The well-dressed man made his statement multiple times as clear as it could be; you’re invited for the most wonderful moment of the week. Shabbat dinner. Promising words came along; ‘you would love it’, ‘the food is delicious’, ‘the moment is so special, everything is different than’ ‘please join, you’re invited’.
Any misunderstanding was impossible; this pending invitation was something special.
It was a Thursday in Jerusalem and with only one day left, I had no idea what to do on Friday night, the start of the Shabbat. In Jerusalem, most Jewish places would be closed from the starting on Friday night after sundown until Saturday night. Labour and activities are on hold based on the Jewish religion. Still, I would love to be part of the Shabbat in Jerusalem.
The moment of truth
So I made up my mind and decided to join the dinner. With little idea of what to expect and not even a clue about where to go. A language barrier left so many questions unanswered. What to wear? How to behave? What to do?
And even at the moment of truth, where to go? The well-dressed man was nowhere to be seen. The dinner supposed to be downstairs, with no stairs to find to go down. Everybody would be there, while I was searching desperately to find anybody in the hotel lobby to give me directions to go to the promising dinner.
Minutes passed before all the dots where connected. Stairs were surprisingly hidden in the corner and an employe showed me the way.
As I walked down, a wonderful scene unfolded: a bright, open space was lightening up in front of me.
A big buffet with a rainbow of colours was proudly located in the middle of the open space. The smell of food started a saliva reflex that would make Pavlov’s dogs amateurs.
And indeed everyone was there. The men were wearing long black coats; some with round big furry hats on the head others with the small round kippah, long curls aside the face, women with covered heads by hats or wigs. Everyone dressed with the greatest care.
An oasis in the basement
People were eating in a serene state of mind around the buffet, children playing joyfully in between.
It felt like there was a completely different world located at the end of those stairs. A world were traditions, faith and a long history connected people by religion and customs. A world of its own separated from the daily life that happened outside.
An oasis of serene tranquillity comes the closest to what I felt at that moment in the open space downstairs.
This is how I found myself at a Friday night, at 7.00 pm, in a basement of a religious Jewish hotel, in Jerusalem, between two women with beautiful wigs, putting potatoes and vegetables on my plate at the buffet of a Shabbat dinner. Invited by a well-dressed man; the chef of the hotel. I was the only non-Jewish person in the space. And with basic knowledge of the Jewish meaning of traditions on Shabbat.
Back at my table, the whole situation felt pleasantly relaxing. In this scene were I understood little of the meaning of customs, in a language in which the only word I understood was ‘thank you’, I did feel the importance of this moment of the week. I felt the moment of serenity. Eating together in rest was like coming to a breath.
The moment was abruptly disturbed when on the right side of me a conversation started about the career of Kanye West with a clear American accent.
Hello mister West
A careful glimpse to the right gave me nothing more than orthodox Jewish guest enjoying Shabbat dinner. Still, they were talking about Kanye West. I could hear it clearly. The American rapper and designer that changed his name recently in Ye, as I learned while eating potatoes.
I lost understanding. At this dinner where century-old traditions and customs came together and kept in honour and the outside world felt miles away, Kanye West showed up. Out of the blue. Totally unexpected. The gap between Jewish traditions and Kanye West was one I could not process. How was it possible that this conversation and this scene were happening at the same time? How could they intermingle?
For a moment I thought about the lessons I had about Judaism at the University. Curious as I was, I subscribed to this course to understand more about this religion. Finding myself panicking before the exam about still understanding so little about Judaism. Finally passing the exam gloriously. The key: I could very well describe what I didn’t understand. And that is the diversity in Judaism as a religion, race and culture. The long history left many influences on the Jewish faith, making its appearance broad. Too broad to understand in one or two senses. And not at all definable in one or two senses.
Back to the Shabbat dinner in the Jerusalem basement. I realise that all the people gathered here have their own unique background. While the conversation about Kanye West continues, I look around more carefully. In a corner I see people who could be a Sephardic family, they look like they are from the Mediterranean, with olive coloured skin and dark hair. They have 5 almost grown-up daughters. The daughters are dressed according to Jewish traditions, albeit modern. Their clothes could be bought at the Zara or Mango; I would wear those clothes too.
A little to the left there’s a young couple, speaking a language that I don’t recognize as Hebrew. The woman is looking young in the face; her wig and modestly skirt make her look older than she probably is. The man in front of her, presumably her husband, is wearing a big, round, furry hat, light coloured curls aside of his face. The long, dark coat must be warm in this space. They smile frequently to each other during their conversation.
One of the employees sits with two older people more in the back. Their appearance looks like the people from the Dutch village I grew up: pale skin with high cheekbones. Only their clothing shows their connection to the Jewish faith. In different clothing, I would have easily thought we were from the same village.
Understanding the moment
‘Do you know where I can find the bathroom’, this question with American accent disturbs me suddenly from my thoughts. At this point, I don’t even know where to find the stairs back to the lobby anymore, so I answer politely with a no. She finds them anyway, on the way back giving me clear instructions where I could find that bathroom, just in case of.
Before continuing her way to her table she stops. Looking me straight in the face and asking on a high, friendly tone ‘How did you end up here’? Immediately followed by more questions: ‘What do you think about Shabbat?’ ‘Isn’t it hard for you to understand?’ Only the last question I can answer easily with a yes.
She tells me she’s from Brooklyn, New York, visiting Jerusalem annually with her husband. They are Americans. She wears a beautiful curly wig, perfectly matching the contours of her face and has visibly taken care of her make-up and clothing. Red lipstick, with a basic accent on the eyes. A subtle, thin, golden necklace decorates her neck. She looks glamorous posh and modest at the same time.
Her story continues with an ode to Jerusalem. Giving me clear instructions about the beautiful synagogues that I should visit. I recognize her voice from the conversation about Kanye West. Before I realise she’s gone and the dinner continues with desserts.
While enjoying chocolate with nougat on a fancy plate and keeping up with Kanye West’s career, I realise that it is this that made Judaism for me hard to understand at the university. There’s indeed no clear-cut description of Judaism or Jewish people. Judaism, as I remember from University, is an array of customs and traditions, connected by the Jewish faith. Differences are widely available as I experience and see during the Shabbat dinner.
All the people gathered in this open space in the basement are Jewish, yet they differ in their history, customs and appearance. And apparently in interest, as the conversation about Kanye West shows.
A little later all desserts are eaten. People lean satisfied at the back of their chairs. The conversation about Kanye West has stopped. The feeling of serene tranquillity is still in the open space. All the Jewish hotel guests and I leave the place in this relaxed state of mind. Shabbat dinner was indeed a wonderful moment of the week, I loved it, I’m glad I had the chance to be there. The food was delicious, the people welcoming and everything was different. Really everything was different.
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