Last fall, I began a book about a Jewish woman from Bratislava. One scene involved Friday evening dinner. I stopped writing, and realized how unprepared I was to describe this. Of course, I turned to Google and bingo… Shabbat of a Lifetime is a company which pairs Jewish families in Jerusalem with strangers for Shabbat. Some prefer to host Jews. Others are willing to host Gentiles who want to learn about Jewish tradition.
Pat and I were leaving for Israel in a few weeks. I sent an email, filled out a questionnaire that explained my background and motivation, and was paired with a family. We were told to meet at a street corner not far from our hotel just after sunset. A group of twelve of us converged there and awaited our host, David. Not long after our arrival, David showed up, shared our bios by memory, and asked us to identify ourselves. Pat and I were, “The couple who lived in Slovakia and want to write a book about a Jewish woman.” Then, he led us through an archway and into a neighborhood of narrow pathways and stone dwellings.
As we walked, he explained that the neighborhood was created when the old city reached capacity. It is a sequestered neighborhood with only a few entrances and the inhabitants are Jewish. We passed synagogues of various sizes which he identified by nationalities: Syrian, Iraqi, and American / Western European. Wall plaques told the stories of Jewish families. On the balconies of homes, I noticed towers of plastic chairs—the cheap Walmart type. I had seen similar piles near our hotel. Why, I wondered, would you put so many chairs on a balcony that you can no longer sit outside?
We entered David’s home into the kitchen where he and his wife, Ayo, had squeezed a long table with fourteen plastic chairs—the same chairs stored on balconies. I realized in a Jewish neighborhood, Friday dinner is a big event shared by family and friends—or in this case, total strangers. To do that, you need lots of chairs.
Immediately, we sat and introduced ourselves. There were four American men–college students who are studying abroad in Italy, a Nigerian priest traveling with a Baptist group from Dallas, a well traveled couple with a friend, and Pat and me.
David and Ayo begin, explaining each song, prayer, and course. Before we arrived, at sundown, they had lit candles. Ayo and her girlfriends had prepared the meal that afternoon—each relegated to a certain entree or salad. “I love Friday afternoons, working with my girlfriends on our specialities and then sharing what we make. It’s so much easier–and more fun.”
David and Ayo blessed the wine and sprinkled salt over the Challah. We ate soup, six or seven mezes, salmon, beef, saffron rice, and a delicious chocolate cake all washed down with bottles of red wine. In keeping with the Shabbat rules, the hot dishes stayed warm on a row of heating plates that lined the kitchen counter. Lights were turned on but operated by timers.
Ayo described the next day as a typical Saturday. They had plans to eat lunch with a family and then play at the park with friends and their children until three stars appeared in the evening sky. “At that point, Shabbat ends,” she explained, “We will return home and light candles and incense.” She invited any of who were free to join them. She continued, “Some Saturdays we read, study scripture, visit with friends, or listen to music. But no computers, phones, internet.” To me, it sounded like heaven.
Ayo’s hair was wrapped in a red scarf. One of the woman asked about it. “David and I married a year ago. Each morning when I wrap the cloth around my hair, I remind myself that I am a partner now. I think about what I want from the partnership and I recommit myself to it every day.” She smiled and added, “I like that.” Ayo is an American who moved from the United States to Israel a few years ago. Since then, her sisters and parents have joined her in Jerusalem.
David, is a Canadian who also moved to Jerusalem. He told us a story of a friendship he formed with Megan Phelps-Roper from the Westboro Baptist Church. She wanted to learn more about Judaism, and in spite of wildly differing viewpoints and a wealth of vitriol, he befriended her. I could envision David in this role–a natural teacher of his faith, a perfect match to the Shabbat for a Lifetime organization, especially hosting non-Jews. The following week after we returned home, I read the Westboro story in the New Yorker and realized our host was David Abitol.
When the meal ended, each of us hugged David and Ayo goodbye. I think everyone was affected by the evening, certainly I was. At first, I was surprised that a young woman would leave the relative safety of the Unites States for a country embroiled in daily turmoil. After the dinner, I understood the desire not only to maintain, but be surrounded by, your traditions. I left with a bit of envy of their life.
Walking back to our hotel, the streets were empty and the restaurants dark. I never saw a major city so completely closed down. That night, Pat and I laid awake, stunned by the news of the horrific attacks in Paris near the apartment we had rented last summer. I associated Israel with danger and terrorism, but on this night, it seemed the most peaceful place on earth.
Categories: The Middle East