We live three blocks away from an Orthodox Jewish synagogue and within a mile of several others, so there are several Orthodox families on our street. Some are more friendly than others and occasionally chat with us about children, pets, or gardening, but in general they socialize with each other and don’t mix much with those outside the fold. While the same is true of some of the other ethnic groups in our neighborhood (people from China, for example), the Orthodox always seem more different and separate to me, probably because they dress so differently from the rest of us, with their arms and legs covered even in the hottest weather and the married women’s hair always covered.
Orthodox Jews observe a strict Sabbath: From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, they are not allowed to do any work. Exactly what counts as “work” and what counts as “doing” is a matter of great debate among their leaders. I find it all pretty amusing–clever reasoning, but do things like Shabbos elevators really please God?! Well, I’m not Jewish–it’s up to them to decide what God wants from them.
Anyway, during their Sabbath (called Shabbos or Shabbat in Yiddish), Orthodox Jews sometimes come up against a problem that can be solved only by someone who is permitted to do work at that time, a “Shabbos Goy”. For example, a friend of mine was asked by her Orthodox neighbor to shut off a smoke detector that had been activated by a pot-holder falling into the stove burner that had been left on low keeping soup warm for Saturday lunch; smothering the fire was permitted because it could save lives, but pressing the button to make the beeping stop would have been “work”! I’d been wondering how long I’d live in this neighborhood before I too would be asked to serve as a Shabbos Goy.
Nicholas and I were heading home this Friday night, climbing the hill toward our street, when we saw a man standing under the streetlight, just standing facing us, silhouetted. It was a little weird. Nicholas lately has been testing his tolerance for independence by telling me to walk ahead and he’ll catch up, so I was about twenty feet ahead of him and he was yelling, “Mama, turn the corner, and I’ll catch up!” but I didn’t want to let him out of my sight if he’d have to pass some sort of ominous person to get to me.
I was about ten feet from the man when he said, “Could I ask you a very strange question?” I froze. I said, “Okaaayy…”
His question was, “Have you ever heard of the Jewish Sabbath?” By then I had recognized him as that twentysomething Orthodox guy who lives upstairs in the corner duplex, so as it registered with me that he was wearing a suit and that it was Friday, I realized what was going on. I said, “Sure! You need me to help you with something, right?” He explained that he’d had a piece of tape covering the button inside his refrigerator to prevent the light from coming on when they opened the door, but it had come off, so if I could please come up to his apartment to stick on a new piece of tape–his wife and children were up there; all very safe–that would be so helpful to them.
I immediately agreed to do this and consciously put out of my mind any question of whether or not it was silly. My neighbor is in need and has asked my help; it’s an easy thing for me to do and helpful to my neighbor; why not do it?
Nicholas caught up, and we followed the man into his home. It was furnished in “conservative young [insert ethnicity here] couple striving to do the Right Thing” style and brightly illuminated by three ceiling fixtures that they must have turned on before sundown. His wife, nursing the new baby in the living room, smiled and said she recognized us; I recognized her, too, but this was the first time we’d ever told each other our names.
The refrigerator was a very new one with LED numerals for the temperature settings, which must be difficult to disconnect, so that was why they’d taped the switch rather than unscrew the lightbulb. The man opened the door and handed me a roll of packing tape, the thin kind that sticks to itself at the slightest opportunity. He didn’t offer scissors (maybe he isn’t allowed to even handle scissors on Shabbos?) but suggested that I break the tape with my teeth, which turned out to be easy to do, except that I managed to get my hair stuck in it! So I went through a couple of awkward rounds of ruining a piece of tape and trying again, before I finally got the button taped and the edges of the tape folded under so they wouldn’t just catch on the door and start the whole thing over again. I was tempted to suggest that gaffer’s tape would work much better for this purpose, but I didn’t want to be critical….
On the way down the stairs, with the man following to lock the door behind us, Nicholas said, “So it’s against their religion to have lighted refrigerator numbers, but only on this night???” and I replied, cheerfully, “Yes, but it’s not our religion, so we can help our neighbors! Our religion says we should love our neighbors and do good to them!” Nicholas spent the rest of the walk home nitpicking about how neighbors are the people who live right next to our house and this was like twenty houses away so they are not our neighbors; I attempted to introduce the term next-door neighbors but eventually gave up trying to reason with him.
Being a Shabbos Goy turned out to be an interesting cross-cultural experience! Of course I’m still wondering how allowing LEDs to illuminate automatically when you open a door is “work” but opening that door isn’t “work” and having a refrigerator chill your food automatically isn’t “work”, but the important thing is that this is the custom of these people, and by asking me to help them follow their custom they included me a little bit in their world. It isn’t a world I want to live in myself. But it’s a world that exists right here in parallel with my world, and I find that fascinating.
Ringing doorbells is “work”, so my neighbor couldn’t seek help that way; he had to stand outside waiting for a goy to come along. I’m grateful that we live in the kind of neighborhood where you can trust that when you need help, someone will come along.
It was so inspiring that I composed a song.