First-hand experience of Jewish customs and traditions

Trip to Jerusalem
Jerusalem, here I come

Jerusalem was not high on my ‘places to visit’ list, but when I was invited by a cousin who lives there, I jumped at the opportunity. Jerusalem has a very important religious significance, as it is the holy city for three major Abrahamic religions, namely, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I wanted to personally get the ‘feel’ of such an ‘intense’ holy place. I was also looking forward to learning more about their custom and traditions.



Reaching Tel Aviv – Ben Gurion International Airport

I found no direct flight from Delhi to Israel and so took an Ethiopian Airline with a stop over for two hours at Addis Ababa. Security was tight while checking into the flight to Israel and I was made to go through a full body scan before boarding. But the officials were very polite, unlike some curt ones I have interacted with, at the US airports. I was at the Ben Gurion International Airport at Tel Aviv, exactly twelve hours after I left New Delhi.

Drive to French Hill – Jerusalem

My cousin had arrived at the airport to receive me and soon we were on our way to Jerusalem. The 40 min drive from the airport to her home in French Hill, Jerusalem, where the expat community lives, was beautiful. The roads were clean and the city, immaculate. The weather was a pleasant 30 degree C in May and in the evenings, one needed a light shawl.

My veneration for the Jews notched up higher as I looked at the well kept city we drove through, when I recalled that during its long history, Jerusalem has not only been besieged, attacked, captured, recaptured innumerable number of times, but also been destroyed at least twice.

Jerusalem, one of the oldest cities in the world, is located on a plateau in the Judaean Mountains between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea.

Jerusalem city
Jerusalem, A well kept and laid out city
House in Jerusalem
Well kept house in Jerusalem

Interesting facts about Jewish culture

I found the Jews to be very pleasant and friendly people. The traditional Jews can be quite orthodox in their ways and Jerusalem is a place where they are quite strict with their culture. They are very patriotic and I noticed that not only every house and building supported the country’s flag, but even every vehicle. Every child who turns 18, has to compulsorily join and serve the army for two years or volunteer for some National service (I silently wished this could be implemented in our country too). My friend’s son was serving in the Army and daughter was attached to an NGO that looked after abused children. The soldiers are held in high esteem and are not charged anything in buses and a lot of other public places.

Israeli national flag
National flag outside an Israeli home
Jerusalem - Residential cum shopping area
Residential cum shopping area in Jerusalem
Shopping area in Jerusalem
Shopping area in Jerusalem

Jewish lifestyle and traditions

Men and women dress traditionally, as clothing has always played a significant role in their religion. Married women, at all times, keep their head covered and their dress or skirt is a below-the-knee length. They never wear trousers, but cover their legs with stockings. I was transported back to the 18th century, every time I came across the traditional Jew men sporting the black hat and black suits. It seems, the men sport the long beard to distinguish themselves from the fair gender, as the women’s long hair is covered and not visible.

An orthodox Jew
An orthodox Jew in his black hat and coat
Jerusalem town
A busy morning in Jerusalem

Inspite of the orthodox nature of most families, Jerusalem has a great nightlife; at least in the new part of the city. When we went out for dinner, we saw that the market place was buzzing with people. The quaint little restaurants and pubs were a hang out for all age groups. I was informed that the city is very safe even late at night. We had some great evenings, singing loudly and dancing in pubs.

Jerusalem nightlife
Nightlife in Jerusalem

Kosher certificate – Jewish religious dietary law

The cuisine was delicious in most restaurants that we lunched or dined in.

Most traditional restaurants in Jerusalem have the Kosher certificate. (This is not so in Tel Aviv as it is more cosmopolitan). They strictly follow the ‘Meaty’ and ‘Dairy’ Kosher requirement. A meal that is ‘meaty’ will never be mixed with a meal that has ‘dairy’ product in it. A dairy meal includes vegetables, cheese, eggs and fish while a ‘meaty’ meal will include meat (Jews only eat meat of animals that have ‘cloven hooves’ and ‘chew the cud’) and vegetables. ‘Parve’ (foods that contain neither dairy nor meat ingredients), for example, salads and breads are common to both meals.

Because of their strict Kosher food habits, Jews find it difficult to travel to other places.

Meaty and Dairy food in Jerusalem
Kosher certificate food

 

Food at local Jewish restaurant
At a local restaurant

The ‘meaty’ and ‘dairy’ meal rule is even observed at homes of orthodox Jews. If the lunch is ‘meaty’, the dinner will be ‘dairy’. In a ‘meaty’ meal, even the tea has to be black, i.e., without the creamer. I noticed that even the vessels used for cooking both the meals were kept separate from each other.

Sabbath – Day of Rest

I had the most wonderful experience of attending Sabbath at my cousin’s home.

The Jews follow a Jewish calendar and observe a ritual called Sabbath. As in Christianity, Sabbath is the seventh day of the week. Friday evening to Saturday evening and is observed as the ‘Day of Rest’. All meals (to be eaten until the next day) are cooked by the evening of Friday. So, I helped my cousin prepare the Friday dinner, the meal for Saturday morning and afternoon. Even water for tea or coffee is boiled and kept in a large thermos. Who so ever wants to drink it, makes it himself. A hot plate is switched on at the beginning of Sabbath and food is warmed on that. This is switched off only after Sabbath is over.

A bell is rung in the city of Jerusalem, to announce the start of Sabbath for all.

Food ready for Sabbath

No cell phones are used; no gas or even electricity is used. People keep the lights on only in the bathroom for convenience before Sabbath starts. Any other light left on by mistake is not switched off till Sabbath is over. Candles are lit to indicate the beginning of Sabbath. Driving is forbidden (unless it’s a life and death matter) and no shops are open.

So basically, it’s a day when the whole family gets together to eat, chitchat, lounge around the house, read books and generally connect with each other-so essential in this world of today.

Friends come visiting, bring their cooked dishes and join in the prayer. After the prayer, they sit together and have fun. I had the pleasure of meeting and interacting with some Persian, Canadian and Swedish Jews. They all had such an amazing positive energy around them and showed keen interest in knowing more about India and Hinduism.

I understood the term ‘breaking bread’, when the whole family and friends sat down for the meal and broke bread with the hands to eat the food.

Everyone helps clean up later.

Ready to break bread

I noticed that Synagogues (House of Worship) were not located at every nook and corner. Also, when I visited one, I realized that they are not very decorative. There was a large hall for congregation where I saw some men with their heads covered, reading from prayer books. I also noticed that men and women sit separately here. Men normally go to Synagogues, as Jews believe that the women are already enlightened, while men need to be reminded off and on!!

After the Sabbath too, only my nephew had gone to offer prayers at a Synagogue.

I loved being a part of this ancient culture, albeit for a few days, and realized how much one can learn from different cultures. We can stay rooted in this modern world by adhering to at least some of our traditions and cultures.

They do have their own charm.

Also read: Jerusalem: Visit to the promised land — 50 years since liberation

Poonam Beotra

Poonam Beotra

Poonam Beotra has been a teacher for over 10 years and is currently pursuing a career in writing. Her work has been featured on leading portals such as MSN and Yahoo. Poonam's forte is travel and lifestyle. An avid traveler, she is also a photography buff.

4 thoughts on “First-hand experience of Jewish customs and traditions

  • March 16, 2018 at 1:50 pm
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    An excellent take on a truly diverse and beautiful Jewish travel experience!

  • June 3, 2017 at 12:32 pm
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    Wonderfully written, I just love the old city of Jerusalem. Loved walking around the city.

  • June 3, 2017 at 12:26 pm
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    Interesting article, Thanks for all this information… Great to know about ‘Sabbath’

  • June 3, 2017 at 11:24 am
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    Nice read! Jerusalem is truly historical city, four years ago we finally had the opportunity to visit Jerusalem.

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