Among the Hebrews of Maui

Maui Time | September 28, 2004
Sholom Schusterman is wrapping Tefillin around my heavily tattooed arm. Tefillin is a Jewish thing--two long black straps with two black boxes attached. The straps tie tightly around your arm and one box goes on your forehead and the other on your arm. Jewish men wrap the Tefillin tightly around their arms and pray. Some Jews do this almost every day, but many others do not. Sometimes when they wrap the tefillin straps, they wear tallit, which is a blue and white prayer shawl. It makes the men look very holy and religious.

When you see Jewish men wrapping Tefillin, you are seeing very Jewish Jews.

"I came to Maui for Jewish outreach," says Sholom. "Creating an awareness of torah, opening spiritual doors for people. There was a need for this in Maui. There was no orthodox shul (synagogue), no mikvah (ritual bath). We wanted, with the Maui Mitzvah Center, to bring people together as a community of Jews.

"I had been coming back and forth from here for eight years, sometimes on my own, sometimes with yeshivot (religious students) from other parts of the world, helping with Jewish education, mitzvahs, like tefillin, distributing muzuzot (a tiny case hung next to the door in religious households) and Jewish books."

Shalom and his wife Danit are Chabadniks, which means they are orthodox Jews. Sholom wears a black suit and kippah most of the time. His wife Danit wears long dresses and keeps her hair covered.

When Chabad couples get married, some of them choose to be slichim, which means that they choose to go out and live in some distant outposts--like Hawaii--and dedicate their lives to helping Jews live Jewish lives. Often they are the only observant family in town and the lifestyle is taxing. They are like missionaries, but don't seek converts.

"We came here to help do mitzvot and educational outreach missions," Sholom tells me. "They way I see it, my job here, if I am doing it right, is to inspire people. That's it. To inspire other Jews to live their lives as Jews, to take advantage of the rich things the torah offers."

On their answering machine Danit's voice announces, "Thank you for calling the Maui Mitzvah Center. We are currently out doing mitzvahs."

Sholom received his rabbinical training at a yeshiva in Israel. When he was in Israel, the Gulf War broke out. The bombs started falling on Sholoms' birthday. "It ruined my party," he quips. He grew up in Los Angeles in a large family. He has six brothers, all of whom are rabbis. "My family was famous for making hot mustard," says Sholom, smiling.

His wife Danit was born in Israel and grew up in South Africa, in Johannesburg. She can speak Afrikaans and has a lilt to her Brooklynese. Sometimes she calls Sholom "Rebs" and sometimes they finish each other's sentences. On their refrigerator are photographs, snapshots of their lives: Danit with relatives in Brooklyn, Sholom in Israel, Danit and Sholom in Iao Valley.

The Shustermans live in a very green, jungle-like property in Waiehu. They share the property with a number of people including a man called "Cowboy." To get there you have to take a long windy road up a hill. On the Schustermans' mailbox is a paper plate with the word "Shalom!" written in black sharpie pen. Their home is spare and slightly cluttered, with hundreds of religious books and spare kippot strewn about.

This is a Jewish house, with Jewish stuff. We walk the property; they want to build a sukkah, "over there, where it's flat." Sholom says, surveying. "We're looking for a few strong Jews," adds Danit, flexing her bicep. I am writing this on their computer. As I do, instant messages pop up sporadically.

BatHaddassah: Shalom!

TzviLippen77:gtg, but have a good shabbos!

And so forth.

The world of the Schustermans is that of constant and profound spiritual reiteration. They view daily occurrences as willed by God. In this, they receive continuous confirmation of their beliefs. Theirs is a world were shabbos is sacred and respected.

The phone rings on a Friday night.

"Who is that?" asks Sholom, incredulous.

"Nobody in New York," Danit answers confidently.

No one in their world would desecrate the Sabbath by calling them at that time.

When Sholom and I have conversations, he leans way back and quietly listens to my point. He puts his hands on his belly, looking toward the ceiling, slowly nodding in a way one does who is accustomed to consideration, debate, deliberation. Sometimes he looks me right in the eyes, sometimes his gaze darts frantically around the room. Sometimes he puts his hands behind his head, closes his eyes and listens quietly and in doing so, pushes the black felt kippah down his forehead, just above his glasses. Doing this surprises me, for when I look at him again, it appears as if his forehead has shrunk. Sometimes he wears a t-shirt with a cartoon character on it, sometimes he dons the Lubavitch uniform of a long black jacket, black hat and white shirt.

Whenever I go to their house, they feed me and we talk. The Schustermans are classic New York City Jews: Seltzer water, matzoh ball soup, with Danit fretting about the quality and quantity of the food.

Should I make the eggplant?

Do you have enough?

We need more challah bread.

After dinner one night, the house quiets down so the only sound is my typing. Sholom studies, and the quiet, guttural whispers of his Hebrew occasionally puncture the air. There is this element of timelessness in this atmosphere, for these are the things Jews have simply done for thousands of years.

The Schustermans wear their Jewishness proudly and outwardly. Theirs is a Judaism that is unabashed and unashamed of its ritualistic impulses, even in an increasingly secular society. Of the Schustermans' religious worldview, there can be no doubt. Being Jewish is it. They simply know no other way to be.

I peruse Sholom's groaning bookshelf. Some of the books are old, some new. Some, clearly, have been looked at and handled often. The Hebrew writing is dulled, the spines brittle with age. For Sholom, books are deeply personal, holy and sacred things that must be treasured.

I pick one book from the text and open it to a random page. Not a word of English on any of its 900 pages. It is a large, heavy and preciously brittle thing, the cover on the verge of falling off. Inside is tiny Hebrew script, elegant and important-looking. The pages are yellowed and smell like old wood. People like Sholom memorize books like these and live their lives accordingly.

Books, maps and texts construct the mental geography that guides both of our lives. He picks one out and opens it to the front page.

"This Shabbos is the same day as the birthday of Baal Shem Tov," he says, tenderly running his fingers over the text, "the founder of the Hasidic movement."

Sholom has a lot of these kinds of facts and dates in his brain. He says them in a way one who is used to retrieving and reciting precise information. This is because much of Sholoms' life is based upon the memorization and interpretation of ancient text.

Jews are interpreters. We are taught that the written word is holy and must be respected. Jewish culture revolves around this dictum.

In times passed, those who were valued were those who studied, and it was not unusual to see Jews scurrying home with dozens of books stacked high, awkwardly wobbling and on the verge of falling. With the progression of time, some Jews lost their beards and kippot and left the shetl for the big city.

The books were still there, but they'd changed. Instead of torah, kabbalah and Talmud, Jews studied Marxism, mathematics and economics. Instead of aspiring to be a rabbi or cantor, Jews sought out to make their name in the secular world of doctors, lawyers and scientists.

Sholom and Danit Schusterman still exist in the world of the book-toting Jew. They are a connection to a time and place of a simple and powerful connection to ideas.

Sometimes I forget who they are. I ask them out for a beer, or try to shake Danit's hand. Sometimes I forget about the world they come from and why they don't do the same stuff I do. Sometimes Sholom just gets up, walks over and prays towards Jerusalem, shifting his weight from side to side. While doing this, he occasionally chants Hebrew melodies. I always find these songs so sad, so mournful. He is almost drowned out by the sound of crickets and mosquitoes outside.

Here I realize how far the Schustermans are from everything it is that they know and love: Their families, their friends and their city. No one on Maui speaks Yiddish. There are no kosher butcher shops here. No one here laughs at Jackie Mason or munches on Kosher burgers at Kosher Delight. No one reads the Daily Forward or eats Bagels, lox and gelfelte fish. Great as this sacrifice may be, there is continuity here and the Schustermans' isolation fits into context with thousands of years of Jewish history. What, after all, are we Jews if we aren't away from home?

Days later, Sholom and I were strolling through the Queen Ka'ahumanu Center. Sholom had brought flyers he wanted to distribute for his upcoming High Holiday services. We encounter the Israeli kiosk workers.

Kiosks are something of an Israeli cottage industry.

"There are about, I'd say, eight to 10,000 Israelis who come here [to the United States] every year to work mall kiosks," says Sherach Cohen. He should know, since he once managed four kiosks in upstate New York with his cousins.

"Don't laugh," he says. "A good sales person can clear over $10,000 during the Christmas season. Take me for example. I had finished the army and had come to see some family in Miami. I had $1 in my pocket. I met some friends who were running kiosks in Connecticut. We were selling head massagers--not even the new, electric kind, like, we were pushing the copper ones. In the three months I was working there, I made $6,000."

With his curly blond locks and blue eyes, Sherach looks more surfer dude than Israeli. It's not hard to imagine bored housewives suddenly needing copper head massagers and making a trip to the mall.

"It all has to do with mindsets," he says. "We in Israel have that very Middle Eastern marketplace way of thinking of things. We are used to the bazaar, buying fruits and vegetables and arguing for the price, Americans don't do that. Americans aren't shrewd like that. They think in terms of 'I don't want to miss this,' whereas we think 'How can I get the best price?'"

As Sherach is talking, another kiosk worker, armed with a hot pink "bubble gun" walks by. Sherach explains that he is going to blow bubbles from the second floor balcony to attract attention to his kiosk, which sells the guns. Earlier that day, he was told not to blow the bubbles from his kiosk, so he is simply going to do it from another location.

This is so Israeli. From birth, Israelis are taught to make do with what they have--that success requires creativity and innovation, even if it means bending the rules a bit.

I look down at one of the kiosks, which sells head massagers. The girl, armed with an obscene-looking copper wire contraption, approaches passersby.

"Come, I vant to show you some-sing," she says. "You look."

And it works, she shows them, and they buy. Confident, to the point, no bullshit. All so very Israeli.

"Look it's a numbers game," says Sherach. "Think about it, you're here 16 hours a day, open to close. You approach, what, 5,000 people in that time, you're going to sell a lot of merchandise."

For his part, Sherach has just started his own booth. It's called Puzzland, and it's on the mall's second floor near the food court. It has just been set up and Sherach is putting the final touches on his business.

"It's puzzles, see," he beams proudly, showing me a box of what he will sell. "Kids put them together and paint them." There are dangling mobiles of little helicopters, dinosaurs and strangely, a volcano that will--Sherach says--"steam and smoke.

"It brings attention," he says. "People get curious with stuff like that."

Sure enough, kids come up to the kiosk. He ends up selling three units before his kiosk actually opens.

"The concept is classic," he says. "Simple product, cheap location and an incentive to sell. In Israel, we hear of the money you make working booths in American malls. We figure it in travel time: For two months working in America gets you 10 months in South America, three months gets you 20 months in India. It's a good deal for us in that dollars are stronger than [Israeli] shekels. When we travel on shekels, it is expensive for us. When we work in America, we can travel for longer. I would say that 90 percent of all money made by Israelis in kiosks is spent in Third World countries. It's like Israeli foreign aid."

Efrat came to Maui to work as a kiosk worker, selling lotions and cosmetics from the Dead Sea.

"It's like the army," she says, exasperated. "Working 16 hours a day."

Israelis, especially women, are notoriously tough.

She comes from Haifa, an idyllic northern Israeli seaside city that is renowned for the prodigious amount of beautiful women that live there. In her spare time, she studies classical music.

"Baroque," she says. "Not opera. I hate opera."

She was a soloist in the Israeli army. "But if I had the chance to do it again," she says, "I would be a fighter. I would serve in a combat unit."

The army is important to her. "It's like a country inside a country. You become an adult in the army. You are a child before that."

After the army, she got an unsatisfying job in an administrative position in the diamond district of Tel-Aviv.

"I wanted to be a singer," she says. "A singer is what I am, but it is difficult to make this... It is difficult to make this in Israel. Everyone is artist."

It's true that Israel has a disproportionate number of artists. Singers, writers, photographers, violinists, you name it. This is reflective of Jews' participation in the arts and humanities in general. Russia, Iran, Yemen, Argentina and Iraq, to some extent, lost many of their best and brightest scholars after Israel won her independence. The result of this is a highly creative, pragmatic society. It is perhaps the only nation in the world where former members of the Russian conservatory now sweep streets.

"I am Israeli," says Efrat, laughing and taking a pull from her cigarette. "To my soul, I am Israeli. I want to make family there, get married. The situation with us is hard. Not so much with the Arabs, but in our own society. We can't trust our leaders. We can't trust [the Arabs'] leaders. What a mess."

Like most cosmopolitan Israeli young people, Efrat voted Labor, the more liberal of the Israeli political parties.

"But not anymore," she says. "They are just talking. Nobody to trust."

She was a peacenik, but not anymore. All that changed the day "I hear that Arafat is paying the families of shahids [suicide bombers]," she remembers. "I stop thinking we can make something [peaceful] with them.

"I understand them in some way. They are like Jews. Nobody will accept them. [The Palestinians] are like... leftovers from many other societies. Jordan, Egypt, Syria. You have to disconnect from the reality of Israel to stay sane. When I am here, I don't open [turn on] the television. Many Jews find it hard to visit Israel, because we are so hardcore. So intense... you see it's different for us. We face the reality everyday."

I went home that night and "opened" the radio. Sixteen people had been killed on a bus in the Israeli suburb of Be'er Sheva.

Yariv Golan is a retail manager whom I met originally at a barbeque at his home. He served in a special forces combat unit--Sayaret Mak'tal--in Ramallah.

"It's like a shark attack," he explains to me. "Now, a shark attack is terrible, a tragedy, but do you move away from Maui because of a shark attack? For us, it is the reality of Israel."

What about the security fence?

"It doesn't matter about a fence, or wall, or gate or whatever," he says. "It matters what's inside the fence. Israel must grow, demographically, like any other society. It is impossible to make a wall around a country. Jews can't simply wall themselves off from the Arabs. It may be a good solution for us, for now, for the next 40 or 50 years, but after that..."

Yariv shrugs and frowns.

"For us the problem is not so much Arabs, but the fact that Israel is held to different standards," he says. "We are both Western and Middle Eastern. We hold ourselves to Western standards of morality and ethics, but we are in a very Middle Eastern kind of fight. Israel's problem is that it is a nation of Jews and we Jews tend to over-intellectualize matters in a situation were violence is impulsive and spontaneous.

"Let me give you an example, Israel is the only society in the region that will invent ingenious methods of defending itself, then questioning those same methods. Israel has this kind of hesitation and self-criticism that both make it both a wonderful place and a dangerous place.

"Maui is good for Israelis. Israel is very a hardcore place and Israelis are very hardcore people. In Israel everything is what! hey!"--here he begins waving his arms wildly--"Here is hang loose. Israelis need a little of that."

Hang loose, bro.

"I know I will return to Israel, I want to marry a Jewish girl, raise my children in Israel," says Yariv. "I like the honesty, the impulsiveness of Israel. I want my child to understand about Israel and what it means to us, but to also see other places in the world. I didn't leave because of any problems, you know, about the intifada. I left for an opportunity for me, to start a business. I go back each year, to Haifa.

"We have our own problems in Israel besides the Palestinians. Everyone always thinks Israel is about the Palestinians. We also have a problem with very religious Jewish people causing some shit. Once, in the army we had to go arrest some kind of, you know, terrorist, someone who needed to be arrested. We were driving through a religious neighborhood in Jerusalem and they were throwing rocks at us because we were driving on Shabbos! To arrest someone who was killing Jews and they were mad at us! This is our situation.

"Like I said before, Maui is good for us. We have been accepted very good here, no problems, never. You know, I tell you something. In my time here I have met many, many Israelis, 200, 250 Israelis maybe. All are quality people, you know why?"

I say no.

"Because they learn to relax here," he says. "Surf, kiteboard, have barbecue. I think that after Israel, they see the other side of life and they become very chill, very mellow. This is a place that offers joy and Israelis, everyone really, recognizes that."

Maui Time

Maui Time Weekly provides insightful analysis and in depth reporting. We believe some issues are so important they require thoughtful consideration. We are not a “paper of record”—a daily journal of government meetings, ribbon-cuttings and corporate announcements. We decide what’s...
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