Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

Learning to Love Shabbat From the Diaspora

June 9, 2014

By Ornat Turin

Five months ago, I arrived at HBI for the spring semester as a scholar-in-residence. This is the first time in my life spending a long period outside of Israel. As the child of a captain and a scholar in my adult life, I have had my share of travelling, but I never lived away from Israel for this long. Here was an opportunity to be a witness to cross-cultural distinctions and by that I don’t mean the New England winters. All I can say about that is they have nerve calling it the "spring semester."

What surprised me most was my reaction to the differences in Shabbat celebrations in the U.S. and Israel. For the record, I consider myself a secular Jew.

In Israel, one can always feel the commemoratives. On Purim, the streets are full of children in costume and the bakeries have Haman's ears (hamantaschen). On the Holocaust memorial days, the television airs testimonial documentaries and the radio streams sad songs. When the siren of Memorial Day (Yom HaZikaron) sounds, one cannot miss the moment. The cars stop, people freeze in the street. Even an alien watching from the sky would know that something was happening.

I can look about this phenomenon from two sides. One side is that I am forced to take part in events with which I, or other members of society, might not feel a connection. The converse is that in Israel, we celebrate as a society that has successfully maintained a sense of communality and solidarity.

Before I spent so much time in the U.S., I usually found myself at the complaining side. "Why can't I have a bun with my hamburger during Passover? Why is there no public transportation on Saturday? How dare they cut off the cable television programs on Yom Kippur. For heavens sake! I paid for this service.”"

On my first Shabbat in the U.S., I noticed the difference. In Israel, something mysterious happens for Shabbat. On Friday morning, there is a big commotion, everyone hastens to the stores to buy goods and food. Around 1 p.m., the streets empty and the shops close. Something as tender and transparent as a bride's veil falls over the city.

In my eyes, as a secular feminist activist, Shabbat is a radical, humanistic idea that Judaism has presented the world. But, I realized, it is also dear to my heart.

I believe in the notion that everyone and everything, including slaves and animals, deserve rest of both the body and the soul. Cease the spinning after business opportunities. Cut the urge to meet requirements, to compress and squeeze one more email, just another phone call. In order to avoid the possibility of melting and dissolving the Shabbat in the stream of life, it is an order included in the Ten Commandments.

But here, in Boston, the buses go on driving. I can shop all weekend and watch cable television. Or, I can fulfill Shabbat in my own house like anyone else.

Am I satisfied now?

Well, no. I cannot be. I am a native Jew and whining is part of my genes. Where is the Shabbat feeling? Where is the aroma of the special day and the spiritualism in the air?

My stay in Boston made me appreciate the general recess of the nation as a whole. This does not mean I transformed into an Orthodox Jew. I am, more than ever, full of appreciation and admiration for the beauty and wisdom in our tradition.

I needed to travel all the way here, above the Atlantic Ocean, to have this insight. It is one of the many things I will bring back to Israel.

Ornat Turin was a scholar-in-residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. She is the head of the media education department at Gordon College of Education in Haifa, Israel.