MAXWELL:  The story of the Shabbat elevator

3/3/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Let’s talk culture shock, not the superficial stuff that Americans mean when, for example, they’re talking about the butterflies some New Englanders feel in their stomachs when they trespass the Mason-Dixon Line. No, I’m referring to the kind of surreal shock I experienced a few weeks ago in Israel.

Now, depending on your disposition, your view of the world and your ability to accept your faux pas and unexpected encounters with good cheer, culture shock, instead of becoming nightmarish experiences, can become treasured memories.

For me, the most serious shock came in Jerusalem, on the morning of the Sabbath, or Shabbat, after I opened the door to my fourth-floor hotel room and did not find my complimentary copy of the Jerusalem Post. I dressed and marched to the elevator, determined to find out what had happened to my newspaper. I pressed the “down” button and waited for what seemed forever before an elevator door opened. By now, several other people had gathered.

As I entered the car, no one followed. Each person stood there, grinning. I can’t be the only one going down, I thought. I pressed the button that read “lobby.” Nothing happened. I pressed it again. Nothing happened. Some of the people were laughing. Now, I pressed the “close door” button, and nothing happened. One guy, probably a New Yorker, had nearly doubled over with laughter.

A few moments later, the elevator made a strange sound, the door closed slowly and off I went _ not down _ but up to the fifth floor, where the car stopped and the door slowly opened. Again, people waited but no one entered. I pressed “lobby,” the car made that strange sound, the door slowly closed and I ascended. Several people cackled.

“What the hell … ?” I asked aloud. After reaching the seventh floor, about 10 minutes later, I recalled that Menachem Hafetz, our brilliant Israeli guide, had warned us not to get on the Shabbat elevator.

Some background: The Sabbath, a sanctified time that goes from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday, is the most cherished and beloved of Jewish holidays. During these hours, according to religious law, Jews are prohibited from 39 categories of “creative work” that include pressing an elevator button. The Shabbat elevator, therefore, is programmed to stop at every floor, with the door automatically opening and closing.

My trip from the fourth floor, to the eighth floor, down to the fourth floor again and finally to the lobby took more than 30 minutes! Why hadn’t I simply transferred to a regular elevator? Stupid pride.

You would think that I had learned my lesson. But, no, after having been trapped in the elevator, I indignantly inquired at the front desk about the newspaper. Had they forgotten to bring it? Had someone stolen it?

An amused clerk said: “Good morning, sir, no paper is published or delivered on Shabbat. We’re very sorry. Shalom.”

“Shalom,” I muttered, humbled and embarrassed.

But I really showed my ignorance when I went shopping in the Old City’s Arab Quarter. In a leather shop, I was inspecting a purse for my daughter when a young teenage boy announced: “Purse is $40.”

“Nah-h, $10,” I said.

“Real camel leather,” he said. “You buy?”


“You insult. Okay, $20.”




“Okay, $10.”

I did not have a $10 bill, so I handed him a $20 and waited for change. He handed me the purse, pocketed my money and walked away. Demanding $10 in change, I now followed him. He stopped and said: “Why you do me? Not right. I keep $20. Good purse.”

“The deal was $10,” I said, suddenly realizing that I was an alien in an unfamiliar culture. What an innocent-looking, handsome child, I thought. But I refused to relent, my protests attracting the attention of Menachem, who followed the boy into the back of the store where a man was putting prices on a pair of shoes. I could not understand the conversation, but after a few minutes, Menachem returned with my $10.

“The boy’s uncle didn’t want to be tied up with the police all day,” Menachem said.

Initially, I was angry. But as I realized that haggling was integral to the ebb and flow of life here, I settled down, figured out how to shop and made some smart purchases. On the way out of the ancient city, I saw the boy. He was trying to rip off another American. Our eyes met.

“Why you do me?” the boy said to his stunned new customer.

Smiling to myself, I joined my group. That night over drinks, we, all U.S. journalists, shared our gaffes and low-grade epiphanies. I learned that others also had been captive of the Shabbat elevator and, like me, had gone looking for the Jerusalem Post.

We laughed until we cried. Indeed, we were innocents abroad, culturally shocked Americans who had learned to accept our hosts on their own terms. More significantly, though, we had learned to accept ourselves, our own ignorance and our own lack of sophistication. As a result, we will recall our experiences in the Holy Land fondly and will relive them time and again.