Viena, I almost left you. Twice. First time you tricked me with a pub crawl but instead, I went to see the Shoenfield castle, where I watched the sun set and then later met Ben and Summer from California. Summer a sixth generation Jew originally from Zimbabwe. She had to flee and leave everything because of Mugabe who redistributed the white property. Her boyfriend Ben told me about a small community of Jews in Guiyana who are not recognized by Israel but pratctice Judaism. I met a possible Jewish girl from Germany of Polish descent and her friend from Swizerland and my new roommates, from Netherlands who had with them what looked like Nazi propoganda journal and spoke with me for an hour or so about Nazis, Germany and Jews. Apperenlty the Footbal team of Amsterdam calls itself Jewish because the founder was one.
I stayed up with my new Moracan friend until six am with whom I planned to hitchhike to Budapesht but upon waking up I found that Vienna was raining and there was an email in my inbox from the head Rabbi of Vienna, Rabbi Eisenberg: “I’m in the office now, call me.” I now sent Omar with his hippy roommate to Bratislava and I went attempt to catch the Rabi at the synagogue once the rain let up.
I wondered the streets for a while until I found my Starbucks near the center and by then I was sweaty and gross. I sat down and desperately tried to find a way to call him as a blond Austrian girl asked to sit near me. I gave her my seat as it was dry and others were wet. For the kindness I was rewarded with two tips: one was how to make a phone call in Austria and the other that there is an orthodox Jewish community just across the bridge over the brown Danube. I crossed the bridge taking pictures of the graffitied banks and entered the quiet Leopoldstad through the row of Skyscrapers. A little town opened up to me, with quaint old buildings, sloped wooden roofs and Hassidic Jews crossing streets on Razr Scooters, Jewish women with their three to five children and old men waddling from Synagogue to synagogue. I found kosher shops and restaurants wih Hamsa (upside down hand) and Mezuzas (prayer boxes in the doorways) proudly displayed. I was walkind back to do the interview with the Rabi when two young Jewish guys were walking towards me, something in me found something in them. I asked if they would talk with me on camera. They said sure but soon we realized we all spoke Russian and they took me to their Yeshiva (a religious school). The Yeshiva has a large dining/playroom with high vaulted ceilings with a ping pong table in the kitchen/dining area where there is a tiny stove and a tables for eating and cooking and an equally large synagogue room with lots of book filled bookshelves a torah cabinet and chairs and tables filled with book for studying. The tables are always in use by groups or individuals studying real meaning of Talmud (jewish law) and the Tanak(old testament). The groups are broken up according to language: German, Russian and Hebrew.
I listened to Lev and Joseph’s stories. Lev was a rebelious hippy child that didn’t know about himself being jewsh until sixteen. He never stayed put in one place for long until he got to Vienna a year ago where he has now been for a year. He cut his dreadlocks and had briss.
Joseph was a curious guy with a penchant for women and doing nothing until his parents suggested that he go to a private religious school. Their he began questioning what was told with him but as the questions were answered he became more convinced about religion being the right way until slowly but surely to the surprise of his secular family and friends, he became an orthodox jew.
Their teacher, Rabbi Levin with a curly black and grey beard, a kind smile and a tie. Originally from Russia, he went to study in Israel. I was invited for lesson but I had to go meet the other Rabbi so I left my things at the Yeshiva inside the small room where seven students live in beds lining the walls and Joseph walked me to the Synagogue. Rabbi was no longer there and I was going to walk back but until I ran across Michu Michu, an Israeli falafel shop that was so good and cheap that it should be illegal. The waiter was a Hungarian Jew and he told me about the anti-semitism in Hungary. Not to wear a kippa there and to keep a low profile. I heard earlier from someone how head of the Nazi party in Hungary was Jewish and appologized for being Jewish on TV. I was going to take a train but once I got to the Yeshiva, I was given tea, then a lesson on Talmud and Torah where I learned that learning Talmud for non jews is forbidden because to learn Talmud you need a teacher and support. Without the support, one would learn too little to actually make sense of the Talmud and end up using the solutions for the wrong answers. Then when it doesn’t seem to work they blame the bible or the Jews and the Talmud instead of their lack of knowledge. I’m not convinced it’s right but essentially that is how Christianity came to be. The Talmud was written by very wise me and they wrote down how to live a good life. We learned that Jews believe in Karma to never harbor evel feelings about others and how love is something created later in marriage. Religious education is meant to help in life not in making money. Most kids afterwards go on living life without necessarily becoming Rabbis. After the lesson, I walked around the area some more. Lightning struck, thunder thundered and when I got back, I was told to that the last train to Budapest already left, I would be spending the night at the Yeshiva.
After the last prayer of the day, I played the Rabbi Sender ping pong. he schooled me pretty well, much better than fighting the tall and lanky Krav Maga at the Hoakim center the day before. I played Josef afterwards and by the end we played comfortably while talking about religion and Torah. At the end, I drank tea and we spoke about happiness. He said something I won’t forget.“Happiness is knowing that right now at this moment, this is the happiest you can be.” It becomes an easy choice.
I sat down on the couch and Levi joined me. We bagan speaking about science and religion and Rabbi Levin joine us for a discussion about what is fact, what is true. I began to realized that problems happen when Scientists like me speak about religion and Theologians speak about science. We bid Rabbi goodnight and I went to set up my bed in the kitchen. Benjamin joined me. He is a blonde kid from Litva. Maybe 17 or 18 and wants to have a business and does not seem that religious or interested in religion all that much. We chatted about life, about him possibly going to US about his life in Latvia.
Next morning, Levi was the first in the synogogue praying. Soon more people came in and Rabbi Levin put on the talit and soon the whole yeshiva was inside. They prayed for a long time. I had time to go get some milk for coffee, to brush my teeth, to get my things ready and towards the end I brought in my camera. Rabbi Senger, an energetic black bearded man from Ukraine, grabbed my camera and sent me to put on a talit and put away the Torah. An honor rarely had by most Jews. I held the giant scrolls near me, thinking of the old ritual and all the rituals having been done by Jews and other religions.
Benjamin mad a onion and tomato omlet and we sat around a table were I got to know more people. They were from all over the world: Ukraine, Russia, England, Argenitna, Israel and Georgia.
Watching Rabi Levin teach with the books behind and on the table in front of him, I realized how this type of Talmudic teaching is great preparation for law and any other type of learning. It became clear that this kind of deep education that most Jewish boys went through made the culture thousands of years ahead of most other cultures. Think, it is less than one hundred years ago that most cultures realized the importance of education and school, think how hard school is for most kids where as Jewish kids for thousands of years have been learning. 100% literacy rate for boys and girls. The methods have been worked on for thousands of years. The teacher, the book and a small group method, the constant reinforcement of why learning is good and the Rabi student relationships where the student sits at the table with the teacher and is encouraged to ask any question any time and discuss the question until he understands it.
I left the Yeshiva with a new understanding of what it is to be Jew and how hard it is to be religious (most religions have the same kind of rigorous learning).