Jessica Katz reflects on her experience with Dubai’s Jewish community.
A little less than one year ago I was sitting in Israel planning my upcoming trip to Dubai. I had been searching online for all things UAE. History, sightseeing, scouring the internet for any information about the Jewish community. There was one article published about the Jewish community, and that was about all I could find.
[Related: The White House released the UAE and Bahrain agreements with Israel. Here are some details.]
Little did I know, just one year later, so much would have changed. As I saw and heard about the exciting news of diplomatic relations between the UAE and Israel in the last weeks, and as I start thinking about the uncertainty and odd feelings around the upcoming high holidays, I have done a bit of reflecting on my time spent in Dubai last fall. That same web search will now bring you to many many articles about this community.
Three weeks after arriving in Dubai, I was celebrating the high holidays in a villa, with people who were basically strangers, trying to understand this community’s traditions and honor my own. I knew I wouldn’t be making any kreplach, as my mom, sister, and I do each year, or trading machzors (prayer books) with my Dad in shul (it’s a thing we do). I would be living in the same villa where services would be taking place which was a unique experience itself. I knew it would be a little different, and feared the change a bit.
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In those first weeks I learned that we each have the power to create our own experiences. While often we lean on our community leaders and communal opportunities to join something, I realized that ultimately, it’s on each of us to build and create the experience we want to have. It’s not always easy and often you have to negotiate, maybe even comprising a deep-rooted tradition and being open to trying something new. But whether a new place, a new circumstance (say for example, a global pandemic), or a new outlook, the personal meaning, the point of you showing up, the words behind the prayer, are yours and yours alone, and won’t change if you don’t want them to.
Last year my high holiday season included the sweatiest, hottest Sukkot I’ve ever experienced. Tashlich was the most public I’ve participated in. I was on a beach with women in burkas and bikinis around us, standing together with a small group saying the quiet prayer while staring out into the water with at least two mosques and the Burj Al Rab in visible distance. We tossed very tiny pieces of matzah into the water so as not to make a scene and breathed the fresh albeit balmy air with recognition for what a moment it was. Quite possibly one of the most powerful Tashlich I’ll ever remember.
There is nothing like realizing that the shofar is being blown at the exact moment the mosques all around you happen to also be projecting their own call to prayer. The wakeup call, whether of Elul, of Rosh Hashanah, or at the end of Yom Kippur, is a reminder to listen, to wake up, that we are here. Wherever “here” may happen to be at that moment. These memories continue to dig in to me, to bring me back to a realization of what matters when it comes to holidays, of finding your balance and space.
I chose to seek some of these moments, and some happened upon me. I could have not participated; I could have said it’s not like it is at home and resisted. But I leaned in. Each Saturday, as I heard the beautiful voice of the community’s leader singing, I walked down the stairs and whether I sat in services, helped in the kitchen, or sat and chatted with community members, I knew which moments I was taking something away from the experience.
It’s with these thoughts that I start thinking about this year’s holidays. It’s the beginning of these moments of preparation that I realize this year, it’s going to be on me to create the experience again. Sure, there are hundreds of opportunities to learn, to participate virtually, or read content about how to prepare and how to celebrate, but no matter where we are this year it’ll be different, hard, not the same. But, we can do it.
It might mean stepping up for yourself and for others. Finding just one moment to connect with and create for ourselves, stepping outside our comfort zones to build the holiday we want to have this year. For some, more empowering than the rest, for some maybe more distant and creative. Yet, we are still reliant on our synagogues and Jewish institutions that are here to support us and to help us navigate these more than interesting times – and that is a good thing. That balance of self-reliance and communal experience is a tricky one, one that continues to evolve and take shape, especially during these times.
I’m not sure the point of this essay. It might be to share the beauty I was able to experience of what Jews in Dubai have created and reflecting that this year more can be shared about who they are. Maybe it’s a reflection on how every piece of this year has been and will be different for the holidays but that it doesn’t have to define us forever. Or maybe that I too am struggling with how to make meaning about coming home and still not getting my typical holidays, and it being okay. (Don’t worry, the kreplach were made, some things don’t change.) Maybe it’s just an explosion of the words in my head, based on me having time to think about them in this way.
This year the holidays will be weird. Strange and potentially distant. In some ways the Dubai Jewish community constantly proves itself to be a place where navigating the diversity of Jews brings together new and old tradition in a unique way. It’s a place that continues to look to the future, where change happens. In my mind it’s a lesson for the rest of us to build and connect in new ways that honor tradition.
If I had an ask, it would be this: Tap into the senses of holidays, the sounds, the smells, the touch (sanitized of course), tap into the essence and what is important, and when in doubt ask a friend, a family member, a Rabbi, or anyone who you think might have an answer – of course I’m always happy to give it a whirl. I know I’ve been asking. While I still don’t know what my holiday will look like, I have ideas. If nothing else we need to lean on each other, learn from one another, carry on tradition while maybe creating some new ones if we need to, but most of all finding your own personal connection amidst the communal experience.
The original blog piece was republished with Katz’s permission.
Jessica Katz, a Royal Oak resident, grew up in West Bloomfield and attended Michigan State University. The prestigious Ralph I. Goldman Fellowship has sent Katz to Jewish communities around the world.