Sunday, September 30, 2007

Fast Forward to Yom Kippur

In my previous life as an oleh wannabe, I remember getting a post from a blogger in Mevatseret Tzion, who writes under the moniker of “Stupillow.” He was describing the phenomenon of bike riding in his community on Yom Kippur.
Now you have to understand that on Yom Kippur, Israel is officially closed for business, meaning that Jews essentially don’t work, restaurants, shops, and movies are for one day shut tight. You can drive your car, but few people do. On your garden variety Shabbat here in Maale Adumim, there is considerable vehicular traffic – not as much as on a typical weekday, but still more than enough. On Rosh Hashana, there is a little bit less. On Yom Kippur, there is none, except for emergency and security vehicles. (In fact, except for the sounds of children playing, dogs barking, and cats fighting, it is absolutely quiet here for 25 hours.) And so what happens? For one day, the streets become a giant race track for bicycles, tricycles, scooters, skates, and skateboards. While their parents are praying, fasting, and reflecting, young children are zooming up and down hills, innocently oblivious to the solemnity of the occasion. No doubt, many of them in a few years will be beside their parents in shul, and thirty years from now, it will be part of the collective consciousness of an entire generation – perhaps like their experiences in the I.D.F.
But there is the guy in Tel Aviv whom I read about recently. He came from a HUGE hassidic family (something like 17 children!) and decided one day to chuck the whole thing and became militantly secular. He sees his mission in life as driving around Tel Aviv all day on Yom Kippur. (Our older daughter Tina, who lives there and was with us for THE ONE DAY of Sukkot, confirmed that there indeed only one car that she could see driving around in her neighborhood the entire day. I wonder if it was the same guy.) Poor fellow. He doesn’t understand that he too is part of the shana, the collective calendar of the nation. You see, you don’t have to do the same thing to be part of the same year. He’s not driving around because, let’s say, it’s Thursday, and every Thursday he goes to see his personal trainer. He’s driving around Tel Aviv because it’s Yom Kippur! I’m in shul, standing and praying. He’s sitting in the car, driving and anti-praying, but in Eretz Yisrael, Medinat Yisrael, it is still Yom Kippur.
If he wants to escape from the collective shana, he only has to come to America. Now, it’s part of our belief system that the entire world is being judged on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, but, except for small pockets scattered throughout the land, you’d never know it from empirical observation in the great 48. Here a Jew is absolutely free to ignore the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – if he so chooses. And many do.
I grew up in one of those small pockets where there was a communal sense of the High Holidays, an area in the north Bronx around Moshulu Parkway. Not only was the area heavily Jewish, but insofar as most of the gentile kids went to St. Brendan’s RC school not P.S. 80 where we all went, it seemed to us kids growing up that everybody was Jewish. Now it’s a well known fact that my parents were not especially religious (this is an example of literary understatement), but my father did take off from work on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. As we had nothing else to do, we would take long walks through adjacent neighborhoods on those afternoons. But my parents were punctilious that we should do nothing in public that would seem out of place on those Holidays, because they understood that they were part of a community. I always knew that Sukkot was right around the corner, because it was – literally. From the rear of our full floor apartment, we could see the backyard of the Young Israel of Moshulu Parkway (the original building) where, of course, they put up a sukkah. But even without this graphic reminder, and that’s all it was because I had no idea what the sukkah was supposed to be, I would know. For there were four days in the fall that were classified “Jewish Holidays,” when nobody (except for the teachers and the handful of kids who were gentiles) went to school. I should mention that unwritten but clearly understood rule: don’t play in the school yard on a Jewish Holiday. We may not have been that religious, but we were not stupid!
I’m sure that some of my classmates did go to “services” at least on The High Holidays in the few Orthodox and Conservative synagogues in the neighborhood, and probably some of them came from homes in which there was some semblance of observance, but, honestly, G-d didn’t have a fighting chance in the north Bronx around Moshulu Parkway when Harry Truman or Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of the U.S., and when there were probably as many Jews in The Bronx as in The Land. Everyone I knew grew up and moved away from our neighborhood, and we all left the shana behind. Probably fifty percent of the kids in my neighborhood who joyfully and collectively took off from public school on the “Jewish Holidays,” meaning the first and last two days of Sukkot, wound up with spouses who had a very different calendar.
It’s no secret that in The States, The Big Days are not in the little known month of Tishrei, but in the well known month of December, and those days are hard to ignore. A lot of us do things on Dec. 25 to go with the flow, like going to the movies and “eating Chinese.” When I worked for the OU, a different approach was taken: pretending that the day didn’t exist. The office was always open on December 25 – even though public transportation was spotty at best. So, just as our secularist would be driving around Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur, I would be driving around New York on Xmas! Talk about symmetry.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Shana Tova 5768

Anyone who has been in The Land during “The High Holy Days” understands that there is an electricity in the air which is hard to quantify. Everyone is wishing you a “hag sameach,” “shana tovah,” not only your family and friends, but the postal clerk, the young lady at the check-out counter at the Mister Zol supermarket, the pharmacist, the cab driver, (in fact, the most effusive greeting (along with a handshake) I have received so far was from the cab driver who brought home my newly purchased sukkah from the Ace Hardware store in the local mall -- when I gave him an additional five shekel tip [4 shekels to the dollar]). In addition you see the greeting on banners in the mall, on signs in the buses that your driver wishes you a shana tovah (if he hasn’t in person, which he often does.) Of course, in The States, Jewish people and non-Jewish people with Jewish friends and acquaintances exchange holiday greetings. But there seems to be a difference in the substance of the greeting, for which I, of course, have an explanation.
Here in The Land, there is a sense that everyone is sharing a common “shana,” which is part of the common bond that brings us together. In The States, we are forced to juggle our calendar and our lives with the calendar, the seasons, and the needs of our secular society. “How come people always say that Rosh Hashana is early or late, but never on time?” The start of the Jewish year is judged in America by its relative proximity to Labor Day. If Rosh Hashana is “late,” then so is Sukkot, which means that large numbers of Jews in America and elsewhere are eating in their sukkah in rain gear or winter clothing. Hannukah is then close to Xmas and is melded into a mush called “The Holidays,” along with Kwanza and who knows what else. If Rosh Hashana is “early,” then the relatively minor holiday of Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for the trees marks only the time of year when our gentile neighbors are throwing away their Xmas trees. Whether the year is “early” or “late,” Passover always seems to come in the middle of tax season. In general, all our hagim seem to occur in the beginning, the middle, or the end of something “important” in the secular calendar.
In The Land, Rosh Hashana always comes on time. How could it be otherwise? It has to come 30 days after Rosh Hodesh Elul, the beginning of the previous month. There is no urgency to get Sukkot in before it gets too cold or too wet; those two possibilities are statistically unlikely anywhere in Israel. Hannukah stands on its own two feet, or on the bases of hundreds of thousands of hannukah menorahs. Even with the efforts to attract Christian tourists, Xmas is not taken very seriously, especially as the Muslims have almost decimated their Christian counterparts in place like Bet Lechem (Bethlehem.) Nor is the secular New Year, Halloween, or even Super Bowl Sunday. But a minor day like Tu B’Shvat takes on a special poignancy, because whether it is early or late, it will mark the time when, after several months of cold and rain, the first harbingers of spring, the blossoming of the almond trees occurs.
There are two times of the year in Israel when employers give special bonuses to their employees: Rosh Hashana and Passover. You can see people whipping out their books of vouchers, buying out the store: clothing, furniture, food for the holidays. So when people wish you a Good Year, they are not only giving you a blessing for life, they are hoping that this feeling of well-being will continue.
A good part of the country does shut down during the intermediate days of Sukkot. Like all schools, our ulpan will be closed. We already got a call from our pharmacy: they will be closed for vacation for two weeks right after Yom Kippur. Come and get your prescriptions NOW. Most of the country will be engaged in a collective barbeque, rivaling the sacrifices brought in the first and second Temples.
Lest you think that all is peaches and cream in The Land, I must mention the current brouhaha over Yom Kippur and Daylight Savings Time. This year, Saturday night, right after Rosh Hashana, we went off DST, turning back the clocks one hour. Being a newbie here, I didn’t realize that the practice of changing the clock prior to Yom Kippur is relatively new, and is a bone of contention amongst the secularists. Now I was never a big fan of DST, and I was always delighted in The States when we went back to Standard Time, meaning that it wasn’t pitch black when I got up in the morning. Here in Maale Adumim, we are getting up around 5:30 so that we can make a bus into Jerusalem at 7 so we can be on time for our ulpan at 8. Lo and behold, the next morning, when I woke up, I could see the orange and purple flowers on the bushes in our front yard. And that evening, the sun went down behind the hills west of us an hour earlier, so it began to cool off an hour earlier. We are trading light for heat abatement, which is more than OK by me.
Now you can argue either side of the DST-Standard Debate, as well as the notion that ending a 25 hour fast at 6:13 rather than 7:13 has any value, but what I realized that this was not a rational discussion about DST. I have been following op-ed pieces in the English language version of Haaretz, and I have concluded that there are people in The Land who are taking this matter personally. The decision to change the clock earlier in the year was made, as many deals are made in the Israeli government, in the dead of night at the behest of the Hareidi parties. And there are people who believe that the main role the religious element in Israel is to make the lives of secularists miserable. One Op-ed contributor wrote that this change was ruining her family life and bringing in winter several months early! Of course, the daytime high for Yom Kipper throughout the Land will be close to 90F. Some winter!
Rather than leave you on a “downer,” let me report some more cheerful items, of special interest to animal lovers:
First of all, I have solved the kapporat dilemma! Many of us today are reluctant to swing a live chicken over our head, which was the original custom, part of a prayer asking for forgiveness. You can also use coins of the realm, but that seems kind of lame. Barbara and I were having lunch in the Machane Yehuda shuk at a tiny place which serves falafel, hummus and bean dishes, and freshly baked pita. If you had any idea how good this food was, and how little it cost, you would be on the next plane over here. As we were finishing our meal, Barbara noticed the strange assortment of goods in the next stall and went over to investigate (you know Barbara!) We realized that it was a pet supply store, and I noticed that there were rubber chickens (canine toys) hanging up on display. Perfect!!!!! Rubber chickens for kapporat!!!!
Second of all, Mr. Goatie is alive and well. To get to the town center of Maale Adumim – which contains the stores, the bank, the Maccabi health clinic, the post office -- we take a little path which is a decided shortcut. This path takes us past the “back yards” (10 by 20 foot plots) of people’s garden apartments. We noticed shortly after we arrived that one of the families had a goat in their back yard, whom, in a fit of brilliance, we named “Mr. Goatie.” He (it could be a she for all we know; we’re not good about these things) would stare at us with his mournful eyes. Sometimes he would raise himself on his hind legs and peer over the fence. Then after Rosh Hashana, we stopped seeing him. After a few days, a terrible thought crossed my mind: could these people have eaten him for Rosh Hashana? You may know that there is a custom amongst Sephardic and other Jews to have a Rosh Hashana seder, in which a blessing is made over various foods. One of the foods is a head, usually a fish head, but on occasion, a goat or sheep head. Could his head have graced their table? You may rest easy. Two days ago, he was back in the yard, none the worse for wear.
I have been chastised by some for making no mention of the well-being of our elderly cat, Mimi. Suffice to say, she survived the long journey to The Land and has made the acquaintance of Maale Adumim’s veterinarian for geriatric feline care.
The sun is still high in the sky, but it will soon be time for our last meal before Yom Kippur. On that note, I will end, as will the fast. Then it will be time enough to put up sukkahs in our wind-blown community. More about that later.

Monday, September 17, 2007

My First Day At Ulpan

“So far, we are adjusting well to the loss of Labor Day; we have other things on our minds. I just hope I have the strength to make it through the 5, 5, 5 of Ulpan.”
Some of my audience, reading the ending to my previous entry, sent me solicitous responses, expressing full confidence in our ability to survive and conquer Ulpan. Here is how we began our studies.
First of all, Barbara had previously called one of the ulpans, Morasha, and speaking to the woman-in-charge in Hebrew ascertained that the starting date was Sunday, Sept. 2. However, the lady-in-charge said, since neither of us was a beginner, we could come in on Monday, and they would figure out in what level we belonged. So we came in on Monday to find out that they had only one level, beginners. What they proposed we do was that I should start from the beginning, and Barbara, who is more advanced, should go into a class that had started two and a half months ago, which, if nothing else, would mean that she would get only half of her government allotted five months. To put it in its rawest form, the lady-in-charge had told us to come in, knowing full well that she had nothing to offer us, was offended when we didn’t like her suggestions, and made believe that we had no alternative but to take her up on her offer.
Perhaps at this time it might be useful to explain my current working attitude towards living in Israel, which is as follows: it is very easy (you have no idea how easy until you live here) to criticize what goes on, from the current inept government, the overwhelming bureaucracies, down to the supermarket shopping carts, each of whose wheels go in a different direction (if that isn’t a metaphor for life here, I don’t know what is!) But when you take a step back and look at the larger picture, you realize what has been accomplished here since 1948, since 1968 (when Barbara was living here and telephones were rare and black and white TV’s were just being introduced) all in an environment of unending enmity from its neighbors. And it was all done without any help from me (OK, I have prayed everyday for the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and we have purchased a few Israel bonds, but let’s be real.) So I’m willing to cut the average Israeli who by his presence built and defended this country a little slack. But there is a level of Israeli chutzpah, to quote Winston Churchill, “up with which I will not put.” And so we told the lady-in-charge what she could do with her suggestions.
After a calming down session, Barbara and I sat down with the list of ulpans in the Jerusalem area (fewer than you might suppose) and Barbara called Ulpan Beth HaAm, which is an entirely different kind of operation, and we went over there and registered. Now Beth Ham has a reputation for being “left-wing,” probably because the strength of its program invites many non-olim to study there, usually to qualify for an Israeli university. So who would these non-olim be? Mostly Israeli Arabs, some Christian, but mostly Muslim. So you can be sitting in class next to a young woman, her head wrapped in a scarf. But she will know more Hebrew than you do. Of course, every non-olim is not an Arab: take Uxu for example; she is originally from Korea, but she comes to class with a German-Hebrew dictionary! She and others in the class speak three or four languages. Almost everyone speaks some English, although I am the only Anglo in my class. I am also one of only four Jews (assuming they all show up), ¼ of the class. There is something disconcerting about being a minority in an Israeli ulpan, something which I would never have expected. I discussed this with our art historian friend Orli, who is in the same program, although in a higher class. How did she put it? Something about having to examine her attitudes and pre-conceptions. Nonetheless, the program is well run, and Barbara, Natania (who is now in the same class as Barbara), and I are all progressing reasonably well.
Because they let us out from ulpan on Fridays, we were able to join 50 other olim, NBN and tour staff on a Nefesh B’Nefesh outing on Sept. 7, a bus ride and mini-hike at a park in the forests west of Jerusalem, the site of a village called Sataf that had been abandoned by Arabs in 1948. Of course, we didn’t have Danny Chazin, Teaneck’s resident hike leader with us. In his place, we had Peter Abelow, (also with Teaneck connections) a noted tour guide and writer. As we stood at the top of the trail prior to descending, Peter pointed out that examples of five of the seven species mentioned in the Torah as indigenous to The Land were located within twenty feet of us: an olive tree, a pomegranate tree, a fig tree, grape vines, and a date palm tree. Many of us walked over to the tiny date palm tree -- about five feet tall – and there growing from the trunk, straight and tall, was a lulav (one of the four species used on Sukkot.) Now most of us were familiar with lulavs packaged in the dozens or hundreds, on sale on tables in synagogues and on street corners in Jewish neighborhoods. But this was the first time that I and the others had seen one actually growing. We were amazed, astonished, and awestruck by this slight amount of vegetation, although I would have a hard time explaining why. I mentioned this to our neighbor Suri, who understood exactly how I felt: one year they realized that a non-descript weed growing in their yard was actually an etrog tree, and there was a real live etrog (another of the four species used on Sukkot) on the tree.
There is a special feeling for the plants mentioned in the Torah, used on the holidays, or just able to grow here, a connection to Our Holy Land which is one of the reasons why we live here. I can look out the window where I am sitting and see in the back yard a large scraggly olive tree and a medium size cactus, the kind that grows prickly pears known as sabras. In our front yard, hanging from a wall is a long, skinny branch of a cactus, which all of a sudden produced an enormous (eight inches long) white flower which always last for one day. This year that day was Shabbat, so I couldn’t take a digital image to show everyone.
Near the bottom of the Sataf trail, we saw fenced-in plots of ground, given to Jerusalemites to cultivate, so that even urban dwellers can retain their love of the earth and what can grow in it. We had walked down a steep, rocky path, past a spring which gushed forth from a hole in the side of a hill into a small pool into which two Israeli boys were diving (of course ignoring the sign not to enter the water.) We had stopped midway for a break, resting and singing, accompanied by a guitar and flute.
From the bottom, we took the bus back to the top, where there are facilities and a place to eat. Barbara and I sat and had lunch at a table with two Chabadniks (followers of the departed Lubavitch rebbe) we had met on the hike: an older man who lives in Connecticut and his son who lives in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem. The younger man and I had a spirited, but friendly discussion about Modern Hebrew and Jewish education – no doubt prompted by my ulpan experience. His position, one I’ve heard many times, is that there is no time in a yeshiva curriculum to study Hebrew as a language. Concentrate on Torah studies as the basis for Jewish survival and continuity. From that study, one will pick up knowledge of Hebrew grammar and language skills. To which the reply is that Torah study is indeed essential, but insofar as our long term survival as a people is now dependent on our being in Eretz Yisrael, teaching Hebrew, now our national language, to anyone and everyone who can learn it is also essential. We went round and round on these points, but ultimately arrived at a compromise position: if Jewish schools were going to teach Hebrew language a period a day, five days a week, for twelve or fourteen years, then our children should learn a lot more Hebrew than they do. At this precise moment of amity, we got the signal to get back on our bus for the short journey back to the central bus station in Jerusalem, leaving me time to do the following calculation: there must be at least a million Israeli Arabs who can speak Hebrew. How many diaspora Jews (excluding expatriate Israelis who are temporarily residing outside The Land) can do the same? And why are there more Arabs than Jewish olim in my ulpan?

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Labor Day That Wasn't

On Friday, I was heading to the American Consulate in East Jerusalem to fill out a certain form, when it occurred to me that this will be Labor Day weekend in The States, and I began to daydream about what we would be doing if we were still there – this being the first year when we won’t be there.
Now Labor Day is a funny kind of holiday. Once upon a time, it did have a purpose. It was established with the prodding of the American labor movement as a counterbalance to May Day. But few people nowadays have a kind word for labor unions, and I don’t know anybody today who takes Labor Day as an opportunity to hug a trade unionist. These days, it just marks the end of the summer, a good excuse for one last barbeque, more like a day off for good behavior. The summer is over: prepare to resume the normal routine. In more fastidious times, it signaled the last day when men could wear a straw hat; today, I’m told, it means that men should stop wearing flip-flops to work.
If we were back in Teaneck, we would have spent Sunday swimming and picnicking at Swartswood State Park, an isolated area an hour and a half from our home. Sometime about 5PM, we would have packed up and left, knowing that the season had ended, with the melancholy thought that we wouldn’t be back for another year and our Sundays would again be more prosaic. Monday, we would have done a host of chores and then partaken of the last official barbeque of the year with some close friends.
Instead, on Sunday we will be heading back to Talpiot, back to the Misrad Harishui (the equivalent of the Motor Vehicle Bureau) as one step in our getting an Israeli drivers license. We had been there last Wednesday, but they were closed. It seems here that government offices can decide not to open on a given day – sort of like a floating Labor Day. Here you have to go with the flow, make lemonade from lemons. We turned around, had lunch at the Hadar Mall, and went shopping and ordered a dining room table and chairs. Now I will be the first to concede that the commercial area in Talpiot is not the most scenic place one could be, and that a day spent gazing at Swartswood Lake would be more relaxing. But then again, Talpiot is one vast conglomeration of stores, so you might consider that we will be spending Sunday at the mall! (which you can’t do in Bergen County, NJ)
On Monday, the year starts for us in earnest. Barbara and I will be starting Ulpan, five hours a day, five days a week, for five months. What this means to me is that I will not be able to get up when I’m good and ready, daven, and have a leisurely breakfast over The Jerusalem Post. We will be up and about like the rest of Israel, in our case, making a 7AM bus into Jerusalem. Natania, several days shy of her 20th birthday, is volunteering to join the IDF and will be at an office in Jerusalem, taking a battery of tests. No barbeque for us! Maybe we can order takeout from Burger Bar!
Perhaps I should report on our Shabbat because it was so much fun. We were invited to Friday night dinner with Ian and Thelma, people we’ve met at Mussar Avichai, the synagogue I’ve been going to. Ian was immediately impressed when, not only had I heard of his hometown, Cardiff, Wales, but I that have actually been there. Thelma is a wonderful human being, a great interior decorator and a fine cook, but in need of constant subtitles. Among the guests were Donald, a South African who davens at the Russian shul near his house, and Adam and Rebecca, (sometimes known as Aaron and Rivka) New Yorkers who are now going to a French-speaking Chabad minyon. Amongst the bunch of us, we polished off three bottles of good Israeli red wine and downed some Scotch as a chaser. I rolled home and revived sufficiently the next morning to get to the 8AM minyon. Afterwards, we were invited to a Kiddush-lunch at the home of our neighbors Marvin and Yvette Shumacher, to introduce new olim in the neighborhood to some of the oldtimers (some of whom have been in Israel for as long as 30 years.) A few hours later we left to take a Shabbat nap. I was awakened in time to walk a half an hour to another event, a seudat shlishit (third meal) at the home of Alice and John Eigner, where we met a whole new crew of olim and vatikim (oldtimers.) Again, we left there two hours later so that I would be in time for maariv. We walked part of the way back with a woman we had just met named Orli, who, along with her husband, has been in Israel for several weeks. Orli was an art historian, and before she became religious, had specialized in part in Christian art: manuscripts and church architecture. And so, she and I began discussing our withdrawal from Christian culture, she from standing in cathedrals, I divesting myself of my considerable collection of Renaissance masses and Bach cantatas.
We stopped at their house for a minute for Barbara to use the facilities, long enough for me to admire the exquisite view of the Judean Hills from their living room and to consider the impressive collection of Jewish texts that was already unpacked and placed on new bookshelves. Orli’s husband, who was minding the kids, came down, and I realized who he was. He was the Levi who had sat next to me that morning at Mussar Avicha and had washed my hands when we gave the Priestly blessing.
Once Labor Day is over, in communities scattered throughout America, it will be time enough to get ready for “The High Holy Days” and all that that entails. Here in our Ancestral Homeland where we are not scattered, and where all the holidays have some meaning to the Jewish soul, the first consumer signs of the Yom Tovim have already appeared: you can buy two and three packs of Barkan wine at the checkout counter at The Home Center. I’ve been told that sukkah kits will soon be available at Ace Hardware here in the Maale Adumim mall.
So far, we are adjusting well to the loss of Labor Day; we have other things on our minds. I just hope I have the strength to make it through the 5, 5, 5 of Ulpan.

Tmol Shilshom

There are many ways to get to Tmol Shilshom, but here's one way awash in serendipity. (Not to make you all crazy, I will tell you in advance that Tmol Shilshom -- which means "yesterday and the day before” in colloquial Hebrew – is a small café and bookstore in downtown Jerusalem.) Of course, to get there, you have to start out in Israel. Our method was to make aliyah and rent a “cottage" (a semi-detached house) at Mitsadim 33 in Maale Adumim, which many of you know by now is “A Little Bit East of Yerushalayim.” And if any of you don’t know, when you rent an unfurnished apartment in Israel, they take it literally, meaning you are renting bare walls. (OK, there are electric outlets and light sockets!) So a sensible way to begin is to take two buses to Talpiot, a commercial hub in the southern part of Jerusalem, where one would go to buy beds, furniture, and appliances. So we did that and spent oodles of money ordering beds and a stove with a self-cleaning oven. Then we took a bus back to the center of the city, and because in Israel you tend to start talking with any Anglo you run into (how you know that someone is a native English speaker is a whole other topic), we got into a conversation with Sid Slivko, who made aliyah from Werner Place in Teaneck ten year ago.
We got off the bus on King George St. and began walking down Jaffe Road to catch the bus back to Maale Adumim. Suddenly, Natania was veering off down Yoel Salomon St. in search of the Gur Aryeh bookstore she had located on her last trip -- where you could buy a used book, read it, and sell it back to the same store. So we followed her down the street, and on the way Barbara looked up and saw a sign – perhaps from Above -- pointing to Tmol Shilshom, a place she had heard about, around the corner. Now Frugal Fred's plans for dinner went no further than bread, cheese, and a salad on paper plates with plastic utensils back in our kitchen in Maale Adumim. But Barbara figured that we had just spent so much money anyway, that a little more for dinner wouldn't matter. (You can tell who has the MBA in our family!) Needless to say, we were soon headed through an alley and up a flight of stairs to a small restaurant which shared a security guard with another restaurant across the hall.
As we were eating our delicious meal (I had ordered a tri-colored fettuccine in a cheese and wine sauce with broiled slivers of salmon and roasted figs -- for about $10), I began to consider our surroundings. As I indicated above, this little café/restaurant with a tiny kitchen and a whimsical name was also a bookstore where writers (as famous as Amos Oz) give public readings of their work. My first thought was that this was the kind of place that would never exist outside of Israel. Then I realized that this was ridiculous: there are dozens or hundreds of such places in Galut where people gather to share their common love of food, libations, and literature. Just that none of them would happen to be kosher.
But what you have in many areas in Israel – Jerusalem being perhaps the best example -- is the creation of a “critical mass” of kosher consumers: residents, students, and tourists, so that a local equivalent of Starbucks would do more business with a kashrut certificate in six days than one without would do in seven (according to The Jerusalem Post.) And so, whether you go the Central bus station, a mall, or a street festival, all the eateries are kosher. I reckon that within a two block radius of where I was sitting there are more kosher restaurants than there are in Teaneck. Then I started playing with this idea: there are probably more kosher pizza parlors in Jerusalem than “Jerusalem” Pizzas elsewhere. There are probably more kosher restaurants in this one city than in all the cities “outside The Land” combined. And so you can have a Tmol Shimshol; you can have O’Connell’s, a kosher Irish pub (I’m on my way!); and because Israel is a place where dreams come true, you can have a Chez Gita, an English tea house run by a refugee from Wall Street who “needed a job.” (Or perhaps the job needed her.) Looking at the eclectic mixture of people sitting there on an equally mixed variety of tables and chairs, a few of the customers reading books – in several languages -- from off the shelves behind them, I had the sense that at least some of them were there because of the location, the ambience, and the good food, whether or not there was a kashrut certificate on the wall. Perhaps this is proof of one of my iron precepts of life, that quality is a precursor to holiness.
We left Tmol Shimshol and retraced our steps down the alley. When we had come, we had passed the Ohel Yitzchak synagogue. In the dark interior, we saw a lone man sleeping at a table in a corner. Now when we returned, the building was brilliantly lit, and we could see the splendor inside. According to the sign outside, Ohel Yitzhak was built in 1888 (probably making it the second oldest beit knesset outside The Old City, Nahalat Yaakov, standing on the opposite side of the alley, and now under renovation, being the oldest.) But that date is only part of the story. Yes, this version of Ohel Yitzhak was built in a then new area of Jerusalem in 1888, but I have a notion that the origin of this place must go back 500 years, when some men in Tunis, or Algiers, or Fez decided to build a house of prayer that would be small enough (serving maybe fifty families) and plain enough on the outside not to arouse the enmity of their Muslim rulers, but with such beauty inside to suggest their vision of The World To Come. Today, the elaborate candle holders in our Jerusalem Ohel Yitzhak have been refitted for electric lights, and there are fans hanging from the bimah. Perhaps the rugs are a little threadbare. But there is something therein that money cannot buy. It is as if on the first day of worship 119 years ago, someone came in with a bottle of 500 year old kavanah and opened it during morning prayers. This is beyond the ability of any building or expansion committee in Bergen County.
And the table in the corner? Now there was a rabbi sitting there at that same table, learning with a group of men, all of whom had probably spent the day at work.
Yesterday and the day before: there is a lot of that in Jerusalem and throughout our ancient homeland. But on this August evening this year in David’s capital, there were men learning anew the texts of our tradition, and around the corner, there were young couples enjoying each other’s company and partaking of a wonderful meal. Back in Maale Adumim, we are only one of fifteen new families that have made aliyah. So while there is yesterdays and myriads of days before that in The Land, there is also today, and we are here to partake.
I am thinking: how about a combination coffee house and house of study called “Achshav” dedicated to the consideration of how Jerusalem, Israel, and the Jewish people are “Now,” and what that all means? Until then, I hope to continue with these episodes until many of you are able to join us “A Little Bit East of Yerushalayim,” or thereabouts.