And they laugh together with me, as do their friends. It’s really not surprising that they’re such intelligent people. Not at all.
But I never guessed that they’d have such great – even cynical – senses of humor or that they’d be so attuned to my world. It comes as a complete shock.
I had assumed that the Shabbat meal would include – aside from the food, of course – liberal amounts of singing and an overabundance of Torah discourses. I’m petrified lest I make some foolish gaffe or faux pas.
Chabad (Photo: Niv Calderon)
But Mika calms me down. “Even if you make a mistake, it doesn’t matter. You can go and come as you wish.”
Huh? I’m unnerved. I want a real Shabbat. With authentic pious types.
I stop working. My room is in the basement, next to a home office filled with computers which seem to be winking at me. But I manage to control myself.
On the other hand, I do turn on the light in my room once. (Sorry, Mika, but I really had no choice.)
Actually, I expected the stereotypical Shabbat which returns heretics to the fold. The infamous, intimate Shabbat that helps nonbelievers see the light and ensnares them in the “Orthodox missionary trap” – a term which presumably causes much pain to my Brooklyn friends.
I wanted to see if this miracle would occur for me as well. I had willingly set out on this adventure, knowing the risks. “Que sera sera,” and all that.
It was like I was laying down the gauntlet. Would it happen to me? Would I also be captivated by the legendary haredi Shabbat? The one that they’re always boasting about?
So, there I am, sitting at the Shabbat table, laughing hysterically, together with my new, witty, and amusing friends. I’m sure they’re also entertained, as they view their own world through my secular eyes. For me, it’s certainly very funny to hear their haredi impressions of my very non-haredi self.
“Let’s see how many zemirot (Shabbat songs) you know,” Yossi dares me.
I’m up for the challenge and immediately begin singing. (Oops! I immediately recall that it’s forbidden for women to sing in mixed company and switch to pointing out the familiar songs in the songbook instead.)
“You have such outdated impressions of us, just like we have outdated impressions about you,” I suddenly blurt out. And we start laughing again.
Talking into the night
Rabbi and Mrs. Zalman Priss, of the Manhattan Chabad Center, are among the guests at the Shabbat table. Mika informs me that Zalman works with “baalei teshuva” (literally, “masters of the return”, refers to those who have accepted an Orthodox lifestyle). Wow. An honest-to-goodness, real-life missionary.
Doesn’t everyone say that all Lubavitchers are missionaries? I wonder what he’ll do to me. As it turns out, Zalman is the perfect gentleman and spends most of the time listening to me.
As usual, I monopolize the conversation and complain about some things that I had noticed at the conference. For example, it disturbs me to hear that young children are sent to study abroad. Zalman pays close attention, asks pertinent questions, and tries hard to understand my position.
Zalman is a Canadian, and I address him in English, a language in which I’m proud of my fluency. Nevertheless, Mika has to occasionally “translate” for me, because as a woman, she has greater emotional intelligence.
She’s able to transmit the exact nuances of my words. I feel as if I’ve known her forever.
On Shabbat, Yossi and Mika’s house resembles a bustling railway station. They’re hosting all sorts of people – some of whom they don’t even know - because Crown Heights is bursting at the seams due to the conference.
A newly married couple is sleeping in one of the children’s rooms. In the middle of the night, they open the door and come in. And then they leave again, only to return some time later.
Meanwhile, a teenage girl enters with a group of friends traipsing behind her. The tumult doesn’t let up, but we continue to talk until after midnight.
My Venezuelan dance partner
On Sunday night, we attend the banquet – the climax of the Shluchot (Chabad emissaries’ wives) Conference – together with 2,000 other Chabad women at the Marriot Hotel. They’re all wearing their dressiest clothes.
In honor of the occasion, I go to Macy’s to buy an appropriate and modest outfit. Even though it’s my first visit to the Big Apple, I only make it to Manhattan twice – and briefly at that. I’m satisfied with Crown Heights – on every level.
At the banquet, I dance with the shluchot in never-ending columns of riotous joy and happiness. A large screen displays the names of every Chabad branch in the world.
The accompanying cheers are in direct proportion to the braches’ sizes. Both Russia and the United States are greeted with boisterous applause, but Israel is the clear winner.
I’m very moved. Yes, it’s true; I’m a hopeless sentimentalist. Milcah from Venezuela drags me into one of the dance circles and prevents me from drowning in my thoughts.
Time to leave
At my last meeting with Chabad spokesman Zalman Shmotkin, I tell him about my father, who grew up in Jerusalem’s Meah Shearim neighborhood. When he and my mother went back for a visit, a group of local residents threatened to stone them because of their allegedly immodest dress.
“I was raised here. What right do you have to chase me away?” my father – who was already battling his final illness - yelled at them with his waning strength.
Shmotkin hears me out, and his eyes are filled with pain. I promise to keep in touch so we can continue our discussion.
As I get ready to leave, Mika and I embrace.
“Iris, you influenced me,” she tells me. “Don’t forget our agreement.”
I had promised to light candles for Shabbat and, in return, had asked that she use “Shabbat Shalom” and not just “Gut Shabbos” as a Shabbat greeting. It’s not that I have anything against Yiddish, the so-called Momma Loshen, but “Shabbat Shalom” (literally, “Shabbat peace”) is so beautiful. I remind Mika that Shalom means peace, hello, and goodbye.
“When will you be back?” Mika wants to know. I confess that I’m eagerly looking forward to my next visit.
So, you’re probably waiting to hear the answer to the million dollar question: Did the trip persuade me to become a “baalat teshuva”? Many of my close friends and relatives have certainly displayed considerable curiosity and concern about this issue.
The answer is: no. Or, perhaps: not yet. I don’t think I’m on the road towards an authentic Orthodox lifestyle, because, in my own way, I’m already religious.
But I did decide to try and stop working on Shabbat, because I thoroughly enjoyed the respite. I strongly suspect that several of my family members will take this as startling - but definitely positive – news.
I believe that my trip didn’t happen by chance, but I also believe that it will take me some time to fully digest and internalize my Crown Heights experiences.
Next year is Mika and Yossi’s oldest son Mendy’s bar mitzvah. I hope to attend.