Bringing home the bacon in Israel is easier than it used to be. In a recent ruling, Israel's Supreme Court permitted butchers in Beit Shemesh to sell pork, and declared that each neighborhood could determine the legality of selling non-kosher meat based on the majority preference. Prior to the case, the Beit Shemesh city council-backed by religious residents-banned the sale of pig meat and demanded that non-kosher shops move to an industrial zone. But the butchers, mostly secular Russian immigrants with little knowledge of Judaism, claimed that moving would negatively affect their businesses.
The court decision infuriated religious Israelis who felt that pig meat should not be made available in a Jewish country. "The High Court judges have no sensitivity for matters of consensus in the Jewish people," remarked Knesset Member Rabbi Moshe Gafni. "The High Court is eradicating the Jewish identity of the state."
The feud in Beit Shemesh mirrors deep divisions in Israeli society, where-for the most part-h.iloni (secular) and dati (religious) communities live, study, and play in separate neighborhoods, school systems, and youth movements.
But segregation like this not only prevents secular and religious people from meeting, it also leads to stereotyping, which can lead to conflict.
Enter Rabbi Benji Levene, who refuses to stand idly by as religious differences erode Israeli society. "In crazy times you sometimes have to use crazy shtick," he explains as he prepares to take the stage for a performance of "Four Faces of Israel," his original, one-man act that teaches Israelis to laugh at themselves while learning to appreciate different perspectives. In the show, Levene dresses up as four characters from different communities in Israel. "My goal is to break down stereotypes," Levene says. "One thing I've learned through my work is that no side has the answer. All sides have to understand that to live together, we all need to respect each other."
While in character, Levene takes questions from the audience, improvising new material, and always counseling to give others the benefit of the doubt. He concludes each presentation with a post-performance pitch for unity. Naturally, Israelis' reactions depend on which character they're watching. "It's very easy to make fun of another person," Levene explains, "but it's upsetting when somebody makes fun of someone like you. And that's what I try to do-to open people's eyes up, to look at the other side, and to look at the other person."
Levene is serious about using humor to bridge the gaps in Israeli society. "I see people laughing in the audience," he explains, "and I would do the show for that alone. But the message is so powerful: Despite the stereotypes, we're all one family."
Indeed, Levene likes to compare his four characters to the four species-lulav (palm), etrog (citron), aravah (willow), and hadas (myrtle)-on which we make blessings every Sukkot. "They're all a part of us," he explains. "You can buy the best etrog for $1,000, but if you don't have one of those cheap aravot (willows), you can't make a blessing. We all have to work together. We're all part of Am Yisrael."
Meet the Characters
Name: Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Deutsch
Who he is: A nearsighted, sneezy, ultra-Orthodox father of 18 who fears modernity and the corrupting influence of the Israeli army
What he says: “Weapons don’t protect us. What has guarded us through the years is spiritual strength. Ah-choo!”
Name: Motti Cohen
Who he is: A chain-smoking, anti-religious Zionist bus driver who believes that passing Judaism on to his children is the schools’ job
What he says: “The chief rabbis in Israel don’t have the right to tell me on what day to celebrate Yom Kippur. If I respect the religious, they should respect me.”
Name: Harry Abelson
Who he is: A wealthy American Jew from Los Angeles who contributes generously to Israel, where he is visiting for the 228th time
What he says: “Does the whole world really need to know that I gave $4.5 million last year? Okay, then, I did!”
Name: Jean-Paul Simone
Who he is: A French Jewish immigrant artist living in Tzefat with his non-Jewish wife, Christine, and son, Noel
What he says: “Ze problem in zees country iz zat we are always living in ze past. No one lives in ze present. Do you have any wine?”