It’s 11pm on a balmy Friday night in Jerusalem, as you join a crowd shuffling into a small cafeteria in Mea Shearim. Inside, as you take your seat at a row of tables, it’s dark – not hazardously dark, you aren’t feeling your way forward or tripping over one other, but all you can really make out are shadows and silhouettes.
The room, now filled with around 200 people, remains largely silent. Where words are being uttered, it’s in a hushed whisper, perhaps in awe of the darkness. Then the singing starts.
You don’t need to know any words. There are no words. You don’t even need to know the melodies. As the ancient niggunim sweep you along, and you sway to their rhythm, you realise you do know them. You’ve always known them.
You’re becoming weightless, carried aloft on a wave of song. You’re feeling things you’ve never felt, expressing things you’ve never expressed. Cogs start to shift, not in your mind, but in a deeper ineffable part of your being. It’s kind of eerie. And it’s kind of unforgettable. The darkness, you realise, can be dazzling.
It’s called the “Dark Tisch”. And on the 27th October – the Friday night of the Shabbat Project – it’s coming to South Africa.
For Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, it’s an opportunity to bring people together in a unique way, and in doing so, help actualise one of the main tenets of the Shabbat Project.
“The Shabbat Project is about uniting our community – bringing together Jews of all backgrounds,” he explains. “The darkness can be a great equaliser. The wonderful thing is that it removes all barriers. You can’t properly see who is sitting next to you – an old friend or a new friend.”
He also makes the point that people feel less inhibited in the dark.
“No one need be embarrassed to sing. Someone who wouldn’t normally get up in front of a crowd might feel more inclined to give over a nice idea or tell a personal story. People share more – and more personally – in this setting.”
In recent months, with the South African Jewish Community rocked by a number of tragedies, the event has taken on an added significance.
“We’ve experienced a lot of darkness in the community over the past year. There's no answer, no explanation, but sometimes there can be a response. And the Dark Tisch is a potent symbol of what that response might be.
“On a metaphoric level, the Dark Tisch is about bringing light into the darkness, lighting up a dark space. It’s about coming together and spreading the light.
And people are responding to the call. Youth movements are getting involved, SRC leaders are raleighing school kids to show up in huge numbers, and the Shabbat Project office is inundated with calls from a broad spectrum of community members.
Traditionally, Shabbat Project events have been marked by an air of celebration and, occasionally, euphoria. But while the Dark Tisch is by no means a solemn event, it's no party or rave either.
“There’s something deeply spiritual and quietly inspiring about the Dark Tisch,” says strategist Batya Smadja, who has been instrumental in brining the Dark Tisch to life. “There’s something self-centering about being in the dark. There’s a mystery and intrigue here. I believe this can uplift a Shabbos like it’s never been uplifted before.”
Uplifting indeed. One Capetonian who attended the tisch in Israel (whether he had hallucinogenic help, he wouldn't say) reported seeing “fiery Hebrew letters". But whether your experience is mystical or slightly more grounded, one thing is certain.
It's going to be an experience.
Simon Apfel was born into obscurity, the son of a frozen peas importer and a washing machine. His love of writing has always outshone his ability by a humiliating margin. Nevertheless, he has gone on to achieve some measure of success as a copywriter, journalist and occasional comedy writer. He studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Cape Town, and has written for a variety of local and international publications. For the past five years, he has been chief writer to South Africa’s Chief Rabbi, and has worked extensively on the Shabbat Project, as well as a host of other projects initiated by Chief Rabbi Goldstein.