One of the main things I found that united all the various cities of Israel was that each of them, in varying intensities and in different forms, observed Shabbat, one of the most sacred Jewish holidays. This weekly sabbath is one that many secular-ified American Jews tend to allow to fall by the wayside – myself included. Back home, I typically do homework on Shabbat and use electronics liberally, just like any other day. I don’t spend a moment reflecting on life or appreciating the good in what I’ve been given, what I’ve already achieved, because I’m too busy struggling to achieve more, and every minute of the day contributes to some scheme to do so.
In Jerusalem, there is a string around the city to symbolize the idea that it is all united by Shabbat. Even if you walk across the whole city from your dwelling place to your synagogue, you have symbolically remained in the same place, thereby not breaking the rule against hard work on Shabbat. The streets are empty except for a few tourists who don’t look around them to realize that everyone else has dropped everything for a refreshing weekly 24-hour period of prayer and reflection without attempting to alter their own lives or the world surrounding them. The streets are calm, without a car in sight. The shops windows are all darkened. And the synagogues emanate a great array of garbled intonations and choral chimes of prayers in English and Hebrew and perhaps a handful of other tongues and dialects, all intermingling to form a single broadcast of temporary complacency with the world, that enlightens even those outsiders who choose to tune in.
Above: The Western Wall, Jerusalem. On Shabbat it is even more crowded than weekdays (like the night I took this picture) and everyone is dancing and singing and you get pulled into a circle of happy dancers who don’t know your name or speak your language. It’s magic!)
In Tel Aviv, I had a different Shabbat experience that was more like a party: we joined an open beach service conducted by a group of musical prayer leaders who engaged a community of people of all ages to get up and dance to the vibrant Jewish songs as the sun set over the gently rocking harbor. Instead of a prayerbook full of ancient texts, each participant was lent a spiral-bound collection of eclectic poems and songs, from modern Jewish jams, to a page of translations of “What a Wonderful World” into a cornucopia of languages, to universal prayers found in any siddur, to interesting poems that really made me think.
Above: Tel Aviv service by the beach
Whether or not you are Jewish, I think there is something that can be gleaned from practicing some kind of sabbath, a regular, organized space of time during which you relinquish all work, even the thought of work, even using electronics if this is a gateway to doing work. Many people go through their lives almost nonstop, constantly letting life’s day-to-day anxieties take center stage while such invaluable things as family, self-care, meditation, are left by the wayside. In the short term it may seem like this is the way to accomplish more. But in a way, it really accomplishes nothing. That is something I was only able to realize when I experienced three Shabbats, from dusk on Friday to dusk on Saturday, in three different cities in Israel that all placed some kind of holiness on the concept of rest, and all things in moderation.
Above: I took this photo of a synagogue in Safed on a weekday. Most religious buildings discourage the use of electronics on Shabbat.
Another universal thing that unites Israel around Shabbat was the challah. My trip traversed much of the country, but in all the places we stayed these same round challah rolls were universal. They are probably made at a factory and distributed to every hotel kitchen in Israel just before Shabbat starts. They look like a round pile of something you’d find on a farm, and taste like slightly stale styrofoam. I’m sure Israel has some good challah bread, somewhere, but I never encountered any. Just these annoying round rolls.
When I returned to the states, I had to reconcile my disappointment with Israel’s challah by buying some that I knew was good: Sun Flour Natural Bakery brand challah rolls, found at Whole Foods Market. And for breakfast this past Shabbat eve, I made it into something even better: challah French toast.
Although my challah didn’t toast quite evenly (probably because I cut it too roughly) it still tasted great: soft, satisfying, with just the right amount of sweetness added with the soft cinnamon apple slices, juicy raisins, and a drizzle of agave syrup. Make your day of rest special with a special breakfast like this!
Challah French Toast with Apple, Cinnamon & Raisin
- 1 personal-sized challah roll (I used a Sun Flour Natural Bakery Brand challah roll)
- 1 egg
- 1 tbs milk (I used plain almond milk)
- 1 Gala apple
- splash of cinnamon
- 1-2 tbs Sunmaid brand mixed jumbo raisins
- 1-2 tsp organic blue agave syrup
Cut the challah lengthwise into three pieces as shown:
In a medium bowl, beat together the egg and milk.
Dip each challah slice in egg mixture and coat both sides. Let excess drip off back into bowl.
Spray a pan generously with nonstick spray. Place challah slices on pan. Heat to medium.
Cook challah this way for several minutes, until surface touching pan appears cooked like French toast. Then flip and cook the other side.
Remove from heat. Place onto serving plate. Top with apple cinnamon slices and raisins. Drizzle with agave syrup.
Bon appetit, and Shabbat Shalom (if applicable)!