Breaking bread with Jews
A Sabbath meal with an Orthodox rabbi’s family
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When a Jew invites you to Shabbat, never say no. I’m lucky enough to live in Los Angeles, which has one of the largest Jewish populations in America, and I’ve never said no to anyone who invited me to a Shabbat—be it a lesbian “spiritual” couple or an ultra-Orthodox rabbi.
A while ago I accepted a Shabbat invitation from Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of interfaith affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a human rights organization. I met Rabbi Adlerstein at the 175th anniversary of the birth of William E. Blackstone, a pioneer of Jewish-Christian relations in America. Rabbi Adlerstein was the keynote speaker, and his introduction immediately caught my attention: “Forgive me, for I am a sinner.” Then he confessed that he once harbored resentment towards Christians. I knew right then that I had to interview him—and through a three-hour interview, I learned more of his story.
Adlerstein developed a “deep-seated revulsion to anything Christian” as a young Orthodox Jewish boy in Manhattan who frequently met the fists of Irish Catholic boys on his way home from school. With his telltale payot (side curls) and yarmulke (Jewish cap), he was an easy target for anti-Semitism. His grandmother and mother were survivors of the Holocaust, and the young Adlerstein divided Christians into two groups: evil Christians who seek to hurt Jews, or annoying Christians who seek to convert Jews. He didn’t like either. Then the rabbi discovered through his work at the Wiesenthal Center that conservative Christians are some of the boldest Zionists. Soon he began studying the New Testament, reading Christian literature, and engaging with Christian leaders from various denominations—and realized that many of the beliefs he once held about Christians were inaccurate.
Which leads us to my visit with Adlerstein for Shabbat at his home. At the table head sat the rabbi, and surrounding him sat the rabbi’s petite wife, his soon-to-be-married son, their Jewish friends, my evangelical Christian friend, and me. Together we lit the candles, said a sanctification prayer over wine, broke challah, then washed our hands for the feast—and what a feast!
Over four hours, we had matzo ball soup, salad, sesame-fried chicken, potato casserole, Chinese stir-fry, and two kinds of cake, all washed down with plenty of wine. By the sixth course (a roast beef so tender I could suck down the bones into juice), I lost count of the number of dishes. At one point I had to lean back and loosen my belt with a sigh. “We eat like this every week! That’s why we Jews have these,” the rabbi’s son told me while patting his belly.
That night, we discussed Leviticus 13-15. I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun discussing Leviticus, and I think the rabbi too enjoyed quizzing a couple of young Christians on our interpretation of the most law-dense book of the Bible. I decided to toss any proselytizing aside and simply collect as much insight and wisdom as I could from Rabbi Adlerstein’s incredible mind—and the self-proclaimed Torah “addict” was happy to oblige.
I learned that the Orthodox Jews don’t glean through their sacred texts like many Christians do—they dissect and agonize and argue over every word, coating every passage with layers of moral and legal implications. I saw that in their dress and observances: The rabbi didn’t shake my hand because I’m a woman; the light switches in his house were taped on because Orthodox Jews cannot use electricity during Shabbat; the lightbulb in the refrigerator was unscrewed so that it wouldn’t turn on automatically; and of course, the entire meal from the meat to the chocolate shavings on our cake was kosher.
Shabbat being a day of rest, toward the end of the meal, the rabbi dropped his chin to his chest and dozed off. His wife walked over and gently shook his shoulders, whispering, “Abba, abba, wake up. Time for dessert.” As the rabbi blinked open his eyes, the only two evangelical Christians at the table (my friend and I) exclaimed, “Behold! He is risen!” The rabbi, of course, got the joke—and to my relief, he cracked a chuckle.
Later, I heard one of the rabbi’s friends tell him, “I wasn’t sure whether to believe you when you told me you befriend Christians. Now I see it for myself.” For me, his statement drove home how precious that evening was. But I wonder if the rabbi recognized that our joke—“He is risen!”—also marks a key distinction between Judaism and Christianity: The resurrection of Jesus Christ fulfilled the numerous prophecies in the Old Testament that foretold the Messiah’s coming. Because Jesus died and is risen, Christians no longer need to observe certain Old Covenant laws that Jews still do.
Several months later, I had brunch with another Orthodox Jew who told me that the idea of “salvation by grace through faith alone” was hardest for him to accept about Christianity. It made more sense to him that to atone for his sins, he would have to perform certain deeds, such as fasting, doing good works, and praying three times a day. I immediately thought of the old favorite hymn “Amazing Grace”—an undeserved grace that’s confounding to many, but so amazing to those who accept it.
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