Sunday, February 11, 2007

Shearith Israel: The Ethiopian Shabbat Dinner

As my date and I are walking in to dinner, a man in a black velvet hat gestures for us to come over and sit down by him, so we do. We introduce ourselves. Without thinking, I shake hands with him, and then my date reaches over to shake hands with his wife. Uh oh. She steps back half a step and crosses her arms, shaking her head apologetically and saying “I don’t….” My date reels as if she slapped him. No matter how many times I tell myself I need to remember the no-shake-hands thing, I always forget. I forgot to warn him. I feel guilty for the next hour.

Our dinner companions aren’t offended, though. It turns out they have only been members of the synagogue for a few years – and not only that – they’re baal teshuvot (literally: “masters of return,” or, “masters of repentance”) – that is to say, Jews who grew up in secular or liberal households, and who decided later in life to to take on all of the laws of traditional Jewish life, however they’ve decided to interpret that. (There are a lot of different things this could mean, and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise). The husband, Bob, has a Turkish Jewish mother and a Chinese father, and grew up in a liberal congregation in New Jersey. The wife grew up in a liberal community on Long Island, and went to college at Duke, where she barely even attended the Hillel. Since their marriage, they’ve decided to go religious together. And they have that bright-eyed, proselytic air of the newly religious. “I’m so sorry I didn’t grow up religious,” Bob tells me. “There’s so much I’ve missed.”

Bob and his wife are really friendly - they seem to be working to make up for the handshake crisis. Yet our conversation turns again and again to religion. It’s like, my date and I joke morosely together afterward, like they’re joint golf fanatics or pet fanciers or something - you know how couples get into those shared hobbies sometimes? Like, one of them said “I’m not going to turn on lights on the Sabbath.” And the other one said, “I’ll take your no lights on Sabbath and raise you a kosher home.” And the other one said, “Oh yeah? I’ll take your kosher home and raise you Jewish marital purity laws.” Etc. Until they’re in their own world and can’t exactly remember how to talk to people about things other than (golf, parakeets) their religion.

The bright-eyed couple keep trying to convince me to visit a branch of a congregation in the East Village, called the Manhattan Jewish Experience. “It’s an outreach congregation,” Bob says, “but it’s independent, it’s not a branch of Chabad and Aish.”

Note: Outreach is a code word. I could write whole books on it. But to give you the short version - Bob is referring to a couple of Jewish organizations (almost exclusively Orthodox) whose mission is to proselytize to Jews. They’re awfully good, though often obnoxious in their tactics. When I was in college, they used to stand in the middle of campus and shout at students who they thought looked Jewish, to try to get them to come over and perform brief religious rituals. They were moderately successful at attracting students, but they mainly succeeded in giving every single person on campus a complex about whether they looked Jewish or not.

Chabad has a bunch of vans, Mitzvah Mobiles, which they drive around New York City (one often parks across the street from my office on Park Avenue) and try to collar zoned out Jewish students or unsuspecting Jewish businessmen to do the same thing. Everyone in the liberal Jewish community is very jealous of their success – rather than blathering about doctrines and politics, like the Reform and Conservative movements – and rather than focusing on business plans and institutional structures – they just try to get Jewish people to do Jewish stuff. It’s a refreshingly simple message, and one that sells really well: You’re Jews. Do Jewish stuff. Because the Torah said you should. They softpedal the morally conservative underpinnings of their movement, and it’s been tremendously successful. (Note: I don't think college students are getting snowed, for the most part. They know these people don't agree with them politically. But they're getting free dinner and having fun. Everybody wins)

I’m curious why Bob is selling this congregation as being “not a part of Chabad or Aish.” Does he think they’re bad organizations? Too pushy? Doctrinally suspect? I didn’t quite manage to get my head together to ask.

Meanwhile, the Shabbat evening programming begins. The star of this evening is an Ethiopian-Jewish academic, Dr. Ephraim Isaac. The organizers of the event had asked him to give the history of Ethiopian Jewry in ten minutes, which disturbed him greatly. He spends about half the minutes talking about how this was an impossible task. What did we learn? “Thirty years ago, nobody knew about Ethiopian Jews. They all wanted to know. They asked me, how can there be Jews, real Jews, in Ethiopia? And I told them then, what I’ll tell you now – Ethiopia is mentioned fifty times in the Bible. Poland? Not yet once.” He also seems indignant that Jews of Western European descent think that Ethiopian Jews have been “isolated” for the last thousand years. Instead, he suggests, they’ve been “shut off,” or some other phrase that to me meant something so exactly like “isolated” that I can’t even remember it. We are all so afraid of sounding un-PC that nobody has the nerve to ask him what this distinction meant.

Instead, the crowd asks timid, respectful questions like, “In our culture, here on the Upper West Side, we only wear the prayer shawl in the daytime. Why do you wear the prayer shawl on Sabbath evenings?” This kind of question causes Dr. Isaac to go on long tangents beginning: “This is what a Jew wears. You’re all wearing European clothes. Normally, Jews go around wearing a prayer shawl all day long, if you go to the market and forget your shopping bag, you can put the potatoes in your prayer shawl…”

Dr. Isaac led blessings over dinner – you could pick out familiar-sounding words even though the language was different. And again it was the eastern melodies, tight, controlled, ornamented, that give me chills. Dinner was like any other time I’d had Ethiopian food, except the bread was more like pita than like the spongy sourdough injira I associate with Ethiopian food.

Over dinner I turn to my other side. The woman on my left is a member of Shearith Israel, as well. About 40, probably, thin, beautiful, with a tight lacy top and leather skirt. I introduce myself and my date, and when my date returns to his dinner, she gestures at him and asks me, “Are you guys married?”
I say no.
“Are you getting married? How long have you been together?”
I dunno, maybe four months, I tell her.
“That’s long enough,” she tells me. “You should know by now.”
I look at her and try to get a glimpse at her left hand but it’s concealed. I ask her, “Are you married?” Because that seems to be the flow of the conversation.
“No,” she says, smiling, and looking down. “I’ve been really unlucky. But I’ve decided I’m getting married this year.”
“You’ve decided?”
“Yeah. It’s a state of mind. I’ve had a couple relationships that didn’t work, and I was even engaged once, but it didn’t work out. But now I’m really getting married this year. Now that I’ve taken on this state of mind, everything’s started to change.”

Once again, we reach the point in the evening where I am totally emotionally exhausted. After a lot of practice and personal maturing, I can mostly understand the very-religious lifestyle thing. It ties you to a community with a vast, private, special common language and tradition. There’s a right and a wrong way to do most of the things you do in your life. I get it. An Orthodox woman once told me that when she goes around with her husband, who wears a kipah, people constantly come up to them and ask him for directions. Why? They’re Jews. A guy with a kipah must be okay.

So I get this in theory. But I’m exhausted from trying to listen. Why is this woman, a total stranger, telling me about her broken engagements and telling me I should get married? And that she’s definitely getting married this year? I kind of have this theory that in cultures where women are separated from men so much of the time, they bond more quickly with each other. We’re all stuck in the balcony together, might as well make friends.

We had every intention of staying for the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, but we’re too wiped out, so we grab a couple of not-so-traditional-Ethiopian black-and-white cookies (a concession to the crowd, I guess) from the buffet line and make our escape…

I’m going back in a couple weeks because I’ve got to hear this music again. Anyone want to come with me?

19 comments:

melinama said...

Me, me!

lgwriter49 said...

Hello. I am extremely interested in Ethiopian Jewry in New York City. Any information you can provide on this--where to meet Ethiopian Jews in New York, neighborhoods where they live, etc.--would be greatly appreciated. This is for a creative project.

You can reach me at LGwriter49 at aol dot calm

Thanks

Lawrence

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