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Minyanaires Dinner at AJ

[Archived from March 20, 2009]

[by Robert H. Sachs]

Adath Jeshurun completed the weekend celebration of congregants who support the weekday minyans, with a dinner honoring Sharon and Steve Berger as minyanaires of the year. The speaker, Joel Hoffman, the 2009 Goldstein-Leibson Scholar-in-Residence, spoke about “Minyan, Medinat Yisrael and Me, an exploration of what’s really going on in Israel and how Judaism there meshes with Judaism here.”

Through the use of personal anecdotes, Hoffman demonstrated two related ideas: (1) Culture to some extent determines how we interpret events, and (2) Jews have a meta-culture that binds them across different cultures.

He recalled his reaction while visiting a friend in Israel to a rocket attack landing some 10 miles away. A rocket exploding that close was of great concern to Hoffman. His Israeli friend, on the other hand, was more used to these kinds of attacks and seemed to take it in stride.

A similar cultural disconnect occurred in Argentina. Hoffman was awakened at night by shouts of “no, no, no,” followed by gunshots. It could have been street gangs or something more sinister. Knowing that the Argentinean government is not the most stable, he thought it might be a coup attempt.

He called the American Embassy, but there was no answer. He called the Israeli Embassy; there was no answer there either but they provided a cell phone number in case of emergency. He decided not to call, but passed a fretful night, filled with dreams growing out of the shouts and gunshots.

The next morning he found out that it was simply a soccer game. The fans were bemoaning an attack on the goal of the local team and when that was repulsed, gunshots of victory were fired.

A third example of how culture is a prism through which we see the world occurred back in Israel. He and an Israeli friend were on a mission to find a particular brand of soft drink. After several unsuccessful attempts, they ended up at the Central Bus Station. They entered through a side door.

Thwarted again in their quest for the syrupy beverage, they began to leave the way they came in. But standing in their way was a soldier, M-16 hanging from her shoulder. She said this exit is now closed. Hoffman saw someone of authority, armed, telling him to leave by some other exit. His Israeli friend, however, saw a teenage girl and, saying “Just this once,” grabbed Hoffman’s arm and guided him past the soldier out the side door.

Hoffman explained that, unlike Jews in the United States, Jews in Israel are unlikely to join a congregation. They see Israel itself as their congregation.

He related an experience in going by cab from Tel Aviv to visit friends in Kfar Saba. The taxi driver, a immigrant from Eastern Europe, could not find the address, so Hoffman asked him to find the central bus station. “I’ll direct you from there,” he said. But they were unsuccessful.

On the way they stopped to pick up a hitchhiking soldier. Hoffman arranged to pay the fare for the soldier. They asked him if he knew the way to the bus station. But he too was a visitor to Kfar Saba, unfamiliar with the streets. He was trying to find his girl friend’s house.

The three of them, connected only by their Jewishness, formed a bond and the mundane act of finding where to let off the two passengers became much more meaningful.

A similar thing happened back in Argentina. Hoffman had traveled to Patagonia to lecture at a university there. Still shaken from the experience some days earlier with the gunshots, he felt tense. At the university, he met a Jewish professor who invited him to her house for Shabbat dinner. Hoffman for first time in Argentina, he found himself relaxing. He experienced a feeling of being among his minyan.

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