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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Quick Bite to Eat Leads To Impromptu Ritual

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I've recounted how in May I accepted Aeroflot's offer to Russian World War II veterans for a free flight anywhere in Europe, and how I ended up in Paris.

The first thing I did was go for a walk. Not far from the hotel I found a small cafe called Shalom, or "hello" in Hebrew. Delicious aromas wafted into the street. As it was lunchtime and I was hungry, I decided to eat. It was crowded, but I at last found a seat inside at the back. Instantly the waiter appeared before me with a menu in French, forcing me to go to the bar to point to the dishes I wanted. It was only after I returned to the table that I noticed the men in black suits and wide-brimmed black hats, traditional clothing for Orthodox Jews. I realized I was in a kosher cafe.

Having eaten, I paid the bill and was on my way out when I was waylaid by a young man in a black hat who approached me from a table by the door. Blocking my way, he asked in Hebrew if I was a Jew.

I know little Hebrew, but I understood and acknowledged that I was. Immediately the stranger grabbed a black bag from his table and began pulling out items used in the Jewish religious rite called tefillin. (Tefillin are small boxes containing passages from the Torah and are worn on the body as a reminder of religious teachings.)

Several years earlier a young rabbi in Moscow had also offered to perform the rite for me. I had no idea what its significance was, but the rabbi suggested it and I agreed. Times were tough and it could not hurt to remember the Almighty and the commandments of the Torah.

The young man did not even wait for my agreement, but instead began pulling off my jacket and pushing up my left sleeve. Then he put on my head a skull cap and a small black cardboard box containing the text of a prayer. He then wrapped a strap around my hand, put the same black box in my palm, and had me repeat a prayer.

I was so surprised, I did not resist. I mean, I can understand performing the ritual in a synagogue, but in a cafe? (I later discovered that it can be performed anywhere.)

Repeating the prayer, I kept my eyes glued to my jacket, draped across the back of a chair on the sidewalk and containing my money, documents and return ticket.

Regretfully, the only thing I could think was, please God, do not let anybody steal my jacket.

The ritual lasted minutes, but it seemed to me like hours. Finally the rabbi was done. Putting on my jacket, I nervously checked to see that my belongings were there. I breathed a sigh of relief and, wishing the rabbi good health, walked out the door.

I never dropped by that cafe again.

Vladislav Schnitzer is a journalist and pensioner living in Moscow.