My Inauspicious Beginnings at the IAJGS Conference
When I heard that Rabbi Shmuley Boteach was going to be a guest lecturer at the 31st Annual IAJGS (International Association of Jewish Geneaological Societies) conference in DC I was very excited.
I do not travel in Orthodox circles but my cousins do, and some of my best friends are rabbis. To me, Rabbi Shmuley is a big name; a famous man, a hero. He wrote a book called “Kosher Sex,” (which I never read because my husband needs to stay away from salt; you people who know what I’m talking about can talk to me later) and had his own TV show “Shalom in the Home,” and more importantly, he had the guts to publicly debate Christopher Hitchens. Of course Hitch made mincemeat out of him, but still, Shmuley had the nerve to publicly debate him, and for that I give him credit.
I live in California, and the IAJGS conference was the penultimate stop in a two week trip I had planned, which began in Jersey City, included a week at a nice condo near the beach to relax and write in Cape May, south to the conference in D.C. from Sunday to Thursday and a Friday visit with one of my dearest friends in Maryland, before going home on Saturday.
The plane tickets were booked and the condo reservations made when Rabbi Shmuley’s appearance at the IAJGS conference was announced. So I did what I do when I get excited these days; I spent money first, thought later. I and bought 4 tickets to hear him speak Friday and Saturday at a dinner in the Grand Hyatt on H Street in DC, despite the fact that the condo in Cape May was reserved until Saturday morning. I had planned to travel from Cape May to DC on Saturday.
So what time was Rabbi Shmuley speaking on Saturday?
In the original posting on the DC2011 mailing it said dinner. In the later announcements it said his talk was after havdallah. So, thinking that I could have a precious few more hours watching dolphins frolic, I looked up the time of havdallah, and found that it was 8:00 pm.
So I showed up for a post-havdallah talk. And found, instead of a large banquet hall, set up for dinner and a large crowd to about to enter said hall, a small room with maybe 50 places, and nothing on the tables but empty water glasses challah, and margarine set. It had been self service. The food was gone. The talk was over. And I got furious. If bought a ticket for dinner, where was the follow-up about the dinner? why did all mention of that dinner disappear from the webpage, to be replaced by havdallah, if there was no havdallah?
One of my friends had suggested that perhaps the dinner and talk was a ‘shaleshudes,’ a Seuda Shlishi, a cold meal served at the end of Shabbat.
“Naww,” I said to her, and thought to myself ‘Rabbi Shmuley is a big deal. I’m sure they couldn’t organize a whole big dinner appropriate to such a man during Shabbat. So I made plans accordingly, and rolled into my DC hotel around 7. Then I tried unsuccessfully to make my TV display the events planned in the hotel, something the woman at the registration desk had instructed me to do. So I called, and ran downstairs to a small room in the bowels of the hotel, two levels down.
People were getting ready to sing the Birkat Hamazon, but I was ready to spit nails. So before they started to sing, I made my one big statement for the night. I banged my hand on the table and said, loudly.
“In what world is Havdallah, dinner and speech the same as what just happened here? I came a long way to hear the Rabbi talk, and it looks like I missed the whole thing. I’m very disappointed”
There was silence.
People said “well, I knew it was dinner”
People said “I’m not responsible for the publicity”
People said “The mashgiach is still in the kitchen, you can get some leftovers if you want.”
People said “talk to the organizers, I’m sure you can get a refund.
What, there were no organizers in the room? No. The organizers were at the table upstairs where I had snatched my badge and practically yelled to the one person who had had any contact with me at all “You should have told me when dinner was.”
This brings up all sorts of issues for me. Issues of being an outsider not included. Issues of reconciliation between Jews who ride on Shabbat and those who don’t. Issues of Orthodoxy vs. Liberalism. Issues of being and only child in a world of siblings. Issues of being the only Preeva.
During the benching, I went over to Shmuley’s table, where I planned to sit respectfully until the singing was over.
Much to my surprise, he spoke to me.
“Where did you come from?” he asked. I told him, California.
“You ride on Shabbat?”
I told him yes.
“I’m very sorry for the misunderstanding,” he said.
I asked him, if he could, to please summarize the talk he had given, if he could.
The rabbi graciously agreed.
“I spoke about internal identity vs external identity,” Rabbi Shmuley said.
“External identity is what we do, our titles, what we have. Internal identity is who we are. Geneaology is important because it is taking your ancestors, who are anonymous, and honoring them because they are important to who you are. Celebrity worship is very common in this country, and that is idolizing people who are famous. But when take anonymous people who are important to you, and recognize them, that’s discovering who you are.”
Or something like that. My memory is not that great.
But then the benching ended, and the Rabbi had to go somewhere else, and I went out out into the hall to stand in line for registration at the larger conference, and the one person whom I had spoken to, it turns out I had hurt her feelings.
“I’m sorry you missed the Rabbi, but I did not deserve you yelling at me,” she said.
And she is absolutely right. Now I have to apologize.
I hope the rest of the conference goes better than this.