The conversation during the meal at the orthodox home I’m visiting is a heated debate about current events and Israel. I’m familiar with the tones of this discussion, the impassioned voices that make it sound like no one at the table is agreeing when actually they are all nodding vigorously. As a teen, I was exposed to this aspect of the Jewish dining ritual, which alarmed me at first until I realized that each person is simply honing their argumentation skills. The only difference here is the politics, which are decidedly right wing. I had heard that some Jews, particularly those on the orthodox side of the spectrum, can be conservative, an affiliation born at least in part from a die-hard support of Israel.
So contrary is this from the politics of the Jews with which I’m familiar—who struggle with the complicated affairs of Israel and the role Jews play in the region—that I was inclined to believe they were mythical creatures too rare to encounter during the course of this exploration, and certainly not likely to attend a synagogue in Venice, California. If I closed my eyes, I would have thought I was sitting with far-right Christians, who also adamantly support Israel, though they do so because the “gathering of the Jews” there is an essential piece of New Testament prophecy to ensure the return of Jesus. Both groups’ opinions overlap at this thin sliver of foreign affairs.
As I ate, I busied myself surreptitiously sneaking peaks at the woman sitting on my right, thinking that one of the great ironies is how separating men and women can make it so much easier to check out members of the opposite gender than those of your own.
I finally get the opportunity to unapologetically stare at the woman next to me when she takes a moment to tell the table about herself. She grew up in a Hassidic family in Brooklyn, she explains. Today, in her 40s, she remains observant, though she’s obviously taken her own approach to the guidelines for attire. She dons a long-sleeved black top that would provide excellent coverage but for the fact that it is entirely mesh. Every detail of her leopard-print bra is visible. Her scalp is crowned in long platinum hair extensions. I know this because from my vantage point I can see where each cluster of fake hair is attached to her real hair. I try to imagine what her parents must think of this daughter who knows every Hebrew prayer by heart but looks like Paris Hilton. When she explains that her dream is to get married and maintain an observant household, my heart breaks a little. I sincerely doubt hers is the typical profile on JDate, the Jewish Dating website. It’s one thing for someone like me to visit this world for a short time, but it’s another entirely for a person to have a foot firmly planted in two worlds seemingly so at odds with one another.
At the end of the meal, I reach to take my dishes to the kitchen but Barbara tells me no, I should leave them, she will clean after sundown. I am momentarily paralyzed by a mental tussle between two sides: what makes a good guest versus what makes a good Jew.
As we say our goodbyes, Barbara asks if I’d like to return to her house later that day, just before sundown, to walk with her and her husband to the small evening service that officially recognizes the conclusion of Sabbath.
I’m happy for the invitation because earlier one of the rabbis at the synagogue mentioned he would be giving a brief talk during this evening gathering about the future of animal sacrifice within the Jewish faith. I’m curious to know what plans exist for the bronze altar.