By Yonoson Rosenblum | MAY 3, 2022
My hours in the café turned out to be an introduction to an Israeli institution
Erev Shabbos Hagadol, I found myself at the American embassy "branch office" in Tel Aviv seeking to secure an emergency passport for a planned speaking tour in the States. Not having been out of the country for nearly three years, I had failed to note the expiration of my US passport.
I have probably averaged about one trip to Tel Aviv a decade since arriving on aliyah, so my antennae were on high alert for the visit. The station from which I exited the Jerusalem–to–Tel Aviv train — my first time — is not in the best section of the city. But even as my cab approached the embassy, which is located closer to the fancier hotels on the beach I could not fail to note how much more beautiful Jerusalem is, in large part because of the requirement that the exterior of very building be covered in Jerusalem stone.
After a relatively short wait, the clerk who was handling my case offered me the possibility of receiving my emergency passport the same day if I was prepared to wait around until 2 p.m., then almost four hours away. I've had enough experience with the Israeli postal service not to let my upcoming trip depend on receiving the passport within the next two weeks, and opted to wait around.
Across the street, at a store whose sole business appeared to be supplying lockers for checking all one's bags prior to be allowed into the embassy, I was directed to a kosher cafe down the street, and to there I repaired. After purchasing my black coffee in a paper cup, I took my place in the far corner of a room completely surrounded by windows, with a full view of the adjacent street.
The night before, close to midnight, a terrorist had killed three Jews at a pub in the heart of Tel Aviv's night life. And not until five hours later, early Friday morning, did security forces track him to a mosque in Jaffa and "eliminate" him, in the current jargon. A discussion developed at the two tables next to me, as to why a terrorist bent on killing as many Jews as possible, and with plenty of ammunition left, had not tried to kill more people over his long path to the mosque.
At some point, I interjected. "So why indeed did he not shoot more people?"
A big man, with a shaved skull, looked at me, and answered, "I'm amazed at your question. The three people in the pub were nigzar l'mavet [decreed for death]. No one who crossed his path after that had a gezeirah against them."
It was clear that he considered me a religious poseur for even asking the question: Did I not know that Hashem runs the world, and nothing occurs but that He allows it to occur?
I call this an "Only in Israel" moment. Here I was in secular Tel Aviv, receiving a lecture in theology from a kippah-less and, to all appearances, thoroughly secular man. As it turned out, he does put on tefillin every morning, and comes from a religious home. His brother is one of the leading presenters on the religious TV station Hidabroot, and attracts hundreds every Shabbos to his shiurim in Bat Yam. That too is an "Only in Israel" moment.
With that exchange, I had become part of a group of coffeehouse regulars, one of whom turned out to be a retired state auditor from Cincinnati, who speaks a fluent Hebrew. (His wife is Israeli.) Though he too lacked any identifying insignia of religious observance — yarmulke or tzitzis — he assured me that he would be well known to the members of the Cincinnati kollel, as he has been learning and attending shiurim there for years.
He also pointed to the local Chabad shul across the street as the place where he davens. And he asked me whether I knew a particular talmid chacham who is a Vizhnitzer chassid. The latter had been in Cincinnati for medical treatment, and my new conversation partner had served as his translator for the duration of his stay, as he spoke no English. They began learning together then, and have kept it up in Israel.
MY HOURS in the café turned out to be an introduction to an Israeli institution — the parliament. A parliament consists of a group of regulars who gather daily in a local coffeehouse and talk for a few hours. My landsman from the Midwest is a member of this parliament in the morning, and another a few blocks away in the afternoon.
He is astounded that I am not a member of any such gathering, given my advanced years. And I'm equally amazed at the idea of anyone spending so much time just chewing over the daily news with any group of fellow retirees.
The amount of bittul zeman involved on a daily basis is anathema to me. Yet I also see something very positive in the social connection experienced by the participants. They are definitely not candidates for Bowling Alone. Each member has his own place in the overall system, and a nickname or some idiosyncrasy by which he is called.
The guy at the next table, for instance, is called "the Ukrainian" for reasons unknown; he is Sephardi, and was described by another member of the group as a "fanatical Bibi supporter." That comments suggests to me that there is no political litmus test for membership, and that diverse views add to the spice.
At some point, the group moved outside, leaving only my fellow American to speak with me. At several points, one of the members came inside to tell him that they had reconvened outside. Apparently the presence of each individual member is of importance to them.
The truth is that I do not differ as much from the members of the group as I might have thought initially. True, I never designate time for "doing nothing," but my social needs are not small. I have at least three walking partners, two out of three of whom are also chavrusas, and we find plenty of time for schmoozing as we struggle up the local hills.
And there is something of the parliament in my morning shiur, most of whom have been together for 20 years or more. Though we don't all socialize outside of shiur, or daven in the same shul, or even wear the same kind of kippah, within the shiur each has developed his own place, even those who rarely speak; we know a fair amount about one another, and are bound together by our common love of our rebbi, and by extension for one another.
So while I won't be joining a parliament soon, and hopefully not ever, I remain happy that the larger Israeli society still possesses some of the same social bonding and connection that is such an important part of the lives of most Torah Jews.
ADDENDUM: After securing my passport, I walked over the nearby cabstand. The cabbie asked for 120 shekels to take me to my daughter's home in Bnei Brak, and refused my counteroffer to rely on the meter. So I ended up taking the first cab to pass by, the driver of which was an Arab Israeli from Tayibe, near Kfar Saba.
After some preliminary discussion of the architectural superiority of Jerusalem, we turned to the crime problem in Arab-Israeli cities. He claimed that it is minimal in Tayibe because the seven or eight main local families prevent it. He offered the example of a crime family from outside the city that tried to shake down local kiosk owners for protection money. They were quickly confronted and surrounded by locals and told that they were endangering their future health and well-being, and should not show their faces again in Tayibe.
I cannot confirm the accuracy of his description of Tayibe as having little crime. But I was struck by his conclusion: Crime is a function of culture, not of discrimination, a principle that seems beyond the grasp of so many well-intentioned American liberals.
We next spoke about the previous night's terror attack. He offered his opinion that most such terrorists are unmarried: No one with his own loved ones — wife and children — could so coldly end the lives of others "chaf mipesha," free of sin. While that observation is rife with exceptions, at least it offered an insight into his own marriage.
Though Arab society is often thought to be highly chauvinistic, he expressed unabashed pride in his wife's intellectual achievements. She is currently studying for her PhD in nursing, in order to become a lecturer and senior supervisor. And I also detected that he is a bit proud of himself for having pushed her to realize her talents when he recognized how bright she is, while she was still a teenager.
Another example of one of life's golden rules: If you engage people in conversation, and genuinely listen to what they have to say, many preconceptions and stereotypes will fall by the wayside.