Monday, June 11, 2012

Shabbat in Jerusalem with friends, strangers

Sometimes a little creativity works out much better than tossing loads of money at a problem. That’s exactly what the energetic staff at Jerusalem’s Abraham Hostel have done when figuring out how best to pull together Shabbat dinner for their guests each week.

To understand the problem, you probably need to know that Jerusalem, both the capital and spiritual center of Israel, is one of the few places in the world that takes Shabbat seriously. The city essentially shuts down for the Jewish Sabbath, a period that stretches from Friday afternoon until three stars appear in the sky on Saturday evening.

That means if you’re a tourist you’ll have plenty of time to rest and relax; it also means that you’d better plan ahead if you want to eat on Friday night and throughout the day on Saturday. Just about everything in the city closes – retail stores, public transport, museums and theaters; restaurants, cafes, fast-food joints, mega-supermarkets and mom-and-pop groceries.

If you’re staying at one of Jerusalem’s luxury hotels you don’t need to worry. Generally along with the high-cost of your room, you’ll be wined and dined in fine style over the Sabbath. Most 5-star hotels offer up a smorgasbord of delights – soups, salads and fishy appetizers; beef, chicken and fish; veggies and baked goods; vintage wines and dessert! Needless to say, you won’t go hungry.
That’s not the case if you’re staying in a 3-star hotel or hostel. Most of these places provide a hearty – if limited – breakfast. Otherwise, plan ahead or fast; unless you’re booked into the Abraham Hostel. I stumbled across it online when planning my most recent trip to Israel. It looked interesting and the reviews were mostly good.

The price was certainly right – $20 for a bed in a dorm and $60 for a private room and bath. Once I figured out the location was just about perfect – it’s on Jaffa Street in the heart of the city, a block or so from the Jewish Market and the pedestrian mall on Ben Yehudah Street and an easy 10 minute walk from the central bus station – I decided to try it out.
Turns out you get what you pay for! When traveling solo I don’t mind roughing it a bit. I’ve stayed in 3-star hotels and the occasional hostel. The hotels, without exception, have always been fine – clean and neat, safe and affordable. The hostels have also been safe and very affordable; unfortunately, they’re generally a little seedy around the edges.

The Abraham Hostel was light, bright and filled with second-hand everything – furniture and floor coverings; dishes, glasses and plates; beds and bedding; towels and bathroom fixtures. The building was ancient and needed work. My room was tiny and featured a jarring blend of school dorm simplicity and jail-house practicality – two single beds (really cots) pushed together, harsh neon lighting and cheap wooden cabinets nailed to the walls; a small and shaky desk, nightstand and chair. There were two additional smallish rooms, one for the toilet and another for a shower. Functional is about the best I can say about the place.
There was a bright spot. The main gathering area – sort of the hostel’s ballroom – was on the second floor. It was expansive and included colorful sofas, chairs, bean bags and hammocks; a fully stocked bar and huge entertainment system; a dining area and public kitchen. It was here that everyone willing to pay out 35 shekels (about $9) came together for Shabbat dinner.

Lacking the funds to wine and dine their guests, the hostel’s management came up with the novel idea of pulling everyone together like a family. The staff would go out and purchase the food for dinner, but it would be the guests who, with a little help from the staff, would do most of the prep work and cooking.
So it was that a trickle of tourists from around the world began gathering in the kitchen area as Jerusalem started shutting down for Shabbat. We stood around, gazing about, waiting for instructions. Fresh veggies were spread across several tables and a few staffers handed out knives, bowls and other such stuff.

Before you could shout shalom, we were all slicing and dicing, sharing a bit about our background and chatting with one another about our latest adventures. The ice had been broken. The people at my work station were typical of the guests at the hostel – a guy from Canada, traveling through Israel as part of his college course work; a couple from Japan on holiday and a middle-aged woman from California visiting relatives. Well, you get the idea.
The prep work took about 30 minutes; then we had another hour or so to talk and meet up with friends. Did I mention there was drinking? As the sky turned dark and the first stars of Shabbat winked and twinkled across Jerusalem, we settled down for the evening meal. There were about 50 of us spread about the room – friends and strangers, young and not-so-young; Jews and Christians.

A youngish woman took a few minutes to detail the importance of Shabbat, offered some religious background and historical context, then lit the Sabbath candles. Another staffer said Kiddush, a traditional blessing thanking God for the “fruit of the vine,” and finished with a blessing over a loaf of challah.
Our work and the work of the staff had pulled together a feast – fresh veggies and fruit; rice, pasta and potatoes; chips, dips, bread and chicken! I’ve already mentioned there was drinking, right?

It was Shabbat and we were family, at least for the moment, sharing a special meal in a very special city. As I said at the start, sometimes the best way to deal with a problem is to hold onto your money and use a little creativity. The evening worked for me, something I’ll be remembering in coming months. Now I’m thinking the hostel’s bosses might want to capture some of their staff’s creativity and figure out how to use it to freshen up their property.  

1 comment:

  1. Hey, Ron. I've enjoyed reading the posts on your recent trip. Good stuff!