Secular reflections on Shabbat in the West Bank

Eric Berger is interning with the Jerusalem Post as part of a MASA program. He came to Israel in January after spending two years as reporter and then news and online editor of the Boonville Daily News, a small newspaper in Missouri.

As with many places I''ve never visited, I only had a few faint ideas associated with West Bank settlements. Religion and conflict were about all that existed, I thought. That may be exaggerating how narrowly I viewed life there, but if so, only slightly.

When I arrived in Alon Shvut for Shabbat, I expected the orthodox brand of Judaism to feel sweltering and to find people who were more connected to the words of Torah than to what one another said. My experience, though, turned out to be more like what I imagine a stay at a bed and breakfast is like—having never actually been to one. Obviously relaxing on Shabbat doesn’t always come this easy —you have to heat up ovens and rip toilet paper, among other tasks—but on this occasion, I didn’t do much.
For Friday night services, I walked into a synagogue essentially in the backyard of my host’s home and found a seat towards the rear of the sanctuary. I come from a congregation where the Rabbi spells out page turns and when to rise from your seat. These services felt more like a casual flash mob. The women prayed on the second floor; the men on the first, and during songs such as Leha Dodi, the voices found one another and swelled into a warm melody.  No one needed any direction: You know the time. Show up, pray, catch up with others and then enjoy a nice meal. We do this every Friday, folks.
This was my first trip into the West Bank, and I expected to feel more disconnected from reality. These were people, some would say, intoxicated on a biblical trip, keeled too far over into their studies of God’s words to make concessions and spare the rest of the country some global condemnation.  But the radicals I met included a widow who likes to garden, a black man from Suriname who has the beginnings of payos growing and is preparing to make aliya, and an eighth generation Israeli who, Shabbat meal behind him, leaned back in his chair and sang traditional tunes while the rest of us cleared the table.
I’m not sure how much my glimpse at life in Judea and Samaria was sanitized for my benefit. I didn’t just wander into the settlement and say, “Can I stay with you?” A coordinator from my MASA internship program arranged the accommodations, and I imagine he took care to find families who were tolerant of secular lifestyles. Had I gone further into the West Bank to, say Hebron, where Arab-Jewish relations are more tense and violence is more common, perhaps I would have returned with a less rosy picture of life in the region.
Aside from a surveillance vessel that I mistook for a hot air balloon and an army vehicle patrolling the streets, you wouldn’t know that Alon Shvut stood in territory captured by Israel during the Six Day War and disputed ever since. 


While we spoke more about the meaning of Shabbat rituals than we did politics, there was some talk of relations with Arab neighbors. One woman mentioned that a grocery store recently opened nearby is staffed mostly by Arabs, and that both Jews and Arabs shop there. A common refrain among the people I met was “On a one to one basis, people generally get along.” Several residents said it’s fear of being hurt or shunned by other Arabs that keeps Arabs from making more public inroads with Jews. If you were to privately ask Arabs in the community, one person said, whether they would rather live under the State of Israel or a neighbor such as Lebanon or Egypt, the majority would say Israel.
It was only during a tour led by an Alon Shvut resident where I at times felt as though I was being fed propaganda. Our guide told us that most residents chose to live in the city because of the religious atmosphere and lifestyle, not for political or religious reasons.
The town itself was filled with large modern homes and its sidewalks are lined with gardens and flowerbeds. It was among the greener places I’ve seen in Israel. All this, I imagine, affords residents a relatively quiet, comfortable life.  But this place was disputed, built on the backs of fallen soldiers, and as the guide pointed out, encompassed ancient ruins and a sacred oak tree.
Downplaying the connections between the religious and historical significance of the disputed land, the founder’s reasons for building Alon Shvut and the semi-serene lifestyle that now exists, is like a Manchester United fan saying he only goes to matches for the atmosphere. You may not pay the game much mind, but without it, what cause is there for drinking beer and cheering? Settlers didn''t just happen upon this site; their presence is inextricably linked to the area''s rich Jewish history.
I didn’t come to Alon Shvut looking for a fight, though, or even necessarily to analyze why these settlers live as they do. I went more for myself; I wanted to see another slice of Israel.
Friday night dinner was the first meal where I’ve seen gefilte fish served outside of a Passover seder. Most people say gefilte should be a catch and release fish.  I think they’re wrong. Whatever is inside the strange loaf, I dig it. I also tried liver for the first time. Not the most appetizing texture, but I’d eat it again.
I had wondered how observant Jews manage to do Shabbat every week. Doesn’t it feel like tiptoeing around modern life to have televisions, ovens and cell phones in your home that for one day you can’t use? And don’t these restrictions get aggravating and old?
I also thought about everything that I do and then move on from without blinking. It’s on Saturday mornings that I am conscious of what going to bars on Friday nights means, not while I am ordering a drink. I probably have as many rituals as observant Jews, I just only think about half of them. The contrast between an observant Jew and myself lies is in the deliberateness of their actions versus the more casual nature of mine.
After dinner Friday, our host led a friend and I around the hill on which Alon Shvut is situated and pointed out what the lights in the crevices of the mountain range surrounding the city were. We could see electricity glowing from Tel Aviv.
Many of these lights, I’m sure, came from secular homes, but I suppose they could have come from observant Jews’ homes, too. The guiding rule, as I understand it, is that you can’t create on Shabbat. So if appliances are programmed to switch on or off without your touch, that’s acceptable. The engines of Jeeps patrolling the town on Shabbat contain an extra component that doesn’t require drivers to use the ignition.
Our host had asked us earlier in the day if midnight would be an OK time to set the timer for turning off the lights upstairs. We said that was fine, so when it was 12:30 and the lights were still on, I had a decision to make. I don’t normally keep kosher or observe Shabbat, but I wanted to respect our host. I also wanted to get some rest, and under the bright lights, I might as well have been at a rave inside a fish market.
I decided to turn them off. My executive decision--I shared the room with a friend who had already managed to fall asleep--didn’t feel too selfish because there would only be a few hours where bulbs might be needed in the room before Shabbat would end.
And what do you do in a guest bedroom with not enough daylight?
You rest.