Something Was Missing
by Ruth Calderon
translated by Ilana Kurshan
Jewish Publication Society, 184 pp., $21.95
After she was elected to Knesset last year, Ruth Calderon was invited to deliver her inaugural speech from the dais. The invitation was a matter of Israeli parliamentary custom, but the speech was something else. Calderon read a talmudic legend about a certain Rabbi Rehumi and his wife in the original Aramaic (“for the music,” she said), following it with a Hebrew translation and discussion.
Calderon’s Knesset Talmud lesson was a very public demonstration—it has over 250,000 hits on YouTube—of the significance of the secular Israeli “return to the Jewish bookcase” (ha-hazara la-aron ha-sefarim ha-yehudi), which began in the 1960s and picked up momentum over the last two decades. In her Knesset speech, Calderon told the story of how she and many of her contemporaries came to the study of rabbinic texts. As a pupil in the secular Jewish Israeli school system she had felt that “something was missing.” The schools she attended had aimed to liberate their students from diaspora values by de-emphasizing Jewish history and literature from the period of the destruction of the Second Temple until the rise of Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel (“from the Tanakh to the Palmach”). She acknowledged that her teachers largely succeeded in inspiring their pupils to adopt this identity of “the new Hebrew . . . [who] realized their dream and became a courageous, practical, and suntanned soldier,” but it was not enough: