The Secret Life of Shabbos Goys

Sarah Black, 23, had never even heard the term “Shabbos goy.” Brought up as a secular Christian, she’d come to Brandeis for its music program, not because of any particular desire to study at a Jewish university. In her freshman year, she befriended a group of religious Jews and began, eagerly at first, doing things for them that they were prohibited from doing themselves on the Sabbath. Nothing about this arrangement had been directly discussed: strictly speaking, Jews aren’t allowed to ask non-Jews to do prohibited work on their behalf. The relationship had simply sort of evolved. Sarah’s friends made sideways requests and she took care of them. “Gosh, it’s really dark in here,” they’d say. Sarah would pop up and flick on a light. “A little hot, huh?” She’d hit the AC.

Most of her closest friends at Brandeis were observant Orthodox and Conservative Jews. Her best friend wanted to be a rabbi. In time, Sarah’s life started to resemble theirs. She learned what foods were and were not kosher. She tagged along to synagogue for the High Holy Days and did a juice fast one Yom Kippur. She even started looking forward to the Sabbath. “I cherished those Friday nights,” she says. “We got to spend time together. We weren’t going to the movies. We were taking walks, we were having talks. I think that’s the spirit of Shabbos.”

Sarah does look Jewish. In fact, depending on your sensibilities and which rabbinical council you consult, Sarah already is sort of Jewish. Her mother is a devout Christian, but her dad is a full-blooded, though non-observant, Jew. As Sarah started spending more time with her religious friends, her role as a Shabbos goy became a sort of mental wedge between how they thought of her and how she thought of herself. By asking her to turn on the lights, her friends (who knew she was half-Jewish) were sending a clear signal that she was different, not one of them. But the more she helped out on Shabbos as a goy, the more she wanted to experience it as a Jew. It was a frustrating and tantalizing experience. “If they were a circle,” she says, “I was _right_ on the outside of it.”

Sarah’s experience points to what makes Shabbos goys such a touchy subject. No matter how strict the prohibitions against, say, turning on lights or starting a fire, Jews don’t spend Shabbat in cold, dark rooms. The Sabbath puts Jews in a divine paradox. “On the one hand we have to be away from the mundane world,” says Rabbi Levi Garelik of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. “On the other hand, we have to eat on Shabbos. It’s a mitzvah to eat. We have to eat meat and fish and soup and challah and wine, right?” Someone needs to warm the soup.

A Jew can’t demand that a Shabbos goy perform work for him, so he can’t expect it either. This puts Shabbos goys in a unique position. Their primary qualification is that they are not Jewish—that they do not belong. Yet in order to choose to help a community, they must also feel in some way that they belong. They must have some simple affection for its people, patience enough to deal with little old, blue-haired ladies. They need trans-religious goodwill.

The 39 categories of activity prohibited on Shabbat are based on rabbinical readings of 3,000-year-old Torah passages. Written in ancient times, they forbid ancient forms of work—thou shall not, for example, profane your Saturday afternoon by plowing any fields, shearing any wool or applying salt to any hides. Rabbis being what they are—prodigious extrapolators, for one thing—they have constantly reinterpreted the 39 prohibited activities to keep pace with changing technology. It’s an operation that leaves an unavoidable residue of uncertainty. The filament in an incandescent bulb is like a small fire, fine, but is it okay to use fluorescents? What about LEDs? To help Jews navigate the modern world, there are all sorts of resources, ranging from rabbi-moderated chat rooms (“Can I use nail-clippers on Shabbos?”) to the Institute for Science and Halacha, Jerusalem-based publisher of the titles _Heating Water on Shabbat_, _Elevators on Shabbat_ and _Shabbat and the Modern Kitchen_. The ancient loopholes have been updated too. In big Israeli hotels and some American hospitals, it’s not uncommon to find a bank of special Shabbos elevators that stop at each floor for a pre-set amount of time, eliminating the need to press buttons. And in Jewish homes around the world, Shabbos timers keep reading lights, washing machines and, in some cases, even TVs running on their regular weekday schedule.

Inevitably, though, a timer fails, a circuit blows, an air-conditioner drops a screw or someone simply needs to run an errand. Sometimes only the human touch will do, preferably from non-Jewish hands. But how to ask? For a full account of accepted Jew-to-goy protocol, there is no more pleasurable and earnest reference book than Rabbi Simcha Cohen’s _The Sanctity of Shabbos: A Comprehensive Guide to Forbidden Activities Which One May Ask a Gentile to Do on the Sabbath or Yom Tov_. After reminding readers that it is forbidden to explicitly tell a gentile to perform Sabbath work, Cohen notes that, Baruch HaShem, certain hints are permitted. What follows is a chapter-by-chapter discussion of permissible hinting techniques, the most elegant of which is Amira L’Amira (“Telling a gentile to tell a gentile”), wherein a Jew indirectly beseeches a goy to deliver a roundabout hint to another goy. (In the book, it’s a non-Jewish messenger dispatched to a non-Jewish mechanic to make allusions to a broken-down Jewish car.) There is also an excellent chapter on hired help, addressing delicate domestic concerns like “What a maid cannot do,” “What a maid can do” and the exquisite mini-poem, “If a maid turned on a light.”

Turning on lights may not be an illustrious task, but Shabbos has scores of celebrity goy alums. Around election time, Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York, was in the habit of reminding Hasidic audiences of his childhood spent helping a Jewish grocer in Queens with prohibited errands. Colin Powell spent so much time assisting a Jewish family in the South Bronx that he became fluent in Yiddish. Al Gore once flicked on lights for a helpless Joseph Lieberman. But perhaps the most legendary Shabbos goy of all—if only because of his later interest in Kabbalah—was a young Elvis Presley, who used to help Rabbi Alfred Fruchter’s family when they lived down the hall in the same Memphis apartment building. I asked Chaim Fruchter, Rabbi Alfred’s son, if he remembered any tidbits from Elvis’s visits. He thought it over for a few days but couldn’t recall much. “I would imagine that most Shabbos goy stories aren’t that interesting,” he said. “‘Hey, we forgot to turn on a light, could you come over?’ Maybe he serenaded us when he did it.”

Every Friday night, Bill Webber, 52, climbs into a recessed pit on the main stage of Temple Beth Ahm in New Jersey. He is a tall guy, but the pit swallows him completely, ensuring that worshippers are not distracted by the sight of a man flagrantly working over an electronic organ while they try to focus their inward attentions on the day of rest. As a concession to practicality, and because Webber is both organist and choir director, his outstretched hand can just barely clear the pit, allowing him to cue the tenors or shush back the basses.

When we meet for lunch, Webber orders a pastrami Reuben, slathered it with deli mustard and gives the bread a deep, long sniff. (“It’s Jewish rye too, I can tell.”) Next to his plate he places a copy of the national directory of Alpha Epsilon Pi, the nation’s best-known Jewish fraternity. There—surrounded by dozens of Wassermanns, Weinsteins, Weinstocks, Weinbergs and Weisenthals—is Webber, William. In 1973, as a freshman at Emory, Bill (who did not know they were a Jewish frat) accidentally rushed for AEPi, and AEPi (who did not know Bill was a Methodist) accidentally accepted him. (A misprint had listed him on the campus rush list as “Weber,” a common German-Jewish surname.) The truth came out during the first Friday night meal after he received his bid. The house was serving bagels with cream cheese and lox. Being from a farm town in Kentucky, Bill had never seen anything like it. Everyone was just eating away. Bill watched them. He sniffed the lox. He looked around. He couldn’t figure it out. Finally he blurted, “What are these hard donuts with the funny-looking white icing and the smelly sprinkledly things on the top?” All 90 brothers froze. After a few moments of silence, someone at his table ventured, “You aren’t Jewish, are you?” “I said, ‘No, I’m a Methodist, does it matter?’ They just roared. They said, ‘Oh my God, we have a fucking goy in the frat!’ And then I had to ask them what a goy was.”

The only Jews Bill had known were the Goldbergs and the Gordons, owners of the two men’s clothing stores in his hometown of Cynthiana, Kentucky. Webber, who still speaks with a Southern sweet-tea twang, was in every way distinct from his brothers at AEPi. Their fathers were accountants and doctors from Yonkers and Baltimore. His daddy farmed tobacco and was the country’s third largest manufacturer of pork sausage. Their grandparents still spoke Yiddish. His grandma still had a two-holer outhouse. Nonetheless, he became an integral part of frat life. He attended meetings at Hillel House. He picked up Yiddish words like schmutz, nudnik and alter kocker (all of which he casually deploys in one fantastic sentence during our lunch). By his sophomore year, Bill was improbably put in charge of running the frat’s kitchen. Aching for good old Southern food, he fired the kitchen staff and “went out and hired two big black mammies.” The menu changed overnight. They cooked Southern fried chicken and chicken dumplings and barbeque beef ribs. “We did all kinds of shit, and they loved it.” Bill became a sort of celebrity. Many boys dropped lifelong kosher diets. Most fabulous of all were the Southern desserts, things like homemade banana pudding with meringue on top, and blackberry cobbler with sauce and whipped cream. “You know, usually the pastry part of the blackberry cobbler was made with pure lard, which is out of hog,” he says, “I didn’t even think about. I didn’t understand Jewish dietary laws from shit.”

Webber is a diaconal minister of “Music and Religious Education” in the United Methodist Church and holds a Masters degree in Sacred Music from seminary school. Religious music is his passion. A few years ago, he used to play for a Methodist church on Thursdays and Sundays, the Christian Scientists on Wednesdays, the Jews on Tuesday and Friday nights, and the Catholics at Saturday mass. This kind of spiritual fluidity is not uncommon in Shabbos goys. Another man I interviewed, Al Richter, 78, who grew up in an Irish-Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx in the 1940s, was born Episcopalian, spent part of his weekend as a Shabbos goy at the local synagogue and the rest moonlighting as an altar boy at the Catholic church.

Without Webber, Temple Beth Ahm would be hard pressed to find someone from their own ranks to accompany their cantor: The organ is electronic, directing the choir is considered work and Jews can’t jot down notes (musical or otherwise) on the Sabbath. Webber normally doesn’t have to do lights (Tony, who’s in charge of synagogue upkeep, takes care of them before services), but occasionally someone absentmindedly flicks off the switch in the bathroom and a little old lady will show up hinting that perhaps he might be able to get up and turn it back on. “It’s not in the job description,” he says. “But I do it. It’s just the right thing to do.”

You might expect some resentment about his being reduced to an on-call handyman, or about his being tucked away in the stage. “It’s not insulting to me at all,” says Bill. “As a gentile, I have no objection to helping someone else worship.” His main grudge lies elsewhere—if anything, he wants to be more involved in temple life and thinks the board doesn’t listen to him enough. (They recently installed a sub-par PA system over his objections and added padding to the pews, dulling the sound of his organ.) Still, he says, they treat him like a full member of the congregation most of the time. “They really do. They’re always trying to marry me off to one of their daughters or nieces or one of the fat girls.”

Bill is perfectly happy to continue experiencing Shabbos as a goy and probably will not try to wed his way into the religion. He has deep respect for Judaism, but prefers to stay on the periphery as a helping hand and, as he puts it, “a third voice—when I’m allowed to be.” Sarah, for her part, has come to a different reconciliation of her insider-outsider relationship with Judaism: After she finishes graduate school, she’s planning to undergo a full conversion. Conversion is a lengthy process requiring formidable time and study, and Sarah does not plan to take it lightly. Going from goy to Jew, entering into the circle, will require her to master Torah and Jewish history, to say nothing of having to find a new Jewish community. It’s an intimidating task, but she’s confident. “I think I’m pretty well-versed in what you do in certain situations.” Plus, she says, “I feel that I would ace the Shabbos section of the Jewish test.”

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