In Jerusalem, Muslim handles Sabbath chores for Jews

Abu Ali, a Muslim, Arab-Israeli taxi driver, stands at his base in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem where he serves as the community's Shabbos Goy each week from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. The Hebrew sign reads: Shabbos Goy.
Abu Ali, a Muslim, Arab-Israeli taxi driver, stands at his base in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem where he serves as the community's Shabbos Goy each week from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. The Hebrew sign reads: Shabbos Goy. Dion Nissenbaum / MCT

JERUSALEM — In a city marinated in archaic traditions, rigid rituals and surreal customs, Abu Ali still has one of Jerusalem's oddest jobs.

Like Barack Obama, Colin Powell and Harry Truman, this 52-year-old Muslim serves Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community as a so-called Shabbos Goy.

From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, when strictly observant Jews honor the holy day of rest by taking a break from work, TV, laptops, cell phones, shopping and the normal vagaries of life, Abu Ali is there to serve their emergency Sabbath needs.

He turns on air conditioners for families when it's hot. He turns off lights accidentally left on. And he rushes pregnant wives to the hospital. Lots of pregnant wives.

Abu Ali, who asked to be identified only by his nickname because he's kept his unusual job from friends and neighbors, is one of a select few Arab-Israelis working as a Shabbos Goy in Jerusalem. He's an atypical Muslim serving Orthodox Jews in a city where the two communities more often collide than connect.

"When I am here on the Sabbath, I am the king," he said one recent Friday at sundown as Orthodox men in black satin overcoats rushed by. "Everybody knows me. Everybody needs me."

"But after the Sabbath, nobody knows me," Abu Ali said with a shrug. "It's the nature of things."

Had he been born in the United States, Abu Ali seems like the kind of guy who'd play Santa Claus for New England shopping malls at Christmastime. He has a trim, white beard and smile lines around Paul Newman-blue eyes. He wears sandals and moves gingerly with the aid of a cane while he's recovering from heart surgery.

An unlikely array of American leaders also have performed Abu Ali's unusual religious duty.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell used to collect a quarter a week turning the lights on and off at the synagogue in his boyhood Bronx neighborhood.

Growing up in Missouri, President Harry Truman used to light fires for the Jewish neighbors on cold Sabbath days.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama used to open doors Friday evenings for his Jewish office-suite mate in the Illinois state Senate.

"I don't like using the term 'Shabbos goy,' but if I ever needed anything he was always there," said Illinois state Sen. Ira Silverstein, the Orthodox lawmaker who shared the suite with Obama.

This irregular Shabbos Goy trade grew out of a unique need in Orthodox communities for non-Jewish help on the Sabbath.

From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, Jewish law calls on the observant to take a break from life. Cell phones are turned off. No one is allowed to drive. Meals must be cooked in advance. There's no TV. No computer. No shopping.

But times come when these observant families need help: A fuse blows. Someone accidentally leaves a light on in the bedroom. Someone needs to get to the hospital to give birth.

In those instances, Orthodox Jews call a Shabbos Goy.

Jerusalem's most conservative neighborhoods cordon off their streets with metal gates to make sure that no one who's breaking the Sabbath rules drives through. (At one point some years ago in Jerusalem, cars that accidentally drove into orthodox Jewish neighborhoods on the Sabbath were stoned.)

In one of these neighborhoods, not far from downtown Jerusalem, community leaders recently blessed Abu Ali as their Shabbos Goy.

For three years, Abu Ali set up an informal Shabbos Goy trade in the hospital emergency room of an adjacent neighborhood. When the medical center closed, he started anew, right down the street.

Two months ago, community leaders bought a small plastic shed for Abu Ali to work out of each week. It's big enough for a white plastic chair and a small refrigerator filled with soda.

Taped to the shed door, in big black Hebrew letters on fluorescent yellow paper: Shabbos Goy.

On authorized fliers that Abu Ali hands out, community leaders vouch for his character by noting that he's passed Israeli security checks and worked as a trusted Jerusalem bus driver for 25 years.

In a sign of the divisions, the fliers also urge community members to keep their business with Abu Ali to a minimum:

"Despite the fact that he is a known non-Jew (goy), parents are asked to please refrain from gathering around the booth and not to unnecessarily speak to the non-Jew."

One of those who use the service is Hershel Puretz, a young Brooklyn transplant who called Abu Ali to take his wife to the hospital two years ago to deliver their firstborn son.

In case of emergency, Puretz keeps Abu Ali's phone number in his cell phone address book, listed as "Goyim Shabbos."

Some Jews might have a problem using an Arab as a Shabbos Goy, Puretz said. But, for him, it's a fine option.

"You wonder if he loves us?" Puretz said. "Probably he does not. But if he's servicing me, so then I'm able to look over his shoulder. But I appreciate his service. And I'll pay him for it."

Like any archaic tradition, getting non-Jews to help on the Sabbath has evolved over time. Talmudic scholars, Jewish academics and Israeli lawmakers all have wrestled with how to balance religious devotion and modern life.

In this Jerusalem neighborhood, once the sun sets on Fridays and the streets are cordoned off, the only driver on the roads is Abu Ali, in his white taxi, with a red police light that he puts on the roof and special laminated signs he sticks in the front window so his car isn't mistakenly attacked.

Since observant Jews can't ask for help, they use a special code with Abu Ali. If they need the air conditioner turned on, they tell him that it's hot. If they need a light turned on or a fuse changed, they say that it's dark.

Abu Ali charges about $10 per visit. If he has to rush a pregnant woman to the hospital — something he said he sometimes has to do three or for times each Sabbath — it costs about $30.

The families aren't supposed to pay him for his services, so the community set up a box outside the neighborhood synagogue where people can put the money. If Abu Ali has to come collect directly, it costs an extra $5.

Though the ultra-Orthodox community might seem insular to the outside world, Abu Ali said he'd broken through the suspicions.

"If you don't know them, they're difficult," he said. "But when you get to know them, they're trustworthy."

Abu Ali doesn't talk much about his job to friends back in his predominantly Arab neighborhood between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. He knows that some people would laugh at him. He knows that some people think it's strange.

"But I don't tell them how much I make," Abu Ali said with a smile.

(McClatchy special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)

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