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Great Question

by Johanna Schnüpke

Introducing you to the power of asking questions one Great Question at a time. 

Monday, 1st of May 2023  

What should I ask you, that people usually don’t ask, to better understand you?

What the question means to me:

Have you ever experienced something that out of the ordinary, that realizing the uniqueness of it paralyzed you? Last Friday was such a day for me.

I was invited by Orthodox Jews to join a private Shabbat dinner at a Rabbi’s home. Being allowed to join a private family Shabbat as an “outsider” is something very rare and special. The question that I asked the Rabbi that night, that changed everything, was the following:

“What question should I ask you, that people usually don’t ask, to better understand you, your religion, your rules and the way you chose to live?”

But let me start from the beginning.

On my last day of my Mexico trip, a couple of weeks ago, I met Ashi, an Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn. We met at a market and found out that we happen to be on the same flight back to New York the next day. I ran into him at the airport in Mexico City again and he was sitting behind me on the plane. We exchanged numbers and he invited me to Shabbat last Friday. It started casually at his place with a “Pre-Shabbat” dinner. Four of his friends joined. Ashi prepared a Kosher Ceviche and introduced me to Jewish traditions, rituals and rules. 20 minutes before sunset, a siren outside started to wail. “Time to prepare for Shabbat”, they told me. Shabbat is the Jewish day of rest, starting from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday, every week. Some of the rules during that day of rest: Not using electronics such as smartphones: “You guys do digital detox when close to a burn out, we have our Shabbat every week.” I smiled. Another rule: You can’t carry anything with you. Although it was raining outside, we couldn’t bring our umbrellas and couldn’t call an Uber, because driving with a car is prohibited too. And for beginners: Never turn off the lights when using a Jewish bathroom during Shabbat, because they are not allowed to turn it on again. Well, it happened to me. I didn't turn off the lights on purpose, rather out of habit and brought my host Ashi in an awkward situation. He forgave me and I am sure it will never happen to me again :)

At 8.15 pm we left for Synagogue. Separate entrances for men and women. The women stood on a gallery overlooking the main room, that was packed with Jewish Orthodox men. All dressed the same, praying and rocking back and forth.  I have never seen such a big praying Jewish crowd before. The way they prayed, the way they interacted and moved, it was highly fascinating to me.  I was starring and wondering and embracing the atmosphere.

The main part of the evening started at 9.15 pm. We were invited to a Rabbi’s house for his private family dinner. For me, being German, I felt very honored and nervous at the same time. When I entered the Rabbi’s house, the first thing I saw, was the living room with the huge dining table surrounded by book shelfs from floor to ceiling with hundreds of books written in Hebrew.

The Rabbi set on the left end of the table, his pregnant wife and 10 of their 11 children sat on the couch and stared at me. No talking, just staring. I greeted the Rabbi, introduced myself. Shaking hands with women is not allowed, luckily Ashi gave me the briefing before. The Rabbi didn’t move, looked at me and said: “You are late. I thought Germans are always on time.” I apologized and explained that it took so long because we went praying at the Synagogue. He started to laugh: “I was just being sarcastic. Take a seat!" Everything that happened from that moment on was like in a movie.

“Let’s start”, the Rabbi said. He and his family and friends began to pray and sing. The Rabbi poured wine in a silver cup, spilling it, which stands for overflowing abundance, how he explained later. “Every celebration in Jewish tradition starts with a glass of wine." He blessed the Challah bread and pointed at the sink, that was installed in the living room. Before eating the bread, we had to wash each hand three times with water that we put in a little container and weren’t allowed to talk to each other until we took the first bite of our bread. The Rabbi explained me, that this is a way to keep the hands clean until you start with your meal. “When you talk, you don’t have control of what your hands are doing."

The wife and the children served us a four course meal. Everything was delicious, but way too much. We talked and laughed and sang and prayed. For me, watching his big family gathered around the dinner table was touching. The kids helped their mum in the kitchen, talked about their vacation in Italy and what they learned at school today. The interaction between them was full of respect, support and love for each other. Despite all the rules, the prohibitions and restrictions, here and now in this specific situation at the dinner table, they seemed to be very happy.

The Rabbi’s German was excellent. His parents are Austrian and Swiss. We pointed out how similar the Yiddish and the German language are. I understood almost everything when they talked in Yiddish.  The atmosphere was warm, I felt welcome and still there was this Elephant in the room. Although the Rabbi seemed to be very open-minded, I had too much respect to ask all the questions that I wanted to ask. I felt paralyzed, caught in the swirl of my mixed feelings about my role as a German. And I was nervous and overwhelmed by this unique experience. At some point the Rabbi himself started the conversation about the Holocaust and we asked him how we, as Germans, being here with him in his home make him feel. “You are not responsible for things that happened decades before you were born. But it’s important that you do everything in your power to make sure that this is not happening again.”

Time flew by and at around one o’clock at night I asked him the following question:

“What question should I ask you, that people usually don’t ask, to better understand you, your religion, your rules and the way you chose to live?”

His answer: “To be honest, it’s important that you ask at all. People often don’t dare to ask questions. They are afraid, they are insecure. They don’t approach us. Most of the stuff that I read about Orthodox Jews is incorrect. The negative but also the positive things. I always ask myself: Why don’t they ask US? Us, the experts. Where do they get their incorrect information from instead?” And he added: “You can ask me EVERYTHING. You are allowed to ask me any question you want.”

This is what I would have needed in the beginning. It changed the whole situation. His answer showed me, that it is often not about what you ask, it is about the act of asking. Once we overcome the fear of rejecting for a question that could make us look stupid or uninformed, asking other people with curiosity is an act of showing genuine interest, of showing that we care. In order to understand other perceptions, other concepts of life and to get rid of prejudices, we need to ask, ask, ask. In a respectful and appropriate way, still not holding anything back.

 This question opened a door for me and from that point on nothing could have stopped me. I asked all the questions I wanted to ask. Critical questions, bold questions. Just everything. The Rabbi and his extremely intelligent wife were telling us all the things that we wanted to know, patiently explaining the details and the meaning of rules and rituals until all of a sudden, the lights went out. Pre-set timing devices to turn lights on and off during Shabbat. It was 2 am. Time to go home.

We said goodbye and didn’t dare to take out our smartphones to call an Uber. The wife realized our conflict and jumped in: “Of course you can take your phones and look for an Uber. You do your thing and that is totally fine. We respect it and you respect our decision to not do it. That’s how it should be, right?” Yes, that’s how it should be. Shabbat Shalom!

Action: The next time when having a hard time understanding someone with different world views, set of beliefs or traditions, ask them: “What should I ask you, that people usually don’t ask, to better understand you?” Maybe you get a concrete answer or an invitation to ask everything you want, until you understand.

Sharing: Share your thoughts and feelings about the question and if you want, share the experience you made, when using it.



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