I had one shabbat in Israel this year. Normally I try for two, but I just couldn’t make it work this year, so one it was. And it was also one that I kept completely and fully in Jerusalem with my friend CK. CK is kind of Sam to my Diane without the romance. We debate and we laugh. He has wanted me to try keeping shabbat fully, so I promised him a shabbat on my summer trip.
Shabbat he got.
We started around 3PM on Friday afternoon, when he raced around the shuk buying avocados, tomatoes, soda, olives, tahini, challah, and untold bags of fresh produce. I kept trying to take a bag or two from him, but it wasn’t until we picked up 8 liters of drinks that he finally let me help. We had etrog from the etrog man, tasted olives while we waited for tahini and snapped a photo of the other ROI.
We went back to his house that was overflowing with guests and immediately got online for the hours remaining before shabbat. Doing work, making calls, sending text messages. Around 6:45 or so, Dave pulled six candles out of the cabinet (two for each female guest to light to welcome shabbat) and by 7:30 we’d lit the candles, put on Kotel appropriate clothes, emptied our pockets and we were out the door.
First stop was the Kotel for kabbalat shabbat, which I’ve written a bit about. That was the night I put a note in the wall for a guy I know from twitter, Schmult. He’s a reader of my work blog and recovering from some serious cancer. Every little bit helps, no?
At the Kotel, we picked up two more travelers and started the race to Reb Chayim’s house at the end of Emek Rafayim. The end. Lucky for us, I remembered how to get to Emek from when I drug Dubi to the wall last summer in the middle of the night. Lucky might not be the right word, because the easiest way to get there is to go from the Kotel to Zion Gate (Serious. Up. Hill. Climb.) then go down a switchback trail, walk past Sultan’s Pools, walk UP to the Cinema and scottish church, walk UP to the gas station that is one of my major landmarks and then walk down the street. To the end. The very end.
It was a long walk.
A very long walk.
And, hey, I was observing shabbat so there was no flagging a cab or stopping to buy a bottle of water. Instead I tried to convince the South African I was walking with that Barack Obama isn’t Muslim.
Finally we got to our dinner at Crazy Reb Chayim’s apartment. From what I understand, Reb used to host dinners of 150 people in the old city, but someone convinced him that while 150 was nice, 20 was better. Reb Chayim was a shtreimel wearing rebbe and he kindly split us up by gender (men down one side of the table, women on the other) and we got down to the business of shabbat dinner.
And by get down to business, I mean we didn’t eat for at least another hour. We did a round of introductions. Who are you, where are you from, and answering random trivia from Reb Chayim. Mine was the location of the best burger in Chicago. There were young men at the table who are currently studying with him, a couple that knew him, a former student from Minnesota, lots of folks from Jersey playing Jewish geography and his three young daughters running around making merry.
We made kiddush, we said the opening prayers, we lined up to wash our hands and then we finally got to eat the plates of hummus and Israeli salads in front of us. After we’d had our fill, the appetizers came out. Erm, okay, we can keep eating. After the appetizers (which, honestly, we all thought was dinner) Reb told us it was time for a round of La Chaim’s. Each person would make a toast “to life” and everyone would take a sip of schnapps or wine or another drink after each one. 20 toasts later, I said, “When it comes to a time in your life that you need healing, I hope you are blessed with the most gifted healer you can find.”
Turns out Reb Chayim is a healer. Who knew?
After the round of toasts, Reb Chayim tells us we’ve come to the time in the night when we can ask him anything we want. The only exception is questions of halacha or Jewish law. He would give us opinions and not answers.
Nobody was really asking him much, so I got up from the floor where I’d been looking at his wedding album with his 4 year old daughter. “Okay, I want to know how you met your wife.”
We were treated to a 45 minute tale of crossing paths, serendipity, synchronicities, “they say you’ll know,” and visions. He and his wife had an amazing tale and if you ever meet him, you should ask. After hearing the story, I realized that his wife only looked meek and my respect for her quintupled.
Completely full, the Reb told us it was time for the meal. He and some of his students started pulling out the pasta, the cholent, the chicken, the fish. Are you kidding me? We’ve already had two dinners? We protest in the way you protest at a Jewish meal and we all filled our plates again.
Other people asked questions, but I was still mulling over the story of how he met his wife. What she knew upon meeting him. What he saw upon meeting her. And how in the end everyone was right.
The one question I remember was one of the women in our group asking if she could try on his shtreimel. He said yes! And we passed it around the table. Each of the women wearing it for only a few moments and taking mental photographs of each other, but his students each wore it for 30 or 45 minutes.
Eventually dessert came out and we all ate again. At some point in the dinner, Reb Chayim offered us each a blessing. Mine was that I win all of my arguments this year. Not a bad blessing to receive. We said the prayers after the meal and got up to say goodbye.
As CK and I left, we finally saw a clock. We left dinner at 3:00 AM. Reb Chayim walked us all the way to the intersection and wished us well. I don’t doubt that Reb has some incredible intuition, the man is tuned in to everyone’s energy, no doubt.
CK and I walked an easier way back across Jerusalem and collapsed around 4:00AM. We decided to miss going to a mutual friends kallah shabbat (shabbat before her wedding) because there was no chance we’d be waking up in time.
The next day, CK made me the most amazing shabbat meal. A salad full of avocados, tomatoes, corn, and I don’t know what else. We had tahini, sweet challah, sweet cold white wine from Gila, and sat on the balcony with our meals and our books.
When it got to hot, we both went inside and spent the rest of the day reading and napping. I kept my cell phone off, I kept my blackberry off, I kept my computer off. I napped and read and napped and read and ate and napped and read. It was a lot like my weekends in Colorado when I didn’t have a computer at home or a blackberry.
It was an amazing 25 hours or so. We topped it off with Havdalah and then turned the water heater on, got cleaned up and went out for the night. Will I start keeping shabbat now? I’m not sure, I haven’t since I’ve been back. But do I see it is less intimidating that it seems? Yes.
Am I happy I did it? Yes, absolutely. It was meaningful, my host was generous with time and food, and the Reb was kind in a way I didn’t expect shtreimel wearing men to be to a tattooed Jew.
Who knows what happens now. I’ve friended the Reb on Facebook and I’ll be back to Israel. But what will guarding shabbat mean to me in the future? Only time and space will tell.