Kosher?

I went to get a coffee at the lobby bar, and asked the bartender — who was efficient, courteous and courtly — about buying a container of spreadable chocolate for the kids. Turns out there’s a grocery store close by. He gave me walking directions, then quietly warned me not to eat it in the lobby or anywhere outside my room.

“It’s not, you know, kosher, this chocolate.”  Three syllables, not two contracted American-style or the quatrosyllabic slithering of the French; three syllables enunciated with the guttural firmness that Hebrew borrows from eastern Europe’s Yiddish:  choke a lot.

On Saturday in this hotel, the elevators automatically stop at every floor for the religious convenience of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who would otherwise need to take the stairs to avoid breaking Shabbat by pressing a button.

The breakfast buffet conforms to kashrut.  This prevents annoyance to modern descendants of the Levites, a tribe of ancient hall monitors who ensured proper slaughtering and cooking techniques by threatening the wrath of G-D, much the way Pat Robertson does today but with pens rather than Steadi-Cams.  When you see the pickled herring fillets next to pale cheese slices, light green peppers, hummus and fresh cherry tomatoes, you instantly feel blessed — if not that you’re in a kosher hotel, then at least that you didn’t spend the night in a Holiday Inn Express.

“I’m not actually Jewish.”

He blushed the way only a very young man can still blush.  “No, I am not, either.” But he sure looked it, with the longish jawline, straight nose, cannonball shoulders, curly glossed hair and dark, shining eyes that seem like the birthright of young Jews here.

He waited a moment, then said, “I am going for smoke. I can get it for you.”

“Oh, that’s okay. I could use the walk.”

“We can go together. I go to get cigarettes,” he shrugged slightly and cocked his head to the side, “you come.”  It may be the signature Jewish gesture, this palms-out half shrug.

I had bought water from him, in bottles, for a trip to the Dead Sea the following day.  He packed the bottles carefully into a plastic shopping bag, adding a stack of drinking cups. Handing the package to me, he smiled very tentatively and blushed again.

“Do you want to come?”

He probably wanted to practice his English.  On my best day, in perfect fettle, I’m still the slow student and I wasn’t at my best.

I’d ridden south from Tel Aviv after checking out of the Mercure Hotel on Ben Yehuda, picked my way over to Ayalon and followed it over toHighway 1 south, Israel’s mother road connecting their most modern metropolis with their most ancient heritage.

Once in town, I’d met the founder of ZAKA, interviewed his motorcycle captain, then followed the flashing red light of Shimi the mad, mad moto medic as he bobbed and weaved through the insane gridlock of a Jerusalem business day seeking a patient who collapsed during services in an Orthodox synagogue.

I was whipped, and not — now, how does my wife put it? — “emotionally available.”

But I smiled back, perfunctorily, as men do to terminate a conversation without rancor, took my bag and turned toward the elevator banks.  As I turned away, just for a second, out of the corner of my nearsighted eye it seemed like his expression fell just a little.

I turned back and said, “Maybe tomorrow.”

Shambling across the lobby in my sweatpants and loafers, I realized it was the first time in my life that conversation with a male had made me feel like a dirty old man.

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