It’s been interesting when I have gone to Israel, to see the assumptions people make about me. Pretty much everyone assumes I’m Jewish already, and a vast number of people assume I’m a fluent Hebrew-speaker (which I am not, although I am getting better all the time). RR, my Israeli coworker, says that most Israelis have a pretty well-honed sense of how to tell the natives from the tourists, but he once said of me, “I bet when you go to Israel, people speak Hebrew at you first.” Yes, this is true. (Most people who give off the “obvious tourist” vibe get English first.) Of course, as soon as I open my mouth, people switch to English, which is bad im ani rotza letargil (if I want to practice), because my accent is still fairly atrocious. (My first Hebrew teacher was originally from Philadelphia and I guess I still have a fairly pronounced American accent when I speak Hebrew.)
Anyway, one of the things I like about Israel is that sense of passing, that just about everybody’s assumptions about me are wrong. I don’t lie to people about not being Jewish if asked, but most of the time, I’m quite content to just let it ride, to be honest.
When I called a cab on Shabbat to take me to a friend’s apartment near the Talpiot neighbourhood in Jerusalem for lunch, I made sure I was dressed properly for the occasion — long-sleeved teal top with a scarf at the neckline, long white skirt, white shoes, socks — and the cabdriver kind of gave me this look until I said, “Oh, I’m not religious; I’m just visiting friends who are.” Heh.
Aside: On my first trip to Israel, the cab driver who was taking me from the airport in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem asked me (in Hebrew) the standard questions:
CD: “Have you been to Israel before?”
SE: “No, this is my one time.”
CD: “You mean ‘first time’.”
SE: “Yes, first time. First time.”
CD: “Do you like Israel?”
SE: “Yes, it’s very beautiful.”
CD: “Are you Jewish?”
CD: “Why not?”
I finally just laughed and shrugged and said “I don’t know.” Well, here we are.
DE came and met me on the streetcorner near his apartment building, and we went up. I got to meet his wife and children, and have a look at his apartment (modest in the style of most Israeli apartments). Before we sat down for lunch, he asked me if I wanted to wash my hands (in the ritual sense) just like the rest of the family, said the bracha, and showed me how to do it. Wonderful! We sat down to a nice vegetarian lunch (I didn’t eat any of the dairy foods due to my allergy, but I did eat a lot of hummus, and lentil salad), and a nice kiddush* over grape juice.
After the meal, DE said the Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals), and then he passed around some bentschers with zemirot (songs to be sung around the table on Shabbat). We sang a song called “Mipi El,” which is a Sfardi song with lyrics in both Hebrew and Ladino (which is to Spanish as Yiddish is to Polish and German). DE chose it specifically for me because it’s slow and the lyrics are pretty easy, so once I caught on to the tune, I was able to sing along. Then DE and his wife and I got into a spirited discussion of Jewish musicology vis-a-vis Western music and musical appropriation and so on, what I liked and didn’t like about Israel, and everything. I enjoyed it immensely and look forward to doing it again.
Being able to participate and belong to that small group was a really enriching, wonderful experience (and completely mirrors what I’ve experienced at Beit Meshugge), and I want to thank DE again for making it possible. Although I know (and have written about) many negative things I might face in conversion, this is one of the positive things that draws me in, ineluctably.
* For those of you who might be a bit confused by the link, lunch is usually the first meal Sabbath-observant Jews eat after waking on Shabbat, as the Shulchan Aruch says that one should attend to G-d before attending to one’s personal needs, so they get up and go to shul to pray first, before eating. Since the Shabbat services are fairly long, it’s normal for people to get home around lunchtime, more or less.