It’s a little after sunset on Friday, and I’m walking past the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. Ahead of me, an elderly man in a Hassidic long black coat suddenly starts intoning “Shabbes, Shabbes” to warn the stall holders that they should be closed. There’s no need, the normally chaotic market is shuttered and dark.
I was on my way to a Shabbat meal with a local Jewish family, organized through Shabbat of a Lifetime. It started with just one family inviting visitors into their home to share Shabbat, and they now have dozens of families who participate, hosting thousands of visitors a year. Our hosts were Etan and Mandy, who had come to Israel from New York four years ago. Etan’s parents were also there and a couple of friends. As some of the guests were also Jewish, out of twenty or so people in all about a third were not Jewish and were experiencing the Shabbat meal for the first time as I was.
The atmosphere was a bit like Christmas lunch in Britain – one of the friends told me his children felt sad for Christians because they only did this at Christmas and Easter! But the Shabbat meal also has rituals and prayers – a special way of washing hands, a blessing of the wine, a ritual cutting of the bread. Both of these reminded me that the Eucharist has its roots in a real meal, and we have lost something by making the eating and drinking symbolic.
And like any good family meal there were stories and laughter, and also some moving memories and tears. Family histories about those who escaped the Holocaust, and those who didn’t. Stories about the suddenness of the Six Day War, the fear that Israel would not survive, the joy when, completely unexpectedly, Jerusalem was reunited.
They were true stories, with a true message; that against all the odds Israel has survived, that Jews have a home of their own; that they are here and they are staying. But they are not the only true stories and true messages in this land. I am writing this on Monday, and tomorrow I go to Bethlehem, where I will see and hear a different story, which I will tell you in a few days’ time.
Additional Footnote from Cally: I received this piece from Mike for the blog this evening (Monday 8th May), emailed to me from Jerusalem. Within an hour or two of receiving it and across time zones, I had found a beautiful painting online (which, I think, captures beautifully the sense of multi-textured prayer, drama and story-telling in Mike’s piece), had emailed the artist in New York and had received a response from her, generously allowing us to use her picture here. (How small the world is and how quickly we travel across it in this digital age!)