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A Shabbos Morning in Yerushalayim by Yaakov Lavon
A Shabbos Morning in Yerushalayim by Yaakov Lavon

Volume 3 , Issue 2

?[A glossary of Hebrew terms appearing in italics can be found at the end of this story.]

Would you spend a Shabbos morning with a cleaning lady?

If you feel like answering that question at all (and who could blame you if you didn't?) I suppose you would say it depends on the cleaning lady. But then you might not be acquainted with the cleaning ladies at my Yeshiva. None of them was what you'd call ordinary, and some of them could have given shi'urim in their spare time. Once one of them did give me a shi'ur (in Novi), and it was pretty good too. Maybe she should have been mopping up the hall instead, but look, everybody's back gets tired sometimes, doesn't it?

Miriam was special even among this rather elite group. I had noticed her giving tochachah to the body about this and that, and always had to admit that she was right. Usually she gave mar'ei m'komos, too. Still, as a rule, one doesn't think of the cleaning staff as people, so I was a little surprised at the invitation to have the morning seudah at her apartment. But one learns quickly that in Yerushalayim anything can happen, so I recovered and said, ?Thank you.?

The quiet comment, ?I always invite a few boys for Shabbos morning,? didn't even surprise me. In Yerushalayim you keep your knees loose; anybody could be anything, if only you knew, and especially on Shabbos. For example, late one Shabbos morning I was coming back from the Yeshiva to my apartment for a snooze, and an old man stopped me and asked, ?Did you eat cholent this morning??

I said, rather surprised, that I certainly had, and after his resounding ?Good!?, went along. But I couldn't forget it; something about the man's manner, intense with love, made such an impression as couldn't be forgotten. So later I asked around and found out that this man davens early every Shabbos and then spends the whole morning combing the streets for anyone who hasn't eaten. His wife cooks up a gigantic pot of cholent every erev Shabbos, and when he's done searching for hungry Jews, they all sit down together to a hearty meal.

Even on weekdays, people in Yerushalayim manage to be unique; strong personalities flourish there. What about the old man with the brush and dustpan? I would see him every few days outside my apartment. He would sweep up the dirt in the street for a while, then carry it off. That's something you don't see every day, so eventually I got around to asking, who was he and why did he do that? He didn't look like a municipal worker. The answer was both stunning and typical, a favorite combination in Yerushalayim. This man (I've forgotten his name) had been in the concentration camps, and he'd gotten to the point where he knew he couldn't live anymore. He wanted to make teshuva before he died, but even more, he wanted to make teshuva and live. So he raised his eyes to Heaven and said, ?Ribbono shel Olom! For what are You killing me? Is it because of my gaavah? Is it because I love gashmius too much? I will make teshuva for both of them! If You let me live, I will go to the Holy City, Yerushalayim and I will sweep its streets every day for the rest of my life.?

What can I tell you? He lived. And every day, no matter what, he went out and swept a street of the Holy City.

Another time I was helping out Mr. Goldin with the ?two‑day boys? ? the American boys who might not settle in the Holy Land and therefore observed two days of Yom Tov. It was Sukkos, and the Goldins were at their best: a minyan with a Sefer Torah, seudos for all and sundry and then some, and, of course, a sukkah. How do you fit forty‑five hungry bochrim into one Yerushalmi sukkah porch? I don't know, but miracles occur on demand in Eretz Yisrael, and everybody got in somehow. Of course, the helpers got supper too, even though it was only lowly Chol HaMoed for us. The only problem was how to get into the sukkah to eat in it. Maybe Moshe and I were just low on emunah; maybe if we had tried, we would have fit too; thinking back, it seems quite possible. Whatever the case, at the time, we couldn't even begin to imagine wedging ourselves into that sukkah (which just then would have turned a sardine‑packer green with envy), so what should we do? Moshe, an outgoing sort, suggested knocking on some neighbor's door, an idea that made me feel weak in my (rather retiring) knees, but on the other hand, we were hungry, so propriety went by the board. We knocked.

Big white beard, big smile, ?Oh, come in! Do you need a place to eat?? (How did you guess?)

?Well, we have our own food; we're helping by Reb Menachem across the alley ??

?Oh, don't worry about that, I'll get you something good.?

?No, but really, Reb Menachem has our plates all ready.?

?Well, all the same I'll get you something.?

No use arguing. We went across to get our plates and wash; and there were two places already set, and a couple of rolls to make a motzi. By the time we had gotten a ca‑zayis down, our host had told us two chiddushim and brought some potato‑and‑onion (it doesn't taste like much, but in Yerushalayim in the old days you were happy if you had anything to eat at all, and potato‑and‑onion was high living). I was blushing furiously; American propriety just doesn't approve of this sort of thing, especially as our host looked like the sort that has about two cents a year to live on. But he just sat there with his shining face and beaming smile, overjoyed to have gotten ?noch a mitzvah.?

But I was going to tell you about Miriam, the cleaning lady.

Three other boys came along, too, that Shabbos morning: two Sephardim, one Teimani, and me, the token Litvak. One of them knew the way to where Miriam lived, not far from the Yeshiva. Where does a cleaning lady live? Have you ever wondered? In a broom closet, maybe? Or behind a door under the staircase? It turned out to be a regular apartment, immaculately clean (of course!) and pleasantly sunny. A bit of a surprise, as I say, but the big surprise was Miriam herself. The little old, dried‑up and wrinkled cleaning lady was suddenly revealed as a reigning queen. There's no telling how; she just looked like a queen, and beyond that, she gave off an aura of quiet majesty. This must be how she had been meant to look, until poverty and misfortune wrought their changes.

You never know about old women in Yerushalayim. Everyone notices the old men, with their sweeping beards and faces full of a Divine light, but who notices the women? Not that they ask to be noticed. Not only don't they think of such a thing, they would no doubt be horrified by a program of systematically noticing them. HaKodosh Baruch Hu told Chava to be modest, and these, her daughters, haven't forgotten it. But sometimes one can't help noticing, despite the women's best efforts at being inconspicuous. There was that old lady in the Bucharian Quarter who didn't have anyone to make kiddush and havdolah for her, so one of the bochrim decided to make it his mitzvah. He kept a bottle of grape juice and some crackers in her room, and came by with a friend on erev Shabbos and Motzaei Shabbos. I went once, because my friend Leib told me about what he had seen: ?She looked like she was about a hundred years old, and when we came in she put her hands up and said, 'Baruch HaShem! Baruch HaShem!' Then she called from the door, 'Imma! They're here!' and I thought, What? Her mother is still alive? But Shimon had told me that the Bucharian women call each other Imma as a sign of kavod.? (As a matter of fact, it's mentioned in the Mishnah.) ?So this other old woman came in, and we made havdolah, and they both held up their arms and rocked back and forth and closed their eyes and said 'Amen' ? and I tell you, they were beautiful! Yeah, I know they were a hundred years old and all dried up and wrinkled ? but they were beautiful.? And Sarah Imeinu was beautiful, too, and so was Esther, even when they were old. Holiness is a beautiful thing.?

But I was trying to tell you about that Shabbos morning.

Kiddush is kiddush anywhere; one of us made it, on wine that Miriam had made herself. HaMotzi was on ?eish tanur,? also homemade, with homemade chilbeh to dip it in. Teimanim know how to make everything delicious, and on Shabbos it all tastes even better. But it wasn't just the delicious food, or even the devotion that had obviously gone into making it all by herself. It was the atmosphere of quiet grandeur and silent joy, that could never be set down in words if one tried to do so for a million years. The Teimanische bochur knew how to sing a few of the traditional zemiros, which were startlingly lovely, and then Miriam translated a couple into Hebrew (they were written in Teimanith, a dialect composed of Aramaic, Hebrew and Arabic). The poetry was exquisite, but even more moving was the spirit and hashkafah they expressed ? why don't people talk about things like that nowadays? The writers of those piyutim were living way above where we are today. No doubt we can't get to where they were, but it's nice to pay a visit, so to speak.

Then the stories: Miriam turned out to be a master storyteller, and filled with material. There was her father, one of the chachomim of the town. The Beis Din assigned him a job; every day he was to find out who was in need of tzedakah and how much, and then to distribute it ? all without anyone's knowing a thing about it, so they wouldn't be embarrassed when they met their benefactor. No, I'm not kidding; that was his job and those were the conditions. I can't say that I'd care to tackle a job like that myself, but he managed. It was simple, in fact. He began to take morning walks, and when asked why, he said it was for his health (nu, the neshamah has to be healthy, too!). So everybody got used to Mori Yihyeh's taking a walk every morning all around town, and nobody thought anything of it. He never stopped for more than a few moments; he never looked at anyone; he only spoke about Torah, never about his real purpose, but when his walk was over, he had noticed what he needed to, and overheard what he needed to, and sensed what he needed to. He knew who needed how much. Of course, it can't be done. Didn't I say so? But somebody really sensitive and really caring, with plenty of bitachon that HaShem would help him ? maybe he could.

The second walk people didn't know about. Every night, after Tikun Chatzos, Mori Yihyeh would make up little parcels of money. I don't suppose it was very much; who wasn't poor in Teiman? But it usually meant the difference between eating and not eating, and that's a lot. Then he would silently go out and walk around town again, pushing in a bag at this door and a bag at that window; and in the morning the poor people would see that the angels had visited them in the night and saved them from shame. I wonder sometimes what that man's Olam HaBa must be like.

This story went, I think, with the herby stew that was the main course. There was some beef in it. ?There's one butcher that I know personally, so that I can trust him,? Miriam explained. But her father had never eaten red meat after they came to Eretz Yisrael. ?We couldn't afford to buy an animal, and when he saw what kind of people were here, he wouldn't trust anyone but himself [to do the shechitah], so we made do with chickens.?? And a long sigh. How much history of suffering and injustice lay behind that sigh, I didn't care to think. It was Shabbos, after all.

Another zemer after this, one whose like I'd never heard. Since we had been talking about shechitah, the Teimanische bochur had turned to a piyut by Mori Shalom Shabazi. This proved to be a poetical review of Hilchos Shechitah in exquisite verse. Miriam told how in their town one could hear this piyut coming from every house the morning of Erev Shabbos. Most people there knew how to shecht, but meat was usually affordable only for Shabbos, and the men would review each halakha by singing this song as they checked their knives and prepared to shecht their animal. I wondered a bit. Sometimes our world seems a bit grey. Yet the Torah is called ?shirah,? and the Netziv MiVolozhin says that it's meant to be seen as one great poem. Shouldn't our Torah be more like a song of joy and praise? How did it happen that the poetry of holiness has seeped out of our lives?

It was a bit difficult getting back to the Yeshiva; one tended to waddle more than walk. But I made it out the door, and, it seemed, out of a wonderful dream, and back into a not very pleasant world. A dream? Well, not exactly; what I had been hearing about, and feeling, and sensing, was quite real. You wouldn't find it anywhere today, but it's really the same, for the reality of Torah is independent of what people do. Is our life a dream, then? That sounds nice and poetic, but if it's so, then I can do without dreams like this, and besides, it's not so: today is just as real as yesterday, for better or for worse. What had happened, then? Just this ? I had spent Shabbos morning with a cleaning lady, and I was walking back to the Yeshiva now, down the streets of Yerushalayim, and the sun was shining.

Yaakov Lavon lives in Yeroham, Israel.


Bitachon: Faith, trust in G‑d.

Bochur (Bochrim:): Yeshiva students.

Ca‑zayis: Literally, ?like an olive.? The minimum quantity required to be eaten to fulfill various mitzvot.

Chachomim: The wise men..

Chiddushim: Literally, ?New things,? used to refer to new ideas about learning.

Davens: To pray.

Eish tanur: A type of Yemenite bread.

Emunah: Faith or belief.

Gaavah: Pride, boastfulness

Gashmius: Material things.

HaKodosh Baruch Hu: The A‑mighty.

Hashkafah: Enlightenment.

Hilchos Shechitah: The laws of ritual slaughter.

Imma: Literally, ?Mother.?

Kavod: Honor or respect.

Mar'ei m'komos: Original sources.

Motzi: The blessing over bread.

Neshamah: The soul.

Noch a mitzvah: Literally, ?Another mitzvah.?

Olam HaBa: The world to come.

Piyutim: Short sayings or prayers, usually implying from Psalms.

Ribbono shel Olom: ?G‑d of the Universe.?

Seudah? (Seudos): A meal or meals.

Shecht (Shechitah): Ritual slaughter.

Shi'ur (Shi'urim) : A class.

Shirah: Song.

Teshuva: Penitence.

Tikun Chatzos: Midnight prayer.

Tochachah Rebuke or curse

Tzedakah: Charity.

Zemer: Song, but more in the way of a hymn.



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