Cell phones, black hats and shopping lists

BreadI saved this lovely little Baltimore Sun piece from earlier in the week, with the idea that I was going to run it on Friday, about the time that the events described in it would be unfolding. Then it hit me that this was not a wise thing to do -- if Orthodox Jewish readers and bloggers were going to see it. I guess I should have posted it on Thursday. Whatever. In this little feature called "Grocer a timely part of Shabbos tradition," reporter Matthew Hay Brown has taken a snapshot of a moment in Orthodox Jewish life that stands for so much more. In particular, I love the detail that modern technology -- that would be cell telephones -- are now a crucial element of the ancient traditions of Orthodox Judaism linked to the Shabbos meal and the homey rites linked to it.

You see there are the Traditions and then there are the "traditions." It's all part of traditional faith making its way into modern life.

It's a typical Friday afternoon at the supermarket in Park Heights, where families are picking up food and supplies for Shabbos while they still can. Beginning at sundown on Friday, Orthodox Jews will refrain from working, handling money, driving a car, answering the telephone and operating electrical appliances. With the din of modern life thus quieted, they will gather with family and friends, attend synagogue services, sing, dance and eat together. ...

But before the calm, there is -- well, if not the storm, at least a fair amount of preparation. Shabbos, which begins at sundown Friday and lasts until after nightfall Saturday, creates a distinct rhythm to Jewish life -- a pulse that can be felt at Seven Mile Market. Thursdays, the business bustles with men wearing black hats or yarmulkes and women in berets, ankle-length skirts and sleeves, buying wine and braided challah bread, candles and ingredients for cholent, a slow-cooking stew.

And the cell telephones? Ah, this is the new link to the command center back at home, where the troops prepare to host friends and families in these tight-knit communities. There is something about staying within walking distance of one another that creates networks and a true social community.

So who is coming to dinner?

Rabbi Shlomo Porter clutches a crumpled shopping list in one hand and reaches into a suitcoat pocket with the other.

"This is the key," says Porter, of the Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Learning, producing a cell phone. "You'll see men talking with their wives, making sure they've got everything they need."

Porter was picking up the last items for the 20 guests he and his wife were hosting that Friday. "We talk about a one-table Shabbos, and a two-table Shabbos," he says. "This is a three-table Shabbos."

Reporters can find stories very similar to this in any traditional faith that makes demands on the details of daily life -- especially food.

I hope to do a column very soon on the impact of Eastern Orthodox Christian Lenten traditions on the kitchens of converts. There are Wednesday night pot-lucks at Southern Baptist churches and, my oh my, the traditional foods that are spread out for acres at any dinner on the grounds held by any Pentecostal congregation (of any ethnic stripe). Obviously, you see similar stories linked to Islam and its growth in the West.

Is this news? Not hard news, I guess. It's just daily life soaked with faith and symbolism.

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