Funny thing about Shabbat; it comes every week. And this one came quickly (and is over just about as fast). The first week of classes blazed by. Four and a half hours of instruction every day, a quiz every day, and homework and review that takes hours. Time flies when you’re having fun.
A few observations from when last I wrote before the weekly Shabbat report. (Careful readers will have noticed the switch from Shabbos to Shabbat as I abandon (temporarily) Yiddish to embrace my mission. That said, my young classmate from Florida who is in the process of making Aliyah hilariously (and to our teachers’ consternation) insists upon interjecting Yiddish into class. It is much appreciated.)
First is my classmates. I continue to be so very happy to have them here with me. We span generations and we span the globe. But the level of talent, humanity, and just plain decency is palpable. Now, there is one thing that makes this all quite special, and I’m not sure my gentile readers will quite get it (although perhaps you will). Many of my classmates are not Jewish (as I might have mentioned). Some are theologians studying Biblical Hebrew. But others are just here because they’re interested in learning the language and learning the people.
So here’s the thing. Sure, I grew up in the heavily Jewish New York area. We were still a minority. I remember throughout elementary school being accused of killing Christ. Puzzling, because I was pretty sure I hadn’t killed anybody. I remember not so long ago encountering my first overt anti-Semitism at the White Shoe Wall Street Law Firm with which I had improvidently associated myself, despite better offers. Yes, WSWSLF had a few token Jewish partners and some Jewish associates. That didn’t stop several of the partners from saying things to me that might have been grounds for a lawsuit today.
I’m not going to rehash American anti-Semitism, or world anti-Semitism, then or now. The reason I mention this is to set up my puzzlement. The non-Jews who are here actually respect us. They value our stubborn beliefs. They are attracted to our strange customs. They actually appreciate us – for who we are, not for the “model minority” appreciation we get at home. These are people who have studied us, who have gone out of their ways back in their own lands to seek us out, to embrace us for all of the characteristics that make us so stubborn and peculiar. And they know far more about us than most American Jews I know.
Perhaps you cannot imagine how profoundly wonderful this realization is. To be accepted and embraced by gentiles on our own terms, for the first time in my life. But it has also led me to deeper thinking. The wonderful Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Britain, has spoken movingly and compellingly about how we can gain the most respect. And that simply is to be ourselves. It is not to attempt to assimilate, not to be embarrassed by the peculiar things we do, not to shrink away from embracing our own traditions. It is to proudly and unblinkingly be who we are.
The proof is right here – in Jerusalem, at the Rothberg International School. The many gentiles who have spent their money and are spending their (quite intensive) time better to understand us as we are, is testimony to the absolute rightness of Sack’s point. I’ll need to buy a fashionable yarmulke to wear on the streets of New York.
So I still haven’t approached Shabbat. I’m getting there. For the first time in my life, I experienced Shabbat anxiety. This is the fear of not being adequately prepared when life (and you) shuts down for the holiday. In this particular case, my anxiety was brought on both by the fact that we (atypically) had class Friday morning, and that I had invited three of my favorite people here to Shabbat dinner (and since none of them are Jewish I wanted desperately to do it nicely). So I had to run from class, finish shopping, and get the cooking done with my rather rudimentary dorm apartment batterie de’ cuisine. Even as I felt the diminished capabilities founded in poor equipment though, I reminded myself: Who am I kidding? My grandmother used to make multi-course meals for 30 people in a kitchen the size of a shoebox, going uphill both ways and barefoot in the snow. I could do it. But my grandmother, z”l, wasn’t shomer Shabbos. And the stores in Brooklyn (at least in her neighborhood) stayed open.
In any event, dinner was prepared, all was set, and Norwegian Girl, Charming Swede, and astonishingly talented Austrian arrived. I’m going to refrain from writing how much I really like these people in case they read this posting and – in classic Scandinavian/Aryan fashion – are embarrassed. Suffice it to say that they departed at 1:30 after a tisch that made me feel rabbinical, and that only because we had to get up for shul. And I am so glad we did.
I wrote last week of the Sephardic shul up the hill. This week we went to its twin Ashekanzi synagogue. I worried that my friends might be bored (and, in the case of NG, offended by the michitza.) I needn’t have been. Beyond respect, they really seemed deeply warmed – even though the service was entirely in Hebrew and unfamiliar (I had given them a road map before dinner, and NG had my Artscroll Siddur which at least has English translations. I’m not going to mention how stupidly surprised I was last week that the Siddur was—umm – entirely in Hebrew without translation.)
I was thrilled. The Sephardim were perfectly nice. The Ashkenazim are mishpuchah. Relatively early in the service, the rabbi acknowledged us. But that was only the start of the fun. The tisch was set in the back of the synagogue on the way out. The rabbi thanked us for coming and invited us back. But better – behind the tisch stood a man singing. He was singing. “Oyfn Pripetchek, brent a fayerl, un in shtub is hays.” A beautiful, charming song I hadn’t heard in years. I stopped, and across the assembled congregants, looked at him and started singing along. He looked at me – startled – without missing a beat. He broke into a huge smile, began singing louder, and so did I.
One of the congregants- in Hebrew – asked me if I spoke Hebrew. I answered – in Hebrew. I told him we were studying Hebrew. He replied there was no need to study, our Hebrew was so good. (Right – tell our teacher!) He invited us to stay – I replied that I had to get outside to meet NG who was coming down the stairs. He invited us back. All in Hebrew. No way could I have done that a week ago.
We will go back. But next week in the Great Synagogue. Class tomorrow morning. Stay tuned.