Shabbat Shesh | Qualities and Values
Shabbat Shesh | Qualities and Values
By Richard Abbott, UK
It was a sunny Friday afternoon, the school I work in had broken up for summer and I had finished all my pre-Shabbat errands. I put my cello on my back and pocketed some klezmer sheet music.
What we were doing wasn’t particularly sacred, I was under no biblical ordinance to cover my head but when James and I hang out, we hang out as Jews, so I put on my green suede yarmulke, crowned myself in Jewishness and set off to meet my fellow pre-Jew.
I headed north through Clifton to the downs, it’s my first time visiting James’ flat so he put a channukiah in the window to help me find it. As I neared the round-about at the end of his road I passed a vicar climbing on to a bicycle. I smiled at him and he smiled at me. Whether he saw me as Jewish or not I felt I’d made my weekly contribution to the interfaith dialogue.
James met me at the front door and lead me up the stairs to the museum of Judaica he calls home. He lives alone at present so there’s no one curbing his spending with unpleasant questions like ‘Do you really need another chumesh?’ Or ‘what’s wrong with your old mezuzah?’ I say this with a microdot of envy and this is before he starts wheeling out his instrument collection. Today we will be mostly playing Cello and Oud respectively; I representing the Ashkenazim and he the Sephardim but that doesn’t mean we can’t have visits from mandolin, various flutes, clarinet, cajon, darbukah and other bits and pieces.
I left him before candle lighting to avoid carrying my cello on Shabbat although it would have been nice to do it together, maybe next time.
By the time I arrived home Alice and Sophie were in full swing watching Evita and I had just enough time to be sarcastic about it before I lit candles. Then I went to the other room and watch a few rabbis’ lectures on YouTube over the sound of singing.
Bed came as a welcome friend, it was a black-diamond full stop (period) at the end of a satisfying chapter. Tomorrow would be Shabbat and Sunday I would turn 30.
Those of you familiar with my shabbats will know that sabbatical punctuality is not one of James’ strengths. You will likely be as surprised as I was that I woke on Shabbat to a text from him stating simply “I’m awake.” A very exciting event, hopefully the start of a trend.
Waiting outside the BBC, I saw James from a long way off and I started waving sooner than I needed to, sometimes I misjudge social norms like that, Sophie says we all do. James was walking with Yoram, he owns a falafel chain in Bristol, really nice stuff, I was still waving. Just as James saw me a bus pulled up beside me and the driver looked really annoyed when I didn’t get on.
As we walked we chatted about what it like to run a business, James and I have zero experience in this area but that doesn’t mean we can’t chat about it. Yoram knows he’s the expert, we know he’s the expert, but we chat like equals. This is the kind of conversation I like, the kind I can learn from. Its like chess, you can only improve by playing your betters.
I have friends who discourage me from engaging in rigorous debate with experts on topics I am outmatched in, these friends of mine will never be Jews.
After the service started, visitors started dripping into our pool almost immediately, quite a few, some infrequent members of the shul, some bringing whole families until they reached critical mass and disappeared upstairs for a noisy, seemingly prearranged ‘children’s service’.
Before they did I recognised a fellow supply teacher whom I had not known was Jewish, Ben. We acknowledged each other enthusiastically as mutual members of a very narrow Venn diagram before he took his kids off to ball out ‘Adon Olam’ very colourfully to ukulele music. I didn’t see him at kiddish but I mentioned him to Mendy later on.
My big bearded friend from last week came in late, it was hot and he was sweating, it seemed as if he’d been up against it that day. I had been following the prayers closely so I offered him my siddur, turned to the right place, but he looked apologetic at me and said “I’m sorry I can’t help you find your place I’ve just come in.”
“No, this is the right place, take it.” I whispered.
“I’ve no idea, let me get settled and then I can help.” He said a little annoyed but still patiently. I gave up, he had obviously drawn some conclusions about me already, I wasn’t gonna wow him with my usefulness right now.
After a while it was clear we had a minyan and a key shul player, very nice man, made the rounds inviting people for aliyah – reading Torah and saying brachas at the bimah – he came to me hopefully and asked:
“Am I right in thinking you’re a Cohen?” I was flattered, I leaned in to answer “No I’m a ger” but before I could my beardy friend answered for me: “He’s just here out of interest.”
That was not how I would have like that question answered. Not how I would have answered it. For a start I would have answered myself. ‘Out of interest’ seemed so flippant, so incidental, so mundane.
I didn’t just happen to be passing and pop in, this was the sixth Shabbat of my earth shattering irrevocable journey into Judaism. I decided then I was gonna have to up my game if I didn’t wanna be brushed off like that again. Let’s Jew this thing son, hebraica!
He watched the gentleman circle the bimah setting up the various forthcoming brachas and leaned in conspiratorially to me whispering,
“The visitors outnumber the Jews today!” It made me wonder which group I was implicitly in.
“Such is the trial of being a light to the nations.” I said.
“What?” He said.
“Ha Ohr l’goyim” I said.
“An Ohr l’goyim, yes.” He echoed.
After the service we were invited upstairs for kiddish. I saw the rabbi’s wife, Sonya, chatting to a friend and sidled up to join the conversation. Here we chatted naturally, I had minor points to contribute, nothing earth shattering, but I was a valid member of the chat. Sonya’s friend seemed to take me as Jewish, why wouldn’t she, and Sonya didn’t correct the misnomer. I was glad.
After a time I made eye contact with Rabbi Mendy from the Chabad house he had already explained he wasn’t eating as he wanted to make kiddish at home with his wife. I was worried that, kind and polite as he is, that he would be kept talking and pass out from hunger so I gathered him up in my friendship thusly:
“Shall I take you home then rabbi?”
The assembly looked at me strangely, perhaps thinking I was driving on Shabbat, so I added “shall I give you a piggyback?” The joke seemed to surprise the group, perhaps too irreverent when juxtaposed with the quiet dignity of rabbi Mendy’s chasidic splendour, I think I misjudged the social norm again. But Mendy seemed to find it funny too so I think it’s ok.
On the way out Mendy asked if I minded us visiting a congregant in hospital, so we went. He’s a good soul, he encourages mitzvahs in me.
We chatted as we walked home as teacher to pupil but as equal humans, we crossed Bristol from the hospital to his home as friends. As we finished he told me that every age has a value in Yiddish thought, turning thirty means strength.
“Do I start again from zero if I become a Jew?” He laughed but I knew the answer, I already had. This is a good thing though, I have a lot to learn and becoming a new born baby Jew, being the furthest from knowledge in the community is a challenge. I want to work hard to gain knowledge of G-D. I want to cut away those traif ideas from my thoughts and replace them with chesed, tzedekah, with chochmah. I want to become a good man in the eyes of HaShem, in His valuation and that of His people. I’ve got work to do.
Za Rabotu Abraham.