More than the Jews kept Shabbat...

Remembering the Day of Rest should have much less to do with whether or not public buses run on Saturdays and much more to do with how we connect with one another.

picnic cartoon521 (photo credit: Deborah Danan)
picnic cartoon521
(photo credit: Deborah Danan)
In my last column, I promised I that would update on the success (or failure) of my Shabbat experiment.
If you recall, I had been lamenting the lack of awareness regarding “the other” within Israeli society. In Israel, the religious and the secular communities simply don’t cross paths enough and this segregation breeds ignorance which, in turn, breeds prejudice.
One of the reasons that I love Tel Aviv is because there is an ever-growing wealth of opportunities in which religious and secular people can freely mingle – far more than, say, in Jerusalem. That’s not to say that in Jerusalem never the twain shall meet.
Indeed, whenever I sat with a religious group of friends in the holy city, there were always the token few who were either secular or who had left the fold, the self-defined “hozrim b’she’ela” (lit.“returning in question”). And of course the reverse is also true. A posse of secular Jerusalemites will almost always have one or two who can’t make the parties on Friday nights. But for the most part this only happens on a micro social level.
What’s commendable about Tel Aviv is that the interaction isn’t limited to just within groups of friends. There is a plethora of organizations and initiatives that promote dialogue among different communities. I decided to jump on the bandwagon by organizing a Shabbat meal in the local synagogue together with a friend. The plan was that there was no plan. We simply approached White City Shabbat (WCS) to send out word to all those looking for a meal for Friday night. Twenty seven hours after the email blast was sent out, all 110 spots had been sold out. Suddenly this was real and my friend and I were thrown into the deep end. We had four days to get everything together.
I suppose my attitude must have been “do or die” when, on a whim, I created a Facebook event for a Shabbat lunch bring-your-own-picnic in the park. I only invited 20 friends but I also posted the event on WCS’s wall and before long, 150 People-of-the-Facebook had clicked “attending.”
At some point, somebody asked me what the theme of our Shabbat dinner was. The question threw me. The theme? I didn’t know there had to be a theme! And then I found out that the Tel Aviv International Synagogue was hosting a community Shabbat dinner the same night, only they were bringing Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger as the guest of honor. Meanwhile, our guest of honor was the turkey that had sacrificed its life only to be resurrected as a deli-roll.
What to do? Nothing. I was clearly missing the point. The whole point was that there was no point. No agenda. This wasn’t to be some singleton-matchmaking affair. And neither was it to be a let’s-entice-people-to-come-to-synagogue affair. There were no VIP guests, no gimmicks and certainly no theme – unless you count “connecting people,” but I hear Nokia’s already got dibs on that one.
What was nice is that people from all walks of life came along to the dinner, and perhaps what was even nicer was that you couldn’t immediately peg people. Hosting the dinner in a synagogue was sort of a leveling experience since men generally don’t walk into a synagogue with bare heads and women are more prone to cover their shoulders. The advantage of this was that you couldn’t tell “who was what.” I’d venture to say that the percentage of Shabbat-observant people versus nonobservant was about equal.
While most of the crowd was in the mid-20s to late-30s bracket, the ages of attendees ranged from 21 to 65. There was also a comfortable presence of native Israelis, which is always a challenge at events that are primarily catered to a crowd of olim. Our event was a smorgasbord of Jewry; secular and religious, young and old-er, tourists and residents, Israeli, French and other unidentified Europeans – not to mention, of course, the Anglos, who were making the most noise – all gathered together in one room enjoying each other’s company in a Shabbat atmosphere.
That’s not to say there weren’t some major hiccups. The electricity blew and the food went cold until Simon, our Shabbat goy, saved the day. But all in all, the atmosphere was positive; spirits were high (aided by the alcohol content in the spirits, which was equally high) and the room was abuzz with conversation interspersed with a chorus of inebriated singing from the religious crowd belting out Shabbat zmirot (songs) at the tops of their lungs.
The BYOF (Bring-Your-Own-Food) picnic that was created as an afterthought for Saturday lunch was even more of an extravaganza. For four hours, we colonized a large stretch of grass in the Independence Park, which is sandwiched between Hayarkon Street and the Hilton beach. The crowd rotated a few times but I think by the end some 250 people attended altogether, including more than a few random passersby. The food – hitherto our chief concern – was in abundance, as was the sunshine. In between bites of food, the range of activities that people engaged in was pretty impressive. A couple of guys hurling a frisbee at one another; a group singing zmirot in the corner next to two backgammon players; another couple learning from a book on the Torah portion while behind them some other picnickers sat tinkering on their phones.
At some point, there was a mass exodus to the beach by a large proportion of the guests. Once again, the beachgoers were a healthy mix of secular and religious people. From the perspective of theological anthropology, it was a fascinating spectacle to behold: There were those who were snapping photos with their iPhones to post on Facebook. There were those who refused to be photographed on Shabbat. There was a discussion about whether it is halachically permitted to carry things to the beach. Some did, others didn’t. All in all, the over-arching attitude was “live and let live.”
The concept of these White City Shabbatot isn’t just about being accepting of what others choose to do in their own homes or communities. It’s about embracing the people who do things differently into our own circles – to “live and let live together, as one.” One of the byproducts of WCS is that every Jew can satisfy his inner voyeur by having an opportunity to peek into the lives of others and to gain a taste of how they celebrate the fourth commandment – remembering the Sabbath day and keeping it holy. Remembering the Sabbath should have much less to do with whether or not public buses run on Saturdays and much more to do with how we connect with one another.And by connection I mean face-to-face, not Facebook-to-Facebook.
Amos Oz, the notably secular author, said that he regrets the fact that “the Israeli Shabbat nowadays is either a religious one in synagogues or spent in shopping centers.”
People in Tel Aviv are sitting up and taking note. They are pioneering a revolution to combat this dichotomy. And they are realizing that there are enough activities to enjoy on Shabbat that cater to the comfort zones and level of observance of everyone. It isn’t about who keeps what. As the famous idiom penned by another secular Israeli writer, Ahad Ha’am, goes, “more than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” Our only job is to make some space in our busy, cyber-driven lives to give Shabbat a chance to do its thing.