Shabbat in Jerusalem

Friday in Israel is not really a work day, but a semi-holiday. Friday is not a holy day, but it has a special flavor because it is when we finalize our Shabbat preparations.

I used to live on a gorgeous street in Jerusalem, Rehov Caspi. The street boasts a view of the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives, the Jordan Valley and the hills of Jordan, a mere 30 miles away. The street is perched above a hillside park called The Promenade, which also faces the Old City. A short two-block walk away is Derech Beit Lechem, a street full of small shops. This neighborhood is abuzz on Fridays.

I was privileged to be one of only two women who were welcome at "The Parliament," a group of 10 or so men who meet every Friday morning at 7 a.m. in Yonotan’s lighting store. The men are both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and are mostly in their 60s and 70s. The elder parliamentarians are mostly from Eastern Europe and are old enough to be considered heroes of the War of Independence. One of the exciting aspects of living in contemporary Israel is that the founders of the country are still walking around.

During the meeting, Yonotan served small glasses of his special tea (black tea with sugar and fresh herbs), along with cheese borekas, olives and cucumbers. It’s a guy’s yackfest and I always felt like the proverbial fly on the wall. The conversations were lively, good-natured, where traditional morality prevailed while spanning the religious and political spectrums.

By 8:30 a.m. we’d all disperse for leisurely Shabbat shopping. Israelis, many of whom have survived the Holocaust or the siege of Jerusalem, will stock up on Friday as if the stores may not open for a week or more.

Hospitality is the rule and guests are considered a blessing. I never lacked invitations for Shabbat dinners and lunches as a single person, but I also loved hosting.

The small specialized stores of Derech Bet Lechem made shopping slower, but more fun and personal. The butchers subtly gave their approval when you purchased expensive cuts. Likewise, the baker let you know your good luck and good taste when buying the last box of date nut cookies and a sesame challah. The vegetable seller, a swarthy Sephardi, maintains a high testosterone environment and lots of photographs of ancient rabbis. Until you’ve tasted Israeli tomatoes and cucumbers, you simply do not know what the flavor should be.

Sundries and dairy products are purchased in the makolet, a small neighborhood market. This proprietor, Moshe, I saw more often than most of my friends. I cried with him when his mother died, and he cried with me when I had to move back to the United States. He gave me a bizarre blessing once, "Shabbat Achla!" The second word is "good" in Arabic.

Once the shopping was finished, I’d probably run into a neighbor and stop at a sidewalk cafe for a coffee. It’s not that I needed to drink anything after all the tea at Yonotan’s, but it was an excuse to sit and talk more.

Finally, I’d head home, shlepping my bags of whatever, and start chopping vegetable for salad, whipping up unbelievably rich tehina dip and boiling some soup. On Fridays, even the rock music stations help get you in the mood for Shabbat by switching their programming to shirim yafim, the beautiful songs from the early days of the state. The songs are sentimental and patriotic, and help you to slow down and appreciate Israel; that Israel actually exists.

In between preparing food, I’d set the table with a cloth only used on Shabbat and my strange but beautiful mismatched set of meat dishes. Each plate and bowl has a different Japanese pattern; but all being blue and white, they work together. I’d do any last-minute cleaning and straightening.

Once in a while, if I was very organized, I’d have the time for a tub bath, a real luxury because of water shortages, and an indulgence I permitted myself only for Shabbat. I have a special perfume, which I only use on Shabbats and holidays: Joy from France. Also, I have a special nightgown that I only wear on Shabbat, so that when I wake up, I know without a doubt what day it is.

When the guests would arrive, I’d have them leave their street shoes near the door and give them house shoes. It’s a custom I learned in Russia and Asia, which not only keeps the street filth out but puts most people at ease and makes them feel more at home.

What with the various blessings, many courses of the meal, the songs, and the Torah discussion, the Shabbat dinner usually runs at least two hours. Finally the well-fed guests waddle off and I put my feet up and began the long Shabbat rest.

What a glorious life. If you haven’t celebrated a Shabbat, give it a try. You may find, as I have, that it becomes the axis of your week.

Shabbat shalom!

Laurel Sternberg is a muralist who lives in Dana Point.