Dining-in In Israel

We celebrated shabbat in Jerusalem this evening and had dinner in pairs with several Jewish families. Below are reflections from the evening.

* * *

After shabbat service at the synagogue, we walked home with our dinner host, Linda Gradstein, and two of her friends: Becky, an old friend who was visiting from Minneapolis, and Tehillah, a neighbor who is originally from South Africa but has lived in Israel for 14 years and works in educational tourism. Linda was jovial and chatty and told us stories about her 13-year-old son, Netanel (who goes by Nate for Americans), a gymnast and aspiring chef who loves to climb on people.

“He’s going to love you,” Linda told John. As we went up the dark stairs (since lights cannot be turned on on shabbat) we were greeted by Nate, who immediately pointed to John and said “It’s you, right!” presumably excited at the prospect of climbing on the shoulders of such a tall person. He looked small for his age but soon became our very articulate and informative guide for the evening.

When we walked into the apartment, we found out that Nate was in the middle of the game of Dragon Force with his father, Cliff, and 10-year-old brother, Mishi. The rulebook for this Dungeons and Dragons-esque game was as thick as a religious text.  We soon learned that the family loves and has an exhaustive collection of board games.

Because Jews are not allowed to write–or, as Linda explained, perform any creative acts–on Shabbat, they couldn’t write down the score of the game. “What’s interesting is to see how creative people get with getting around that rule,” Nate told us. In this case, the boys would put a bookmark in a book and use the page number to keep score.

Once they finished playing and the guests had acquainted themselves with each other, we sat down at the table for the breaking of the bread. The ritual involves taking a sip of sparkling wine, saying a prayer, participating in a ritual washing of the hands before breaking the bread. No one may speak between washing their hands and breaking the bread. “It’s the only time you’ll see a group of quiet Jews,” Linda told us.

Because John has a gluten free diet, he couldn’t participate in the ritual. If he had washed his hands without heading the challah bread, it would have been a “blessing in vain,” which was not allowed.

The rest of dinner was an energetic affair. Food was brought out one dish at a time.  We had delicious matzah ball soup, chopped liver, hummus, chicken, roast beef and vegetables, accompanied by wine and followed by cake for dessert.

After dinner, Linda brought out a collection of prayer books that she had received at various weddings with the bride and groom’s names marked on the back. Because the end of dinner prayer is the same as the wedding prayer, they use the books to remember their friends at the table.

Conversation through the evening ebbed and flowed in a pretty fascinating way. At times we participated and asked questions about customs and at other times we found ourselves the silent observers of a family’s natural bickering, joking, hugging and kissing. What was particularly interesting to us was the fact that Linda and Cliff’s children all had Israeli accents, while the parents had American accents. It was our first experience witnessing this sort of linguistic disparity.

The strongest accent at the table belonged to Oriel, Linda’s 17-year-old son. At times, he had to ask his parents how to say something in English. We learned that being juniors in high school, Oriel and his friends are currently preparing for military service. While explaining this to us, Oriel and his younger brothers started pounding their hands on the table and repeating a Hebrew phrase that was translated to us as “It is good to die for one’s country.” While it was done in good fun, Linda broke up the chant and explained to us the culture of high school students in Israel, who do not attend college until after their 2 or 3 years in the military.  She was very proud that her sons would be given the opportunity to serve their country. Currently, her daughter is serving in the military on the Lebanon border.

After dinner, John played with the younger boys in the living room as the family relaxed, while Jihii sat at the table with the women, speaking about the political situation in Israel. They had widely differing opinions and explained why Israelis are not hopeful about a resolution. She blamed the conflicting interests of the various groups within the country and the ineptitude of the government as the two main causes. Linda, who was NPR’s Israel Correspondent for many years and is currently the Bureau Chief of The Media Line, explained the different interests at play among Jews in Israel and how they relate to each other.

This conversation continued after we bid farewell to the family and Tehillah walked us home. Earlier, she had expressed frustration over the BDS movement against Israel and the negative image it has abroad. Just before parting ways outside our hotel, she said, “Promise that you will write good things about Israel!”  We replied with sincerity and genuine empathy, “As journalists, we can only promise to write honestly and work hard.”

— John & Jihii

* * *

The large table, set in the space between the kitchen and the living room, was a tight squeeze for the many traditional Shabbat rituals, so the family would be improvising. Saying so, our hosts Professor Gornenberg and his wife Myra, squeezed behind our chairs and made their way to their son Yonathan, 25, who sat at the center of the table with a brass chalice of grape juice in front of him. They place their hands over his head and said a prayer over his head. Myra kissed her son’s head at the end of the prayer. The couple then shuffled over, laughing at having to squeeze once again behind their guests, now towards the other end of the table where their daughter Yasmin, 23, sat. They repeated the ritual with her. And then again with their youngest daughter Shiraz, 18.

Along with Professor Goldman, Yogi, Rachel and myself, the guests for the night included Professor Gorenberg’s second cousin Hilary, her husband George, and Yonathan’s friend Ariel. After reciting a prayer by Yonathan, he took a sip from the brass chalice and poured the rest into the cups in front of us. The girls then passed a large blue bowl and a clay jug around the table to wash our hands.

“Normally, we would wash our hands at the sink, but it’s just not possible with this many people,” Yasmin explained with a laugh. Professor Gorenberg and Shiraz explained the significance of staying silent between the washing of the hands and the breaking of the bread.

“It’s the one time when everyone wants to say the most without saying anything at all,” Shiraz added. Those familiar with the ritual laughed knowingly.

After the breaking of the bread, the two girls managed serving the exhaustive menu from one end of the table, setting the table for each course and then clearing it for the next. Appetizers included bowls of hummus, Turkish salad and eggplant, and a scrumptious soup. The main course consisted of delicious roasted vegetables, baked mushroom and zucchini lasagna, and four different deserts.

The mood of the dinner was relaxed and cheerful. Conversation flowed from religion, journalism and politics, to melodies from the Beach Boys, all peppered by the girls’ laughter and intermittent singing from the far side of the table. Realizing how late it was, Professor Goldman reminded Professor Gorenberg it was time for the Grace after Meals prayer, which lead to a friendly debate over which songs to sing. Our dinner ended the way it had started: a mix of laughter, banter, conversations and ritual.

— Saman & Rachel

* * *

The debate rolled on– was the American media biased against Israel in its depiction of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip? Our host, Eric, who watches MSNBC, didn’t think so. His friend and Shabbat guest, Aviva, who identified herself as far right on the political spectrum, often disagreed with him.

Was it wrong that the Haredim or Ultra-Orthodox Jews opposed the creation of the state of Israel? Their beliefs justified their exception from Israel’s mandatory military service. Eric disagreed with the Haredim’s views but argued in favor of their rights to express them.

Yael, Eric’s girlfriend, joined in the conversation but did not specifically enter the political debate.

Such questions were being served at dinner along of course with salads, teriyaki chicken, hummus and other spreads, and wine. The food had been prepared beforehand so that work would not have to be performed after the arrival of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.

Eric, Yael, and Aviva have completely different political views but all identity themselves as Jewish. Eric keeps Shabbat and follows Orthodox customs. He blessed the food and drink before and after the meal.

Eric made eliyah, a return to the homeland, at a young age and was struck by political protests within Israel. When he saw Israeli people throwing dirty diapers at the Israeli soldiers in one of these demonstrations, he felt disappointed. Although he loves Israel and its people, he finds that living in the Holy Land has been “anti-climactic” compared to his high expectations.

Aviva, who came from South Africa, had a completely different experience. She kissed the ground when she got off the plane in Israel and became more patriotic as time passed. She lives in Tel Aviv now but traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Shabbat with Eric and Yael.

They live in the town of Baka, an Orthodox community that falls on the liberal side of the political spectrum. While they keep kosher, they are more relaxed in how they follow the rules. Many in the town are English speakers and have developed a wholesome sense of community, said Eric. He is friendly with many of the people from his shul and gets along with the local shopkeepers, many of whom are Arabic.

At one point, Eric recounted his travels through Europe for work. He spent five days in Istanbul and enjoyed himself. Aviva countered that she would have felt unsafe in Turkey even if it is a secular Muslim country. She has concerns about entering the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem by herself.

Despite the differences, they all agreed upon one thing—the spirit of the Sabath.  We ended the night with a prayer and a warm good-bye.

–Yvonne & Devi

* * *

As we shuffled into our host Deborah’s home Friday night, she warned us, “I have a lot of questions for you.” We were later to find out that this would set the tone for the rest of the evening: a two-way rapid-fire Q&A session. Perfect dinner conversation for journalists.

Clearly an experience Shabbat dinner hostess, Deborah, or “Debbie” as we came to know her, had set the table with great care. The gold trimmed plates had next to them an army of separate cutlery for each dinner course. Silver rings held the rolled-up table napkins in place. Wine glasses glinted in the soft yellow lighting.

Joining us at the dinner were Debbie’s other guests – Bill and Edith, a Jewish married couple; Joanna, a left liberal Jewish lawyer; and Jasper, a Swedish Christian intellectual. We knew that the evening would not be dull.

Knowing that the two of us were experiencing Shabbat dinners for the first time, Debbie took great care in explaining each ritual. We were given prayer books with English transliterations of the Hebrew verses, and learnt about the washing of hands before breaking bread, blessing the wine and not mixing dairy products with meat.

We discussed religion and politics; identities and conflict; media and religion. By the third refill of wine, conversation was flowing more rapidly and candidly.

“You have to be obsessive if you’re a Jew!” Edith informed us. We joked about Jewish customs and had more solemn exchanges about a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.  Debbie also shared her experiences from her own interfaith work.

We were finishing up our dessert, but the individual conversations were far from over.  Debbie brought out a bottle of scotch, with which we toasted the Shabbat. “Shalom!”  The evening was coming to an end, but its memories would forever leave its mark.

— Indrani & Kali

* * *

Walking down the streets of Jerusalem late on a Friday afternoon is a communal experience. As we walked with the class towards Yedidya Synagogue in the Baka neighborhood, the sidewalks came alive with Jewish men and women, bottles of wine tucked under their arms, walking to various synagogues to welcome the Sabbath, to celebrate Shabbat.

As outsiders at our first Shabbat, we were surprised by the welcoming nature of the service and congregation. When a young congregant named Gabe invited Evan to sit beside him and began periodically leaning over to point out and explain passages in the prayer book, Evan’s Roman Catholic upbringing came to the fore: “Be careful, someone will tell us to be quiet!”  But to the contrary, a glance around the room showed a community shaking hands and greeting one another between prayers, brief conversations between psalms.

After the service at the synagogue, we split up and had dinner with different Jewish families in the neighborhood. We were paired with Bob and Ruth Mason. A chill had settled in, and the stars had come out, dusting the sky above us. The mood was light at our first Shabbat dinner. It was a night of singing, joking, bickering, praying, eating, and laughing. Bob, a lawyer, and Ruth, a journalist, live ten minutes away from Yedidya, in an open, airy home with African art and colorful furniture. Bob’s college friend from NYU, Harris, was also there, with his daughter Sabrina and her two friends. The Masons moved to Israel from the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1993, and raised their three children in Jerusalem.

Because it was our first Shabbat dinner, they explained everything carefully, and gave us prayer books with English translations. The explanations of the Shabbat traditions led to debate and discussion, which was (mostly) lighthearted.

When Bob explained at one point that most people would now say the Eshet Chayil, a prayer about a virtuous woman, he added that they did not. “She doesn’t let me,” he said of Ruth.

“What?” Ruth responded. “That’s not true.”

“For thirty years!” Bob responded

“That’s not true,” said Ruth. “Let’s say it.”

“Well,” said Bob, “I don’t know it from memory.”

There was a shuffling of prayer books. Ruth leaned over towards Lisa. “It’s a little sexist.”

The wine was poured, the Kiddush was said, and the Challah was passed. The conversation consisted of politics, jazz, and New York geography.  The common factor in all of the conversations, however, was the familial love and warmth.

— Lisa & Evan

* * *

Poppie and Harry ate dinner tonight with the family of Haim Watzman, an American-Israeli writer and translator who writes the South Jerusalem blog with Professor Gorenberg. He lives with his wife Ilana and three of his children in an apartment across from the street of the synagogue, which he helped found more than thirty years ago.

It is called Yedidya (“Friend of God”), a nickname of King Solomon, the son of David. It is something of an outlier among Orthodox synagogues in Israel. Though it observes traditional Jewish laws, its politics are progressive. When they pray, men and women sit on opposite sides of the room, separated by a barrier. But the barriers that separate Palestinians from Israelis, that exclude Palestinians from positions of power, that confine them as second-class citizenship, are anathema to many of Yedidya’s members.

Haim and Ilana’s table is often crowded with family and guests, and tonight was no exception. Their son and his fiancée, two daughters and a visiting British Jew joined the couple for Shabbat dinner. Ilana scarcely spoke, but she was clearly revered by her family. Seated at Haim’s right side, it was as if she was his support system. The two loaves of Challah were brought from the kitchen and placed at the head of the table. A bowl of water was passed around the table, we washed our hands, and Haim blessed the bread and wine, which we then ate and drank.

Dinner was much more informal than expected, except for a poignant moment after the Shabbat song was sang when Haim stood up to bless his children and his son’s new fiancée. They remained seated, and he walked to each of them in turn, clasping their heads, cradling them and whispering prayers over them with his eyes closed and deeply focused. He tenderly kissed each of them on the top of the head and returned to his seat at the head of the table.

We enjoyed a meal of soup, chicken, rice, peas and carrots, the food was delicious and the company agreeable. Before we left, Haim showed us his two books, both hardbound and covered with plastic protectors, and a new copy of a biography of Theodor Herzl by Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri that Haim had just translated from Hebrew to English. We said “Shabbat shalom” to him and his family and made the short walk home to our hotel.

-Poppie & Harry

Lead Photo Credit: View of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount (The Land/Evan Simko-Bednarski)

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