Shabbat Shalom!

This blog entry about the events of Friday, June 26, 2009 was originally posted on July 03, 2009.

DAY 12 (PART 2): (The following entry was written to the best of my memory, since taking photos or jotting down notes was forbidden after sundown, in respect of the Jewish Sabbath. [Seriously, there was a guard there working at the Western Wall Plaza, yelling at anyone who did — he was the Token Sabbath Goy and was allowed to do so.])

“I can’t believe I’m here for Shabbat!” raved Michelle, a young Canadian Jewish girl that had recently decided to consider herself “from Cananda” instead of “from Argentina” where she was born and raised for fifteen years. 

“Well, Canadians are so nice,” I told her.

I had just been introduced to her by Sarit, who had just freshened up to meet me for Shabbat dinner after our long day trekking in the Palestinian West Bank — Michelle was from her hostel’s women-only dorm room and was invited to join us.  However, we weren’t exactly sure where we would find a proper Shabbat dinner in Jerusalem, but we had a pretty good idea where we might find an invitation to one: the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest place on earth.

THE SUN HADN’T YET SET when the three of us got there.  Donning a cardboard kippa, I was still allowed to take photos on the men’s side of the Western Wall, while Sarit and Michelle went to the smaller, less-exciting women’s side.  Religious men of varied ages and different levels of faith came together to pray at the Western Wall — the closest known spot to the Holy of Holies, foundation of the Jewish world.  Some sat in chairs and read scriptures from the Torah, while others stood in front of the wall with prayer books (picture above).  It being mere minutes before the Jewish Sabbath — which officially started at sundown — the Western Wall soon became center stage for every Jew in town, from the locals to the visiting Jewish pilgrims, some of them breaking out in celebratory singing and dancing circles louder than anything I’d seen at a Jewish wedding. 

“The men’s side looks more fun,” my Jewish girls told me when we met back at the plaza; no singing or dancing on their side.  Reunited, the three of us sat on the plaza floor and watched the scene unfold: more and more people came to be amongst their Jewish kin, fellow members of their “tribe” of “Chosen People,” according to their belief.  Both Sarit and Michelle felt connected more than ever with their people — I was a little moved too with my J.B.A. status — although Michelle was a bit peppier since Sarit was still exhausted and dehydrated from our long day of trekking.

“This is so amazing,” Michelle said.  “[That every Jew around the world is doing the same thing right now.]”  She was happy that, through certain twists of fate of traveling and postponed plans, she had made it back to the Western Wall during a Friday evening; her recent Taglit-Birthright trip had only brought her there on a random Wednesday or something, but not for such a momentous, weekly occasion.

THE LONELY PLANET GUIDE SAID that one might be able to find an invitation to a Shabbat dinner by either organizing it with the Jewish Students Association or the Tourist Information Office, but both were closed by that time, and we hadn’t thought of it sooner.  Fortunately, Teresa, the Let’s Go researcher/writer we’d met at the hostel who had been doing comprehensive research of the things to do in Jerusalem, and had tipped us off on a rabbi who took strays at the Western Wall Plaza to his or another voluntary rabbi’s house for a traditional Shabbat dinner, regardless of religious affiliation.  She had told us that he was famous for doing such a thing, and that one could find him by looking for his signature New York Yankees baseball cap.

Confirming this fact was a Bostonian named Jody, a super-cool mom of two that I’d befriended on the Holy City Tour.  I bumped into her at the plaza, and she too had heard about the famed rabbi with the Yankees cap.  “[I read about it in the New York Times,]” she told us.

Finding the Yankees cap might have been easy to do in the swarm of what soon became thousands of people at the Western Wall Plaza; many people were either not wearing baseball caps, or were wearing black Haredi top hats.  Sarit chilled out for a bit, while Michelle and I ran off to check out anyone who was wearing a baseball cap — but never finding one with the New York baseball team’s logo on it.  Things were looking grim and Sarit was getting hungrier.

“Sit down. Rest,” Michelle told Sarit.  “[We’ll find him.]”

In our game of “Where’s Waldo?” (i.e. “Where’s Rabbi?”), we encountered another funny middle-aged woman who was waving her arms out in the air, like she was doing jumping jacks without the leg work.  She and her husband weren’t even facing the Western Wall, but outwards towards the stairwell that came from street level.  “Is she waving at us?” Michelle wondered.

“Let’s find out.”

The woman, hailing from Long Island, NY (with the accent to prove it) told us, “I’m waving at my kids!  Do you know about the webcam here?  [There’s this webcam that’s on the internet, and I just sent a text message to my kids at home to look for us!  The address is something kotel dot com…  I forget but you can search it.  Isn’t it amazing?  They have webcams from all the world, here, Times Square, everywhere!]” 

She continued to rave about it in her Jewish Long Island accent, and praised us for being young travelers like she was back in her day.  We told her our deal about trying to find a Shabbat dinner.  “[That’s the way to do it when you’re young, a free meal!]” she said, getting nostalgic.  She suggested that we go to the Jerusalem Y, like she had done in the 70s.  She was quirky and fun to chat with, but we left her to go about her business — she immediately went back to waving her hands in the air like a seemingly complete idiot.

The three of us were still determined to find the mysterious Rabbi Yankee.  Nighttime had already fallen by then, and people were starting to leave the plaza to their respective homes for dinner.  The girls sent me off to the men’s side to do some investigating.  I adjusted my cardboard kippa (it kept falling off) and went in.

“Hi, Shabbat Shalom,” I greeted a Haredi man, shaking his hand.  “Uh, you speak English?”


“Uh, do you know anything about a rabbi in a baseball cap…”

He smiled.  “Oh yeah, he’s right over there.  He’s not wearing the hat this week.”  Figures.

The rabbi was wearing his black hat and was quite the busy man; with a pile of papers and pink post-it notes in his hand, he had dozens of people to shuffle around to different houses.  “[You and you, go over there…  You, how many, just one?  Wait here…  Two?  Go with him…]” 

“I have three,” I told him.

“[Okay, let me figure it out,]” he answered before continuing the madness.  “[How many?  Two?  Oh you’re with the group over there?  Okay…  One?  Just you?  Go with those two…  You, okay, go with him…  Hi, how many?  Wait here, he’s coming…]”

Sarit, Michelle and I were corralled with a group of fifteen or so people, including some newcomers confused as to what was actually going on.  We followed another man, a portly man donning a kippa that had recently moved to Jerusalem from Florida, who led us through the alley ways of the Old City’s Jewish Quarter.  We had no idea where we were going, but just went with it, striking up conversations with the new faces alongside us.  Amongst them I met: Willa, from D.C. who had just finished a masters in history; Michael, a Jewish guy from St. Louis who was just happy to be there; and Maurice, an IT guy on a sabbatical, traveling the Middle East for four months.  He told us how he’d only been in the country for twelve hours after spending seven hours at the border crossing into Israel on account of his passport having stamps from Syria and Lebanon.  He was so disoriented with what was actually going on; in fact, he thought the Floridian Jew was leading us to a suggested restaurant before he realized we were going to a rabbi’s house for Shabbat dinner.

Of course not everyone was from the States.  There was Miriam, a funny, chain-smoking Scot with a thick Scottish accent, and Peter(?), a young Dutch guy who struck a conversation with me, not surprisingly about the U.S. president.  I hadn’t been on a flashpacking trip like this since Obama replaced Bush, so I thought favoritism was finally on my side, but it wasn’t.  “[You like Obama?]” the young Dutchman asked me, shocked that I actually voted for him.  “[He’s no good.]”

“[You don’t think he’s going to resolve the conflict?]”

“[No.  He’s only going to make Israel smaller.  Two state solution?  He’s just giving Israel away.  You actually think there’s going to be peace?]” he said with a sneering chuckle.  “[There’s never going to be peace here.  Meanwhile, Israel will just shrink in size again.]”

I wasn’t the only one having tense conversations.  “Oh my God this guy is so obnoxious,” Sarit said to me, pulling me aside from her conversation with the Floridian Jew that was leading the group.  “[He was like, we went around the Muslim Quarter so we don’t have to have to deal with those Arabs.  God…]”

Our group walked and walked and walked — I became one of those street walkers you see on the streets on a Saturday morning in Teaneck — out of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, down another road, through another Jewish Quarter of the New Jeru to a main road, then down that main road.  Not knowing where we were going, we felt like we were walking for hours.  “We’re walking to Tel Aviv,” Miriam the Scot joked after another puff of her cigarette.

Eventually we made it to a housing complex and into the small, humble residence of a rabbi whose name escapes me with lack of my notetaking.  I don’t know how he did it, but he managed to squeeze about ten folding dining tables in the cramped space with seating for close to sixty or seventy people.  As a matter of fact, he didn’t do it; it was probably his wife and his kids who were busting ass that night, while he sat at the head table to greet everyone.

Like at the Western Wall, there was a men’s area twice the size of the women’s, and I was separated from my female compadres.  I sat at a corner table with a guy born in Great Neck, Long Island, NY who denounced his Long Island roots and was very much Israeli now; Svi(?) an Israeli Jew who had once been to shul in Teaneck, NJ — “On Cedar Lane,” as he told me with a smile; Schlo(?), a young, long bearded Jew who goofed off with Svi, arguing who would go up and speak before everyone and sing a tribute song to Michael Jackson; and Mark, a stocky and friendly 29-year-old teacher with a British accent who had moved to Israel from the U.K. some years ago.  Mark was jealous of me for 1) looking way younger than I am — he couldn’t believe I was over nineteen(!) — and 2) that I’d been in a serious relationship with a nice Jewish girl, when his main objective to moving to Israel was to find a new Jewish bride — and no one had given him the time of day just yet. 

“I thought it was going to easy,” he admitted to me.  He was also impressed with the “Holla!” t-shirt I designed and wore, appropriate for the occasion. 

“It’s actually my number one seller,” I told him.

So those were the normal people at my men-only table — but to my immediate left was John(?), an older middle-aged man wearing a painter’s cap and overalls, hailing from Texas, with the accent to boot.  We had the usual getting-to-know-you conversation; he was a drifter of “low socio and economic status” that was no stranger to the free Shabbat dinner before.  I couldn’t tell if he was Jewish or not — I reckoned no — but that didn’t matter.  He was a nice guy after all, that is, until he started getting a little weird.

“[I work for an ad agency… our biggest client is Bank of America,]” I mentioned without thinking much of it.

Hearing “Bank of America,” John lit up, his eyes alive with curiosity.  And all of a sudden he was really excited to meet me because he had blamed Bank of America for his problems and financial woes.  He also told me he had a special deal with the government and that he once had a secret meeting with the president of Bank of America.  I gathered that “meeting” (if it even happened at all) went no where because suddenly this man was ranting to me about things, and was begging me for the use my name as his way back in to bring down the giant financial institution.  It sounded a bit crazy to me.

“[Um, I don’t actually work for Bank of America,]” I told him.

“[That doesn’t matter.]”

Meeting “crazy” people in Jerusalem was not uncommon according to my guidebook.  There was mention of a clinical phenomenon known as “Jerusalem Syndrome,” where people come to the holy city and start getting weird; seeing apparitions, claiming to be prophets or the next messiah, or ranting about the end of the apocalypse.  Lily had told me of such a nut case in her Zion Square hostel: an old Canadian woman who would get into fights with the owner over the disruption of her “holy investigation,” and she would yell and claim she was of the “secret police of Canada” and that she could report her whenever and get her in trouble.  Lily had noticed she was on the computer on some Canadian government website, filling a general inquiry form with complaints of the hostel — like it make a difference in Jerusalem.

“[Really I just work for an ad agency that works with Bank of America, and actually I’m not even an employee of the ad agency; I’m just a freelancer there.  We just do the BS work that no one else wants to do,]” I said to the possible Jerusalem Syndrome case, downplaying all my associations with the Bank — and hopefully him and his suddenly creepy vibe. 

“[Here, don’t let them catch you doing this,]” he said to me in a whisper while the rabbi was talking.  He showed me a secret pen and notepad under the table for me to write my info down.  “[They won’t take kindly to you writing something.]”

I refrained, in respect of my religiously Jewish, welcoming hosts.  “Let’s do this afterwards,” I whispered to him.  He waited patiently as standard Jewish fare was served by the rabbi’s hard-working kids and wife: gefilte fish, matzoh ball soup, stewed kosher chicken, and pastries.  We of course started things off with the blessing of kosher wine and grape juice to wash down pieces of the humongous loaves of challah (Holla!).  I swear each of those loaves were the size of a small suckling pig.  (How’s that for an ironic comparison?)

“Aww, that’s the good stuff,” John said, grabbing about fifteen pieces of challah bread to hoard for later. (He only ate about two at the meal.)

SHABBAT DINNER WAS GOOD, albeit long. At three and a half hours, we thought it’d never end, especially with some people (including Michelle and Sarit) having curfews at their hostel.  Some Jewish housing complexes also had a 1 a.m. curfew so others were pressed for time — but the host rabbi held a long, drawn out period of “teachings,” a session when anyone could stand up and address the room, provided he/she did it respectfully and didn’t talk about politics.  The intention of the open-forum was good, although one Haredi man started ranting in Hebrew, getting political about the big issue in town: the establishment of a parking lot outside the Old City, so that people with cars could park there on a Saturday — which would be against the religious law of rest and inactivity during the Jewish Sabbath. 

Michael from St. Louis said some kind, thankful words about being Jewish and always being welcome amongst his kin.  The obnoxious Floridian Jew continued to be obnoxious in his “teaching,” bitching to people for interrupting him (even though he had interrupted many of them).  Also, he admittedly did his speech with his back towards the women, even though the theme of the night was to respect and honor Miriam (the one in Jewish lore, not the Scottish girl) for her powerful womanhood.  In fact, only one woman got up and did a teaching, that he disrespectfully ignored. 

To be fair, he wasn’t the only one.  If there’s any unifying thing that I’d noticed in the drawn out religious ceremonies of both Christians and Jews is that, if a monotone religious figure is preaching, a lot of people zone out or goof off — I recalled my childhood when my brother and I would secretly pass quarters to each other during mass to pass the time.  (If A comes from C and B comes from C, A and B come from C.) Svi continued to joke with the men at my table, and girls of the adjacent women’s table, about standing up and singing “Billie Jean” in honor of the recently passed King of Pop.

IT WAS CLOSE TO HALF PASSED MIDNIGHT when Shabbat dinner was finally over and the mass of sixty odd people bottlenecked through the single, mezzuzah-adorned doorway.  The obnoxious Floridian Jew gathered up the crew that he had originally led there to bring us back to the Old City.  John the Bank of America Syndrome Guy, who had left the room earlier to get some air, was waiting for me outside, but neither of us had a pen on us at the moment.  I was wary about giving him my information, but thankfully Michelle dragged me out before I gave anything up — she was on a mission not to get locked out of her hostel.  I might have gone back to John with a pen to give him my info, but there was a rush with my group and no turning back.  I thanked Michelle and Sarit for getting me out of what might have led to an awkward situation.

“[That was amazing,]” Michelle said about Shabbat dinner, smiling with her lips while double-timing it with her legs.  “[I’m so glad I got to experience that.]”

But not every Jew was as moved.  “Ech…” pouted Sarit.  “All they do is preach about how tolerable they are, while actually being really intolerable.”  She still had gripes about the obnoxious Floridian Jew, and the Haredi man who broke the no-politics rule with his rant.  Also, it was probably in her mind, how there was news that Haredi men had thrown stones — and even dirty diapers — to participants of the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade.

As for me, I didn’t care that much; a free meal is a free meal, even if it was paid for with sitting through a long drawn out, albeit interesting series of Jewish prayers from a kind and welcoming rabbi.

“Where are you from?” he asked had asked me.

“I’m hailing from Teaneck, New Jersey and Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  I’m sure you know what that means.”

“Oh, I studied in Williamsburg!” he said while shaking my hand, smiling at our connection.

I suppose when you are “J.B.A.” with a “thing for Jew towns,” you will always be welcomed, at least for an evening meal, by the Jewish people.  Shabbat Shalom!


When discovering Michelle was from Toronto, I asked her the question I ask to anyone from the Canadian city:  “So, are you a big Degrassi fan?” 

To my surprise, not only was she a fan, but had ties to the wildly popular Degrassi: The Next Generation, the 21st-century spinoff show based on the original Degrassi show of the 80s — both of which I will admit I am a fan of.

“Oh, I went to school with most of them,” she said; she went to some special dramatic arts school in Toronto.  “I directed a play with Jake… I forget his name on the show…”

“Craig,” I said, right off the top of my head, referring to the adopted stepson of Joey Jeremiah who had become a rockstar despite his battles with bipolarism and his on-again/off-again relationships with Ashley, Ellie, and that slut Manny.  Duh.

Next entry: Group Fun in the Sun

Previous entry: The Wild, Wild West Bank

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Comments for “Shabbat Shalom!”

  • Great scene from The Hebrew Hammer:

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/03  at  07:41 PM

  • I googled “Canadian’s are so nice” and look where I ended up. Glad you’re back on the road E! I’m going to catch up on the previous entries.

    MarkyT, How’s family life?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/04  at  11:39 PM

  • td0t:  wow, welcome back; I have three more entries to write for this trip… how’ve you been/

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/05  at  01:26 AM

  • rule number one about shabbat dinner, never trust a guy in overalls…

    @TDOT - what’s up man…family life is good…it’s my same life…just with a family

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/05  at  05:22 AM

  • Three more entries to go… They will come in piecemeal as I’m stateside right now and completely swamped…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/05  at  08:47 AM

  • Great stuff. I wiki’d the term flashpacker, nice one. Also, props on making reference to the Jerusalem Syndrome.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/05  at  08:10 PM

  • I finally escaped the cube farm.

    I got a British passport (thanks dad!), and moved to Lyon two months ago. I feel like i took the red pill. Drop me a line if either one of you are in France anytime soon.

    I’m still catching up on the previous entries… so far, it looks like an awesome trip. I really liked the preface in Paris. I was there last week, like you, I just chilled with friends. We had a classic time.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/06  at  02:45 AM

  • It’s killing me that I don’t have time yet to finish the last three entries off.  Coming back home, I’ve been thrown into the media blitz for my other site,, which came at the wrong time since I already had four other projects going on.  But rest assured, I will finish this blog off sure enough—it will get a little political at the end, and I feel it’s my social responsibility to report my story.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/08  at  02:17 PM

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This blog post is one of sixteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Holla! In The Holy Land," which chronicled a two-week journey through Israel, with jaunts into Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian West Bank.

Next entry:
Group Fun in the Sun

Previous entry:
The Wild, Wild West Bank


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