When you’ve sat at every table at the Eritrean restaurant

Tonight, I tried to make plans to go out.  Thursday is the start of the weekend in Israel, but unfortunately my friends were busy.  After talking with an American friend on the phone, I headed home.

As I walked around Shchunat Hatikva, I heard something strange: English.  I literally did a double take and was so unsure what language they were speaking, I asked the two young men – in Hebrew – what they were speaking.  Sure enough, they were American-Israelis!

You have to understand my neighborhood is nothing like the glitzy boulevards of North Tel Aviv.  And it’s really not much like the hipster neighborhood of Florentin in South Tel Aviv.  My Tel Aviv is a low-income cultural melting pot.  Sometimes a bit too loud and always interesting.  Very very rarely do I hear English.  The only other languages I hear besides Hebrew are Russian, varying dialects of Judeo-Arabic and Palestinian Arabic, Tigre, Tigrinya, Amharic, and Bukharan.

I got excited and talked to the two young men.  It was strange speaking English in my neighborhood and quite fun.  Unfortunately, the guys were not my cup of tea.  They made some rude remarks about refugees and were rather brusque with the nice guys at my shwarma stand.  I didn’t want to spend my night with them.  So I politely bid them adieu and walked down the street.

On Etzel Street, there’s an amazing Eritrean restaurant.  I’m giving a tour of my neighborhood tomorrow so I wanted to see what time they’d be open.

After I talked with the owner, I saw another man eating.  Woldu invites me to sit with him.  I grab a chair and we start talking.  Turns out he met me the other day when I brought an American friend there for dinner.  We talked about the refugee crisis, demonstrations, the importance of humanity, racism, and of course Eritrean music and dance.  Of which I’m a fan 🙂 .  He showed me his favorite artists, Helen Meles and Tesfalem Arefaine.

I want to highlight one very specific and important thing that happened tonight.  When I sat with Woldu, he insisted I eat with him.  As in, eat his food.  I felt a little awkward- I know people in this part of the world are very hospitable, but Woldu is a very low-income refugee and I had already just stuffed my face with kebabs.  I didn’t want to take advantage of him and frankly, I wasn’t that hungry.  I was very moved by the gesture.  Doesn’t get much more humble and loving than that.

What I came to realize, however, was this wasn’t just a gesture.  It was an order.  Like a top-notch Jewish mother, he gently scolded me for not eating enough.  Over and over again.  And even though I wasn’t that hungry, I gave in because frankly tibs are delicious.

Besides being utterly hospitable and kind, Woldu said something very important to me: “I’m not just asking you to eat- when I come here after a long day and have to eat alone, I want to eat with someone.  A friend.  So sit and eat with me.”

Wow.  I’m at a loss for words.  We weren’t just chatting or breaking bread together.  We were keeping each other company.  Because I like him.  And he likes me.  And I like this restaurant.  Not just because of the delicious food, but because of the beautiful people that work and eat there.  I identified with Woldu’s statement because I’m alone here too.  Thank God I have more legal protections than him and I hope he gets the justice he deserves.  When it comes down to it, we’re just two human beings, from opposite sides of the earth who met halfway in Tel Aviv.  And now are friends.  That is love.

Demonstrations are important.  I’ll be protesting Saturday night- please join me.  Supporting refugees is the right thing to do.

If Israel deports Woldu, I’ll be sad to see his pain, I’ll be furious at my government.  And I’ll feel lonely.  I’ll have one less friend here.  Refugees aren’t a news item for me.  I hang out with them.  They make me happy.  And in their struggle, I see a piece of mine too.  Newcomers in a faraway land.  Who don’t want to eat alone.

You know you love your Eritrean friends when you laugh with them because you realize you’ve sat at every table in their restaurant.

Cover photo: Daniele Bora

Author: Matt Adler - מטע אדלר

A compassionate multilingual Jewish explorer. Author of "More Than Just Hummus: A Gay Jew Discovers Israel in Arabic": http://tiny.cc/qjfbsz & http://tiny.cc/gkfbsz. Join me on my journeys by reading my blog or following me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/matt.adler.357. May you find some beauty in your day today. :)

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