What happens when a Christian enters a Shabbat service? Tears!

Originally published on The Times of Israel 

I was thinking which pants to put on: the dark leather one or that black one that isn’t so tight on my body. I went with the second one.

It was a chilly Spring evening as I walked through Central Park, up until 68th Street. Turned left, walked a few more steps and as I saw the building I stopped before entering. I had too many feelings messing with me. Suddenly the security guy told me: “Shabbat Shalom,” opened the door, ushered me in and there I stood: a Christian in a synagogue entering her first Jewish service.

At the entrance, there was a man and a woman welcoming everyone and handing a Bible to all. I automatically stepped towards the woman. Not sure why I did that. Maybe because I often have no idea what level of Jewishness I am entering to when I meet Jews. It really is an issue.

She looks at me, smiles and hands me a Bible. I wasn’t sure what to do. Frankly, my first unconscious thought was ‘this is not my Bible; I don’t know what to do with yours.’ So I quickly told her: “Well, look, I am not Jewish, I’m here as a Christian who is on a journey.” And boy, that felt awkward. I felt more confident on my first dates than entering this Shabbat service.

“Welcome!” She was smiling even more by now. Then she directed me towards the chairs and explained that I could sit ANYWHERE I want. “Except on my chair, my dear, don’t sit on my place there.”

OK, I thought, she is really cool, I’m safe.

The service had already started as I entered and I wasn’t sure how this whole thing was going to make me feel, so I sat in the last row. It also gave me a good view of the synagogue, and I wanted to look around and observe.

And to observe I wasn’t shy of.

As I sat down, the first thing I did was to open my phone and…and then it hit me: ‘you idiot, you’re at a Shabbat service.’  I looked around rather embarrassed, but I concluded that nobody saw it. I felt relieved. And then the lady from the entrance appeared from nowhere handing me another Bible that she opened for me somewhere in the middle: “Here, this the song now. You can see it in Hebrew, then in phonetic and then here, in English. Enjoy.” With that, she left and I then realized, she did see me touching my phone.

I finally found my place and looked at the Bible, then looked up and saw that there is a whole band and it suddenly seemed that I was at a Klezmer band concert, not a religious service. I looked down to the Bible again, and there, I had my first epiphany: ‘Ah, this is what it means when they tell me “I speak only ‘Service Hebrew’.’” You know, I never understood when Jews told me they didn’t speak Hebrew just service Hebrew. I was like how is that even possible? Tonight, I understood and tonight I was fluent in (Service) Hebrew for a full hour.

The cantors (who lead people in singing,) had such beautiful voices that I sat there mesmerized. In Christian services, we would have a person accompanying the songs on a piano, but apart from a Gospel service in Harlem, I didn’t think services can be actually joyful and not sorrowful. Meanwhile, people were walking around, welcoming each other, and singing. And I was trying to sing too, and I can only imagine how bad I actually sounded. While they were reciting the Hebrew songs, I quickly read the English translations and it didn’t feel strange. I felt quite OK and I thought to myself:  ‘I’ve never felt such a comfort in any Christian service.’ As I write this down, it hurts a little. But then again, why would I lie to you? Or to myself?

I was a regular church-goer until I turned 15 when I stopped going. My grandfather was the priest, and I always felt that all eyes were on my brother and me whenever we were at the church. I was observed how I sat, how I prayed, what I wore. I was questioned why I am not attending Sunday schools; I was humiliated at the Bible class because I could not prepare enough as I was doing ballet professionally. So I decided, I didn’t need church for me to have a conversation with God. I stopped going to church services but I never stopped believing, and whenever I needed a moment of silence, I would enter any church that had an open door.

Here, as a complete stranger both in town and in the community, I was free. I didn’t need to satisfy anyone.

And then the rabbi arrived. The rabbi was a she. My thoughts took over again; I don’t recall attending any service with a woman priest. She was really casual as she was talking about the injustice in our lives and the Torah. She was great, and I liked how she talked to us as if we would be friends not sitting somewhere ‘below’ her. I remember my church visits as a kid; I always felt it was a theater with hierarchical stands and pitches and grandiose arm movements, and I often needed my father to translate what the talk was really about.

So again, I liked this rabbi.

In the midst of it all, I saw a girl, checking her phone. And not only was she checking her phone, but she was also wearing a mini skirt without tights. And when I say mini, imagine MINI. I wasn’t sure what to do with this picture. Then I turned to the left, and I saw that guy reading something on his phone. I really wanted to tell them, you know guys, we are at a Shabbat service – but of course, I didn’t.

The rabbi left, and frankly, I missed her punch line. I was too occupied with these weird acts and mobile phones during Shabbat that I actually missed the rabbi’s point about the injustice. I really wasn’t proud of myself at this point.

A new song started, and I was so clumsy that I actually opened the Bible upside down and backward. Never mind. I asked my neighbor where we were: “Page 248.” – She said. I go to page 248, but it was clear that we weren’t singing the song I found there. She came to my rescue and said “the other page 248”. If I was even following something until now, I lost it all at this point. What to make of two 248 pages in one book? Later, after the service, I learned that it was one for the Hebrew and one for the English counting. Yeah, not confusing at all.

Then I saw the first woman in a yarmulke. Learned about it, but never saw one before. And then I saw the first man without it.

The rabbi told us to rise. So we all rose. This we do in the church as well, but only if you sit on the ground floor, if you sit on the elevated floors, you don’t stand up. And as my family was always up there, I was rather jealous of those sitting down as I felt they had some special role that they needed to rise.

We started to sing a new song. It was beautiful. I got goosebumps all over my body. Then suddenly people took a 180-degree turn, and from the last row, I became the first and 80 people were looking at me eye to eye. So seeing that this is no game here, I followed the wave diligently, and I turned, now starring at the wall. I assume we turned towards Jerusalem. Correct me if I’m wrong.

The service continued with a prayer to the sick; the rabbi read the names we pray for in the community. Then we prayed for the recently deceased ones. And while due to the page issue, I didn’t find any of the prayers, there was something comforting in the community litany. To tell the truth, Christians do this too.

Before the service ended, we had one more song for a great Shabbat: “Unwind for 25 hours, and welcome Shabbat with love.” – said the rabbi.

And man, that last song broke me down. I saw that old couple holding hands, that mother caressing her son, and I don’t’ know why but tears started to flow on my face. I didn’t only weep, but I really cried. I cried, and I couldn’t care if anyone even sees me. I cried not knowing the why.

I put back the Bible to its place and left the room with everyone else. The same woman who welcomed me now handed me a little plastic glass with a red juice in it. I tried to ask her what this was for, but she was passing by too quickly. There was a short prayer outside of the service room, and then everyone shouted Shabbat Shalom and drank up the liquid. It wasn’t wine, as it would be for a Christian service, and I still don’t know what it meant, but that was the end of my first Jewish Shabbat service.

Then the woman appeared again: “Did you like it?” 

“I loved it.” 

She didn’t answer, and I was wondering again if it was appropriate to say this at all.

Then a guy stepped to me and asked: “Are you new here? You looked a little lost.”

All I could say was: “You have no idea… I’m a Christian.”

“Oh, welcome, it doesn’t matter. Hope to see you soon.”

Let me tell you something about Judaism

The first time I visited Israel we went to a Shabbat dinner to the brother of Mr. D. Let’s call the brother Mr. N.

Mr. N. and his family live nearby Jerusalem and are an observant Jewish family. I’m not sure they know, but I was really nervous before the dinner. It was my first Shabbat where I knew there would be praying and where I really shouldn’t be touching my phone.

They didn’t know me, but they did know I was a Christian. That Shabbat dinner was something I’ll never forget.

Five years passed and Mr. N. is still among the first people to help me or offer help whenever he sees an opportunity.

And here you need to learn a word with me, and that is MITZVAH.

While it literally translates as ‘command’, I prefer to say it means doing a ‘good deed.’ According to Judaism: “Mitzvot have a practical benefit for the person who does them as well as for the entire world.”

I’ve always felt that giving was more fulfilling for me than receiving, but now, as an #AlmostJewish, I got into mitzvot.

So when Mr.N. told me he had a friend who was going to Budapest to propose to her girlfriend and needed some help, I took up my part of the mitzvah. The guys had a beautiful engagement in my hometown and are planning their wedding.

But the circle isn’t full yet.

Once the engagement was sealed with a ‘yes,’ the groom told me if I ever needed help, he was here. So when I realized I wanted a logo for my site, I felt I needed an external eye as I’m too much involved.

I asked him if he could draft me something. I told him I liked hamsa.

A week later he sends me a hamsa with a beating heart.

So guys, go and do a good deed today, call it a mitzvah, or not – Christians have similar commands in the New Testaments, but I don’t think we have a name for it -, just do good.

I know it was a long story to show you my logo, but this is part of Judaism. Part of my Judaism.

And now, tell me what you think about my new logo?

Did I just catch her praying after the bathroom?

Just before my first class at the Grad school, I bought the book Judaism For Dummies. As dumb as it sounds, it’s actually genius. And while I avoid reading it on the metro during my tiresome commuting minutes, I am reading it everywhere else. Yes, including the bathroom. (And here I need to mention in brackets that in Europe I’d not read the book in public because the title says Judaism;  in  New York, I’m not reading it because it says Dummies, and revealing the slightest version of being a dumb in NYC, is not something you do. You can decide which excuse is better.)

This book is frenetic and exactly what an almost Jewish person (aka not Jewish, but wishing to be one) needs to read. But you know what, I think most of the Jewish people should read it too as it turns out sometimes I know more about Judaism than my Jewish friends.

One thing is for sure, most people in my Jewish circle had their jaw dropped when I asked them: ‘Why do you pray after the toilet?’

‘What are you even talking about?’ They asked with less interest than I’d expect. After all, they are Jewish; I am not.

‘I am talking about that you guys pray after using the bathroom.’

Silence. So I explained.

Observant Jews whisper a prayer after their visit to the bathroom that says “Thank You, God, who formed human beings with wisdom and created them with openings and orifices. If one of these orifices were ruptured or one of them blocked, whoa – it would be impossible to stand before You and survive. Blessed are You, God who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.”

I’ll admit: I smiled when I first read about this.

So I quickly looked up if Christians have any similar prayers that I don’t know of, but the only remotely close search result that came up was: is it disrespectful to pray on the toilet?

Well, I don’t know how my grandfather, who served as a priest until his retirement, would answer this, but if you want to hear my take on it, I say, there is no place that is disrespectful for a prayer. In fact, I made a pact with God when I was 14: I’m not attending Church anymore, but I’ll talk with you every day. God said: ‘OK my child.’

Asher Yatzar (meaning, ‘that was formed) aka the bathroom blessing whisper might sound an act of a far too religious person (but again, what is too religious anyway?) and if you are a secular or a non-believer, it might be something that you would just roll your eyes at. But if you’re someone who thinks of himself or herself as a spiritual person, this prayer is absolutely in line with everything today’s new age gurus teach you.

From Louise Hay through Deepak Chopra to Tony Robbins, they all say the same: be grateful. Stop the running, and in-between your routines acknowledge the miracles of life. And you can laugh, but being able to pee without help, without pain, without an effort is a true gift. (If you have ever had a kidney infection, you know exactly what I am talking about).

So as I was reading about Ashe Yatzar, I thought OK, I might not pray in the Jewish sense, but sometimes I do think about it how lucky I am to be healthy and be able to go to the bathroom without too much of a hassle. (Not counting the hassle your roommates give you during morning hours.)

But then today, just before class, there was this girl. She whispered something as she was walking towards the classroom. And I stopped her because I wanted to know if she got the job she applied for. She was a little hesitant to stop – and I was even thinking why is she talking to herself? But then she did stop, and she did answer me. She got the job.

I said mazal tov, and I went to the bathroom as my routine preparation for the 2-hour-long-no-break classes.

It was only on the R line on my way home when I realized: ‘Oh, shoot, I think I just caught her praying after the bathroom.’

And there, between City Hall and Cortland Street, I was once again in my delicate balance between embarrassment and naivete. Embarrassed because how could I interrupt her prayer? And then naive, since how should I know? I am just an Almost Jewish.

You think I am overthinking it? Perhaps. But this is why I am here. My only question is what do I do when I break someone’s prayer? Do I apologize? Or do I just shut up and walk away?

I don’t know. Do you?

That Jewish man who made my grandfather a priest

Originally published in the Times of Israel on 9/6/2016

I haven’t seen my grandfather in the last five years. But it wasn’t his fault. And it wasn’t my fault either. It was life and all its complexities around it.

I moved away from Hungary for the second time. After a Russian boy, I partnered up with a Jewish boy. He saw my Russian boy once or twice. He didn’t say a word. But I know it was hard on him. My great-grandfather was taken by the Russians one night, and nobody saw him ever after. My grandmother was hiding in the attic from the Russian soldiers, who came and conquered, sexually assaulting women as they wished. History was just too close. They lived in an era I’ll never fully understand no matter how many books I read.

He never saw my Jewish boy.

* * *

I haven’t seen my grandfather during the last five years. But it wasn’t his fault. And it wasn’t my fault either. It was life and all its complexities around it.

Then my grandmother was taken to the hospital.

The day before that I went to visit my grandparents. I don’t know why. It was a gut feeling.

As a child, I often visited them only to show my father that I loved him. That day — after five years of not visiting and a day before my grandmother was taken to the hospital — I visited my grandparents because I wanted to show them that I loved them no matter what. To show them that I’ve forgiven. To show them that it’s okay that they didn’t hold my hand, that they didn’t call on my birthdays, that they smiled at every child but me and my brother. I wanted to show them it’s all okay; I understand now.

Once I left, my grandfather called up my father to tell him he’d forgotten to tell me a story and if I could pass by tomorrow.

I couldn’t go the next day. Because that was the day when my grandmother was taken to the hospital.

But I did go a few days later.

I have no recollection of ever spending two hours with my grandfather alone. In fact, I’ve no recollection of anything more than five minutes.

He was waiting for me with pictures.

Pictures from the era I’ll never understand. He told me his father was a soldier. I didn’t know that. He told me he grew up in Budapest. I didn’t know that either. He told me about what happened with them during the second World War, then during the Communism, and during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

Grandfather
My grandfather with his parents

* * *

But all this is not the story I wanted to tell you. The story I wanted to tell you is about three Jewish men. Two of them died. One of them survived.

The one that survived was saved by my great-grandfather. A man I’ve never met.

“We came home from the city,” said my grandfather, “when this woman was waiting at our doorway. She went down on her knee and kissed my father’s hand.” My grandfather paused for a second, and I saw that he was crying. I was choking on my inner tears. I tried to hold up. I knew if I didn’t, thirty years of tears would come out.

That woman was the wife of the Jewish man that survived. Years later — once her husband had already passed away — she came to my grandfather’s home to say: ‘Thank you for saving us. Thank you for risking your life and hiding us when you shouldn’t have.’

This was my great-grandfather. He risked his life to save a Jewish family. (Like so many Hungarians back then — something, we should talk about more often.) The first time in my life I felt closer to my grandfather; to the little boy in that picture who saw how his father saved this Jewish family.

The other two Jewish men died. And we’re around 1944 when they did.

“I was somewhere in Germany with my unit. We’re marching towards Hungary. They didn’t let us walk during the day, only by night, in the dark. We walked kilometers upon kilometers. Some of us never returned home. One night they gave us a few minutes of rest by a dike. I sat down with my mates as I felt my boots were touching something, but I couldn’t see what. I looked for my small torch and made some light. It was a Jewish man. He was shot. Right in his head.”

He pauses, and I see how much I don’t know my grandfather.

“I remember clearly; that was the first moment I knew I wanted to be a priest.”

The other Jewish man also died.

“He was shot. Right there, on the street. They said: don’t feel sorry, he was Jewish.”

Somewhere between the words, I’ve learned that my priest grandfather knew about my Jewish man. He didn’t say anything.

So I talked.

I told him how my trip to Israel in 2011 changed my life. How I started to learn Hebrew and how I love being in Israel. I told him that nobody ever wanted to convert me yet. (Except that Hasidic Jew in Times Square. But I didn’t tell him this). That I, the gentile is treated with love and care by the Jewish people. That I, the Christian is going to Shabbat dinners.

I couldn’t read him. He listened but didn’t say anything.

* * *

Two hours passed when I said bye.

But before could leave he said: ‘Next time bring your Jewish man with you. I’d love to meet him. They’re good people; the Jews.’

I said fine and put my sunglasses on before it’s too late. Before he would see that thirty years of pent-up tears are finding their way out.

This is the story I wanted to tell you. The story of my priest grandfather who became a priest because of the cruelty he saw against the Jewish people. The priest who smiled at every child but me. The priest who made me stop going to church and with that made me connected to Judaism.

And no, he has no idea about this latter one…

Will I ever be enough for you, Israel?

Originally publish in the Times of Israel on 4/15/2016

I’m scrambling eggs on Shlomo Artzi. I am cutting tomato on Rita. I am rinsing the pasta on Avram Tal. Galgalatz is on full volume. (Even if sometimes I wonder who my neighbors are. Not really because of the volume. But because I am listening to Hebrew songs).

Ah yes, I live in the heart of Brussels. I think I need to mention this here.

I know most of the songs by heart. Well, after a while it comes easy as Galgalatz makes sure songs are coming in a diligent rotation. But still, I sing in Hebrew. I am loud. And I only have a shower-voice. You know, the one that sounds good only within a closed area — usually with a strong water flow. But I sing in Hebrew full-heartedly. And you would be bought by the shows I put up sometimes. What if I would even understand the words I am saying?

Ah yes, I do not speak any Hebrew. I think I also need to mention this here.

I am standing in front of the Israeli section at the local Delhaize. The flag – indicating at which international section I am – is once again missing. I am staring at the shelves. It’s me against the silence. And I hate what I am seeing. I hate that they get money from each and every Israeli product, and yet they take off the sign because…

Well, we all know why.

I am standing a bit more there hoping people would pass by and see that yes, I AM going to buy that Israeli wine. And yes, those pickles, too.

There are colorful post-it stickers all over my home. One on the window, one on each door, one on my office table, one on the mirror, one on the milk in the fridge and several others within the wardrobes. It’s not because I am suffering from memory loss. (Not yet at least). I am learning Hebrew words. I am now confident with the stickers on the misrad, halon, delet, halav, but I keep forgetting the washing machine, the dishwasher, and the fridge. I never liked machines anyway.

I developed impeccable skills to spot Israelis. I became extremely sensitive to the smallest resonation of one’s face when I say Israel. I can easily tell if, after my first intimation of Israel, the person in front of me will still keep talking to me. So far, it’s half-half.

I am getting familiar with the political parties. I start to formulate a firm opinion on why I don’t believe in the two-state solution. Of course, you are welcome to challenge me.

I am damn mad at the EU whenever it slaps Israel. As if…as if it has the moral right to do so. And I am equally damn proud of Hungary each time it stands with Israel, just like we did when we said no to the labeling of products.

Ah yes, I am Hungarian. I think I might need to mention this, too, here.

I have two big dreams: to live in New York City (only the city matters) and then to live in Israel (only the country matters).

All this should come in this order.

First, to learn the brazen American confidence and check if I can make it there. And if so, then perhaps I will be ready for the intimidating confidence of Israel.

You guys are truly intimidating. Both of you. And I love it. But I am scared.

The first time I went to Israel it was 2012. I knew one or two words. Both were curses. OK, I knew shalom plus two curse words.

I was holding a parking place on that narrow street in Jerusalem when a woman drives up and starts yelling at me. Obviously, I sensed that she was not admiring my new dress. Pity, because I was really pretty that day. It was my debut in the Holy City.

I heard the two curse words, so I figured I needed to react. I said: shalom plus the two curse words. She left. I can’t say I was polite but hey who is polite in Israel, right? Later on, I learned that this scene just officially lifted me up from being a ‘fraier’.

I fell in love with Israel right there. I loved that she yelled at me. I loved that I could yell back. And I loved that it was all ok. And I knew if we would meet tomorrow we could be best friends also. Because we just did what we needed to do. Not to be a fraier.

My boyfriend was watching me from afar. He was speechless. “This is fascinating: I was running away from Israeli girls, and then I get a prototype in you?” He said as he gave me a neshika ktana.

Ah yes, I am in love with an Israeli, have I not mentioned it yet?

I go to Shabbat dinners. All types of Shabbat dinners. Orthodox, and less conservative ones. And though I enjoy them a lot, I am so focused. I am always just so focussed not to do something disrespectful. Last time, in the midst of all this concentration, I asked a question. But I asked the question at the wrong time. It was all about the timing. I was embarrassed. But then I thought: hey, I am a Christian, and I am trying hard.

Yes, if I would write a news article here, I most probably should have started with something like this:

Virag, a Hungarian Christian (who), living in Belgium (where), dreams to move to Israel (what) soon (when) because she is in love with the country and all that (to be cut by the editor)

This would have been my lede.

And the headline could be:

A pro-Israeli Christian torn between two worlds

Because after all, this is my story here:

During the past four years, my stand with Israel has taken over much of my life. I found myself working with pro-Israeli artists and people who want to liberate art and go against BDS. My firm stand got me more and more visibility. And it was not until recently that I realized how much I am torn between two worlds:

I am never going to be Israeli (or Jewish) enough, but I am already pro-Israeli enough to piss off the rest of the population.

On one hand, I meet Jewish people whose first question is if ima sheli Jewish? If not — which, by now, you know is not — I get a cold shower. No need to say anything, I feel it.

On the other hand, when I say my boyfriend is from Israel I get this: “ah just wait until the ring is on your finger — the whole family will be on you to convert”. Or “how can you go there, don’t you feel bad for those kids in Palestine?” (Sounds cliché, I know. But it is cliché for a reason: people do ask this)

Then I read all the stories of the ‘Olim Hadashim’ who can’t find a job in Israel. Then I hear all about how life is hard in Israel, and that real estate prices are skyrocketing. (Not that it would be any different anywhere else. Just sayin’). Then I see virtual friends leaving Israel for a ‘better life.’

All business as usual.

And then I open the real estate page and start looking for a flat in Israel. Because I still believe I can make it. Because I’ve already proven that I am not fraier.

I am wearing long-sleeves for Shabbat dinners, but I want to scream out that I am a Christian, and I have no idea if I am doing something that offends you.

I am working with Jewish clients, and I am ready to say adieu to people from my life because I choose to stand with Israel, but I want to scream that I am scared that I won’t be enough once I move there.

I am learning Hebrew, but I want to scream that I know you won’t give me a job because there are thousands of others with broken Hebrew and good English (better and much better English), who are even closer to you because they are Jewish.

I went to a lawyer in Israel to ask all the questions you can ask before moving. I pestered her for long minutes. I told her I am a Christian and I have no idea if converting to Judaism is on my agenda in the future.
I asked her, in random order: What are my rights? Can I get a job? Will society cast me out because I am not Jewish? What kind of schools can my kids can go to? What will happen to me if my Israeli husband decides to leave me? Can I stay? Can I keep the kids? Can I keep my furniture?(This last bit, of course, is an exaggeration, everything is else isn’t. But it shows the desperate line of questions I made her answer.)

I am in love with your country; I stand up for you in places where perhaps I should not; I want to understand your culture; I want to learn your language; I am singing your songs; I am in love with one of you; I want to tell you that I feel lucky to have met you.

But will I ever be enough? Or will I always be the one who is just not one of you enough?