I felt like a sociologist in a documentary film. Surrounded by at least a
hundred dark-suited and for the most part black-hatted and bearded men,
ritual fringes hanging at their sides, I - a comfortably Reform Jew from the
suburbs - a definitely stood out in the Friday night crowd at this
I was out of my element, though, not for any professional reason, but simply
because of a simple sense of adventure - and because I wanted to learn more
about parts of the Jewish religious map distant from my own.
I had befriended a rabbi on the Internet and, after meeting him once at a
lecture (and being surprised by his distinctly "right-wing Orthodox" dress),
accepted his invitation to me and my family to drive up from our Virginia
home to join him and his family in Baltimore for a Shabbat.
We arrived somewhat curious, a bit excited and petrified. We knew that the
Orthodox world had countless Sabbath rules, and had heard there were
prohibitions against a host of mundane things from turning on lights to
tearing toilet paper. And we wondered how we would deal with them all. But
we also knew that Shabbat in an Orthodox environment would more closely than
anything we had experienced resemble the Jewish day of rest as my
ancestors - and the ancestors of all Jews - observed it.
Our host was not a pulpit rabbi; we were attending services at a shul a few
blocks from his home. As services were about to begin, he explained what I
should expect: recitations, spirited singing, the reading of the Shma and
the silent recital of the amidah. As things got under way, I could almost
see the documentary's opening credits scroll down my field of vision. I
tried to keep my eyes on the siddur but could not help but check out the
scene. I was just about the only one present not wearing a black hat (other
than a handful of obvious visitors - come to think of it, I was probably an
obvious visitor myself). For a while I had a hard time figuring out what
page people were on, but then I realized that most everybody was on a
different page. I decided to focus on the page before me.
"L'cha Dodi," the poetic "welcoming the Sabbath" portion of the service, was
wonderful. The crowd fell into a spontaneous and enthralling three-part
harmony and a warm feeling began to overtake me, the documentary giving way
to my experiencing the moment as a participant.
And then, suddenly, services were over. In my temple Friday night services
were considerably longer, and I was left wishing there would be more. The
rabbi then stood up and announced: "No
one should be alone for a Shabbos meal. So if you need a place to eat,
please let Mr. Schwartzbaum know."
At that moment, a man behind me turned to his friend and said, "Wow! This
is great! Whenever I need - "
I completed his sentence in my mind and was stunned by how shameless a
schnorer could be. I couldn't believe the fellow would admit his
miserliness to his friend.
And then, as I stole a peripheral glance at the speaker, who was dressed in
the native costume, black hat and all, he finished his sentence. "...
whenever I need a guest, I can just come here!" His friend responded,
"Well, yeah, but you gotta grab 'em quickly. They go fast."
I was flabbergasted. I knew that hospitality to strangers was a Jewish
ideal. But seeing it taken so seriously, seeing it so eagerly embraced, was
a revelation to me. As I marveled at what I had heard, my host turned to
the men behind us and introduced me, explaining that I was visiting from
Virginia with my family. The fellow I had thought was a schnorer, turned to
me and said, "You know, I don't have any guests this Shabbos. Would some of
your family like to come over for dinner?" My host stepped in to make the
case for keeping my family together and the stranger yielded, but insisted
that "please, next time you're in Baltimore, you should come over for a
In the two and a half years since, my family and I have grown considerably
in our Jewish identity and observances. I have no plans to buy a black
fedora and don't think we can call ourselves "returnees" to the beliefs of
Orthodox Judaism. But we have come to harbor a deeper respect for Jewish
tradition, and to accept that the Torah and its laws are marvelous gifts to
the Jewish people.
And when I think back at our long strange trip, I think I have to mark its
genesis as the surprise ending to the comment I heard behind me that Friday
night in a Baltimore shul.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Eric (Sholom) Simon, who served as a UAHC Regional Board member and as a
member of the Executive Committee of the UAHC Commission on Synagogue
Affiliation, is currently active in Jewish outreach and educational
activities in Northern Virginia.]
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