The conversation

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.

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9 thoughts on “The conversation

  1. I smile enjoying your concept of the conservative Jew not being so different from the conservative Christian. It’s a contribution to what many of us find out on this blog; that we are more alike than we are different yet, for many, outlining their differences seems more important. If we could just get past the idea that our need to feel special in God’s eyes is the point of separation maybe we could begin to see there is no need for this since, in the end, we are all in a special relationship with the Divine including the atheist.

  2. I’m enjoying these as always.I have noticed, however, that recent entries have tended to drop off a bit abruptly, without much sense of an ending. It doesn’t affect my own enjoyment much, but it does keep me from sharing the posts with others. Just some food for thought.

  3. I guess you could look at this post from a few different angles. As Franks said, it highlights the commonalities we all share. Lest get too political, it also shows you don’t have to Christian to be a member of the Religious Right, although, given its racially and religious-charged rhetoric, I’d be hard pressed to see conservative Jews having a meaningful dialogue with the Tea Party. On a more positive note, it shows that even groups we might associate with religious and political conservatism can make room in their hearts and homes for the lone traveler. And, Corrina, your description of the conversation brought back some good memories. The neighborhood I grew up in was heavily Italian-American, so even though neither of my parents were Italian, they became founding members of a local Sons of Italy lodge as a way making friends. I remember many a Saturday night dinner-dance that sounded like an extended four hour argument, but one that always seemed to end in laughter.

  4. From my limited contact with the Jews (while in Israel and while working in West Los Angeles), I observe that they have a sense of “specialness” not shared by other groups, not even Christians (which I see as highly unfortunately). I think it has to do with their identity, their heritage, and their knowing that, somehow, Gd (God to us Gentiles) is involved with them. That seems to be true, even among those who have a bitterness for what they feel God did not do during the Holocaust. Whenever I’ve been with Jews, I sense this. In Israel, the feeling is palpable, whether with observant or non-observant Jews, because they know they are surrounded by enemies who would like to erase them.

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