A Goy at the Gala

VR_13_9_p27_GC_Benny S.“Do you speak German?” asked a lady in her 40s, to my left. I hadn’t said much.

I had accepted an invitation to the jubilee gala of Hashomer Hatzair at the Rathaus’ lavishly decorated Festsaal – a Jewish youth organisation I knew literally nothing about. Hebrew for ‘youth guardian’, it was, I learned, a Zionist-socialist youth movement, founded in 1913 in Vienna. Today it is an international association with 14,000 members worldwide in 17 countries, and with at least 400 in Austria.

Sitting at the big circular table, elegantly laid out for a three-course meal, I was struggling with my freshly cooked tagliatellas covered with tomato sauce – all kosher, of course. I quickly nodded with an embarrassed smile, as the noodles kept falling off my fork. “Of course,” I mumbled, “it is just a different world.”

Which became immediately obvious as I walked in the door. The two teenage girls at reception clearly thought I had lost my way. I gave my name. Looking spiffy in their blue uniform sweaters with white laces, they eyed me in surprise. There was a hurried glance at the guest list, some whispering, and finally a ticket handed over with a cheeky giggle: “Table 32!”

I was overdressed, I realised the second I entered the hall. The place was packed with young people mingling excitedly, and kids playing hide-and-seek, all of them wearing the “corporate” blue sweater. It was the word Jubiläumsgala – Anniversary Gala – on the invitation that had fooled me. I left my dark jacket and tie in the cloak room.

My table was just in front of the stage and what would become the dance floor later on. Two tables to the left, Kultusgemeinde-president Oskar Deutsch and his predecessor, Ariel Muzikant took their seats. Only the dignitaries of Vienna’s Jewish community were formally dressed, otherwise it was jeans and t-shirts even for the adults. Leftist journalist and writer Robert Misik walked past me, and fit right in.

What else did I expect of bunch of lefties? They were everywhere: Luminaries, like philosopher Isolde Charim and author Doron Rabinovici who were members in their youth, later to become among the the most outspoken in the 2,000 protests against the far-right Schüssel-government.

“The organisation is open to all, not only Jewish children,” my dinner companion educated me. I nodded politely: “But why haven’t I heard of it then?” I grumbled. Her reply was drowned out by the traditional battle-cry chasak we’ emaz call – Hebrew for ‘be strong, be brave’ – that now resonated through the hall. I guess my polite “I understand” got lost in translation, but my tentative nod was met with an appreciative smile.

It was time to get seconds from the otherwise nearly empty buffet. As I returned to my table with a piece of the rich ‘birthday’ chocolate cake, I wondered what sustains the organisation’s family-like atmosphere across the generations.

“It is just like the scouts, I suppose,” I turned to the lady as I sat down again. She raised her eyebrows: “Not quite,” she said, going into lecture mode: “Youth leads youth is Hashomer’s motto. So, it is not adults acting as Madrichims – the leaders – but like our peers.”

And I retreated with as much dignity as possible into the delicious, sensual, and thoroughly delightful slice of cake.

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