Even at My Happiest Hour

Manuscript of practical Kabbalah. Ukraine, ca. 1740, handwritten ink on paper. From the Gross Family Collection, Tel Aviv (photo credit: ELIE POSNER/THE ISRAEL MUSEUM)

Recently, my wife and I went on a day trip to Jerusalem. We took the train from Beersheba, where we live, changing trains in Tel Aviv for Jerusalem. My wife travels to Jerusalem more often than I do, so it was a pleasure to travel together. I enjoyed riding the train; it allowed us to talk, sit across from each other, and enjoy the view from the train window. The landscape grew greener as we made our way north.

There were three things we wanted to do in Jerusalem. We took a cab from the train station to the Israel Museum, our first destination. In October 2021, I read and saved an article in The Jerusalem Post by Maya Margit titled, “Abracadabra: Israel Museum exhibit explores Jewish Magic.” Margit opened her piece with three questions: “What separates religion from magic? How is the Jewish world connected to magic and why did certain prayers become associated with protective rituals?”

The article was a review of an exhibition at the Israel Museum, “Here, O Israel: The Magic of the Shema.” The exhibit’s purpose was to show how the Shema has been used for over two thousand years for apotropaic purposes—as an amulet for protection or to ensure health or prosperity. I had to see it.

I need to clarify various meanings of “Shema.” On one level, it designates three passages from the Torah that are recited as part of the liturgy of the morning and evening prayers: Deuteronomy 6: 4-9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41. On another level, “Shema” may refer to the first passage only, or the first two, and sometimes, simply to the first verse of the first passage: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God; the LORD is one.”

The exhibit included amulet pendants, an amulet arm-band, incantation bowls inscribed with the Shema, amuletic jewelry, rings, and necklaces, books containing recipes for creating amulets, and the Halbturn Amulet found in the town of Halbturn in Austria and dating from 161-251 CE. For me, though, two particularly notable items were a 15th-century prayer book of the Rabbi of Ruzhin containing colored calligraphy, opened to the Shema, and the oldest head tefillin, 1st century CE, and tefillin parchment, 2nd century, fragments found to date.

The exhibit ended with a film about how the idea of the exhibit came about and some discussions with modern-day amulet makers. After the exhibit, we stopped by the museum shop and purchased the exhibit’s beautifully-crafted and informative catalog. Following a light lunch in one of the museum’s cafeterias, we left the museum and caught a taxi to our next destination, a book shop, M. Pomeranz Bookseller, The Gan Eden of Jewish Books.

M. Pomeranz Bookseller, Jerusalem. Photo by Beth-Ben-Avraham, 2022.

My wife is a dedicated student of the Talmud. The Pomeranz book store has been a steady go-to place for books required for her study. Often, she orders by phone, and the shop carefully packs and sends her order by courier to our home in Beersheba. A while back, when Beth was in the store, she gave them a copy of my chapbook, God’s Memory, published by Kelsay Books in 2021. In response to subsequent communications, we brought the store copies of the chapbook to be included in their poetry section.

We spent an enjoyable time browsing the store’s shelves and found so many books that we wanted; we needed to purchase a backpack from the store to carry them comfortably with us on our trip back home. Leaving the bookstore, we headed to our third and final destination, the Waldorf Astoria, for English tea.

English tea at the Waldorf was something else I read about in The Jerusalem Post in a review by Steve Linde and Liat Collins. We arrived promptly at 4 p.m. and were seated in the King’s Court restaurant. I was so excited! I’ve never enjoyed authentic English tea.

We were served promptly and asked which tea we would like. Beth is an experienced tea drinker, having spent a considerable amount of time with her parents in India, including attending school in Delhi. We asked for Earl Grey, which arrived in two beautiful teapots. Our waiter set a three-minute timer on the table for us. I dutifully poured myself a cup of tea when the three minutes were up.

Beth Ben-Avraham, Afternoon Tea, Waldorf Astoria, Jerusalem, 2022

Next came the delicacies, two kinds of scones, a row of pastries, cucumber sandwiches, some little tarts of egg salad, and, not for this vegetarian, smoked salmon, which I gave to Beth. We worked our way through our feast. I consumed all that was mine; Beth asked for and received a bag to carry what she couldn’t eat to take home and enjoy on the Sabbath.

The tea service wasn’t pure English-stye. The chef combined the traditional tea offerings with French pastries and the use of local Israeli ingredients. The result was wonderful!

We left the hotel and caught a cab to the train station. The afternoon tea was a perfect ending to a beautiful day for us spent together in the holy city.

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither;
let my tongue stick to my palate
if I cease to think of you,
if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory
even at my happiest hour.

Psalm 137:5-6, NJps

All the best,
Gershon

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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