Having spent the last weeks in Tel Aviv, I found myself, as always, in the midst of the most implausible combinations. I was able to enjoy a provocative dance performance (naked dancers, etc.) by Batsheva, one of Israel’s most prestigious groups, and a few evenings later, I joined my childhood friend Rinat for a lesson on the book Tanya, the Kabbalah-based work of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Hasidism, first published in 1797.
The event took place in her real estate agency, nestled in the ground floor of a residential building in one of Tel Aviv’s first and by now trendiest neighborhoods. The office owner, Havah, is a chozer-b’teshuvah, meaning a secular Jew turned religious. She’s a Chabadnik now, part of the Chasidic movement that believes charity and learning the right ways will hasten the arrival of the Moshiach. Hence, a few times a week she transforms her office into a learning place, where she also serves food, just in case.
This is not your average real estate office nor your trendy Kabbalah Center, but a surrealist amalgamation of the utterly secular with a lively, existential interpretation of Jewish mysticism (at times not un-provocative for secular sensitivities).
On the glass door of the office looms large the photograph of the seventh and last Chabad Rebbe of the Lubavitch dynasty, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Inside, the small space, which also features a cupboard-sized kitchen, is crammed with two desks, at least 10 chairs, a wall crowded with religious books, a piano (yes), and a square dining table that occupies almost the entire place, covered with a festive white map and plastic cups. A few women are sitting around the table; the oldest, so I am later told, is 80. Most of them, except for the owner and two young women, are secular.
Leah, the rabbanit (female rabbi), a stout woman wearing a blond wig, is waiting patiently while Havah completes her preparations and sends her bearded husband for a last errand before he vanishes, as the evening is meant for women only.