Illustration by Roee Regev. Photo: Tal Cohen

What Happened When a Single Secular Tel Avivian Had Shabbat Dinner With Hasidic Missionaries

For one night I swapped Tinder and instant noodles for dinner with Chabad emissaries. The highlight was a 3D puzzle of the Temple

Two Fridays ago, I got back from a bachelorette party at 7 P.M. and went to buy myself instant noodles for Shabbat at the Tiv Ta’am branch on Mazeh Street. In front of me in line was a guy buying vodka and cookies, and behind me was a girl who bought three tomatoes and cottage cheese. Three Sabbath-eve meals of three Tel Aviv singles, or at least so it seemed to me, and I decided that that’s who we were. Three Tel Aviv unmarrieds picking up a sad Shabbat meal.

Fast-forward one week and three streets to the north. At 8:30 on Shabbat eve, I knock on the door of Shira and Hanoch, two Chabad emissaries, whom I was referred to via Dorit. I met Dorit at the hummus joint next to my place, where I had come in a bad mood, intending to eat alone. Dorit invited me to sit at her table. In our meeting I found an attentive ear, whereas for her it was an expression of divine providence. My quick identification of Dorit as a newly religious recruit to Chabad, and the basic knowledge I displayed about the organization, tinged the meeting with a religious – or at least potentially religious – cast for Dorit. From her perspective, I was a girl with plenty of potential.

With a short course in basic Chabad terminology, you can impress the entirety of Crown Heights, the Brooklyn neighborhood that houses “770” – that is, 770 Eastern Parkway, the address of the headquarters of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. His full name, of course, was Menachem Mendel Schneerson, but it’s enough just to say “the Rebbe.”

Dorit told Shira about me, and that same week, she sent me a message inviting me for a Shabbat eve meal. To my question of what I could bring with me to the meal – a well-known secular custom – she replied, “a male or female friend,” a well-known Hasidic custom. So I brought Oshrat.

Our invitation was for 8:30, and we arrived exactly on time. The men hadn’t yet returned from synagogue, and the women hadn’t yet finished cutting up the salads. We sat in the living room and watched 10 sweet children as they played. On the sofa was a volume from the “Tales of Tzadikim” series of children’s books (a “tzadik” is a righteous person), which is apparently the Hasidic equivalent of the “Gingi” (“Redhead”) series for young secular readers.

Because we couldn’t occupy ourselves by playing with our cell phones, we read the story about a boy called Shimon the Righteous. Shimon saved his shtetl from two Jew-hating goyim, Yuri and Stefan, who decided to falsely blame the Jews for the disappearance of a Christian boy and say that he’d been murdered by Jews who wanted to use his blood to make matzos for Passover. Oshrat smiled and whispered to me that it sounded like it was based on a true story, and I felt glad I’d invited her.

Gil Cohen-Magen

Shira and Hanoch’s living room also has a hefty library that includes all the holy writings of all the Chabad admorim – rabbinic leaders – down through the ages, and hanging on the walls are no fewer than five pictures of Rabbi Schneerson. A large picture of the Rebbe putting on tefillin, a small picture of the Rebbe distributing dollars, business cards with pictures of the Rebbe and all kinds of others. This is a pretty typical Chabad living room.

For Chabad Hasidim, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh and last Chabad rebbe and admor (a Hebrew acronym for “Adonenu, Morenu, Verabenu” – “our master, teacher and rabbi”), is the most important figure in their lives. And even though he died (or passed on, if you will) in 1994, in what’s known as “the event of the seventh day of [the Hebrew month of] Tammuz” – Schneerson remains the sole source of authority for his followers. The character of his leadership gave root to veneration for him, and it’s still going strong. In his time, the occupation with the advent of the messiah and redemption reached new heights, and Chabad Hasidim began to assume their role as shluhim, Yiddish for “emissaries,” whose goal is one: to bring redemption.

Mushky and Mendy

The men returned from synagogue at 9:15. A few minutes earlier, Shira and Hanoch’s amazingly sweet daughters took out large panels, which, placed on legs, turned into two tables, and prepared the living room for an anticipated 30 or so diners, a standard Sabbath-eve meal in their home. Among those returning from synagogue I spotted at least two cute guys, one with a tattoo on his arm, which for me naturally marked him as someone who went to a Chabad House in India when he was trekking there, and from there to this meal. Indeed, he was a lot hotter than all the guys on my Tinder dating app, but he sat with his back to me and in that single move, ruined all the fun we could have had that evening, in which he would imagine me "getting religion" and flying off with him to be emissaries in a Chabad House in a distant country where we would raise our children, Mushky and Mendy. And I would smile at him occasionally in order to sustain the flight of imagination. Okay, it’s his loss.

I waited to see whether after the meal something in the seating arrangements would change, and allow for me to have eye contact with him, but it didn’t happen. I thought that maybe there would be a stage in which the men and women sat together, but it turned out that there wasn't. “So whom did I dress so modestly for?” I asked myself.

After the first course, Hanoch delivered a "dvar Torah," a lesson about the Torah reading for that Shabbat. The talk began the moment that the salad plates were removed and continued all the way until the dessert plates were taken away. We were at the start of Shabbat Hazon (Sabbath of Vision), the Sabbath preceding Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning for catastrophes in Jewish history. According to the explanation of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak from Berdichev, a great and well-known Hasidic admor, on Shabbat Hazon Jews are presented with a vision of the Third Temple, in order to encourage them to improve their ways and thereby to advance the rebuilding of the Temple. This was the subject of Hanoch’s talk.

AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

Our host told a story about a boy for whom one very expensive suit was made, but who comes home one day with the suit torn and dirty. His father thereupon makes him another very expensive suit, and he ruins that as well. The boy does not get the third suit: It was to wait for him in the closet until he was ready to accept and care for it properly. I was disappointed in myself for not grasping the analogy already at the stage of the first suit, and for it taking until the third suit for me to understand that what was being described, of course, was the Temple. The moral is that, for the time being, until we are ready, the Temple is waiting for us in the closet.

I asked what exactly the “vision” was and how we were supposed to see it. In response, Hanoch held up a 3-dimensional puzzle model of the Temple, and everyone laughed. The puzzle is meant to keep Hasidic children busy during summer vacation, but not just for the sake of avoiding boredom, it’s important to emphasize, but in order to hasten the advent of the redemption. Call it Shabbat Hazon merchandise.

The main course was served, and Hanoch was still talking about vision and redemption. It was very important for him that Oshrat and I were paying attention. And he wouldn’t let up. Every time we diverted our gazes, we would hear, “Gali, are you with me?” Or, “Oshrat, are you with me?” In short order, I developed a “bite-gaze” strategy: a bite of food, a gaze at Hanoch. I wanted to teach this to Oshrat, too, but between the biting and the gazing there was no time for that. I abandoned her to her own devices, because that was the immediate need. It was every woman for herself now, and if your rice got cold, you had to solve that problem by yourself.

But the truth is that I listened to Hanoch. It interested me to hear what he had to say about Shabbat Hazon. All in all, I’m open to table talk that deals with Hasidic issues and not only with politics, because where is it written that it’s more interesting to talk about the submarine affair? And also, how many chances do I have to listen to drunk Hasidim? Drunk secular people I’m familiar with, but this was my first time with Hasidim. A double “Lechaim, lechaim” was uttered a few dozen times in the course of the evening. This is the way you’re supposed to make a toast, because that’s how the Rebbe did it. So I went with the flow.

But then Hanoch started peppering me with such existential questions as, “What do you want out of life?”; “What is your vision?”; "What would you give in order to succeed in realizing all your skills? Would you give a lot or everything?” So I answered, “A lot,” and Hanoch asked again, “A lot or everything?” So this time I responded, “everything,” which was the right answer. Then he asked again what my vision was and what I want from myself, but I’d already lost confidence at the stage of the closet analogy, so I didn’t know what to answer, and actually my vision then was to go somewhere for a beer, but that for sure was not the right answer.

My redemption from the vision quiz arrived from a surprising direction. There was a break for “20 Questions,” Chabad-style. Trivia questions asked by one of the little girls. This is the stage I like in Friday-evening meals, and just last week, when I ate a meal-on-the-go alone, there was no one to ask me anything and no one to stump me with every question, so now I was very gratified. Turns out that they ask questions there every Shabbat, too, based on the weekly Torah portion. This time, they were based on Shabbat Hazon. “What did the Temple wood committee do?” (checked to see that there were no worms in the wood used for the altar), and “Where did the Levites play their instruments in the Temple?” (on the stairs), and “What did Herod do to the Temple?” (renovated it).

Nir Keidar

During the question period, I sat next to two of the little girls, one of whom knew the answer to the question about the wood committee. She tried to answer, but the men were speaking loudly and we were sitting at a table in the back, and it was tough for her to get people’s attention. No one knew the answer. The oldest girl (13) called to her sister who was emceeing the quiz, but she didn’t hear. So she kept calling, over and over, and over and over, not giving up, and it was beginning to bug me a little – and when the quiz emcee at last noticed her, I saw that she was pointing to their little sister, who wanted to answer the question.

I melted inwardly at her concern for her little sister. I began to think to myself that maybe everything they say about the values of religious people versus the values of secular people is true, because when I was little, I wouldn’t even give my little brother a piece of a whole warm chocolate cake that was ordered for me at a cafe, and so a whole another one had to be ordered for him, too, and each of us proceeded not to take more than three bites.

I had no way to write any of this down, so I had to remember everything that happened there that evening, and I tell myself that this is definitely something I mustn’t forget.

Even after the questions, Hanoch wouldn’t give up, and he kept calling to me, “Gali, are you with me?” to which I responded, “Lechaim, lechaim.” Oshrat went home because she had a date; I stayed on a bit, because I didn’t. Soon it was nearly 1 A.M., and although the evening was still far from over, I decided that it was time to go. It was late, and I had yoga in the morning.

I took my leave of Shira, and thanked her for the invitation, before going over to the men’s table to say goodbye to Hanoch. But before going, he asked me to simply answer the question, “What is your vision?” “But that’s a hard question,” I told him, “I don’t know what my vision is.” Someone tried to help me: “Say an air conditioner.” I tried to tell some sort of joke (something about how in the heat I feel as if I’m going through the process of becoming a hardboiled egg), but they didn’t laugh (and rightly so). Someone else suggested that He should take me together with the air conditioner, but Hanoch silenced him, to my great joy. I had a very nice night and I really didn't want it to be ruined by that kind of comment. It’d be one thing if it had been the guy with the tattoo, who, by the way, did not turn around to say goodbye or to wish me Hasidic dreams.

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