Dionysus in Zion

By Assaf Sagiv

The new Israeli youth culture dances to an ancient tune.

The intense pressure of Israeli life, felt especially by a youth grown increasingly resentful of the heavy burden of responsibilities to society, has fed the Dionysian impulse. The eagerness with which they cast off their inhibitions is evident at the clubs and outdoor parties: “Your people celebrate as if every party might be their last,” commented a Dutch disc jockey on the unusual intensity of the Israeli scene.59 “The public here has an enormous need for this,” DJ Choopy concurs, offering his own explanation: “Maybe because of the wars, the pressure, maybe because of the sea. The weather. The atmospherics here. But what is certain is that the Israeli audience has an amazing hunger that no other audience in the world has—a totally indescribable hunger—and so it just runs with it. All the way.”60 A similar sentiment is expressed by journalist Assaf Gefen of Ma’ariv:
Trance is fundamentally an extreme genre: From the style of dress down to the pace of the beat. Its emergence as the most popular kind of music in Israel, far more than in the Western world, is apparently due to the fact that we are no less extreme. There must be some total experience—like army service, for example—to make people want to free themselves by throwing themselves into a similarly intense Eastern experience, only from a different direction. Japan is considered our most serious rival for the title of “superpower of trance,” and it too is not exactly a normal Western country.61

There is nothing new about moralizing over the state of Israeli youth. As early as 1960, the novelist S. Yizhar coined the term “the espresso generation” to express his scorn for what he saw as the hedonistic mentality of the youth of his day, and for their pursuit of things “fast, sweet and cheap.”62 A similar ring can be heard in the frequent complaints voiced today about young people by society’s older members. But most of this criticism fails to capture what has truly gone wrong in Israeli youth culture over the past decade. The real problem is not the hedonism, materialism and egocentrism that are characteristic of any bourgeois society. It is the culture’s deep Dionysian tendencies.
The force that motivates post-modern youth is not egoistic. On the contrary, it tends in the opposite direction—towards the death of the ego, the dissolution of the individual in favor of ecstatic self-abandonment.63 “First and foremost they are saying something in the somewhat desperate effort they are making here,” writes the respected journalist Ari Shavit in Ha’aretz, “in the attempt to arrive, on the dance floor, in the bathrooms and in the dark places, at some sort of epileptic authenticity, in a time and place that offer them no other kind of authenticity—and in their half-innocent surrender to the totality.”64 Pessimism, passivity and disengagement from everyday life have become the most prominent features of Israeli youth, who prefer to lose themselves in psychedelic festivals rather than come to terms directly with the complex realities of personal and public life in a country in conflict.
The burden Israeli society places upon its youth has played, no doubt, a decisive role in the Dionysian outburst of the past decade. The political, social and economic realities that surround the young Israeli have made him particularly vulnerable to the charms of the god of wine and fertility. However, the response to his call would not have been so overwhelming had Israeli society not failed to provide its young with a viable alternative ethos. The neo-pagan ecstatic revival has filled the vacuum left by the demise of the old Zionism, and has been fueled by a mistrust felt by many youth towards anything reminiscent of the grandiose slogans and utopian promises of an earlier day. Given this state of affairs, it seems that the only hope for those who are troubled by the rise of Dionysus in Zion is to nurture the same kind of countervailing cultural force which allowed past societies to ward off similar threats—not new technologies, but a new faith.

Assaf Sagiv is Assistant Editor of Azure.

1. Ma’ariv, October 3, 1999.
2. Z’man Tel Aviv, October 8, 1999.
3. Ma’ariv, October 3, 1999.
4. Pierre Brunel, ed., Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes, and Archetypes, trans. W. Allatson, J. Hayword, T. Selous (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 303-304.
5. Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Rolfe Humphries (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1967), book iv, lines 15-18, p. 81.
6. Most of the festivals in honor of Dionysus were conducted outside of the city limits, in the forests or mountains, after nightfall. Some of the festivals involved only women—the Bacchantes or Maenades (“the wild ones”)—whose unrestrained behavior is preserved in Euripides’ The Bacchae.
7. Erwin Rohde, Psyche: The Cult of Souls and Belief in Immortality among the Ancient Greeks, trans. W.B. Hills (Chicago: Ares, 1987), p. 258.
8. Erik Lund, Mogens Pihl, and Johannes Slok, A History of European Ideas, trans. W. Glyn Jones (London: C. Hurst, 1971), p. 22.
9. The merging of the believer and the god turns the person into one who is en-theos—“including the god”; thus the term enthusiasmus, i.e., “enthusiasm.”
10. Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music,” in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufman (New York: Modern Library, 1992), pp. 36, 59.
11. Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Zone, 1993), vol. ii, p. 115.
12. Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History (Princeton: Princeton, 1959).
13. Shlomo Giora Shoham, Rebellion, Creativity and Revelation (Tel Aviv: Urian, 1986), pp. 16-17. [Hebrew]
14. See Ioan M. Lewis, Ecstatic Religion (New York: Penguin, 1971). For an excellent survey of contemporary shamanistic culture, see Nahum Megged, Gates of Hope and Gates of Fear (Tel Aviv: Modan, 1998). [Hebrew]
15. The outstanding examples are the rituals of Demeter in Eleusis, Attica and Arcadia.
16. Among other things, the Dionysian cult enjoyed official status in Corinth in the days of Periandros, in Sikyon in the days of Kleisthenes, and in Athens in the days of Peisistratos. Cf. Michael Avi Yonah and Israel Shatzman, Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Classical World (New York: Harper and Row, 1981), pp. 164-165.
17. Nietzsche argued that the refined, rational, Apollonian element protected Greek culture from the expressions of barbarism and licentiousness that characterized Dionysian outbursts in other cultures. “For some time, however, the Greeks were apparently perfectly insulated and guarded against the feverish excitements of these festivals, though knowledge of them must have come to Greece on all the routes of land and sea; for the figure of Apollo, rising full of pride, held out the Gorgon’s head to this grotesquely uncouth Dionysian power—and really could not have countered any more dangerous force.” Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, p. 39. These two cultural forces, argues Nietzsche, “run parallel to each other, for the most part openly at variance,” and they “continually incite each other to new and more powerful births....” Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, p. 33.
18. It must be emphasized that ecstatic phenomena continued to exist in the framework of the great monotheistic religions, and can be seen in the activities of biblical prophets, certain Christian saints and mystics (such as Julian of Norwitch, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena and others), the Hasidic masters or the Muslim dervishes. Nevertheless, these are lacking in the frenzied element that is an inseparable part of Dionysian ecstasy. Regarding this, Abraham Joshua Heschel drew a distinction between the state of ecstasy of “the wild and fervid type,... a state of frenzy arising from overstimulation and emotional tension,” and “the sober and contemplative type, which is a rapture of the soul in a state of complete calmness, enabling a person to rise beyond the confines of consciousness.” Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, part II (New York: Harper, 1962), p. 105. Even if such “complete calmness” is not always characteristic of the ecstatic practice to be found in Judaism, Christianity or Islam, it is still obvious that these religions are constrained by a strict moral ethos that distinguishes them from the Dionysian craze of the senses. For a discussion of mystical ecstasy, see Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness (New York: Noonday, 1955); Ben-Ami Sharfstein, The Mystical Experience (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1972). [Hebrew]
19. Carlo Ginzburg, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, trans. R. Rosenthal (New York: Pantheon, 1991).
20. In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche expressed his hope that German culture, and especially Wagnerian music, would be the bearer of the Dionysian message. Later on in his writings he abandoned these hopes, and focused his longing on the return of Dionysus in the figure of the Superman.
21. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, pp. 112, 119. Emphasis in original.
22. Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert, The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1970), p. 59.
23. Martin Buber, “Zion and Youth,” in Selected Writings on Judaism and Jewish Affairs (Jerusalem: Zionist Library, 1961), vol. 2, p. 105. [Hebrew]
24. Camille Paglia, Sex, Art and American Culture: Essays (New York: Vintage, 1992), p. 212. Paglia argues that the flower children, in giving a Rousseauian spin on the Dionysian spirit, mistakenly identified it with the Freudian pleasure principle while ignoring the cruel and destructive aspect that is an inseparable part of its essence. This distortion, according to Paglia, is shared by the nineteenth-century Romantics’ understanding of the god of wine and fertility.
25. Tel Aviv, July 17, 1998.
26. Unlike such psychedelic drugs as LSD, which change the user’s state of consciousness and give him intense experiences, but of a type that it is difficult to express or to assimilate within everyday life, ecstasy is said to leave the user in a normal but intensified state of consciousness, thereby enabling him to remember and absorb his experiences while under the influence. The result is a gradual change in the person’s lifestyle. Guardian, July 22, 1995.
27. Tel Aviv, July 17, 1998.
28. Guardian, July 22, 1995.
29. Tel Aviv, July 17, 1998.
30. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, p. 37.
31. This is the significant difference between the escapist Dionysian trance culture and the spiritual pretensions of the “New Age.” Whereas the New Age movement consciously attempts to reconstruct some of the mystical elements of the pagan era, the world of raves and clubs revives the wild ecstasy of the Dionysian cult without ascribing to them any deeper significance.
32. Douglas Coupland, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (New York: St. Martin’s, 1991).
33. Ryan Moore, “‘... And Tomorrow Is Just Another Crazy Scam’: Post-Modernity, Youth, and the Downward Mobility of the Middle Class,” in Joe Austin and Michael Nerin Willard, eds., Generations of Youth: Youth Cultures and History in Twentieth-Century America (New York: New York University, 1998), p. 254.
34. Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton, 1985), vol. 2.
35. Francis J. Lescoe, Existentialism: With or Without God (New York: Alba House, 1974), p. 36.
36. Irvine Welsh, Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance (London: Vintage, 1997).
37. Tel Aviv, July 17, 1998.
38. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, p. 60. Emphasis in original.
39. Yoav Ben-Dov, “Waiting for Ben-Ami,” in Newzeek, August 1999, pp. 58-59. [Hebrew]
40. “Ecstasy—illegal and problematic as it may be—has benefited Tel Aviv nightlife. It opened up and liberated the scene, for when people are turned on, they desperately need a dance floor, like air to breathe. And there’s always someone ready to provide it.” Tel Aviv, July 17, 1998.
41. Tel Aviv, September 25, 1997.
42. Ha’aretz, November 26, 1999.
43. Ma’ariv, June 28, 1998.
44. Moreover, “The ages used to be above twenty-one. Today it has gone down drastically. Fourteen-year-olds,” says DJ Miko, “are among the leading figures of the nightclub scene.” Newzeek, August 1999, p. 29.
45. Ha’ir, June 5, 1998.
46. Chaishop Internet site.
47. The New York Times, October 24, 1999.
48. ARTE, July 9, 1999; Ha’aretz, June 6, 1997.
49. Yoav Ben-Dov, “The Trance Culture in Israel: Aspects and Contexts,” in Makom L’mahshava 2, November 1998, pp. 26-32.
50. Ha’aretz, September 11, 1998.
51. Ha’ir, June 19, 1998.
52. Ma’ariv, June 28, 1998.
53. The New York Times, October 24, 1999.
54. Associated Press Internet site, July 10, 1998.
55. Leora Eren-Frucht, “A Night on the Town,” in The Jerusalem Post Magazine, August 9, 1996, p. 15.
56. Ha’aretz Supplement, November 26, 1999.
57. Gadi Taub, A Dispirited Rebellion: Essays on Contemporary Israeli Culture (Tel Aviv: Hakibutz Hame’uhad, 1997), p. 16. [Hebrew]
58. Yair Lapid, “Mug Shot,” in Politika 23, October 1988, pp. 22-23. [Hebrew]
59. Ha’ir, October 15, 1999.
60. Ha’aretz, November 26, 1999.
61. Ma’ariv, September 4, 1998.
62. S. Yizhar, “The Espresso Generation,” speech before the Mapai Central Committee, June 30, 1960.
63. Mordechai Rotenberg argues that the abandonment of the soul in ecstasy is a kind of immunization against the fear of death. See Mordechai Rotenberg, Dio-Logo Therapy: Psychonarration and Pardes (New York: Praeger, 1991), pp. 80-82.
64. Ha’aretz, November 26, 1999.

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