There is so much that separates us – but a lot that unites, too

A chance encounter shows the unified nature of the Jewish people

 THE LONELINESS of the Covid bus passenger. (photo credit: DINA ALFASI)
THE LONELINESS of the Covid bus passenger.
(photo credit: DINA ALFASI)

The daylight hours are fewer this time of year though it’s been getting darker slightly later. It’s easy to stress darkness; more challenging to find the light.

I think of a November evening, around 6 p.m. Other times of the year, the sun would have still been shining. In November, it was dark. But the sun shined through.

I was traveling on a bus on Highway 38 to Beit Shemesh. The bus broke down. Okay, that doesn’t sound like a sunny moment. But soon, the light would come.

Our driver informed us that it would be 15-20 minutes until a different bus would come to take us home.

 An Orthodox Jewish woman looks out the window of her room in the abused women's shelter in Beit Shemesh, July 15, 2014 (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90) An Orthodox Jewish woman looks out the window of her room in the abused women's shelter in Beit Shemesh, July 15, 2014 (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

Some passengers got off and waited at the side of the road for the next one. Other passengers stayed on the bus that had malfunctioned. I’m glad I was one of them. The driver shut off the engine. It was quiet on board, with plenty of time for various passengers to roam the bus and strike up conversations with the others.

A woman in IDF uniform is on the phone discussing the menu for the Friday night family get-together. She gets off the phone. A young hassidic man approaches her.

“You have a Shabbat meal on Friday night?” he asks her.

“Absolutely, my family always does,” she replies.

They discuss where they each live.

“Within walking distance,” says the man. “Could my wife and I be your guests this week?”

The woman is dumbfounded.

“But what about the food?” she says. “It’s not kosher enough. People drive to come to our meal. I don’t want to say no, but you’d feel very uncomfortable.”

“Listen,” the man replies. “My wife and I were recently married. We don’t yet have children. Once we do, we’ll never have a chance to go to a different kind of Shabbat meal. Here, take my wife’s number. Have your mother call her. If we can work it out, great. If we can’t, it wasn’t meant to be.”

Wow, was I glad the bus broke down.

I witnessed this conversation. I knew neither the hassid nor the soldier woman. But I knew that I was witnessing the kind of conversation that doesn’t get exposed enough: different sectors in Israeli society speaking to one another, respecting one another, wanting to know more about the other.

I left it there. I didn’t make an effort to get contact information from either of the protagonists. “That was silly and rather passive on my part,” I said to myself when it was already too late, after I was back home pondering the experience.

But the story would find me a month later. It was mid-December. Again, it was evening. In fact, it was around 6 o’clock, just as it was when the previous episode took place. And there she was: the IDF soldier from our previous story.

Timeout: I just want to make a point. This bizarre period of corona and its variants has, of course, forced us into this annoying situation of covering a large part of our face to potentially avoid illness and even death. Some weeks ago, I was in the supermarket and saw a woman who I was pretty sure I knew, but I wasn’t totally sure – because she was wearing a mask.

She was pretty sure she knew me. But she wasn’t totally sure. Because I was wearing a mask. We both hesitated, and walked away without saying anything beyond a very tentative “hello” to each other.

As for the IDF soldier on the bus who was planning a Shabbat dinner, when I first saw her in November she was wearing a mask. Then, in mid-December, when I saw her again, she again was wearing a mask. So, yeah, I knew who she was.

“Did they come?” I asked her upon this second encounter.

“Yes,” she said, “and we’re going to them this week.”

Some wonder what the fuss is about a Friday night meal. Others could not fathom how such a scenario could be worked out.

“If he was truly haredi, why would he eat in her house, especially when she told him that their standards of kashrut might not meet their norms?” wrote someone in response to a social media message I posted about this episode. “I dunno – call me a cynic – doesn’t smell right.”

The person who wrote this comment is listed as living in the United States. His statement was liked – in social media parlance – by a woman who also lives in the US, according to her social media profile. I had to disagree. I said that it didn’t smell right. I think it smelled delicious.

Though not meaning to generalize, I would suggest that the comment by this gentleman on social media is far more likely to be made by someone who does not live in Israel, though in fairness, I must add that the comment also received support from someone who lives in my town of Beit Shemesh.

On the other hand, a woman who made aliyah from the UK in 2016 wrote: “How wonderful! I really think this is an ‘only-in-Israel’ moment! I can’t imagine something like this happening in Manchester. Thanks for sharing.”

As for the fuss about the Friday night meal, though I know that haredi Jews in the Diaspora also do it, here in Israel – since after all, we are the Jewish state – the Friday night meal is an institution among the Jewish population.

While the imagery of a haredi individual – hassidic or otherwise – getting together with the family of a non-Orthodox female soldier for a Shabbat meal might seem to represent an irreconcilable clash, it is not so in Israel, because this is the national day of rest.

In the US and many other countries, if there’s a Friday late-afternoon rush on the roads, it’s likely the commuter traffic on the final day of the workweek. In Israel, it is more likely attributed to people rushing to their family get-together. True, most of the people statistically won’t be Orthodox, but this is both the uniformity and diversity of this country: the Jewish people back in their land after a long exile, but very different among themselves after they’ve ingathered from the Diaspora.

As to how the encounter of a haredi couple going to a secular family on Friday night could successfully pan out, here’s how the soldier described it to me.

Her mother decided to take up the challenge. The haredi newlywed wife asked the secular mom to do the weekly food shopping with her. According to the soldier, the haredi woman was lenient on the kosher certification of certain foods, but stricter regarding others.

“They were out shopping for over three hours,” says the soldier-daughter. “It was a learning experience for my mother. The two of them shared a lot of their experiences, and yes, argued a bit. Ultimately, though, they concluded the shopping peacefully,” she said with a wry smile that I could see even through her mask.

Next step: cooking. It was carried out at the haredi couple’s apartment, with the two women cooking together. Here, however, there was a greater understanding between the two of them, says the secular daughter.

“Yes, I know we are secular. I am proud of being secular, but you have to understand that we also separate between dairy and meat, just like the Orthodox. We do it as part of Jewish tradition. So the cooking was carried out very harmoniously. The haredi woman didn’t have to explain anything to my mom.”

Various other details were worked out, but then the moment came when they truly had to think out of the box.

“Dishes,” noted the soldier. “The haredi woman wanted to use disposable; my mother vehemently objected.”

Even if the secular family separated their dairy from meat, the haredi woman explained that she was hesitant about using their dishes.

But then the secular mom thought of an idea. “We have a cousin who is a caterer,” the daughter told me. “My mom asked him if he could help this ‘project of unity,’ as she put it, by supplying the dishes.”

The cousin agreed. The haredi woman said that the standard of kashrut certification of the catering business was not totally to her standards but “certainly kosher,” and as a result, the soldier says, the woman agreed to use the dishes from the secular cousin’s business for the Friday night meal.

Both women wanted to pay the caterer for use of the dishes, but he refused to take payment.

So with a hot plate set up, the food having been cooked by the two women in the haredi kitchen, and a table set with the dishes and cutlery from the caterer, the hassidic man and his wife sat down to a Shabbat meal at the home of the secular family: mom and dad, three children (one married with a partner), a grandchild, and yes, also the cousin caterer, with his wife and two kids.

“I wish we could have taken a photograph,” the soldier lamented, “but of course, we didn’t, because that would have been desecrating the Shabbat.”

“Why don’t the two families get together during the week sometime and take a picture?” I asked the soldier during the bus ride.

“I’ll suggest it,” she replied.

In the meantime, she stated the obvious. “When we go to them on Friday night, it’ll be much simpler. We won’t have to do anything.”

Nonetheless, the daughter added, her mom wanted to make a contribution and went over to the haredi couple’s apartment during the week to do some cooking there and to have some more “good conversation about how different their lifestyles are but how much similarity there is, as well, that unites them.”  

The writer is op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post.