One morning, a few days after arriving in Jerusalem, my doorbell rang. I peered through the peephole and saw two kindly-looking older gentlemen standing at my door with a package. Well, I thought, if anything goes awry, I can take ‘em. So I opened the door.
The men identified themselves as Rav Shlomo and Rav Moshe, the Roshei Yeshivah of Machon Schechter. I immediately felt like I needed to explain why I was still in my pajamas – “morning,” after all, is a relative term – it was 1:30 in the afternoon. Hi! Oh! I’ve been working! And I haven’t had time to get dressed! Would you like to come in for coffee? They politely declined, handed me a freshly-baked challah, and welcomed me to Israel, and to Schechter. They had to go, they said, because they were on a mission to deliver challot to all of the incoming JTS students.
I was shocked. Can you imagine the headmaster of your school or the CEO of your company coming to your home in person to welcome you? Can you imagine them then continuing on their way, not to go home to their own lives and families, but to hand-deliver baked goods to the other new students or employees?
I have been mulling over hospitality a lot this week. Monday morning, I saw the landlord of a neighboring building carrying a new fridge (on his back!) into an apartment, and without a second thought, I asked if he wanted a glass of cold water. Unfortunately, my efforts to be hospitable ended with him saying, “You so beautiful – I ask you – you don’t get mad – your breasts – they real or silicone?”
The rich culture of hospitality here is like freshly brewed coffee – a mixture of the warmth you want, and the grounds you hope to strain out.
This afternoon, as I sat outside in my trusty camping chair sipping coffee, the mailman passed by. He asked if I live here, and I told him yes, and he told me his name is Micha, and he has delivered mail in this neighborhood for twenty years. I know everybody, he said, and everything. Other than accidentally referring to him with feminine pronouns, I used some relatively intelligible Hebrew to tell him that I am new here, and my landlord has yet to give me my mailbox key. This is ok, he said, I will put your mail at your door. I smiled. I asked him if he would like a glass of cold water. He smiled. I have water, he said, but thank you.
What does it mean to be hospitable? When should we let people in, and when should we fortify our boundaries?
This week, we took a class tiyul to Ir David, the ancient City of David, located between the Old City and the Arab village of Silwan. We were able to see the excavation site, but were unable to trek through Hezekiah’s Tunnel, an aqueduct built around 700 BCE, due to recent tension between the residents of Silwan (part of Arab East Jerusalem) and the Ir David Foundation, also called the Elad Association. In addition to facilitating tourism, education, and archaeological excavation in the area, the Elad Association hopes to strengthen the Jewish community in the City of David through the construction of settlements. Without delving too much into the obvious political implications of the Elad Association’s aims, I will say that development in East Jerusalem is an incredibly sensitive issue for those who feel that settlements might not be the best way to achieve lasting peace in Israel.
Instead, we walked through the Caananite Tunnel. No rushing water, but it dates back to the 18th Century BCE. When you touch stone that old, and think of all the people who have walked the path before you, then think about Jerusalem and think about Silwan, you can’t help but smile. Four thousand years ago, man managed to access a spring hidden deep underground and channel the water so that families could live, plant crops, drink, survive. Four thousand years later, with all of our knowledge and all of our technology, I wonder how much progress we can claim to have made if we can’t successfully be hospitable, if we can’t, at the end of the day, successfully and respectfully live together. We are all at our core hewers of stone, whether that stone belongs to the fortifications of ancient Jerusalem, a corner shop in Silwan, or a little apartment in Nachlaot, where I will follow the example of Rav Shlomo and Rav Moshe, and keep on trying to be hospitable, one glass of cold water at a time.