My Shabbat Dinner With Rabbi Avraham Ravitz

It was perhaps the most beautiful Sabbath meal that I have ever experienced.

Goldie opened the door. Avigayil was in the kitchen. Miriam set the table. It was already almost 4:00 P.M. on Friday in the winter of 1989. Twenty years ago. Rabbi Avraham Ravitz was sitting in his room, telephone receivers propped on both shoulders, to discuss the last deals of the day before the beginning of Shabbat. When the Sabbath queen arrived, Ravitz was wrapped in a black silk gown and sat down at the head of the dinner table surrounded by eight of his dozen children. Little Israel-Meir recited the names of all 120 Knesset members by heart. Now he is thirty-something, born when his father was already up in years. Back then at the Sabbath table they sang and prayed, ate cholent and kugel (noodle pudding), with toilet paper already torn in pieces so as not to violate the Sabbath.

It was perhaps the most beautiful Sabbath meal that I have ever experienced. Shimon rose at his place whenever his father got up from the table. I envied the respect that was paid to Ravitz. I came to "do Shabbat" with a man who so effectively inspired secular people to embrace Orthodox tradition then. He inspired Israeli actor Uri Zohar's traditional sidecurls and the tzitzit fringe of artist Ika Yisraeli and singer Mordechai "Pupik" Arnon.

It was late by the time I left the house - with Ravitz's blessing - to call home from the public telephone at the nearby Mt. Herzl National Cemetery in Jerusalem. Not only were there no cellphones then, but Yitzhak Rabin was not yet buried there. In the morning we went to Ravitz's synagogue, his stiebel, to pray. It was beautiful to do Shabbat with the Ravitz family. Very beautiful. Paul Simon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had already been there before me. But they too, like me, did not embrace Orthodox Judaism.

Eighteen years later, I visited Ravitz at his home in Jerusalem's Bayit Ve-gan neighborhood, for a news interview. His foot had been amputated and he had received a kidney from his son, but the house was the same: spare, spacious, with the paintings of Ika Yisraeli on the walls and Avigayil again in the kitchen. The man whom I had though of as an ultra-Orthodox dove 18 years ago (chai in Hebrew numerology), was no longer a dove, but his magic charm had not left him. The man who as a boy who had played soccer in the Montefiore neighborhood of Tel Aviv and who was beaten because of his ultra-Orthodoxy; the rabid fan of Hapoel Tel Aviv soccer fan, who was once allowed to hold a soccer linesman's flags and was hit by his father for holding a red flag. Ravitz was the boy who joined the Lehi, the Stern Group, at age 13 ("exploitation of children") and grew up to become an experienced, veteran ultra-Orthodox member of the Knesset.

In contemporary, non-ultra-Orthodox Hebrew, he explained that the Lithuanian stream of ultra-Orthodoxy is practical. He would like a society of Jewish law, halakha, but not a halakhic state. "Just give them cheap apartments, which is the basis of our settlement activity in the territories," explaining away the major growth of ultra-Orthodox settlement in the territories since I had done Shabbat with him.

Dove and hawk, dark and enlightened, a wheeler-dealer and a charmer, that's what he was like. When I asked him about Hebrew literature, he said that much of it was fit for the gutter, but then admitted that he reads it.

Amos Oz? "There isn't one book of his that I haven't read, just don't write that, though. You can't do that to me." I asked him if God loves the State of Israel. "Would he love me?" he answered. "I don't know and do I love the State of Israel? There are things that I love and things that I don't."