Thursday, December 23, 2004


We recently took off for a short vacation in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, with a group called Shabbat B’Teva. Literally meaning “Sabbath in Nature,” the group wraps hiking and tiyulim around a Shabbat atmosphere.

The idea of getting out of the nasty cold of Jerusalem (for those of you who’ve never visited, it actually snows here in the winter) to bask for a few days in the relative warmth of the desert was too appealing to refuse.

Eilat is a five hour drive by car from Jerusalem. Thursday, on the way down, we stopped several times, first at the Dead Sea (no, we didn’t go in – remember the disaster the last time?) and then at the Flour Cave, where the walls of the surrounding canyon are so chalky, you can give yourself a natural facial...minus the lemon juice and cucumbers, of course.

The next day, we hiked through the Black Canyon just north of Eilat in a setting as close to a lunar landscape as I imagine you can get here on planet earth. The canyon shifts from bare yellow sandstone to craggy black volcanic rock.

The air was clean, the sky an unwavering blue, the temperature just right. It was truly exhilarating.

By the time we got back to the Eilat Field School where we were staying, it was late Friday afternoon and we were happily weary, ready for Shabbat.

A “field school” is a kind of Israeli version of a youth hostel run by the Society for the Protection of Nature. The family rooms are spartan, furnished with bunk beds and scratchy starched sheets that for some reason are always a tad too short.

Meals are eaten in the field school’s cafeteria-style communal dining room, together with any other groups that may be staying at the same time.

When we sat down to dinner, we had the place to ourselves. We said Kiddush and broke bread. As we were getting up to hit the entrée buffet, two Egged tour buses pulled up and began unloading their cargo: 100 or so Israeli tourists.

The Israeli group found their seats. They were a rowdy bunch, decidedly not-religious. Just then, the leader of our group announced it was sing.

Now on Shabbat, it’s traditional to sing during meals. I have no problem with that; we often indulge ourselves. But I found myself vaguely uncomfortable with the prospect of doing this in front of a roomful of strangers.

Growing up, singing was something you did in private or in a place where it was sanctioned and expected: on a stage, at camp, in synagogue. You didn’t get up in the middle of a school cafeteria and start belting out your praise for God.

Well maybe you did...

There’s an expression we used to use to refer to people who were overly kiss-y in public. Remember? PDA – for public displays of affection. Well, on this night, in the Eilat Field School, I was experiencing something slightly different. We’ll just call it PDJ.

Public Displays of Judaism.

So there we were, performing for an audience who hadn’t bought a ticket. We sang Yom Ze Mechubad while the Israeli group piled potatoes and fish on their plates.

They ate their fried chicken rings while we crooned Dror Yikra.

I tried not to look, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw what I was most afraid of. Yes, the Israeli tourists were throwing idle glances our way. We were disturbing their meal. I just knew it.

The singing went on and on. Just when I thought we’d exhausted the repertoire of Shabbat zemirot, someone in our group started up with Israeli folk songs.

Naomi Shemer’s Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold).

Arik Einstein’s Ani v’Atah.

And then I noticed something I didn’t expect. The Israeli group was nodding. A few were, wait a minute…what was this…they were singing along. Now there was someone clapping. And another.

The song ended. And then the Israeli group did the impossible. They actually started the next one.

U’faratzta,” they sang. “Yama, v’kedma, tzafona v’negba.”

Our group happily joined in.

My wife Jody turned to me, oblivious to my agonized internal monologue and commented “Israelis just love to sing.”

We ate our dessert, said grace after meals, and headed back to our rooms to get the kids to bed.

The next day, after morning prayers, we hiked up nearby Mt. Zefachot before returning for Shabbat lunch. The scenery didn’t disappoint. From the highest point, you could see four countries: Israel, Jordan, Egypt and even the tip of Saudi Arabia.

But my thoughts kept straying back to the night before. And I wondered: what would today’s meal bring? Would the two groups sit together and bond during Shabbat lunch? Would there be more singing?

Was this a small step towards bringing bridging the gap between immigrants and sabras – those Israelis who are prickly like cactus on the outside but sweet and communal at the core?

And most important: would I overcome my aversion to singing in public?

We may never know. When we arrived back at the Field School on Saturday afternoon, the dining room was empty, the tour buses gone from the parking lot.

The other group had already checked out.

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