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Operation Cultural Immersion: FAIL

5 July 2008

After another long day of exploring the Old City, as well as Gethsemane, Abby, Ben and I started our long trek back to the Hebrew University campus.  As we crested the final hill near the student village, there came from behind a loud string of what sounded like gunshots.  For reasons that I should hope are somewhat obvious, the first reaction I had was to jump quite a bit higher than I would most other places in the world.  For however much I think that I’m   When we looked behind us, though, we had the simultaneous epiphany that it was, in fact, the 4th of July.  This is actually the second Independence Day for which I’ve been abroad, but I don’t think I’d ever forgotten about it entirely.  As it turns out, however, the good people of refused to let us forget about it.  When we returned to the village, a group of Israeli students had decided to stage a cook out on the plaza, and until well past midnight, a meager but enthusiastic fireworks show could be seen from just north of the city. 

As if these celebrations didn’t do enough to make us forget that we are quite far from the U.S. by choice, on the same walk home we were confronted with yet another forehead-slapping revelation: that Shabbat means something very, VERY different in Jerusalem than it does for my Jewish friends back home.  Most Jews I know are members of Reform or Conservative congregations, and beyond having Shabbat dinner and occasionally going to services on Friday night, I’ve known very few individuals for whom Shabbat is really an occasion for doing many things differently from the other six days of the week.  I know, of course, that this isn’t typical, but it’s a part of the routine in Israel that I hadn’t yet internalized.  Given the sway that orthodox parties hold in the parliament, it particularly affects major nationwide services.  For example, El Al—Israel’s national airline—has faced boycotts from Orthodox organizations whenever an El Al flight has flown on the Sabbath.  This is taken so seriously that today, if an El Al flight is delayed on the tarmac to the point where passengers would still be traveling at the start of Shabbat, all passengers who wish to get off are given the chance to do so, and put up in a hotel for two days at the airline’s expense.  And if the plane would still be flying during Shabbat, it is cancelled altogether rather than risk the public outcry and ensuing loss of business.  In short, whether the proprietor of a business is an observant Jew is irrelevant—the pressure to conform to Shabbat is rather intense.

In fact, the infrastructure itself is set up to accommodate those who wish to strictly observe the conditions—as a crowning example, this picture was taken in the elevator outside of my apartment:


My Elevator
My Elevator

As you can see, the elevator has something called “Shabbat Mode”.  Since some individuals’ observance of Shabbat precludes them from pressing a button or turning on a light switch, when this mode is active, the elevator cycles continually through the building, stopping at each and every floor—thus, one could wait by the elevator until the door opened, get on, wait for it to arrive at the desired floor, and then continue on one’s way.  It might take a truly lengthy amount of time, particularly with this elevator, but one could reach their destination without ever exerting any tangible effort.

I’m told that this matters far less in places like Tel Aviv, which is virtually devoid of any religious monuments and the religiosity that tends to correspond with such proximity.  Jerusalem, however, is shut down Shabbat in the most literal sense of the word.  As I write this, the traffic outside my window can be heard at perhaps a 10th of its normal volume, and most of what I can make out comes from emergency vehicles.  But as we returned home last night to this realization, we also were forced to contend with another unfortunate reality: that we had nothing, but nothing, to eat for dinner.  True to the spirit of the 4th of July, then, we pursued the only option available to us:


July 4th Dinner

Happy Independence Day!

P.S. My friend David Schraub (whose blog, incidentally, you should check out for some of the more insightful political commentary out there) pointed out this column by Eugene Robinson in honor of July 4th.  I strongly agree with his recommendation, and thus pass it along to you.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. 5 July 2008 5:56 pm

    I didn’t know you were in Israel this summer. Hope it’s going fantabulously, and enjoy that Dominos ;-).

  2. Spear permalink
    7 July 2008 8:14 pm

    I hope you are enjoying Israel! hehe yeah…i should have said something to you about Jerusalem shutting down for shabbat. its is quite the experience though. I’m still so jealous!!! have fun and be safe!! B’SHALOM!! (In peace 🙂 )

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