Shabbat Shemonah | Whiskey with a Yiddish baby
Shabbat Shemonah – Drinking whiskey with a Yiddish baby
By Richard Abbott, UK
￼I’m pretty happy with that title, what’s amazing is that whereas most of my shabbat article titles are metaphorical this shabbat I spent the day literally drinking whiskey while making funny faces at a Yiddish speaking baby, in fairness the baby drank little to no whiskey. Ok, no whiskey. But she did taste the kiddush wine…
My shabbat Hebrew is improving and I am able to increasingly cant along with the service to greater degrees, I’ve even been walking around with ‘attah hoo malecheinu’ stuck in my head. I love that one! You need tiny victories like that to keep your fire burning, sometimes you can’t tell that you’re making progress and you might get disheartened. I read on someone’s tumblr post a minute ago; ‘Don’t feel bad if it takes you a while to get it, many ideas we study today were once revolutionary.’ That’s quite a statement eh, what idea changed the world more than the knowledge of the oneness of G-D?
We had a minyan, which seems to be happening more often. The same core characters are present every week, Yoram, Hagai, Rabbi Daniels, Rabbi Mendy, John haCohen, Alex, often Gary, a very funny man who looks like Bernard Cribbins, me and James. Most weeks we’ll have one or two returning characters, old favourites and then one or two surprise additions. I think it helps to have enthusiastic young gerim:
You might find yourself as a seventy year old Jew, world weary and full of kvetch, you might not want to go to bloody shul this week, after all it’s two miles up that hill and in this heat no less.
But then that thought creeps in, that old annoying thought. Those two young goy’ll be there, I can’t let them out-Jew me!
After the service John haCohen introduced us to a very lovely, bright, secular Jew named Aubrey. To my great pleasure he made no reference to our goyishekeit.
“Aubrey, these are our two… probably our only two regular attendees!”
We laughed, it was a very kind intro.
“Oh,” said Aubrey, “You’ve found G-D. How lovely.” He said dryly. I recognised the old irony of frum kids ruining Judaism for the rest of us by making it all about religion.
We all walked up together, after shul; blazing sunshine on limestone towers, golden light.
In pairs we argued with shrugs and gesticulations, crowned in kippot through the goyishe streets of Bristol. We walked through the secular Saturday of so many celebrating families, gawping at our gile to opening Jew in public. Again there is never any bad feeling towards us but we are certainly a spectacle and Mendy king of our kind in his clothes. I wonder if some day I’ll get to wear the priestly clothes of a chosid?
We’ll see what your Father says.
One by one beautiful Jews pared away towards their homes and what remained was Mendy, James, Aubrey and me. We were invited to kiddush at Mendy’s house. With this my shabbat keep elevating to new heights.
Waiting for us in Mendy’s lovely home was Mendy’s brilliant wife, Chaya, his adorable daughter, Margelit, and their delightful friend Louise and her daughter Rachel.
We washed hands for the meal, Mendy had put up directions on how to do this appropriately beside the sink. This meant that no one was embarrassed by admitting if they didn’t know how. Very considerate a thing to do. David has told me in the past that this is how chabad works, it exists to
empower you to return to torah observance, not to guilt you into it. Very worthy.
When we returned Aubrey raised the subject of Steiner schools, but none of us answered him because we’re not supposed to talk between washing the hands and breaking the fast.
No one drew attention to this, no one waved their hands for him no to talk or sent him back to the kitchen to re-wash his hands. It was simply understood that he didn’t know about this custom and we all politely listened to him talk and answered his question after the challah was eaten. Being in the company of Mendy and Chaya’s gentle kindness empowered us all to be gently kind.
We followed a number of mitzvot and customs as the meal proceeded and Mendy explained each one with funny stories and clever anecdotes, to which we replied with questions, jokes and stories of our own. At some point Mendy produced a bottle of honey-bourbon which had been a gift from Aubrey and with this we all L’Chaimed! We used our kiddush cups to toast and cheers expressions of support and joy of stories and wisdom from all. It was clear that Mendy and Chaya lead the way in observant chochma, but all words we welcomed as friends.
As we talked Margalit crawled around the carpet submersed in chasidic thought. Now and then her father leaned over and check she was happy, whispering to her in yiddish, her first language. The language of her people. She cannot talk yet, when she does English will quickly become her first language but yiddish will always be the voice of her loving father calling to her from the memory of her youth. I made a silly face at Margalit puffing out my cheeks with a popping sound. She giggled. A babies giggle is a potent sound, it makes you giggle back whether you’d planned to or not.
At various stages of the meal Chaya bracha’ed and benched into Margalit’s ear.
“Are you blessing on her behalf?” I asked.
“No,” she said proudly cuddling her adorable little human, “There isn’t a need for that, I say it for her to hear so that she learns to do it herself.”
“She’ll associate bread with bracha.”
Mendy and Chaya each have their roles in the home, some overlap and some don’t but there is a beautiful ballet of family at work while they live. They are happy, you can tell. Not everyone has that. We talked about restrictions, in the Jewish life, but I won’t tell you what they said. Instead I’ll write another ‘Kashrut of Thought’ article and pass their ideas off as my own.
Now and then during the meal Margalit would crawl over to me and I would make funny faces at her in the absence of a common tongue and she would giggle and leave. At the same time I would be listening to the stories of her father and feeling my wisdom increase. At the same time I would time I would be sipping sweet honey-bourbon with my friends and telling old Jewish jokes.
Is there a better day in the week than shabbat? No. Simply no, there isn’t.
At a certain point I revealed my mother was Irish. Louise looked confused and Mendy revealed that James and I were converting. This is when the really fun questions began. Aubrey and Louise were largely secular and while they embraced their Jewishness this didn’t require a heavy-handed attention to observance or even G-D. This isn’t to say they were atheists. I wouldn’t go that far, I have no idea and anyway it’s none of my business. But there’s something there anyway, they chose to come to a chabad house on shabbat and participate in all the rituals.
Secular Jews, in my limited and humble opinion, have a different relationship with G-D than secular goyim. Even after they stop praying, stop reading chumesh, perhaps even stop believing, G-D is still in their lives. Like an estranged father, for what ever reason we don’t talk, but He’s still my Father.
I started to talk about my hopes of finding Jewish heritage on my mother’s line and how that would
affect my life. Louise joked that she’d happily swap her Jewish obligation for my Irish one.
“You wanna swap Jewish guilt for Catholic guilt?” I asked. “Well, no I wouldn’t go that far!” she laughed.
We explained ourselves as future Jews, how we felt compelled to realise ourselves as adherents to observance. I’m not doing it for browny points, I’d earn more of those observing mitzvot as a Ger!
“I don’t think Jews are better than goy I explained, that’s not what I think, we’re talking about different roles here. Just as the Cohen are priests to the jews so are the Jews priests to the world. There are concentric circles each with more restrictions and more blessings, it’s harder to be Jewish but it’s worth it.”
“I know about this,” said Louise, “a light to the nations, but my problem is if you’re being a light to the nations aren’t you calling them to be more like you? I don’t like it, they don’t need to be like us!”
“No, I disagree, it doesn’t call them to be more like us… sorry, I can’t stop saying us… I mean it doesn’t call them to be more like you. It’s like a lighthouse. The lighthouse shines in the dark an illuminates not only the path through safe waters but also the rocks and dangers in the waters. A passing boat is still a boat, it doesn’t need to become another lighthouse, who does that help? You need boats and you need lighthouses, both.”
Me? I wanna be a lighthouse. It’s not better than a boat, it’s not more important, it is more restricted than a boat. But in all honesty I’m not very good at being a boat, I think I’d be a better lighthouse.