Saturday, August 1, 2009

Shabbat Shel Sinim & Heroes for Our Time

I have spent dozens of shabbatot in Jerusalem. Yet August 1, my last Shabbat in Jerusalem before reporting to kibbutz, is the first shabbat that has ever merited the title of 'Shabbat Shel Sinim,' a shabbat of the Chinese.

On Friday night I was on my way back from the Kotel, just past the Tower of David by Jaffa Gate, when I spotted three young Chinese tourists. They were stunned when I asked them, in Chinese, where in China they are from. I was impressed myself when the three visitors from Hong Kong informed me there were traveling the region sans a tour guide, making these the first Chinese backpackers I have ever met in my global travels.

When I pointed to my kippa to explain that I could not accompany them on the morrow to Bethlehem, they asked why my head covering differed from all the Hasids that were passing us on their way home from prayers. For the next thirty minutes we shared a fascinating discussion in Chinese on the peculiarities of Hasidic fashion. The highlight came when one of the Chinese tourists asked me whether Hasidim dress in black furs out of respect for Moses and the other biblical figures that dressed in a similar style in ancient Canaan. No, I regretfully informed them, Moses and friends probably looked like Bedouin. The Hasidim are actually channeling the fashion sense of the Middle Age Polish aristocracy, though in their eyes it is a custom they sustain out of respect for the European rebbes who adopted the dress of their influential neighbors.

I said goodbye to the three tourists and raced westward to the family that had graciously invited me to join them for shabbat dinner. En route I was stopped in my tracks for the second time when I spotted another group of Chinese tourists. They were standing outside the King David Hotel, across from the grand YMCA headquarters in the center of West Jerusalem. Again I asked them in Chinese where they were from. Again they answered Hong Kong with their eyes expressing their shock at the words pouring out of my mouth. I only had time to ask them about their itinerary before I wished them a shabbat shalom and continued my race towards Jabotinsky Street.

Over shabbat I would meet many other fascinating folks. Another guest at my dinner was an elderly Austrian gentleman who father, Dr. Soski, had been a close associate of the pre-state Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky. At lunch the next day I set beside an American-Israeli who had served as a senior research scientist for the Israeli Air Force for twenty-two years before retiring to become a high school math teacher this past fall.

It was another lunch guest, however, who turned out to be the most compelling find over shabbat. It too me till dessert to realize that the polite elderly man sitting across from me was none other than Ralph Goldman, the pioneering leader of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Better known around the world as the Joint, it is largely thanks to Ralph that the organization has so successfully aided Jews across the world over the last six decades.

I was first introduced to Ralph's work this past January, when I spent two unforgettable shabbatot in Addis Ababa by the home of Dr. Rick Hodes. Dr. Rick has devoted his life to caring for seriously ill children in Ethiopia. The Joint has supported his work since he first arrived in the East African country in the 1980s. Surrounded by the dozen or so Ethiopian children Dr. Rick has adopted, I read a book over shabbat called "I Seek My Brethen: Ralph Goldman and the 'Joint'." The book provides a sweeping history of the crises faced by world Jewry in the second half of the twentieth century. At the center of this history is a visionary humanitarian and skillful diplomat known as Ralph by heads of state in Washington, Moscow and Tel-Aviv.

Ralph and I spoke briefly about China, and he agreed that there was so much work the Jewish people needed to do in East Asia. I doubt I made the most of my lunchtime encounter with the sort of genuinely inspiring leader that seems all too rare in today's day and age. But I am thankful all the same for the chance I had. Moreover, it gave me renewed excitement for the many shabbatot that await me in Jerusalem and around Israel in the weeks and year ahead.

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