January 17, 2019

Shabbat in Berlin

This is the English version of the second article in a series for Fluter.de, a German political magazine for young adults. The series offers Orit’s perspectives on life in Berlin. Her first was entitled: “Why I Love Berlin When I Was Supposed to Hate it.”

An Israeli friend of mine loves German toothpaste and chocolate, so last year, when I was visiting Berlin, she asked me to bring her back some. My flight was on a Monday morning, and I decided to save my Rossman’s or REWE shopping for Sunday. I took for granted that drugs stores and supermarkets would be open, like they are in my hometown of Los Angeles. Isn’t Berlin the secular capital of Europe?

“All drug stores and supermarkets are completely closed on Sunday,” my friend told me to my surprise.

I returned to Israel empty-handed.

I soon realized that Shabbat – a Day of Rest – isn’t a Biblical concept enforced only in the Jewish state, where it’s celebrated on a Saturday, the seventh day in which God “rested” from creating the universe. In most European countries, the Christian “Sabbath” is enforced on Sunday. All retail shops are closed, and employers are required to pay extra to employees working on the national “Day of Rest.”

As in Tel Aviv, only cafes, eateries, and convenience stores (Israel’s “Spatis”) are open. At least in Germany, public transportation runs on Sunday. I might not have needed a car in Israel if public transportation wasn’t shut down in most cities from Friday sunset to Saturday sundown.

I admit I was disappointed to discover I had little choice but to make Sunday a day of leisure instead of one for running errands or shopping. I was attracted to Berlin because I thought it enjoyed more separation between religion and state, no matter that “Shabbat” has evolved into a cultural tradition in both countries.

While debates rage in Israel about Shabbat legislation, especially in the secular haven of Tel Aviv, many Israelis, secular and observant alike, appreciate the enforced Shabbat: streets are quiet, people generally don’t “talk shop”; all one can really do is go to synagogue (if that’s their thing), hang out with friends and family, eat, read, watch TV, or loaf on the beach (and sneak in work).

Actually, the Jewish Day of Rest in Israel is an excellent time for fostering peace. On Saturday, eateries and shops are packed with Jews in Arab Israeli towns like Nazareth or Tira. In deference to the Muslim Arab population, Israel’s two-day weekend begins on Friday. Muslim employees could designate Friday, the Muslim “Shabbat”, as their legal “day off.”

“Honestly, it kind of works great,” said my Arab friend Nabil from Jerusalem. “Many Jews, especially in Israel, observe Shabbat. Arabs do those required jobs and get paid very well for it, so Arabs usually fight over the Shabbat shift.”

Shabbat is central to Jewish tradition, a reminder that we Jews are no longer slaves in Egypt. In modern times, we could all use a day to “unplug,” especially as we’ve become slaves to our smartphones. No matter on what day it’s celebrated, the world’s first “weekend” teaches us that we work to live. But what happens when the Day of Rest is legally enforced, with fines to pay for violation? Does it then become its own type of slavery?

Some people argue that a national Day of Rest is healthy for society. It encourages quality family time, national cohesion, and spiritual meditation, preventing us from becoming 24-7 workaholics.

Still, I prefer the American model in which only offices are closed on weekends. In Los Angeles, I was master of my own time, with every day at my disposal to work, shop, or play. My consolation is that I’m not an Orthodox Jew living in Berlin, because then I could buy toothpaste and chocolate only from Monday through Friday.

Orit Arfa is a journalist based in Berlin and author of The Settler. Her upcoming novel is an Israeli-German love story. www.oritarfa.com