Adventures in Israel: Buyers remorse briefly dims glow of Shabbat

Last week in Jerusalem, I got lost and found and lost again. On a brilliant Saturday morning, the Old City beckoned, and I set out for the Western Wall. Passing through Zion Gate, spidery pathways fell back on each other in a delirium of stone, and the babble of human speech echoed down the arches and storefronts.

Jews in tallitot walked briskly by. I greeted each — “Shabbat shalom!” I didn’t know the way, but felt sure I would end up in the right place.

I saw a Chabad House, and knowing how Chabadniks welcome all Jews, I entered to wish them “Shabbat shalom” before heading to the Kotel.

Inside the sanctuary, black-hatted men prayed in a drowsy drone. One welcomed me, then steered me to a room where dozens of boisterous Chassids made Kiddush.

Someone poured me a shot of whiskey. I downed it and felt its radiant heat. One gray-bearded rabbi, Moshe Schlass, insisted I accompany him home for lunch. I couldn’t say no, and didn’t want to.

Reb Moshe had grown up Orthodox but rebelled, becoming a concert promoter and Dead Head — the latter bringing to mind another Jerry Garcia disciple, Rabbi Yosef Langer of San Francisco’s Chabad.

Later, Moshe — who knows Langer — returned wholeheartedly to Judaism.

Moshe took me by the arm, speaking of God’s many miracles, including my stumbling into his shul.

His cheery home was carved into the stone of the Old City. Moshe’s wife greeted me warmly, and once several other Chabad rabbis joined us, we sat down to eat.

It was the best Shabbat of my life.

We talked Torah. We talked San Francisco. We drank shots of single malt scotch. We ate cholent with spices from the open-air markets. Moshe explained the mystery of lox and bagels, and the gematria (numerological significance) of my name. The intensity of Jewish fellowship had me swooning.

Before I knew it, the sun had set and it was time to go. “HaShem brought you here,” Moshe told me in parting, “and He will guide you on your way.”

Believing him, I plunged unafraid into the gathering darkness of the Old City and soon lost my way again. But the whiskey and high spirit of the day afforded me protection, so I thought.

I wandered through the Muslim Quarter. As feral cats slunk around corners, women in headscarves hawked grape leaves and eggplant. But the hour was late and stores were closing.

A friendly Palestinian man asked if I needed an escort to the Jaffa Gate. Along the way, he told me he is sick of violence and wants the tourists back. And he asked if I would care to see his shop.

Inside, he sat me down, offering tea. He taught me a few words of Arabic. He showed me his finest wares: glass goblets, embroidered Bedouin tablecloths, bracelets of malachite and silver.

I said yes to everything.

And then, a creeping shadow fell over me. Clearly, I was not in my right mind, buying overpriced merchandise I couldn’t afford. (How much did I spend? Let’s say it was more than the milk money and less than the GDP of Liberia). Yet I couldn’t stop. I felt like a gambler at the track, carried away by the thrill of the moment.

An hour later, I left, hauling two huge bags of trinkets. Buyer’s remorse set in. My mood sunk. How could I have been so stupid? If HaShem had led me to Moshe, had He also led me to the Arab gift shop? What was the lesson in this?

Perhaps in the spirit of repairing the world, I paid more than I would have wanted to a struggling Arab merchant. Maybe he needed the money more than I.

Later, my friend Bob put things into perspective. “Think of it,” he said, “as a rounding error.”

I liked that. Life would not seem as beautiful without an occasional countervailing misfortune. Shabbat with Reb Moshe might not have felt so spiritually elevated without a base reminder of how foolish I can be sometimes.

Back in California, I spread the gifts on my bed and saw them glitter. Bright colors of mustard, teal and burgundy seemed to leap from the fabrics and glass. They were truly beautiful things.

Though I’ll have a hell of a Visa bill to pay next month, somehow this high-contrast adventure in the Holy Land balanced out. And I think I’ll give most of the stuff away.

Dan Pine lives and kvetches in Albany. He can be reached at [email protected]

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.