The shuls I wish I didn’t have to go to.

January 4, 2010

I don’t like visiting other shuls.  Once a person is used to a place, they can daven better.  I understand how things work at my synagogue.  That familiarity means I don’t spend my time looking blankly around, being distracted by unfamiliar movements, the pattern of the light, smells, sounds.  At my shul I know when things will happen and the tunes that they’ll happen to.  I  have my own spot that I like to sit in and it’s near to familiar faces.

Most of all, in my shul people are respectful.  You can hear the layening.  Mobile phones go off only occasionally.  There’s hardly any chatter.  These are the little details that mean so much when, as last shabbat, I was forced to attend another shul to witness some useless pre-pubescent kid recite maf and haf with about as much feeling as a patch of  lichen.  Yes, I was at a Barmitzvah.

It’s the mensch in me that drags me along to these things.  I figure that an invite to the simcha requires me to attend the service, just so I can lie about how marvelously the boy performed.  Of course the boy, the parents, the rabbi and the guests all know that that he was rubbish and the only reason he did it was for the loot.  Still, like all good Jews, we conveniently pretend otherwise, just as the Rabbi, in his sermon, pretends that the family are fine, upstanding members of the community, and great role models for their son.  I wonder if that role modeling includes the classy way in which his father had an affair and dumped the family a couple of years back?  Ah, but I can’t really blame the rabbi for that. After all, he’d never met the family until the rehearsal about three days previously and they probably didn’t get as far as those minor points.

Yet if that nonsense is not infuriating enough, this was without doubt the noisiest service I have ever attended. I should have taken to heart the warning about decorum in the shul  when I saw the posters that decorated every wall and pillar alternately reminding woman how to dress modestly for shul and  everyone to turn of their mobile phones, the idea that they shouldn’t be carrying a phone on Shabbat in the first place long since abandoned.

But I digress.  The noise was so overwhelming that I honestly couldn’t hear a thing from the bimah and I was only three rows back.  Nobody was following the layening, preferring instead to generate several hundred decibels of noise by chatting to their neighbour, and, in a few cases, someone several seats away.

It was only when the tuneless barmitzvah himself ascended that everyone quietened down.  After 10 seconds I was wishing they’d all start up their chatter again, so painful was his voice.  At least at my shul I have plenty of people around me to talk to under such circumstances.


Tefillin

July 3, 2009

“You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a frontlet between your eyes”.

I’ve never been totally convinced that the Almighty really did intend us to take a series of lines from the Torah, put them into funny little square boxes with long strips of leather attached and then to put them on every morning to pray, but I’m glad I do it nonetheless. And what about winding the strap round your forearm seven times, but without counting?

Every religion needs something a bit strange, and for me, laying tefillin is just a bit strange. It’s the spiritual equivalent of a unique selling proposition.

I grew up without tefillin and for me they epitomised everything that was wrong with religion; blind faith manifested in a ridiculous ritual. I just couldn’t get over how crazy it looked.  It undermined my pride in Judaism and even made me angry and embarrassed.  I saw the arm strap as a heroin addict’s tourniquet, and imagined an accompanying syringe filled with spiritual claptrap.

Perhaps this is the natural cynicism that one will find in most teenagers, especially those who grow up in an irreligious home.  Maturity should have seen my cynicism become indifference.  I ought to have stopped thinking how daft tefillin are and just got on with life, but that never happened.  I was always fascinated by tefillin, and as my spiritual journey progressed, I realised it wasn’t going to go very far without me buying a set and learning how to put them on.  That’s when I came to understand that laying tefillin, being such an obscure tradition, is something that defines Judaism.

As far as I’m aware, no other religion does anything like this.  Sure, they may have their own strange customs, but they don’t make black boxes out of the hides of particular animals, put particular prayers inside them in a particular order then stitch them up and add straps with clever little knots, and a detailed set of user instructions.

I also appreciate them on an aesthetic level.  Tefillin are beautiful things, and all the more beautiful when one considers how much care and attention goes into making them.  How the sofer writes with his attention fully on the job in hand, not listening to the radio or thinking about the weekend.  They are beautiful in that they look so perfect.  They are perfectly square, perfectly black, and the straps of my tefillin fit me perfectly now that we are familiar with each other.  When I wear them, and I create the “shin” on my hand, it looks great.  It’s a lovely, strong, clear “shin”.

My son has recently started to lay tefillin and now I think I really understand the meaning behind these peculiar objects.  His tefillin are enormous on him and the strap winds around his hand about 20 times. It keeps coming loose as the straps are rather stiff and we’re still trying to get it to fit his head properly (I think his head must swell and shrink with the weather or something).

The first time I helped him to put them on was one of the most wonderful moments of my life.  Here I was, continuing a tradition that stretched back at least 2000 years.  Doing my little bit.  L’dor v’dor.

As he gets older I imagine he’ll wonder why on earth we do this ridiculous thing.  I imagine he’ll stop laying tefillin at some point, or at least he’ll only do it occasionally.  And I hope that if that’s the case they’ll sit quietly in a drawer somewhere, patiently waiting for him to rediscover them, their beauty, and the tradition they represent.  And maybe he’ll start to use them regularly again one day and realise how peaceful one can sometimes feel when bound up in the straps, as I sometimes do when I daven shacharit.   It may look ridiculous but it’s no more ridiculous than some of the hats I see in shul.


Choosing what kind of Jew you don’t want to be.

February 6, 2009

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.


A Bluffer’s Guide to the Shul Service.

December 26, 2008

Worried about looking like a lemon in shul?
Finding the shul service impossible to follow?

Many people suffer from what is known in religious circles as “Mainstream Judaism”. No need to worry, however.  Our team of spiritual healers have devised a cure and we are making it available to you exclusively today.  Please pass it on to anyone you know who may be suffering in silence.

“Shul Rules” is your ten step guide to synagogue confidence:

1    If you arrive after the start don’t sit down right away, but instead open the book near the beginning and spend 2 or 3 minutes turning slowly through the pages while mumbling under your breath.  If you recognise any of the Hebrew words, say one or two of them a little louder so those around you can hear.

2    Find a seat just behind someone who looks like they know what’s going on.  (You can tell this person because they are likely to be mumbling to themselves under their breath).  Make sure this person is using the same prayer book as you.  Keep a note of what page they are on by glancing casually over their shoulder every now and again.  A pair of strong magnification glasses may help here.

3    When putting on the tallit wrap it around your head for a few seconds while mumbling under your breath.

4    Liberally sprinkle your time in shul with more barely audible mumbles as you look intently at the pages of your siddur.  Again, the odd word, phrase or line spoken accurately and a little louder than the rest goes down very well.

5    Don’t jump up whenever the person in front does so.  They may be stretching their legs.  Instead, wait a moment until a significant proportion of the congregation are standing.  In this way, even if they are all stretching their legs you won’t look conspicuous.

6    See those guys near the front that are wondering around with an air of assurance?  These are the shammosim.  AVOID EYE CONTACT WITH THESE PEOPLE or you may find yourself being asked to do something strange like opening the doors of the Aron Kodesh or, heaven forbid, saying something in Hebrew out loud to everyone.

7    The easiest way to look the part is to shockel.  I have met people who have won international shockelling competitions without having a clue about where in the service they were.  Advanced shockellers will even shockel when everyone else is sitting.  (Of course, sometimes this may be a disguised leg-stretch).

Schockelling is an entire lesson in itself but there are two basic forms.  The “lateral swing” is usually seen in ultra-orthodox congregations.  Here the practitioner is perfectly still from the waist down (feet together, naturally), while the top half of the body repeatedly twists at speed.

The “Hammerhead” is more prevalent in mainstream orthodox shuls and, as the name suggests, the congregant looks as if they are trying to bang a nail into the floor with his head.  (I say “his” because women prefer to use this time for kibitzing or kvelling over the way their grandson shockels.).

Shockelling mainly takes place during the silent Amidah.  This is about 10 pages during which you have no idea where everyone else is.  All you do know is that if the others were really reading all the prayers involved they would be contenders for the world speed-reading record.  You know when it starts because everyone takes three steps back, then three steps forward, then they bow.  This is your cue to start shockelling while turning the pages of your prayer book approximately every 15 seconds.  The end of the silent Amidah is signalled by everyone taking three short steps back, bowing to the left, the right and the centre and then looking round to see if they won.

8    Is the Rabbi speaking in English and yet you can’t understand what he’s on about?  If so, this is the sermon and it’s your job to look alive.  Paying attention to the sermon is a skill that may take many years to master rather in the way that one learns how to complete cryptic crosswords.  The formula for this particular puzzle is fairly simple:  The narrative of Torah portion you have just heard plus something from local or national news equals “you should go to shul more regularly” or “your home isn’t kosher enough”.

9    Feel free to talk to people near you at any time.  Business and football are particularly appropriate topics of conversation.  Seeking kavanah and listening to the sermon will be regarded with suspicion in most communities.

10    If you can keep your cool until the end of the service you will be rewarded.  At last something that is familiar, and a chance to clear your throat and give it some as you bash out Ein Kelokaynu and Adon Olam just like you did at cheder all those years ago.

One final word of warning.  If it goes well and you feel confident enough to go back for a second week running you will be classified as a regular.  This means there is a very good chance you will be asked to be the next synagogue chairman.

Originally posted November 23rd 2008