Balm in Gilead

Editor’s Note: In late 2018, the Jewish Review of Books announced its first reader review competition, open to any short review on a book of Jewish interest that we hadn’t already reviewed in our pages or on our website. After reading through dozens of entries, we are pleased to announce that Gita Segal Rotenberg has been chosen as the winner. Her review of Dati Normali appears below. We thank all our readers who participated!

A dati normali is what Uri Orbach saw when he looked in the mirror: a normal, religious Jew. He was also a journalist, later a member of Knesset, and it was in these predominantly secular circles that he spent his working days. The essays bound together in this collection originally appeared in Hebrew as newspaper columns. Some are bitter, others humorous, but all seek to understand the current Israeli scene.

Sadly, Uri Orbach died at the age of 55, but during his short life he made many contributions to Jewish life in Israel. Dati Normali reflects his struggles to understand the divisions and tensions in Israeli society. He was committed to presenting dati (religious) Judaism to his hiloni (secular) colleagues as a powerful guide to bringing value and civility to the world at the same time that he deeply honored the richness and fortitude of the hiloni contributions to the Jewish state. Quite a balancing act. Orbach was an equal-opportunity critic. He was as disappointed with his religious community’s arrogance toward the secular world as he was saddened by the ignorance of the secular world in matters Jewish.

In the chapter “Tanach Without a Kippa,” he writes of a growing interest among the hilonim in studying Jewish texts. The problem is that no matter what these studies comprise, many in his dati world arrogantly discount them as inauthentic Judaism. Orbach writes that hiloni students should decide for themselves whether or not to wear a kippa while studying, or how they should understand Rashi, or if they should create coed yeshivot: “This is not my call. What is of importance is that they study.”

In a chapter entitled “There Is No One with Whom to Talk,” Orbach addresses the hiloni community; here the reader can feel the author’s frustration and profound sadness with the speed at which secularism is deepening. One doesn’t have to be dati to know one’s roots. Yet, he observes, Israeli children are growing up without the rudiments of Jewish life and history and remain ignorant of why they are living in Israel and what might be their connection to Jews living in other parts of the world.

Uri Orbach’s original thinking could be a balm in Gilead for our times. This collection of essays begs for an English translation; diaspora Jewry, too, is in need of his counsel.

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