Two years ago, Tifferet Oryah took to Facebook to announce her upcoming project. In the announcement, she wrote about her unique background and desire to learn more about her personal Shabbat—by spending entire Shabbatot with families from the whole spectrum of Jewish Israeli society. “Faith is always part of identity, the connection to Judaism is there, but it’s never really totally clear in what way, how, in what manner,” wrote Oryah. “I believe it’s possible to learn from everybody; from every family I visit, I’m happy to take at least one thing for my Shabbat! As I see it, this is the way Judaism was preserved over thousands of years. Not being afraid of arguing, of asking questions, but always alongside a search for answers and the truth.” The post quickly went viral. An unending stream of interested phone calls followed.
Oryah comes from a mixed home—her mother is Ultra-Orthodox and her father is a religious Zionist. She went to the secular high school in Sde Boker and made a point of keeping up the traditions she learned at home even while she was there. (“I wasn’t ever classically religious. For as long as I can remember, when people asked whether I was religious, I would say, ‘No, I’m Tifferet.’”) After she was discharged from the army, she served as a counselor at Village Way’s IsraElite Mechina in Migdal HaEmek. Afterward, she turned to Middle East and Islamic studies at Shalem College.
“I was the first religious girl to attend the boarding school in Sde Boker,” Oryah says, “and I was introduced to a cultural world that was rich and totally different from mine. I learned a new language—but no one in my new environment understood that I also spoke a different language. In the army, my personal boundaries when it comes to Shabbat were tested, and every time it came, I floundered over the question of what’s fundamental to me. It was clear to me that Shabbat is a day for the soul, but I was familiar with two worlds, and I understood that in each one there were good things that I wanted to take for my life”.
“One day,” Oryah remembers, “after I was discharged, I was on a bus to Jerusalem and thinking about what it means that they always say Jerusalem is a religious city, but when I looked out the window, I saw lots of types of religious people: the teenager in a denim skirt, the Ultra-Orthodox man in black-and-white, the newlywed in pants and a headscarf. Right then, I had the idea of going to a home of each one of these stereotypes and choosing one thing from there to take for my life. The goal wasn’t just to hear, but to become familiar with other worlds and to discover what my place is in this whole range. It seemed to me that it was best to do it through an encounter with the other, through an encounter with various lifestyles and notions of truth that are different from mine”.
Starting right then, the idea took shape, and the post started making waves online (Hebrew). “They posted about me in groups I didn’t know existed, and hundreds of people contacted me, and that’s when the screening and research work started, with the goal of figuring out where to go. I asked the people who contacted me a lot of questions, and I heard lots of people’s stories. I realized that I needed to set overall borders—what exactly the goal was and how I was going to reach it. I focused my attention on Shabbatot with families that have kids, and I had faith that in the end, I would end up where I needed to be.”
Oryah emphasizes that this was not a blind process. On the contrary, she came to the project from a deep, fundamental understanding of herself and the general contours of her character. “I knew what my convictions are when it comes to politics, education, and gender, but I traveled around in order to look at a specific question and examine the subject of Shabbat, out of faith that in every person I meet there’s an aspect of truth. If I’d been totally lost and detached when I got there, then I guess I would have been likely to get carried away among the different outlooks there are. The very fact that I arrived with a coherent worldview made it possible for me to go and be tolerant, and to be open to learning, to change, and to experiencing my truth”.
She embarked on her journey in February 2018, and it lasted a year-and-a-half. As of last summer, she had visited 15 families across Israel. Almost all of them successfully accomplished the task of breaking stigmas and stereotypes about them. The informal process in which Oryah decided to insert herself and those strangers wasn’t always straightforward. “It was clear that there was going to be a process. Always actively listening takes a lot of strength. My ‘guest muscle’ got a lot stronger. At first I would disappear for a few long minutes, standing opposite the mirror in the bathroom and wondering to myself what I was doing there (‘you idiot,’ ‘what were you thinking?’). When it came to Shabbatot later on in the process, 20 minutes into the visit I was already standing with the family in the kitchen and helping with the cooking for Shabbat”.
Tifferet was here
Oryah illustrates her happy shattering of stereotypes with two stories from a Shabbat that she spent with none other than a Hasidic family. “The whole Shabbat was a real piece of stereotype-breaking. I was so sure I really wouldn’t have a good time, and in the end I discovered the opposite. I went to a Yiddish-speaking Hasidic family. Back in the day, my great-grandfather composed a special melody for the rebbe of that Hasidic sect. The topic came up, and in the middle of supper, the grandfather, the patriarch of the family, tried to remember the melody and asked me to sing! I froze in place. Since I’m familiar with the Haredi world and the prohibition of women’s singing, being in that situation was a shock for me. I was so surprised that he was asking me to use my voice.” Later, she went to the rebbe’s tisch with her hosts, and in the meantime she taught the children a few words of Arabic.
In the morning, the hosts’ son went over to her and started asking questions about the Middle East. “He was across from me, far away, not looking at me, because you’re not allowed to look at women, and despite it all, he decided to ask. In other circumstances, I would have been annoyed and all the feminism in me and my ideas about gender would have come out, but I decided that there’s two-way communication going on here. I came to meet the world that’s inside their closed community, and through me they had a close encounter with the world outside.”
Oryah’s nuclear family encouraged her the whole way, and her siblings were always curious about how it went on Shabbatot she spent with other families. “It was a privilege to take the car away from my brothers to do it. Sometimes they fought with me over it, but they really understood the rationale behind the idea. My family itself is complex and varied, so they totally supported me.”
Those siblings also have practical applications of Oryah’s journey to show for it: “In our home, and in many others, getting ready for Shabbat happens in an atmosphere of tension. I visited a number of families that bring in Shabbat calmly. Right after candle lighting, the family sits down together for coffee and cake. It’s a small thing, but the whole family comes together and manages to bring in Shabbat in a relaxed way.”
Oryah made a point of documenting her journey in writing after every Shabbat. When the documentation and experiences piled up, she realized that perhaps this wasn’t just her personal story. Last summer, Oryah decided to put a stop to the journey, dedicate time to writing a book and processing the experience, and lecture to various audiences about her journey. “I sensed at some point that I’m really good at adapting myself to others—not because I’m lying, but just because I already have the entire range inside me. It was hard for me that I was adapting myself even to the Haredim, until I finally realized that there also is a Haredi part of my identity. I wrote everything down, and I realized that suddenly the words had changed. I don’t flounder. Inside me, I have a piece of everyone. There’s a little bit of all the different worlds inside me. I suddenly realized that that’s the process I’d experienced, and I understood that I was in a different place already.”
Tifferet Oryah lectures to Year 2 students of Mechinat Beit Yisrael