Shabbat Afternoon Hatikva

by Brian on May 25, 2006

in Jewish Holidays and Culture,Only in Israel

We were sitting on our third floor terrace on a warm Shabbat afternoon. It was one of the perfect Jerusalem days – not uncomfortably hot, not borderline cold; the air just lapping lightly at your skin with no unwelcome humidity to mar the moment. My wife Jody and I were reading the paper, eight-year-old Aviv was kicking a ball around in the courtyard downstairs, and the older kids were playing the card game Set.

Then I heard it. An amplified sound that echoed off the buildings incoherently in a language I didn’t immediately recognize. Imagine the “blah-blah-blah” voice of the adults in the old Charlie Brown cartoons – that’s pretty much what I was listening to.

My first thought was it was an emergency announcement, a policeman on a blowhorn warning people to stay away from some area where a suspected terrorist was loose. But there were no sirens and the voice sounded more enthusiastic than stern.

Maybe it was from one of the local muezzins – the loudspeakers that sit astride area mosques and call the faithful to prayer five times a day. Depending on where you live in the city (and your religious preference), this call can be quite inspiring – or rather jarring, especially the one that goes out across the eastern part of the city before dawn.

But now the amplified voice began to take shape – it was clearly Hebrew. And I began to discern other sounds in the background: a crowd, cheering.

The proverbial light bulb went off over my head: the audio reverberating all through southern Jerusalem on this sunny Shabbat afternoon must be coming from far away Teddy Stadium where a local soccer match was being played. The excited voice I heard…that was the announcer probably introducing the players as they strode onto the field.

Soccer on Shabbat…it’s as American as apple pie. But this is not America, it’s Israel, and instead of apples, here it’s a political hot potato.

Shabbat afternoon soccer is a desecration of the holy day, say some. It’s a perfect way to spend the day following synagogue and a family meal, say others.

For immigrants from the U.S., the debate is mostly moot; we didn’t grow up in a rabid soccer-playing culture like our Israeli fellow citizens, or for that matter like our English-speaking cousins from the U.K., Australia and South Africa. So we look on, like the bemused outsiders we so often are, as proposals make their way to the Knesset that go so far as to ban Shabbat soccer…or, alternatively, to move Israel’s weekend to accommodate Israelis of all religious persuasions.

Shifting the weekend to a more Western-standard Saturday-Sunday (vs. Israel’s current Friday-Saturday that gives us only four days of overlap with most of our overseas workmates) would not only solve the soccer dilemma, but the shopping one too. Both soccer and shopping could be concentrated on the newly created Sunday day off.

It sounds attractive though I’m not holding my breath. Given the importance of Shabbat to so many Israelis (no matter how they celebrate), most people would probably take off early on Friday afternoons to get home before sundown. That would leave us with a four and a half day workweek, making Israel the productive equivalent of, well, France (not exactly a model of hardworking inspiration).

As I sat on my terrace and debated the trade offs between work and play, it occurred to me that all these discussions were missing the point. Because for at least one neurotic oleh (Hebrew for immigrant), the booming narrator and the amplified crowd were doing only thing really well: disturbing my relaxing Shabbat afternoon of leisure. Politics shmolotics, this was just annoying.

I tried to ignore the uninvited surround sound, but some underused part of my brain was doing laughable Hebrew-to-English translations in the background while I tried to read the weekend paper.

I was just about ready to head inside and shut the door on a beautiful day when, suddenly, the loudspeakers began to blare a new tune. Someone was singing now. My universal translator stepped up to the plate.

As long as deep in our hearts
The Jewish soul sings
And forward to the East
To Zion, looks the eye

I can name that tune…it was the Hatikva. Bouncing off the rooftops, from luxury apartment building to 1950s-era tenement and everything in-between sounded the proud words and melody of the Israeli national anthem.

Our hope will not be lost,
The hope of two thousand years
To be a free nation in our land
The land of Zion and Jerusalem

As the music ended and cheering erupted from far away, I realized I had unintentionally stood up to face the direction of Teddy Stadium. So then, this time very consciously, I turned slowly, nearly180 degrees, to orient myself in the direction of the Western Wall at the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Yes, the sounds from the stadium had certainly been annoying. But where else in the world can these inspirational words envelop an entire city? A Shabbat afternoon Hatikva might not have been the exact reason we moved to Israel in the first place…but it was a pretty good reason to stay.

To all who are celebrating Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day – today, chag sameach…happy holidays. And next year…in Jerusalem!

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