A friend was thinking about converting to Judaism so I decided to offer her some advice given how important such a step is. “After all”, I explained rather pompously, “we don’t make it difficult to convert for the sheer fun of it, we make it difficult in order to preserve the integrity of the faith. Why would anyone choose to become a member of the most oppressed and reviled religious grouping on the planet unless they had lost their marbles?” I continued, now beginning to sound like someone who thinks they’re a bit of a Talmud khokhem when in fact they’re just a bit of an idiot, “and why would we want someone who had lost their marbles? We have enough problems trying to keep our own from rolling around the floor. You can’t just become any Jew,” I concluded, “you have to decide what kind of Jew you don’t want to be.”
I recommended that she try out a few local synagogues of different hues and proffered the following guidance:
Liberal or progressive synagogue services are really easy to follow. Everything is in English and the rabbi does the work for you. You just sit there. If you’re going to make or receive phone calls it’s polite to go out into the lobby area. Also, it’s more common to see a woman wearing a yarmulke and tallis than a man.
Next, Reform. This time there is a small amount of Hebrew but this is nothing to worry about because, again, the rabbi and the choir will do most of those bits for you. Please don’t join in the singing as it puts them off, besides, they’re here to entertain you, not the other way around. Only contribute when you are told to do so, responsively. As with the liberal synagogues, the Shabbat service is quite short, often starting at 10.30 or 11am and finishing around 90 minutes later giving you the option of going shopping before or after shul.
Jumping over to the far right you’ll find the chareidi communities. Here, the married women are easily identifiable as they all have the same hairstyle, and, in some cases, the same person’s hair. A newspaper popular amongst these very orthodox groups is the Jewish Tribune which is mostly written in English, except the sports page at the back which is in Yiddish. When it comes to shul, the men and women are separated. Men go while women stay at home once they start having children, and boy do they have children. The prayer book contains not a word of English, unless you happen to pick up one of the two Artscroll siddurs which appeared out of nowhere and which nobody with any self-respect would dare use.
Returning to mainstream orthodox synagogues, I explained to my friend that she would notice that while both men and women do attend, they are again separated, either by a curtain or by having the women sit upstairs in the gallery. The reason for this separation is that if a man should catch sight of a woman there is a risk that his thoughts will be drawn away from the spiritual and towards insatiable lust and desire. This is because Jewish women are expensively dressed, carefully made-up and have enormous hats that men cannot resist.
Although small, there is a growing group of shulgoers who call themselves Masorti. Masorti is a corruption of the word “Allsorty”, and refers to the fact some of their shuls have women who wear talleisim, lead services and layen, while others have separate seating for men and women and only men may ascend the bimah. The Masorti movement is the only one where, to my knowledge, there are members who will refer to another Masorti shul as “the one I don’t go to”.
Last time I spoke to my friend she had decided to become a Jedi because it seemed altogether more sensible.