Nothing doing on Shabbat

I have a love/hate relationship with Shabbat, the weekly day of rest when almost all of West Jerusalem shuts down tight. I love the calm and quiet, the way the traffic changes from honking cars to families walking to shul or, afterwards, to the park. Indeed in some ways the weekly downshift is good for all of us. I’ve been thinking about how we can build this into our lives when we move back to the country that never sleeps. In Jerusalem on Saturdays, we can only go as far as we can walk (or save up for a cab). We usually all take naps. Slight boredom has its place in making people whole. Friday night dinners seem a little more special than the rest of the week (even though we don’t say a single prayer). Even the kids get into it; Hannah has been asking if we could “keep the sabbath” for real some week.

Actually the kids are better at observing Shabbat than we are. Maybe because this entire year is a sabbatical, a year of rest, for us, Terence and I often get itchy feet on Saturdays. We want to be going more places, doing more things, buying more stuff.

Yesterday we got an early-morning phone call from friends, inviting us over for brunch and asking us to bring chocolate chips for pancakes. Never meeting a challenge I didn’t want to conquer, I set out for a Shabbat morning shopping excursion. How hard can this be?  It’s pretty hard, as it turns out, to procure chocolate or anything on Shabbat. The 24-hour-a-day convenience store is open 24/6. Emek Refaim, stomping grounds of the liberal intelligentsia, was closed up tight. I even went to McDonald’s, knowing they were open on Shabbat — but not until noon. Then things got ridiculous. I saw people in regular clothes heading in and out of an open door and hopefully turned in….nope, it wasn’t a store, it was a very informal shul. The only chocolate I saw was on a plate of rugelach carried past my jealous eyes by a beautifully dressed religious woman.

Of course, I could have gone to the Old City or East Jerusalem if I had had more time and been more desperate. But my half-hour of crazed and fruitless running around made me a little peeved (and not just with chocolate withdrawal). I completely, 100% respect religious laws that forbid spending money on Shabbat. I get that we are, in some ways, guests in a Jewish part of the city, and we work hard to be quiet and respectful on Saturdays. I understand why almost all restaurants choose to close for Shabbat, thus qualifying for kosher licenses (and appealing to most of the market here). But I can’t see how my purchasing chocolate hurts or offends anyone else. I’m surprised that no convenience store in my neighborhood or the one next door finds it financially worthwhile to be open on Shabbat. I thought there were considerable secular and international populations here.

There has been a lot in the news about the ultra-Orthodox influence on city affairs in Jerusalem, for instance the erasure of women from advertising. And there have been formal legal efforts to challenge this influence. I’ve been following stories like these since I arrived, but after yesterday I understood them more. Why does it matter to anyone else if I want to buy chocolate on a Saturday? Or go to a movie? And so on.

Yet another facet of living in this complicated, frustrating, marvelous city!

About hilarymead

Taking two young kids, a great husband, and a whole lot of questions to Jerusalem for a year's sabbatical.
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