I didn’t dare

We had a sick baby last weekend. So when Sara and her husband Rami knocked our door on Shabbat evening last Friday, I was still busy trying to soothe a feverish child.

When my husband came to get me I gave in to the sleep fighting sickly toddler. I decided to take our daughter to the living room, where Sara’s expression shouted “mixed emotions”.

“I didn’t dare to come over”. She said. “But it was your birthday, right? So I made you a cake.”

She pointed proudly at the glorious chocolate cake on the table. Decorated with a heart. We both raised our hands to our hearts.

Sara and I love each other through all the storms. It is a bond I can’t explain. We hugged tightly, our youngest ones on our hips.

Did you hear about what happened in the synagogue last Tuesday? Her eyes shimmering with fear. I didn’t dare to come over, she repeated. Because, you know, there are Arabs living here.

Sara and I live maybe a 150 meters apart from each other. She, in a bubble of Orthodox Jews, piled on top of one another in small shabby semi modern apartments. Large families who all follow the same Rabbi Eliezer Berland.

We live in an equally shabby but ancient Arab building that has been housing Jews for at least fifty years now. I haven’t seen any Arabs living close to us. But since we live close to East Jerusalem, Arabs tend to walk through our street. Or are hired by neighbors for repair jobs.

It was enough to scare Sara away. It is also enough to cause a close neighbor to run after his four year old screaming as soon as he goes out the door by himself.

Sara was hushed by her husband: it was Shabbat and there could be no mentioning nasty subjects. This was a joyful day. So Sara hushed and we continued patting each other’s knees, having her husband translate words for us without me looking him in the eye. Our usual lingo.

We switched topics: Rami had just returned from the Netherlands to visit his Rabbi. Eliezer Berland has recently taken refuge there after accusations of sexual abuse of young women.

Not that we talked about those accusations, mind you. It was Shabbat!  And he didn’t do anything anyway.

Without Rami mentioning it, it became all too clear we might just be a sign. A sign from God that Sara and Rami’s true life destination is to be found in the Netherlands.

The Rabbi had urged Rami to start praying for a job in the Netherlands as a kosher butcher. So that is what he does now. Every. Single. Day. Almost as feverishly as the child attached to my hip that night.

And as much as I would enjoy taking my best friend here home with me, I feel sorry for them if they would succeed. I can not believe them being happy when taken out of their bubble, to be placed in the cold Netherlands.

Where family is far away. Where like minded religious people are hard to find. And perhaps in these times the most important part of all:

Where there’s no constant need to be afraid of Arabs.

 

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From here to the moon and back

We’ve been from here to the moon and back.

Last weekend we visited Taybeh. One of the last Christian towns in Palestine. It is a lovely, quiet place. The most noticeable difference from all the other towns on the West Bank is not so much the religion. It is the absence of rubbish and trash on the streets that has now become almost iconical to our Middle Eastern experience. Taybeh is as clean as the inside of it’s churches.

It being a Christian town, alcohol is not on the black list. Even better: the town is well known for producing it’s own beer. We wanted to visit the brewery. Take the tour, show the kids how beer is made and give the local economy a boost in a pleasant way.

Our small car barely fits all of us, but we managed to squeeze in four boxes of, let’s say, support for both the occupied territories and us parents.

Our youngest daughter fell asleep in the car on the way back and we decided to keep on driving not to wake her up. And driving…

Until we arrived in Nablus.

The history of the ancient city of Nablus goes back at least 9000 years. It is called Schechem in the Bible. It nestled itself at the slopes of, and mainly in the valley beneath, Mount Gerizim.

To go where no European child has gone before. That is how the children must have felt. Our very blond middle daughter had gotten used to her movie star status in Jerusalem, but the people of Nablus took it to the next level. Ten minutes after we parked the car, she asked us to buy her a head scarf. Almost everyone who passed her in the overcrowded streets would touch her hair. People stared. Children would stand still right in front of us and gaze at us, mouths open wide.

Our youngest daughter quite enjoyed the show. Safely on her father’s arm she would happily wave at the crowds, throw hand kisses at whoever requested it and would kiss cheeks of complete strangers.

Some people would nod at us and say “welcome”. Some would ignore us and most people just looked at us. Not angrily, not afraid, not amused. The look in their eyes was more of an interested, almost fascinated nature.

We might have just mirrored their fascination.This was a town in another country. This was so far away from the Israel we have seen so far, we felt as if we had landed on the moon. Everything was different. The people, the buildings, the atmosphere.

We decided to go with the flow. We bought Kanafeh, which Nablusians pride themselves in being the best at preparing. We ate in a local restaurant. Bought the girls shoes with glitters and diamonds. The family was clearly warming up to the place.

Mount Gerizim was still on our list. Half of the remaining Samaritans  still alive had built their village there, on their Holy Mountain.

We paid a cab driver to lead the way. Which he did to the best of his knowledge. Bringing us past more proud green Hamas flags than I had ever seen before. Straight to the immense new mosque on the slopes of the mountain.

When we got out of the car to congratulate him on the mosque and ask him again for our intended destination, he had to make a few calls. Mister cab man drove us a little further and then waved out of his window: on, onwards, that way.

The way lead us to a closed fence. Probably the only side of the fence our Palestinian cab driver would ever be able to see. In our fortunate position as aliens, Westerners, tourists, we could go back and try to get to the other side of the fence through the checkpoint at the entrance of Nablus.

So back on our tracks we went. Past the magnificent palace of the Palestinian billionaire Munib al-Masri. We couldn’t help but ring the bell at his gate. Unfortunately we weren’t welcomed in to the house of the man who reportedly has as much money as a third of Palestine’s economy. Not this time.

By no means discouraged we did eventually end up in the Samaritan village on top of Mount Gerizim. Situated just behind the Jewish Settlement Har Brakha, meaning “mountain of blessing”.

Which is a funny name, when you realize that it is exactly the dispute about the holiness of the mountain that drove Samaritans and Jews apart. Jews believe history took place and shall be made on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Samaritans, true to the Torah and worshipping in a synagogue, believe Mount Gerizim is the place to be. Always has been.

Not only did God create the world, starting at Mount Gerizim. It was also the place Abraham was told to kill his son Isaac. The only dry part during the flood when Noah built his arc. And according to recent Dead Sea scroll work, Samaritans might be a little better in topography than Jews are.

Samaritans are on their way to become extinct. They tend not to marry with non-Samaritans and their gene-pool necessary for healthy offspring is quickly diminishing. If there ever was a blessing for us on that mountain, it was being able to be amidst these men and women in their distinct Shabbath attire. To see history being alive. To embrace the frailty and temporality of it all. Admire the stubbornness and dignity.

It was time to head home. Through the Tapuah junction where deadly or near deadly incidents between Jews and Arabs happen on an almost weekly basis. Past numerous settlements and Arab towns. Back to Jerusalem.

When all the kids had finally drifted off to sleep and we were about to call it a night ourselves, someone knocked on our door. Gently, kindly.

When we opened the door, there was Veigy, one of Sarah’s younger sisters.

From Sarah! She said, stretching out her hands, holding two plastic plates. Each plate held two beautifully crafted, homemade birds’ nest pastries, filled with ice cream.

With our hearts and minds still filled with moon dust. Veigy helped us land back here again.

 

 

Shabbat

Shabbat oh Shabbat. It was on the seventh day that God rested. He looked back to what he had created in six days and he saw it was very good. Jews are required to perform the Mitzvah of keeping Shabbat. Isn’t that a wonderful idea. One Full day of rest and peace and quiet. One day of nothingness. One day to retreat, reculer pour mieux sauter, rebreathe and recover.

It is a brilliant concept, Shabbat. The first months of our stay here, I would dwell over it. I would go to the most orthodox of ultra orthodox neighborhoods and pretend I was preparing for Shabbat, too. There, in Mea Shearim, people would get ready for their big day. The Big Day that returns every week. They would make arrangements for Shabbat, clean and shop. They would bathe their children and dress them in their prettiest clothes. They would cook for the day to come and set the table with clean linen and beautiful utensils.

Shabbat is like a bride that should be welcomed in pretty clothes, with the best foods and the happiest spirit. A good Jew should live frugally and not indulge, except on his Holy Day. It all sounded so wonderful to me.

Of course, being the homeschooling mother of five young children, a day of absolute and obligatory rest equals a peek in to heaven. But it was also the happy spirit that seemed to surround this wonderful day of the week that made me love it. It had such a different feeling compared to the seemingly endless and boring Sundays of my youth.

But then reality knocked on my door once again. Knocked, because on Shabbat one is not allowed to open or close and electrical circuit so ringing the bell is a big no go. You can ask others to do it for you, though, as long as they are not Jewish. And since we still haven’t converted to Judaism yet, we have turned in to our neighborhood’s little Shabbat helpers. Our son has been asked numerous times to plug devices in and out and turn switches on and off.

Shabbat starts at sunset on Friday and lasts till sunset on Saturday. Of course we tried our best to keep the kids quiet on Saturday morning, just like we have always done on Sunday mornings back in Europe. We always tried to be as quiet as we could possibly be with five early risers. What we didn’t know but apparently is quite a golden standard, is that we have to shut up between two and four pm, too. And because it is virtually impossible to keep our bunch quiet for two hours during the day, we chose to leave our house now. Every Saturday we try to go places with them, so that we will not offend our neighbors.

Hard work? Yes, it is, because on Shabbat most things are closed. So we flee the city of Jerusalem to go to the beach near Tel Aviv. Or we visit a museum with liberal opening hours. And every time I get in to the car I also realize how lucky I am not Jewish. I can travel on Shabbat.

Shabbat is for the people, the people are not for Shabbat, a wise Rabbi once said. And I notice how hard it is for some to remember that. True, it is hard to find the perfect balance. But if you are afraid that ” An Arab is about to beat his wife up”, would you rather call the police yourself, or would you wait until you find a non-Jewish person to call the police for you? Making a phone call would close an electrical circuit and is formally forbidden on Shabbat. A panicking couple my husband met on the street last week decided the latter. And my husband decided to not call at all but just talk to the guy screaming at his wife.

Or how about our very pregnant neighbor who’s brothers are called back in to the army to fight in Gaza? She fears for their well being every day, not a fraction less on Shabbat. So she will come to our door to ask us whether we have heard any news from Gaza. When we look the Israeli news up on our laptop, she is not allowed to read it. And since our Hebrew is still crappy, we can not reassure her. When she starts crying I can not help thinking this Shabbat is in no way beneficial for a pregnant woman. So we inform ourselves through English languages news sites and casually tell her as if we looked it up for ourselves.

Often, on Shabbat, my dear Haredi friend Sara comes by. Always with her husband, sometimes with other family members. She brings sweets and smiles.The couple is dressed up in their most beautiful attire. Sara’s husband Rami wears a large fur hat. Sara herself is in white and gold. I still can not really talk to her and when her husband’s translation services aren’t fast enough for me, I want to use my translation app on my phone. On Shabbat, she can not read it unless I have written it just for myself. That’s when Shabbat gets too complicated for me and I put the phone away.

On the way out, last Shabbat, Sara leans against the wall while her husband kisses our Mezuzah. She accidentally leans against the light switch and lights up the whole room. An expression of true horror and shock darkens her face until her husband reassures her it is ok because it was an accident. I hug her and laugh. And I whisper in her ear: It’s ok, Shabbat is for the people.