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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Can I ask you a question?

That was the preamble to a question we heard from one of our shabbat guests this past weekend.  But as usual, I'm getting head of myself.

This past shabbat we hosted a couple of female soldiers in our home.  We'd never met them before... and they weren't distant relatives, or even friends of friends.  We simply got a call from a neighbor's daughter who is their commander in the army, asking if we could host them for shabbat... and of course we said yes.

Several other families in our neighborhood received similar calls from this young woman, and each agreed to host a soldier or two for shabbat.

Anyway, what made this interesting (or at least, less commonplace) for us was the fact that the soldiers under this young woman's command are not Jewish.  At least not right now.  They are mostly young men and women whose families came to Israel from the former Soviet Union... families that met the criteria for citizenship under the Israeli Law of Return (based loosely on the Nuremberg Laws)... but who were not considered Jewish according to strict Jewish law (halacha). 

So, Friday afternoon we welcomed two women in uniform - both named Marina - into our home.  I had always heard that during the days of the former Soviet Union, there had been severe shortages of basic commodities.  However judging by the fact that we welcomed two Marinas... and one of our neighbors hosted another two Marinas... combined with at least three Yevgenys being hosted down the street... it would appear that there were also shortages of names there.  :-)

So how did this group of non-Jewish soldiers end up together for a Shabbat? 

Apparently, the army is the place in Israeli society where things get 'fixed' for many people in this country.  If you somehow got off the track academically in High School and want to try to take (or retake) your matriculation exams... the army is where you can do it.  If you somehow made it to age 18 without being able to read or write above a third grade level, the army has teachers who do nothing but bring such people up to adult standards.  If you are a new immigrant and can't speak the language... the army will enroll you in a class to teach you Hebrew.  If university isn't in your future and you want to learn a trade, you can do so while in the army... or at least get a voucher from the army to attend a trade school after your service is completed. 

All of these examples are intended to give soldiers the best chance of integrating into (and becoming well-adjusted members of) Israeli society when they become civilians.

So it should come as no surprise that the army also offers non-Jewish soldiers the opportunity to take steps towards another important aspect of integrating into Israeli society; becoming Jews. 

As a rule, Judaism does not encourage converts, and in fact has a well-earned reputations for discouraging them wherever possible.  And I'm sure many people probably take exception to the army's 'group' approach to instructing potential converts. 

But to my way of thinking, given a choice of giving someone the tools to make such an important life decision as a young adult (i.e. while old enough to make an informed decision yet young enough to have an open mind) it's probably preferable to having them go through a sham conversion down the road simply in order to marry a Jewish Israeli.  Of those two options, at least this way would seem to hold the best chance of such a future union producing a home and family that is culturally Jewish.

In a well known exchange from the Biblical Book of Ruth, Naomi - after losing both of her sons - gently tries to send her two newly widowed daughters-in-law back to the nations from which they'd come.  After some modest prodding, Orpah gives a kiss good-bye and returns to her Moabite people.  But Ruth answers:

"Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God"

At that moment Naomi could have been forgiven for questioning Ruth's commitment to Judaism considering how easily her other daughter-in-law had adopted and then discarded her association with the Jews.  But in the future, Ruth would give birth to the line of King David, so go figure!

However, getting back to the modern world... becoming Jewish isn't just about taking a pledge, studying for an exam or mastering a certain group of skill-sets.  It is about searching... and asking questions.

That's where we began this post, right?  We were about half way through one of Zahava's delicious meals when one of these pretty, blonde soldiers put down her fork and inquired if she could ask us a question.  And it was a doozy:

"Why would you invite a couple of total strangers to eat and sleep in your home for an entire weekend?"

I'll admit that I wasn't completely unprepared for the question, since our friend's daughter had warned us that this was one of the most difficult things for these would-be converts to wrap their heads around. 

She told us that no matter how much preparation she gave 'her' soldiers, it still shocked them to have total strangers welcome them into their homes... show them to a guest room (or often sharing rooms with their children)... feed them extravagant (by army standards, anyway) meals... and even hand them a key to the house.

However, despite the heads-up I'd gotten, when the question was asked, I still had trouble explaining why we did this odd thing.

I started out with the obvious... that 'hachnasat orchim' (welcoming guests) was a mitzvah (commandment) that we traced back to Abraham. 

However, telling someone that you do something strange simply because you have a religious obligation to do so is neither completely correct nor liable to impress them with your hospitality.  After all, in a world where we Jews have created a legal fiction of 'selling' our chametz so as not to transgress the prohibition of possessing it during passover, many of us simply invite our friends and neighbors for meals... and with a wink and a nod, call it 'hachnasat orchim'.

Also, it would also be inaccurate to portray this as solely a religious trait since most secular Israelis have inherited this penchant for hospitality to strangers without having any sense of its religious imperative.

Obviously the answer lay in another direction.

I then went into a little history of how the Jewish tradition of hospitality was the main reason that, throughout much of the history of the diaspora, Jews had been among the only people on the planet who could move freely around the known world.  Wherever there was a Jewish community, I explained, a Jewish traveler could find shelter, hospitality and trust.  The latter was especially important... to the extent that for a good portion of recorded history, the Jews were able to leverage this immediate trust among co-religionists as the basis for a rudimentary mail and banking service between nation-states that enjoyed no such proficiency.

Then I told them a story of a Friday plane ride from Los Angeles to New York that had been diverted to Chicago due to heavy snow in the Metro New York area.  I explained how the few observant Jews on the plane came the the simultaneous realization that even if the plane would be allowed to continue, it would arrive in New York after Shabbat would begin.  This meant that shabbat accommodations had to be found in Chicago, and fast. 

Without preamble, the observant Jews from the flight, none of whom had previously met, huddled in the waiting area near the gate and began taking inventory of the contacts they might have in the Chicago area.  One of the passengers had shared a dorm room for two years with a Chicago native.  Another had a business contact in Chicago who was religious.  A third had gone to seminary with a girl from Skokie. 

By unspoken agreement, anyone with a contact immediately began dialing... hoping to re-establish contact with someone they hadn't spoken to in years.  Within 10 minutes shabbat accommodations were found for all of the observant travelers.  Host families immediately dispatched drivers to the airport to pick up the stranded travelers... and the offer from the airline's gate agent to check them into the airport hotel with the other travelers was politely declined. 

And, as if to make this more understandable to these non-Jewish female soldiers...I pointed out that none of this seemed the least bit odd to the members of this stranded group of Jewish travelers.

I then told them about how I had been in the U.S. Navy for four years... and how my ship had sailed to more than 30 countries during that time.  I told them how if there was even a tiny Jewish community in any of the places I visited, all I needed to do was show up at the synagogue and I would receive an invitation to someone's home for a meal... a Shabbat... or even longer.  On one notable occasion, a family in Perth Australia actually spotted me walking down the street and literally dragged me to their home for several weeks of unforgettable hospitality (they even called my parents in the U.S. to tell them I was in good hands).

As I finished laying all this out before our guests, I could see from their expressions that they still didn't understand.  It was at that moment I realized that I'd been giving them examples of how Jews extend (and expect) hospitality from one another... but not why!  I honestly couldn't explain why we do this odd thing. 

All I can hope is that if these young women decide to go ahead with the conversion process, they will figure it out for themselves... and perhaps one day they'll find themselves inexplicably inviting total strangers into their own homes for shabbat.

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It might seem a bit sidetracking (and the more since I seem to be first today), but when I read the news on Ynet last year, about antisemitic attacks by Russian "non-Jewish/Jewish" new immigrants and their paroles about how they wish all Jews had been crushed in the last World War, I felt very bitter.

People like you and your family, who open their doors so wide and freely are a true asset to the country and the community. :)

Posted by: a. | Jul 22, 2007 1:27:19 PM

I think the reason is historical memory. over the course of our history, who the heck else was going to take us in? No one but our fellow Jews (with some notable and heroic exceptions). So now, that extension of hospitality, and the lengths to which we will go to make that happen (re your airport story) is part of our DNA.

Posted by: Ezer K'negdo | Jul 22, 2007 3:21:07 PM

Because, unlike many secular societies whose people believe in nothing but what they can take from the world, religious societies have always stressed that giving up and helping others are more important values than getting.

The same holds true of religious Moslems, Christians, and so on, among their own kind.

Furthermore, any minority group of people is identified by their being not like the majority in some way. This forms a cohesive kindred among them. As a results, they tend to already have certain things in common, which makes them slightly more familiar than simply strangers. The same hospitality offered to me by the group of Jews around the world has been offered to me by the group of board game players around the world.

As far as welcoming non-Jews, this is less common, and the situation you described was somewhat unusual. These were no random non-Jews. They were a) on their way to being Jewish, and b) serving in the Israeli army, for which you felt a debt of gratitude.

Would you simply have invited some strange non-Jews posting to Janglo that they are coming to Efrat for a week and need a place to stay? As readily as you would for Jews? Religious Jews? Bloggers? Former Navy people?

Maybe. In which case, you were simply raised that way, or incorporated those values, which are not the values of people from countries with high personal crime, such as Russia and urban U.S.

Yehuda

Posted by: Yehuda Berlinger | Jul 22, 2007 4:38:06 PM

That, my friend, Is a great post.

Values.....

Posted by: Sam | Jul 22, 2007 7:24:52 PM

Loved this post. These are the kind of conversations one remembers for a long time. Jewish or non-Jewish, how could they not have a wonderful and meaningful experience at your home for shabbat?

Posted by: Maya | Jul 22, 2007 7:39:43 PM

It seems especially fitting that they asked this question at your home, perhaps one of the warmest, friendliest places I've ever been!

Hugs to the littlest one :)

Posted by: tnspr569 | Jul 22, 2007 8:07:27 PM

Beautiful post. I love doing the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, perhaps because I have been fortunate to be the recipient of so many wonderful people's generosity.

Posted by: Sara K | Jul 22, 2007 9:08:11 PM

It's called love. And love isn't only reserved for people you know.

Posted by: Seattle | Jul 22, 2007 9:39:54 PM

The answer is not in fact entirely peculiar to Jews. The concept of hospitality is that it is reciprocal. By continuing the custom (or in this case the mitzvah), we ensure (we hope) that it is available to us or others when we/they need it. The mitzvah part is that we do it without any expectation that the recipient will reciprocate TO US. Never mind that it is a commandment, a mitzvah, and it makes us feel good.

In more contemporary terms, pay it forward.

To bring it home to these soldiers, say that you do it with the hope and the knowledge that someone else will extend the same welcome to your children, and their children, should the situation arise.

Posted by: Iris | Jul 22, 2007 9:56:30 PM

One more comment - the army in the US also served some of these functions during the larger waves of historic immigration. Some of them we could still use.

Posted by: Iris | Jul 22, 2007 9:59:28 PM

Re: shortness of names

You've actually hit the nail in the head. I've observed exactly the same on many occasions, especially among the Russian Jewish community, which typically stays away from adopting traditional Russian names, and thus is stuck with a very limited number of Greek, Latin, and Jewish-based names. Wherever I go, I find at least two or three other Irinas, which sure does make me feel unique! What's more surprising, however, is the severe lack of imagination among immigrants, who either keep on calling their American-born children the same old names as before or do call them by American/Jewish names but always the same ones. If someone names her child a particular name, at least one or two of her friends will rip it off for their own offspring. So I've observed waves of "Gabrielles" and "Michelles", when LITERALLY everyone who had girls was naming them that way, and now "Elizabeth" seems to be in. I've heard very few names other than "Daniel", "Samuel", "Steven" or "Dennis" for boys since in the Russian Jewish community since I've come here... which is amazing since in the U.S. there's definitely a greater variety of names than in the FSU. What's even more interesting is that the "older" waves of Russian immigrants, seemed to have more imagination, because the children born in the seventies and early eighties seem to have a much greater variety of names.

Sorry to go on off on such a tangent... just that it's one question I'm constantly struggling to understand, and now, it's clear that the issue is visible not just to me!

Posted by: Irina | Jul 22, 2007 11:37:40 PM

I disagree with Iris. Being French, I live in a predominantly Christian environment and let me tell you that there is no such natural hospitality there.

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | Jul 22, 2007 11:44:40 PM

Great post, David. Speaking for myself, it's a rare Shabbos meal that only includes our five immediate family members. I'm blessed with a wife who loves to cook (unlike yrs trly), is an amazing cook (ditto), and is witty and gracious to guests of all walks of life (double ditto, but I'm learning). We've met some truly fascinating people this way, and I love the fact that my kids are growing up with hospitality as the norm. BTW, if you're ever in the States & find yourself stranded in the Highland Park/Edison, NJ, area for Shabbos, give us a call. Or even if you're not stranded.

Posted by: psachya | Jul 23, 2007 12:50:24 AM

This made me sad. I knopw it is the norm but in all the times I attended services in Israel (not many, read ahead), something which took a grat deal of courage on my part bcs I knew nothing abt the liturgy, no one even bothered asking who I was, and I most certainly was never asked round for Shabbat. Not once. And I desperately wanted to learn more but never did while in Israel. Isn't that funny? No, I suppose not. Oh well.

Posted by: Lioness | Jul 23, 2007 1:37:11 AM

I don't believe the selfish-altruism approach. It's just an ethnic character trait. It's why Heschel marched in Alabama, why Jews joined the Communists when they were truly Utopian, why Jewish Federations consistently raise unimaginable sums. You've been all over the world; wouldn't you agree that nations, ethnic groups, even specific cities and villages, have definitive character traits?

Posted by: Barzilai | Jul 23, 2007 7:20:05 AM

quote Apparently, the army is the place in Israeli society where things get 'fixed' for many people in this country endquote

maybe so providing you're not an Arab citizen. as then firstly they don't let you go to the army. and secondly say that you haven't fulfilled your obligations and duties to the state how could you, after all they didn't let you, and in fact the law excempts you [unlike Yankele the Yeshive draft-dodger]) so how can you expect to have rights and benefits. The fact that for Arabs there is no duty to do national service is a problem that needs addressing.

Apart from that, great blog...

Posted by: asher | Jul 23, 2007 1:06:43 PM

I'm a little surprised to hear that from Russians. When I lived in Russia, there was no shortage of people who invited us in, fed us profusely (You're so thin! Here, eat more blini.), and gave us a place to sleep.

But that was before it became so violent there. And maybe it was because we were foreign. Or, maybe they were Jewish, I guess. (Religion so rarely comes up at that age.)

Posted by: Tanya | Jul 23, 2007 6:05:41 PM

But as usual, I'm getting head of myself.

Which is why I keep reminding you not to spend too much time daydreaming about the smell of sausages. ;)

Posted by: Jack | Jul 23, 2007 6:28:31 PM

Your post reminded me of a moment during Pesach, two years ago. I, unfortunately, found myself flying to Cleveland, and then driving to Pittsburgh, during Chol HaMoed, to attend the funeral of a friend. I was traveling with three non-Jewish friends, and therefore needed to find a kosher store.

My buddy in Cleveland drove us to the frum neighborhood, and we got to the store 30 minutes after it had closed. The people inside, who were presumably cleaning up and preparing to go home, took one look at the curly-haired, long-sleeved, long skirted young woman standing outside, and unlocked the doors to find out what I needed. As soon as I explained that I was traveling, they ushered me into the store, showed me around, and told me to take my time.

My non-Jewish friends were stunned. If they had shown up at the grocery store after closing time, they asserted, they would have been told to get lost. While I could completely see that happening, I could not imagine Jews turning away another Jew, particularly during a chag. Admittedly, it probably helped that I looked like a nice frum girl. But the fact remains that, according to my non-Jewish friends, it would have been far more normal to say "Sorry, we're closed" and turn me away to fend for myself.

Posted by: Cara | Jul 23, 2007 8:21:39 PM

Love and a sense of community.
Have an easy fast.

Posted by: Jennifer | Jul 23, 2007 10:11:23 PM

Re: hachnasat orchim in Russia: I just read an article about the Peking to Paris Road Rally of '07., written by fellows named Erickson and Dole. They said that within Russia, the variations in behavior are enormous. In one town, everyone from the security guards to the store clerks was knock-kneed drunk, and a mechanic charged them $250 simply to use his garage. In another, I believe Yekaterinberg, droves of people offered to work on their car for free.

Posted by: Barzilai | Jul 23, 2007 11:56:55 PM

I don't think there is a "why." it is just something we do, like how Americans always form an organized line. When my family was less religious, it wouldn't have occurred to us to invite strangers home for lunch or dinner. Now, we do it all the time and we don't even think about it. I just spent Shabbat in Minneapolis. I knew one family there (marginally) and semi-invited myself and my son to their house. Of course, they picked us up from the hotel, had us stay with them, invited nice people for us to hang out with and took us around. Then, they drove us to the airport on Sunday! Until you wrote this post I didn't even think about how strange that was.

Posted by: Janet | Jul 24, 2007 3:00:27 AM

a. ... There were a few of 'those' who arrived with the large wave of immigrants from the FSU. And of course such actions are sure to grab the headlines.

Ezer K'negdo... I would love to believe that but so many other essentially Jewish traits have somehow failed to be passed down. :-)

Yehuda Berlinger ... I don't agree with your assessment that this is a universal trait. If it were, non-Jews wouldn't find it so baffling when they encounter it.

Sam ... Thank you.

Maya ... Maybe some day you'll find out first hand. :-)

tnspr569... Thanks.

Sara K... "I've always depended upon the kindness of strangers...". Name the movie. :-)

Seattle... Nice idea.

Iris... I suppose, although like you said, there is certainly no expectation of reciprocation.

Irina ... Whew, when I wrote this post I was a little worried that you (with your common Russian name) would be offended. I work with so many people named Irina, Marina, Natasha, Svetlana... that I really was wondering how this happened. Glad you didn't take offense.

Ilana-Davita... interesting insight. Thanks.

psachya... It's funny, but the kids naturally ask who we are having for shabbat every week... and they are completely un-surprised when someone shows up unannounced.

Lioness... I'm sorry it made you feel sad. Since reading your comment I've been trying to think of an explanation for your experience and I think I have a workable theory (several, actually). First of all, a lot of the hospitality is extended in and around synagogues on Friday night. There are far fewer women than men in 'shul' then, and it would be a little awkward for a strange man to approach a pretty single girl after services. Also, although it isn't fair, but if you seem to know someone, people may assume you don't need hospitality. Both of these are just stabs in the dark... but you can rest assured that when you make your next trip to Israel you will be welcomed into our home for as long as you'd like to stay.

Barzilai... Yes, but this is so universal among Jews as to go against your theory.

asher... Your comment is incorrect on several levels. First, there are many Arabs who do army service. Druse and Bedouin have a long tradition of serving in the IDF. Second, Your derisive portrayal of 'Yankele the yeshiva draft dodger' is equally unfair since there are many yeshiva students (even Haredi) who now serve in the army. The laws concerning national service allow exemptions for certain people... not just Arabs and not just religious (there are actually almost as many secular people given exemptions as religious, BTW). Please get your facts straight before making such a blanket condemnation of a system that, while imperfect, works quite well. The truth is that Arab citizens and Yeshiva students and any other citizen of Israel, has health care and national insurance coverage whether they serve or not. Yes, there are additional benefits that come with service... but that is appropriate, no? And there is nothing stopping the Arabs from doing voluntary national service such as what is done by religious women. They just choose not to.

Tanya ... Glad to hear your experience was positive. Many friends I have who travelled in the FSU said the people were very suspicious /stand-offish of strangers and foreigners.

Jack ... I'm sorry... how are the dodgers doing?

Cara ... Who could say no to that face and those curls? :-)

Jennifer... Thanks.

Barzilai... You have to remember that even within Russia there are a lot of ethnic sub-groups. Not all are going to value hospitality.

Janet... Because it isn't strange. :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jul 24, 2007 10:35:19 AM

Jack ... I'm sorry... how are the dodgers doing?

First place in the West, two games ahead of San Diego.

Posted by: Jack | Jul 24, 2007 6:40:57 PM

A comment on Russia....except for the 20-somethings and younger, the people of Russia remember the days of the Soviet Union and all that came with it. Oppression, shortages, KGB informers....all of that over most of a lifetime could condition folks to be suspicious and inhospitable. Just my theory.

Posted by: K Newman | Jul 24, 2007 9:10:57 PM

Sara K... "I've always depended upon the kindness of strangers...". Name the movie. :-)

I am so bad at these quizzes :) but IMDB gives 3 results for that quote.
http://www.imdb.com/SearchQuotes?for=kindness+of+strangers&Go.x=0&Go.y=0&Go=Go

Posted by: Sara K | Jul 25, 2007 5:02:53 AM

My own experience has been that Russians are some of the most compulsively hospitable people on earth.

But of course, what these girls are asking about is something else--why is hospitality extended to them, total strangers except that they are serving in the army? The answer to that is complicated--sounds like you tried, but more likely they will figure it out from experience.

About the names--we still joke about the time a young group of community volunteers all left at the end of one event together to go to the mall--Marina, Inna, Inna, Karina, and Irina. I think Dimitri was driving them.

Kol ha-kavod to your young guests! Tell them if they're ever in San Francisco, my father will want to take them out to dinner and speak bad Russian to them.

Posted by: balabusta in blue jeans | Jul 25, 2007 11:19:16 PM

>> Seattle... Nice idea.

"You annoint my head with oil, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life" - written by David

Our cup overflows from what we ourselves were given and so we have much love to give to others. It is a nice idea, but not mine.

Posted by: Seattle | Jul 26, 2007 5:03:59 AM

on a number of occasions when i was in yeshivah i randomly called a yishuv and requested hospitality for shabbat. i was never turned down. http://agmk.blogspot.com/2007/05/my-pictures-from-kever-yosef.html#links

on more than one occasion, while hitchhiking dangerously close to shabbat i was invited by the driver to come to his family if i couldn't make it on time to my desitination (once by a communist kibbutznik).

and when we flew to israel a few years ago (my wife's first visit) the radical hilonit who sat next to us invited us to stay with her in her apartment when we told her we did not have any real itinerary of place to stay after the first few nights.

p.s. my wife is a marina.

Posted by: ari kinsberg | Jul 30, 2007 9:02:38 AM

The limitation in names is not just Russian or immigrant -- we noticed last summer that our young D-Back pitching staff was overstocked with Justins, Dustins, Brandons and Bryans. Such NOT good baseball names!

In my two visits to Israel, as a secular non-Jew I have to say the degree of hospitality and generosity with time and energy is unlike anywhere I have ever been, and is one of the many reasons I have fallen in love with Israel and Israelis. Probably if one was an observant Jew, it would be even more remarkable.

Posted by: AZZenny | Jul 31, 2007 6:59:02 PM

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