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Surprise Ending

By Eric Simon

I felt like a sociologist in a documentary film. Surrounded by at least a hundred dark-suited and for the most part black-hatted and bearded men, ritual fringes hanging at their sides, I -- a comfortably Reform Jew from the suburbs -- definitely stood out in the Friday night crowd at this particular synagogue.

I was out of my element, though, not for any professional reason, but simply because of a simple sense of adventure -- and because I wanted to learn more about parts of the Jewish religious map distant from my own.

I had befriended a rabbi on the Internet and, after meeting him once at a lecture (and being surprised by his distinctly "right-wing Orthodox" dress), accepted his invitation to me and my family to drive up from our Virginia home to join him and his family in Baltimore for a Shabbat.

We arrived somewhat curious, a bit excited and petrified. We knew that the Orthodox world had countless Sabbath rules, and had heard there were prohibitions against a host of mundane things from turning on lights to tearing toilet paper. And we wondered how we would deal with them all. But we also knew that Shabbat in an Orthodox environment would more closely than anything we had experienced resemble the Jewish day of rest as my ancestors -- and the ancestors of all Jews -- observed it.

Our host was not a pulpit rabbi; we were attending services at a shul a few blocks from his home. As services were about to begin, he explained what I should expect: recitations, spirited singing, the reading of the Shma and the silent recital of the amidah. As things got under way, I could almost see the documentary's opening credits scroll down my field of vision. I tried to keep my eyes on the siddur but could not help but check out the scene. I was just about the only one present not wearing a black hat (other than a handful of obvious visitors - come to think of it, I was probably an obvious visitor myself). For a while I had a hard time figuring out what page people were on, but then I realized that most everybody was on a different page. I decided to focus on the page before me.

"L'cha Dodi", the poetic "welcoming the Sabbath" portion of the service, was wonderful. The crowd fell into a spontaneous and enthralling three-part harmony and a warm feeling began to overtake me, the documentary giving way to my experiencing the moment as a participant.

And then, suddenly, services were over. In my temple Friday night services were considerably longer, and I was left wishing there would be more. The rabbi then stood up and announced: "No one should be alone for a Shabbos meal. So if you need a place to eat, please let Mr. Schwartzbaum know."

At that moment, a man behind me turned to his friend and said, "Wow! This is great! Whenever I need --"

I completed his sentence in my mind and was stunned by how shameless a schnorer could be. I couldn't believe the fellow would admit his miserliness to his friend.

And then, as I stole a peripheral glance at the speaker, who was dressed in the native costume, black hat and all, he finished his sentence. ".. whenever I need a guest, I can just come here!" His friend responded, "Well, yeah, but you gotta grab 'em quickly. They go fast."

I was flabbergasted. I knew that hospitality to strangers was a Jewish ideal. But seeing it taken so seriously, seeing it so eagerly embraced, was a revelation to me. As I marveled at what I had heard, my host turned to the men behind us and introduced me, explaining that I was visiting from Virginia with my family. The fellow I had thought was a schnorer, turned to me and said, "You know, I don't have any guests this Shabbos. Would some of your family like to come over for dinner?" My host stepped in to make the case for keeping my family together and the stranger yielded, but insisted that "please, next time you're in Baltimore, you should come over for a meal.

In the two and a half years since, my family and I have grown considerably in our Jewish identity and observances. I have no plans to buy a black fedora and don't think we can call ourselves "returnees" to the beliefs of Orthodox Judaism. But we have come to harbor a deeper respect for Jewish tradition, and to accept that the Torah and its laws are marvelous gifts to the Jewish people.

And when I think back at our long strange trip, I think I have to mark its genesis as the surprise ending to the comment I heard behind me that Friday night in a Baltimore shul.

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