Israel is a Jewish state. You don’t realize what this means until you are here over a Sabbath. Elevator service in hotels is restricted to the Sabbath elevator. Meal service in your hotel is limited to a table spread with previously prepared food. The omelet station is not manned. Even the coffee is restricted to instant replicas of the actual thing; you make do with hot water with coffee overtones. Shops are shuttered. Restaurants are darkened; chairs are upside down on the tables. Phone service is limited and the Internet may be shut down, depending on where you are. If you want to eat out at night on Saturday you have to wait an extra two hours after the conclusion of the Sabbath, while the restaurant is put back together and the kitchen is fired up and ready to go.
Even if the majority of Israeli Jews are non-observant, the Orthodox establishment continues to set the agenda for religion and, particularly, Sabbath observance. Only this year did xxx, the new mayor of Jerusalem, approve and sponsor the rehabilitation of the old central rail station into a multi-purpose facility incorporating shops, kiosks, and several restaurants that, yes, remain open on the Sabbath.
Think about this from an American point of view for a moment. Sunday was always the day of rest, though the blue laws that once restricted weekend sale of alcohol and other stuff have been swept away in all but a few places. Even in big cities like New York and Philadelphia and Chicago with large populations of Jews, the Sabbath was not a day of rest. Unless you were lucky to have a Monday to Friday nine to five, you might be working late on Fridays and on Saturdays as well.
Once you experience the opposite extreme you begin to understand, as anyone other than a Jew, what a marginalizing and isolating event Sunday must be. Even in this supposedly liberated time, the residual heritage of Sunday and Christian festival observance continues to color the Jewish experience of America.
Until you have this opposite experience you don’t fully understand the significance of Israel. Sure, it is a Jewish state modeled on American democracy. Indeed it is a place where Jewish presence is dominant, the street signs are in Arabic as well as Hebrew and English. But it’s the little victories that add up, and Sabbath observance – for all that secular Jews might themselves complain – is one of the most evident, indeed ubiquitous, of the signs that the Jewish persona is truly honored and made special.