Rabbi Eldad Zamir
Former shaliach in Cape Town (1997 -1998)
Currently Senior Instructor at the Nativ ’Giyur” program in the IDF


The Faribbel

Parshat Emor opens with the laws of kehunah (the priesthood). The following true story deals with this topic:

Faribbel refers to a grievance, an angry grudge or a sense of injury. When Steve declares, “I have a faribbel with Mark,” he’s implying that Mark said something insulting or somehow wronged Steve. As a result, Steve is furious and, therefore, will ignore Mark completely. (Generally, this type of snubbing is accompanied by the circulation of ugly rumors and innuendos.)

Faribbel is a Yiddish word with German roots which features prominently in South African Jewry’s lexicon. Everyone (especially in the smaller communities) has at least three small faribbels with different people. Faribbel is perhaps the first word I learned upon arriving in South Africa.

Faribbel is an integral part of Jewish life. Hence, during my investiture ceremony to the Port Elizabeth rabbinate, one of the speakers felt the need to praise me by noting – with something akin to astonishment – that I had been in the community for several months and yet still had no adversaries!

But after my unblemished record remained intact for some time, I began to worry: will people begin questioning the authenticity of my “Jewishness”? … In a more serious vein, I also wondered: One who doesn’t act – is never scalded. One who doesn’t take a clear position – never acquires distinct enemies. Perhaps I wasn’t doing enough? Was I avoiding confrontations and thereby shirking my duties? In other words, where was the faribbel?

I needn’t have worried. The faribbel arrived two years later.

Here’s what happened:

In our community, there were several cases of kohanim whose nonJewish girlfriends wanted to convert, but of course, the beit din (rabbinical court) refused. (A kohein may not marry a proselyte.) Later, after these couples had children, the beit din surprisingly agreed – after specific discussions in each case and at different times – to convert the young children of three of these couples (but again, not their mother), after the mother promised to raise the children to mitzvah observance and as pious Jews.

Yet, today, some 10-15 years later, the results of this decision are far from exemplary. Despite the conversion course, the knowledge, and the commitment, these families’ Jewish lifestyles is typical of the city’s other families (i.e., nothing to write home about).

Meanwhile, the youngest of the three couples decided to move to New Zealand. (Many South Africans, who are unable to obtain visas to Australia, try their luck at entering through the “back door”, via New Zealand.) As was the custom among émigrés, they asked me to write a letter of recommendation testifying that they were devoted members of our congregation and were therefore deserving of membership in their new community.

In order to prevent misunderstandings or attempted deceptions, I wrote pointedly that although the husband and children were Jewish, the wife was not. As it turned out, I didn’t find out that the family was angry at me, until several months after they had left for New Zealand. But the kohein-in-question’s father was beside himself with fury and let me know how he felt. Anxious to defuse the situation, I tried to call him and clarify my position. To my dismay, however, I realized that not only didn’t he understand, but he didn’t even want to understand.

He insisted that no one had asked me to write that his daughter-inlaw wasn’t Jewish, and therefore, I was guilty of dishonoring her gratuitously. He tried to “prove” his point with the corresponding letter which the family had received from the Reform community and which had omitted this “trifling” detail.

It’s hard to argue with these types of claims and this kind of thinking, but I nonetheless persevered. Patiently, I explained that I was obligated to write clearly – in order to prevent any errors. As I was speaking to him, I discovered that my fears were well-grounded; the family had hoped to pass themselves off as a kohein married to a Jewess in New Zealand. (I just hope that they didn’t try and claim that their son, the convert, was a kohein as well – although I wouldn’t be shocked if they did.)

I was always pedantic about the South African beit din’s rulings. Not only was I required to do so, but I found that it served me well in delicate situations such as this one. For example, I could then say that my hands were tied, and I was only permitted to call this man up to the Torah on his parents’ yahrzeit and even then not as a kohein. After all, even though some of my predecessors were more lenient in this regard, the beit din had ruled that Jews married to non-Jews should only be called up on their parents’ yahrzeits. Despite the fact that the parties involved and their supporters pressured me to relent, I upheld the beit din’s ruling in order to avoid any future complications.

Yet, my cogent and coherent arguments notwithstanding, the father became increasingly irate and annoyed and finally hung up on me midsentence. I asked some of his close friends to initiate some sort of reconciliation, but their efforts proved unfruitful.
Indeed, the outcome is inevitable. Eventually, the Moshiach will come and inform the child (or, perhaps, his descendents) that the kehunah which they’re so proud of has no basis in reality. And even though they had dreamed about a prestigious position in the Beit HaMikdash, they are not qualified to serve as kohanim. (One hopes that – for the sake of shalom bayit – the Moshiach will refrain from mentioning that their mistaken status was initiated intentionally.)

Thus, in great sadness, I achieved a significant milestone. Finally, someone wasn’t speaking to me; finally, I had joined the club; and finally, my first faribbel had begun.