powerful.

You know what I mean by ‘thin places’? Places where you can experience the holy in a special way? What are your thin places in Israel?

The city of Hevron [Hebron], the Tomb of the Patriarchs [Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob]. Most of the holy places, the historical sites, it’s hard to know what’s historically accurate, but of the places, the majority of the building itself was built by King Herod. Most of the stones themselves you can see at the Western Wall. You can see the caves, or see that there are caves there. There’s this feeling that I am touching the beginning of the Jewish people. Politically, it’s a very controversial place, but it’s a very comfortable place. Until 1967, when Israel liberated, or conquered, whatever you prefer, Hebron, Jews could only go to the seventh step of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. There’s this image from history of Jews only going to the seventh step: that we couldn’t go forward, but one day, we’re going to go forward. The truth is that the first person of the Israel army to go past it was the army’s chief rabbi, Rabbi Shlomo Goren. After the Arabs surrendered, the first order was to smash the seventh step, to say, ‘That’s it, we’re going in.” It’s a powerful place.

(We stop to eat lunch, then resume our conversation.)

We were just talking about the Passover seder, and its traditions. This all goes back to the Hebrew Bible.

Exactly. The truth is that the primary commandment of the seder, the Torah is that you will tell your children on that day what the Lord did for you, bringing you out of Egypt. So the term haggadah, the book we read on Pesach [Passover], comes from the word haggadah, which means “you shall tell.” In many ways the seder is built around doing things differently, so the children should ask questions. There’s a special song that the youngest child sings, and the song asks, “What’s different about this night?” And they ask four questions: Why do we eat matzoh? Why do we eat bitter herbs? Why do we dip our vegetables twice? Why do we recline when eating? 

There’s a special game, of hide-the-matzoh, and the child who finds it gets a special prize. So much of the seder is about telling the story to your children. The things of the seder are simple. We have the bitter herbs to symbolize how the Egyptians embittered the lives of our ancestors. We eat a certain food called charoset, which is a mix of dried fruits and wine and nuts that’s supposed to be like the mortar that the Israelites made in Egypt. We dip our vegetables in salt water which is supposed to represent the tears that the Israelites shed in captivity.

It’s just a very powerful thing to do this with your parents and grandparents. Everybody knows the songs. For the past two or three weeks my daughter, who’s four, has been learning special songs in kindergarten. She wanted to ask us the questions. So, we drink four cups of wine in the seder. It refers to the four languages of redemption. In the book of Exodus, God says to Moses, “I’ll take you out of Egypt and I’ll save you from their servitude, I’ll redeem you, and I will take you to me as a people.” And there’s a fifth line: “I will bring you to the land.” During Temple times, Jews would drink a fifth cup during seder, and so when Jews were exiled from the land, they stopped drinking the fifth cup of wine. It’s now considered to be the cup for Elijah the Prophet. It just sits there.

So the seder has past, present, and future in it. We start the seder by saying, “This is the bread of affliction, that our forefathers ate in Egypt. This year we are slaves, next year we will be free. This year we are here, next year we will be in Israel.” We read from the Book of Joshua, where we learn that in ancient times, our forefathers were idol worshipers, but God drew close to us. There’s a part where in medieval, Christian Europe, when we open the door to welcome Elijah into the house to punish the enemies of the Jews. And we end by saying, “Next year in Jerusalem.” It’s this fun night that the whole family is together to go through the past, to the present, and the future.

It’s a family liturgy.

That’s it.

There’s this great little book by the British anthropologist Paul Connerton who explains what cultures that resisted modernity did. They all have the same characteristics. They share a sacred story. They celebrate the sacred story in unvarying ritual. They experience the ritual as taking them out of time. And they have to use their bodies in the ritual. Everything you’ve said is that.

What’s amazing is that all of this is part of modern Israeli culture. There’s this expression, “We got through Pharaoh, so we’ll get through this.” Or something like, a few years ago, it was the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem after the Six Day War. There was this incredible light show right here on the walls of the Old City. There were tens of thousands of people who came to the show. Right before the Six Day War, there was this famous Israeli folk singer, Naomi Shemer, who wrote this song, “Jerusalem of Gold,” and it became like the second Israeli anthem. When the army captured the Old City [in 1967], the Chief Rabbi said, famously, “The Temple Mount is in our hands.” The paratroopers went down to the Western Wall. Some of them were secular people from the kibbutzim, and the chief rabbi blew the shofar, and some of them just cried. And they recreated it [the capture] on that night, and tens of thousands of people came out to relive this modern miracle. Everybody was feeling it together. It was really incredible.

Rabbi Shlomo Goren sounds the shofar at the Western Wall ((Source)

Do you ever experience moments of enchantment here?

Yeah,  regular moments. During all the Covid lockdowns, there was a real community in our building, a bunch of young families. We started having services in the courtyard, on Shabbat, and parties and events. Sometimes there’s just a feeling that on Shabbat, everybody’s together. It’s this feeling of being at home, of being with people who are all from different places, but we are the same.




Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here