Imagine this: it’s Thursday evening (the Friday for Israelis) in Tel-Aviv, you’ve just finished a week’s worth of writing lines of code and sitting in front of two large screens, and you’re off to grab a thick shawarma pita with some pals to celebrate the end of another long week. You pull out your phone to message the group, and after scrolling through all forms of social media, you Lime (electric scooter) a short distance to HaKosem Shawarma. This is, of course, all before 18:30 because the line gets ridiculously long quite early, and you can’t miss the bus to Frishman beach to catch the sunset. Post-sunset, you hit a salsa club, learn a few steps with a handful of random partners, and head back to the apartment to make a phone call home and type up a blog post.
Now, imagine this: it’s Friday evening. Actually, it’s 22:00 at night. You arrive at the front door of an ultra-orthodox Jewish family’s home in the outskirts of Jerusalem. You’re here for a scheduled Shabbat dinner with locals (via www.getshabbat.com), and it turns out that you’re not the only one at the Shabbat dinner with this family. There are, in fact, one-hundred twenty other Jews and tourists alike all waiting outside this family’s home in anticipation of what will soon be a free, three-hour, eight-course meal in a crowded living room. No pictures, no phones, no physical contact across genders; women in one corner of the room and men in the other; everyone gets a prayer book pre-meal to read and sing songs from; to your left is a small, old woman yelling in Hebrew for the meal’s duration and to your right is the busy kitchen, filled with young women and kids. Post-dinner, you’re walking back to your hostel (no public transportation) when suddenly, an ultra-orthodox Jewish father and his two kids ask you for help in Hebrew. After minutes of charades, you realize his family needs the lights in the household to be turned on, and you are the only non-Jew at one in the morning in an ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem to help him out. You go off your path fifteen minutes to switch on the master light switch in their home – the family cheers. Eight kids suddenly appear, popping their heads out of the doorway. Just when everything seems to wind down enough for you to get some rest, the electricity goes out in the hostel.
My Singaporean mother’s side of the family is mainly Buddhist, and my Spanish father’s side of the family is Catholic; however, my parents themselves grew up as “free thinkers” and granted my sister and me the freedom to believe what we wanted to believe in. As such, I was never exposed to religion heavily growing up, and while I have many religious friends and encounters, I am not religious myself.
For me, to experience a weekend like the one described above was certainly an eye-opening experience. One day I was completely immersed in modern-day technology and customs: the world that is most familiar to myself (and most MIT students) and the world I most identify with. Twenty-four hours later, I lived on the other side of the spectrum. Although the day-to-day life of an ultra-orthodox Jew is still a mystery to me, I appreciate that evening in Jerusalem for shedding light on a lifestyle so vastly different from my own.
If you want to read about crater-hiking in the Negev desert, visiting the Syrian border at the Golan Heights, or eating the best hummus in Israel, check out my personal blog here.
An Jimenez is a member of the class of 2021 studying Computer Science and Engineering. This summer, An is writing algorithms to improve self-driving vehicles at a tech startup in Tel Aviv, Israel.