[Photo taken by Joshua Tartakovsky (C) All Rights Reserved 2015]
Although I took time off from writing and from commenting on daily affairs, the recent viewing of the excellent Israeli TV show ‘Shtisel,’ an intimate portrayal of ultra-Orthodox Jewish life in Jerusalem, made me reflect on the steps I took from being an ultra-Orthodox teenager to where I am today.
There was a lot of beauty in the religious world. A life of dedication to learning, appreciation of a page full with small text and delving on it for hours, taking part in a religious ritual or early mornings at the western wall where one can disconnect oneself from the constant worries and preoccupations and feel the sanctity of the moment, live life in a deeper way without needing to buy anything for the experience, sabbath as a day of rest in which one enters a different realm, the power of reading the Psalms by sacred places as grave stones of saints in Tsfat and so on.
But religious life in its ultra-Orthodox version was suffocating for me personally as a teenager. I was clueless about the world, about global events, literature, theater, biology, science, how to date, how the world works, and so on. In addition, I felt disconnected from life itself. My own emerging desires were deemed sinful, and I could not experience life freely without restraint or fear in the beach or at a party in the forest. There was too much suffocation, fear of what others think, a denial of one’s own intuition, and closure from the rest of the world, for my taste anyway (of course it works for many others and that’s OK.)
I became fascinated and charmed by the west, particularly Europe and the United States. I received an excellent education in the US and met amazing people. In the US, unlike in Israel, no one would judge me, there was immense liberty to explore, and there was exposure to all the cultural riches I longed for. In a welcoming and free environment, I could not only have the liberty to live as I wish but could also meet people from all over the world who were, as individuals, free to be as they wished. The freedom of possibilities was immense.
But over time I realized something is missing, especially after the college years when I entered the working world. Brown University was an amazing community of people dedicated to learning and encouraging others, the real world was not.
True, in the west there was greater freedom than in the tight-knit religious world I came from, and in American and European cities one had exposure to the top museums and galleries, theater and cinema.
As a first stage in one’s evolution, freedom is the essential and fundamental component in coming to one’s own understanding *assuming one is dedicated to such a task, as not all are. But I also came to realize that life in the capitalist west is quite lonely, and after graduation most people are concerned with self-enrichment and not with communal or spiritual pursuits. Furthermore, people live as atoms, and even the luxury of visiting a museum is one which one needs to pay for and which few have the time for, as they are constrained by work.
The vast experience of freedom I encountered in the west hit a dead wall once one had no money. In other countries in Europe one can still get by somehow with little but in the US, it’s all or nothing.
In Israel, both in ultra-Orthodox communities and even in secular Israel to a large degree (and the same kind of tight friendships also exist in Palestinian communities), people can rely on strong friendship and emotional support, confide intimately, and there is more to life than just accumulating things. In the west people are, due to the conditions of the market, struck in a rat race.
So I had freedom but I still missed something. I had freedom but I had no one to share it with. Everyone was too busy. And too eager to show how successful they were to be genuine.
Where was the community?
A community of some degree is knowing that if you are on your own and need medical care, it will be provided for a low price or it will be provided for free.
A community is knowing you can have a real interaction with people based on genuine communication and enjoy the experience of being human because joking around at the moment is more important than constant accumulation, or at the very least, the former should not be abandoned.
In Brazil and in Cuba, I encountered communities where a community did not mean blind submission of members but room for personal expression and yet where people were joined together in ties of love and warmth despite the poverty. (Note that both countries are countries of immigrants and not of people from the same ethnicity, hence their uniqueness in managing to create deeper ties). In Cuba, there was a community, not just individuals. Healthcare was provided freely for people who were concerned about their neighbors and neighborhoods, not just their own. Arts were flourishing and a dazzling array of artistic creativity could be seen. People were very educated and knowledgable and intellectual conversations could be held with people on the street on global affairs. At the same time, in western countries, people are being pushed more and more to pursue professional degrees which bring in profit but cut us from from the humanities, schools are being restructured according to neoliberal demands, history and social sciences are being continuously underfunded, with a deliberate goal to diminish their appeal. Of course, such an effort creates a less educated, less humane, less knowledgable and less cultural society.
Of course the very possibility of a direct unmitigated human contact both scares and attracts the western man and woman who created a persona over their work and career. While western people overwork, in Brazil people live more in their bodies and despite common poverty are less worried and enjoy better sexual relations and dance better than many westerners. And of course each society has the right to pursue it’s ideals so long as it does not step over others. The west can be capitalist so long as it does not invade countries (if individuals in the west dislike it then let them change it), and Cuba can be socialist. Therefore, I’m not advocating the triumph of one’s school over there other, and certainly not by violent means. However, for me personally with my particular background, I found in Cuba a better sense of community which also provided a richer experience of being human -n0t as an atom but as part of others- than I did in the west. This makes sense since even if one ignores the pro and anti communist arguments, the justifiable criticism regarding the lack of incentive and the natural need of people to want more based on individualist tastes and the immense misery and poverty in Latin America, humans used to engage in sharing in hunter-gatherer communities and were not always atoms on the race as we are today. Of course, one can still ask whether freedom should be the primary value rather than not community. I will leave this as an open question but just say that many Latin American communities will probably offer many alienated westerners who also suffer from depression and isolation a deeper sense of connection and belonging which they longed for earlier but did not know could be found. It should also be said that everything comes at a price and without sacrifice and hard work nothing worthwhile can be obtained (even though we are brainwashed to assume that ‘happiness’ is our ‘natural right.’)
Joshua Tartakovsky, 13 July 2016