The(com)Promised Land Dispatch 3: Shabbat in Jerusalem - Of Wine and Walls

by Jeff Greenwald, Mar 3, 2004 | Destinations: Israel / Jerusalem

I found the 8.5 x 11" poster on a stack inside the Jewish Student Information Center. A crude photocopy, in black and white, it showed a scene from Seinfeld, with Kramer leaning hilariously into the door to Jerry's apartment. "Drop in for a Shabbat meal," it said, and gave the number of Jeff Seidel - a short, bespectacled, action-packed figure who serves as the social and spiritual ringmaster for Jews who find themselves in Jerusalem on short - and long-term visits.

Seidel's purpose is to place every person who asks with a local family for Shabbat dinner (and Saturday afternoon as well, if one desires). I called his cell phone, and was told to meet him near the drinking fountains to the north of the Wall at exactly 6:10 p.m.

"How will I find you?" I asked.
"Ask anybody," he replied.

I arrived at the Wall exactly on time, after a couple of taxi rides that provoked a full spectrum of reactions (the first with a thief, the second with a saint), found the fountains, and approached the first young man I saw. "Do you know where I might find Jeff Seidel?"

"I saw him here a minute ago... Oh, there he is." I almost missed him at first - he really is short - but saw him, surrounded by perhaps two dozen other men and women, most of them in their late teens and early 20's. This was the drill: you stood in front of Seidel, so that he would know you were there, let him appraise you for a moment, and he assigned you a family, apparently at random. After a few moments he pointed to me, as well as a young Yeshiva student named Adam Jerusalim, and handed me a slip of paper that read "Helbfinger."

"Who did you get?" He leaned over to look. "Oh! Helbfinger. They're very good. You're lucky."

I nodded gamely, aware he must say this to all the prospective diners.

Adam was hoping that our family would be not in Jerusalem proper, but in the Old City; he'd never had a Shabbat meal close to the Kotel. Great luck - the residence was just around the corner, not two minutes' walk from the Wall. One of Jeff's colleagues escorted us, and we soon found ourselves knocking on the Helbfinger's door.

It is impossible to overstate what a rush of comfort and delight I felt as Mrs. Helbfinger, a clear-eyed and kind-looking woman wearing a blue head scarf and modest dress, invited us into her home. It was beautiful, an 800-year-old flat with arched ceilings and simple white walls. The bookshelves were lined with Hebrew religious volumes - Mr. Helbfinger, I learned, was a retired cantor - and the table was covered with white linen and set for ten. Along with our hosts, their son Yaacov and daughter Chaiyet, there would eventually be seven guests in all.

"It's our pleasure to do this," said Mrs. Helbfinger, who made the aliya with her husband only two years ago, from Worchester, Mass, by way of St. Louis and Cleveland. "Back in Cleveland, there were so few Jewish people passing through that people would fight to host them."

The meal began with songs and prayers, but nothing resembling a service. The cause was to welcome in the Shabbat, the holy day of rest, and for this there was sweet red wine and dense, home-made challah. The other guests, all of them either close friends of Yaacov's or serious students of Judaism steered this way through Jeff Seidel, knew the words and melodies. Rebbe Helbfinger, a delightfully solicitous host with porcelain skin and a long gray beard, looked much older than his olive-complexioned wife. I had been placed in the seat of honor on his left, and he frequently and eagerly leaned over to explain exactly what we were reading, and why.

There was no payment expected for the meal; all the Helbfingers asked was our stories. Needless to say I was the most loquacious speaker of the evening, especially after half a dozen glasses of the nectar-like wine, but everyone was heard. Adam was very delightful and charming, a sincere and open-hearted teenager rediscovering his deep affinity for Judaism after a year in Israel studying Jewish heritage and Torah. Drorit, a quiet woman in her 30s, worked with Yaacov at the IDT, Israel's telephone company. Most of the others faded more or less into the background during the few hours we spent together, but Rebbe Helbfinger was thrilled to learn that one of his guests - a painfully shy young man with handsome eyes, black hair and a prominent Semitic nose - was the great-great-great grandson of Rabbi Zucia, one of the most beloved Hassidic leaders of all time.

The meal was fantastic. Bread and wine, of course, followed by olives and hummus, gefilte fish with horseradish, salad, and a few other small dishes that I can't recall (because I couldn't write them down). I ate well, acknowledging that this simple meal was sensible, given the number of people the Helbfingers chose to feed each Friday night. I was floored when Chaiyet cleared off the table, took our cutlery, and brought out the actual dinner: steamed rice with Persian bean stew, a spicy, fragrant roast chicken, roasted potatoes, green beans in curry, and the most delicious noodle keugel I've ever tasted. There was dessert, as well: banana bread and cardamom cookies. I recalled Jeff Seidel's word's; he hadn't exaggerated. This was simply wonderful.

Dinner was punctuated by prayers and song and conversation. Nothing was taboo. We spoke about Jewish history, the joys of living in Jerusalem, and Rebbe Helbfinger's initial worry, on renting this flat, that because it had once been a prayer hall he would have to perform all sorts of rituals before making love with his wife. The Rebbe and his wife went around the table, asking everyone their impressions of Israel and Jerusalem, who they were, what they thought of life. No one offered any especially deep thoughts, but there was a pervasive sense of gratitude, and community, and a shared astonishment that in Israel everyone seemed to be part of a single family.

"There's often a very rough, abrasive exterior," said Mrs. Helbfinger, but a soft, wonderful center. Once you get to know people they open up to you."

I had been in Israel only four days, and couldn't yet comment on this shared sense of family. But as the most talkative and recently-arrived guest, I was asked my views on other subjects - from the discipline of writing to the World Court hearing on the barrier wall to the afternoon's violence at the Dome of the Rock.

The evening ended with a long and circular discussion about the Arab/Israeli impasse. It was awkward; I found it difficult to express any sympathy for the Palestinian cause without dancing around the issue. And yet I had to; because the truth of the situation is that the average Palestinian is being treated very badly. The fact that emerged was that many Jews in Jerusalem simply do not fathom the Moslem mentality. They have no Arab friends; they do not stray into the Moslem areas, except to pass through or do some shopping. Even the Hoelbfingers' son, Yaacov, described in amazement how, at Haifa University, his Moslem classmates had for the most part been unrelentingly conservative, clinging without compromise to their daily prayers and eschewing the consumption of alcohol.

Was it brainwashing, he wondered, or were they simply made differently? These were impossible questions to answer, of course - as was the issue, in this context of bewilderment, of how to achieve peace in this part of the world. But it was necessary to discuss the situation, and all present were eager for the views of an outsider, particularly an American outsider. At the end of the discussion I apologized sincerely for my ignorance, and for presuming I knew anything at all about the situation. But the Helbfingers seemed grateful for my honesty, and the dinner ended (I hope) on a note of great thanksgiving and mutual respect.

* * *

It was now past nine. I walked the short distance to the now virtually empty Wall. Only a dozen men, or less, sat before the Temple's foundation, many reciting blessings from large-type prayer books. This time, my cloth satchel of blessings was in my pocket - but inserting them in cracks in the Wall turned out to be far more difficult than I had anticipated. Every single cranny was already crammed to capacity with prayers, of every size and shape of paper. It took me many minutes, and much studying of the Wall's crumbling architecture, to find a resting place for my dozen hopeful missives.

The final piece of rice paper in my cloth bag was blank - it was meant for my own prayer, but I hadn't written one. Nor could I very well take out my pen and write one there, next to the Wall, on the Shabbat! So I pressed the scrap of rice paper to my forehead, and conveyed my wish by direct transmission.

It seemed to take; and I placed the prayer into the wall in a place where nothing short of an earthquake - or other Act of God - could dislodge it.

* * *

The traditional Jewish Sabbath begins with a blessing over candles and wine, known as the kiddish. It ends with the lighting of a twisted and braided candle in a ceremony called havdalah: the reluctant passage from the sacred back into the profane.

Twenty-four hours after my dinner with the Helbfingers, after the first three stars signaling the end of Sabbath had appeared, I walked along the outer wall of the Old City and made my way to the area known as the Triangle - the tiny, lively district bounded by King George, Ben Yehuda, and Jafo streets. The instant I arrived I found myself in the middle of a huge outdoor party - as if every teenager in the Holy Land had converged on this one spot. Hundreds of kids milled between the ice cream parlors and cafes and falafel shops, while circles of young Hassids whirled to the accompaniment of an electric piano. Everyone was talking to everybody else; nobody seemed left out. Kids with cell phones, kids with burgers, girls in pants, boys with braids, and on every corner the boys and girls with green khakis and M-16s slung over their shoulders, smoking and laughing as if the deadly weapons were just part of a costume.

Israel takes itself very seriously - especially on the Sabbath - and it was amazing to see so much unbridled joy and abandon there on the cobblestones, even if it was surrounded by armored transport vehicles. The Jewish State is still essentially a state of mind, and the reverence of Friday night dinner found its natural complement on the Saturday night streets, where a huge, extended family of teens painted the town. I had to laugh. The scene seemed to embody the ironic, almost combative motto of the country's Tourist Organization: "Israel: No One Belongs Here More Than You."

It has been a long time since I've seen anything so familiar, yet so undeniably alien.

But I ain't seen nothing, yet. Tomorrow I leave for Hebron, in the West Bank, where I'll become a rather rare specimen: an American Jew in the Occupied Territories.

* * * * *