“I am a Palestinian Jew.”
It was 12:15 AM, Friday night. I sat with 20-year-old Moishe F. in a hole-in-the-wall shul in the heart of Mea Shearim, discussing our different upbringings and worldviews before he would return to Boro Park to marry a girl whom he had only met for three hours and hadn’t spoken to since Rosh Hashanah.
I met Moishe two summers ago waiting at the airport terminal for a flight from Tel Aviv to JFK. He was dressed in Chasidic style: white shirt, black bekesha, velvet hat, and Talmud in hand.
His differences did not close him off, but rather opened him up to my curiosity. His bland clothing did not express him as an unrelatable Jew from another century, but a fascinating personality living in a generation that magnifies his uniqueness and says: “I’m different.” I was intrigued, curious and decided to approach him. After a two-hour conversation on the plane (which has to be a record for people not sitting next to each other) we found more things that worked as magnets rather than resistors, far more things that pulled us together than pushed us apart. The Vizhnitz Chasid and I exchanged information and committed to stay in touch. Since then I have made it my minhag to acquaint and befriend at least one Chasid on every flight I take between Eretz Yisrael and the U.S.
About eight months later I was concluding another trip to the Holy Land. I had extended my trip and was left without a visa for the return flight. A Chasidic family of four – a Tatti and a Mama, a son and a daughter – stood in front of me on the no-visa line in Ben Gurion airport. The son’s suitcase fell on my leg, so I picked it up. A couple minutes later it fell on my leg again – kol dodi dofek – I heard Hashem telling me to speak with this child, so when I picked up his suitcase for the second time I asked him how old he was, with which sect of Chasidus he was affiliated, and where he was from; 15 years old, Satmar, Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet (“Beiiiiizzzzzzzz”). A bit later in my airport adventure I saw the family again. I approached the boy’s father, whose long white beard did not scare me off, but said “I’m interesting, come speak with me.” He was in a rush, so I cut to the chase:
“I heard you live in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet. When can I come for Shabbos?”
“You want to come to me for Shabbos?” He asked in astonishment, looking at my khaki pants, blue polo shirt and techelet.
Six months later I was in his house eating Shabbos lunch. It was the first time he had a “Jew like me” in his house. He added, “Be’ezrat Hashem there will be more [times].”
If it weren’t clear yet, I enjoy spending time with people outside of my circle of Judaism. It’s refreshing to speak with Jews from different backgrounds and hear their perspectives. So often stereotypes are made about specific sects of Judaism; interacting with the people of the sect, rather than merely talking about them with friends, allows me to examine the validity of our claims. Furthermore, approaching different Jews opens a dialogue between the varying communities, serving as a reminder that despite our differences culturally, we are one religion, we are one people.
I have befriended a Vizhnitz Chasid, became close friends with a Bobover (story for another time), and ate a meal by a Satmar Rav and was invited back. Another group that I had heard so much about but never met, the only collection of Jews so radically different that I was told to stay away from them, was the Neturei Karta. This past Friday night I met one, but not on purpose. While I was in middle of my conversation with Moishe, my Vizhnitz friend, a 19-year-old, Yosef, interrupted us, saying, “I am a Palestinian Jew.”
This story will be continued in my next blog post.