Monday, June 25, 2007

Fun Times and a Milestone at Beth Elderly

A few weeks ago Shiksa Girlfriend and I went to a very nice, but fairly small Conservative shul, largely populated by Holocaust survivors. Awesome history, but the median age there is something like 60. Our unofficial name for it is Beth Elderly.

Everyone was very nice to us (surprised, in fact, to see people they'd never met before), and were even impressed at our ability to "read" Hebrew (magic transliterations to the rescue). As it turned out, our visit coincided with a community potluck, which we particularly appreciated because I am a Jew and SG is a foodie and naturally, we love free food.

We went again last week, SG bringing a cake she had made. (Since I'm lactose intolerant, it was a vegan cake.)

So we show up, and again, people seem very surprised to see us. One old man stares at us. "It's not potluck tonight."


Luckily, when it comes to cake, Beth Elderly isn't too picky. After services we had a fun nosh, which included comments from several folks on the leadership committee asking us pointed questions about how to attract "youth" like us.

A student who usually goes to the local Hillel opined, "I like text study, I've always enjoyed that." I nodded, thinking back to my college days studying the Zohar, or as I affectionately referred to it, "Judaism on Crack." I also endured an internal wince, as I thought back to a friend's critique of David Hartman- "He thinks text study will save the Jewish people. I've got news for him. It won't."

"We also like Carlebach singing," SG said. Someone shrugged. "You should try Minyan X." I noted the name and we refrained from giving any further suggestions.

Far more entertaining were the services themselves. First, the gabbai thanked us for showing up, commenting that it would "help us make a minyan quicker." At the m-word, SG shot me a look. I shrugged. During Kabbalat Shabbat, the gabbai popped up again, and in a thick accent, asked us if we'd open the ark. He handed SG a kippah that looked like it had been a napkin in a previous life. Again, invisible arrows stabbed me in the face. I squeezed her hand.

Finally, the gabbai motioned to us and we went up, opened the doors, then closed them and took our seats. Her face was a little flushed, but SG did just fine.

Afterwards, people were asking us a little about ourselves. SG told them she was from a particular Southern state, and lo and behold, one of them had actually visited that city before! "Were you involved with the community there?"

I can see the imaginary thought-bubble above SG's head. "SHIT."

"Uh, no, not really. I mean, there's a temple in town, but we mostly stuck to our own suburb."

"Hmm." The man seems a little sad he can't make more conversation out of their Jewish geography connection, but lets it go. It's sad but true; secular Jews are all too commonplace these days.

Before we left, we were talking with a young woman about our age, and SG let her secret out- "I'm not actually Jewish."

"Oh, that's cool," the woman said. "Neither is my Dad, and they still made my Mom President of the Shul."

We filed it away for later. Maybe on our next trip SG will come clean.

You look Familiar

A few weeks ago we went to a Conservative shul I'll call Temple Burning Bush, because I got the impression I could have spontaneously burst into flames and run screaming through the sanctuary and the 15-odd congregants wouldn't have blinked. The cantor was too deep and didn't sing so much as intone- loudly.

So the cantor is doing his thing (unassisted by the rabbi, I notice), and on the other side of the bimah there are two older gentlemen. One seems to very obviously be the rabbi- glasses, white beard, very Soloveitchik-looking. Behind him, in one of the "VIP seats" is some random guy that I assume is the synagogue President. The whole time the cantor is cantoring, these two guys won't stop whispering to each other. Shiska Girlfriend and I keep looking at each other. Exactly what issue could the Men's Club be having that is so urgent that they can't either keep quiet during the service or, god forbid, actually join in?

Cantor finishes, rabbi gives his drash. A damn good drash, actually. Even includes a joke about a rabbi, cantor, and synagogue president stranded on a desert island. (A different version is here. This rabbi's version was much hipper. It involved cannibals.) This further's my suspicion that the chatterbox is the President.

End of drash, end of service. The Rabbi comes up to us to introduce himself. Before he reaches us, the President shakes my hand.

"Good to see you again!"

Me: "Huh?"

"Yes, great to see you back here. I've forgotten your names, though."

Me: "Um... we've never been here before."

Nothing fazes this guy. In his best used car salesman voice, he says, "Well there are two people that look just like you and have been here before!"

Yeah. No thanks, we don't want any.

We excuse ourselves from annoying President-man and introduce ourselves to the Rabbi- who reveals that, he, in fact, is a visitor! A rabbi, to be sure, but not from this shul. The guy who just tried to pretend he knows us, it turns out, is the rabbi.

Slightly surprised, I compliment the other rabbi on his drash. He grins. "Actually, I didn't even know I was speaking tonight." Apparently the back and forth on the bimah was Rabbi 1 opting out of drash duty. Nice.

This reminded me of a story circulating around my college the first few weeks of school- a philosophy professor gave a brilliant lecture about Plato, and a student came up to him afterwards at the podium to ask him if he could have a copy of his notes. The professor shrugged. "I don't really have notes, he says."

The student looks down at the lectern and sees a small piece of paper. It says, "Talk About Plato."

Needless to say, Temple Burning Bush was a bust. The search continues.

Wherefore art thou, RW reform?

A modified re-post from a few weeks ago on Friar Yid:


I don't give a hoot about halacha. I just don't. I wasn't raised with it, I don't see any good reason to follow it, and I certainly don't consider it binding. So, despite my father's many, many freakouts any time he sees me with a yarmulke on my head ("This is not a fucking shul!"), my position on Jewish law (and the presence of a shiska girlfriend) should demonstrate to him that there's no danger in me running off to Chabad anytime soon.

That said, last night I went to a Reform Kabbalat Shabbat. And it just wasn't me.

The shul in question, Temple Touched by God, is an institution unto itself, one of the largest synagogues on the West Coast. I prepared SG by telling her it was the city's Jewish equivalent of a Mega-Church. This, understandably, did not really endear her to it.

And indeed, it was. The whole time I was sitting there, I felt very, very uncomfortable (not unlike the last few times I've been to Reform services, come to think of it). To be fair, this isn't about ideology. It's largely about style. In regards to style, though, this was totally NOT my thing. The transliteration wasn't what I was used to (you-don-'t ne-eed to hy-ph-en-ate ev-ery wo-rd); and the whole thing seemed like a very weird combination of a couples mixer meets Jewish summer camp.

Sorry, did I say camp? Guess what the rabbi's sermon was about. See, it turns out evangelical Christians are scary. Fine, tell me something I don't know. Do we really need to spend the whole drash talking about a movie you saw last week? And comparing evangelicals, even the crazy dominionists, to Hamas? Yeah, fine, they train their kids to hate the government and non-believers. It's not like this is an exclusive thing here. Settlers in Hebron do that, too.

And it was particularly surreal hearing the rabbi complain about weirdo Christians given the fact that the music sounded like something from a Pentecostal fund-raiser (or light-Christian rock music station), right down to the- and this part scared the crap out me- weird finger waving at the end of the song. Sort of like a cross between this stuff and jazz hands.

Me: "Are they being ironic?"
SG: "I can't tell."

It's weird, because I usually spend all sorts of ridiculous energy defending Reform to bashers on the net, and one of the most regular cheap shots they toss out is that it's like church. Well, at this point I can say, it's not High Reform- which was certainly designed to emulate the German Lutherans of the day- but the comparisons are definitely there. The place I saw last night looked pretty damn charismatic Protestant to me. That's not a dig, it's just an observation. And it's not what I want.

I'm glad Reform exists. It needs to exist. (Not unlike my feelings about Orthodoxy- I would never choose it, and I have plenty of issues with it, but good for them.) And I haven't ruled it out yet. But at this point, my dabbling in Carlebachian Conservative Judaism has ruined me: I need a more traditional service. So the search continues.

Money quote of the night upon leaving the shul:

Me: So, that was different.
SG: Yeah.
Me: Not to offend them- or you- but...
SG: What?
Me: It was just so... Christian!
SG: Wait, why are you lumping me in with them?

Saturday, June 23, 2007


Why Another Blog, you ask? Especially when you get barely any readers on the other one? Vanity, I suppose. My present blog is useful for many things, but I decided I wanted to have another space that could be slightly more contemplative, down to earth, and consist of other things besides yelling at people on the Internet. Also I had come up with the name about a month ago and was dying for the chance to use it.

Who I am: You might say I've got some Jewish baggage. For various reasons (some mentioned before), I was raised in a totally nonobservant home as, essentially, a marginally cultural Jewish atheist. We had a mezuzah on our door, did Hanukkah every year and a few times went to some seders, and that was it. In high school I started going to a friend's Reform shul for High Holidays, much to the bemusement of my thoroughly secular parents. My father used to tell me to "go pray for the rest of us."

In high school I became interested in Hasidism, though, for reasons which will become clearer, I never seriously considered becoming frum (not that this has stopped my family from frequently freaking out at the slightest mention or indication of me doing anything Jewish).

So where does a former atheist (I thought the Messiah, like an afterlife, was an exclusively Christian thing)-turned firm agnostic (my honest opinion is that us limited humans can never truly know whether God's out there or not, we simply don't have the capacity) turn?

I knew from the start that, despite major attractions to the culture (and, in some ways, the communities) of Orthodox Judaism, I would never want to be Orthodox, because the truth is that I don't care about halakha. It just isn't something that moves me. I think a lot of it, frankly, is downright stupid, and while I respect observant Jews' right to do things their way, have no interest in following their lead. This, to a lesser degree, is the same problem I have with Conservative Jews- I understand their process, but the necessity of needing to rewrite or interpret halakha is, again, not something that concerns me. My eating shrimp (and if I have anything to say about it, I'll die eating dim sum or sushi) is not going to be determined by a vote of rabbis, it's just not. I like it and see no good reason to act otherwise. If I honestly believed that eating treif was a sin at all (which I don't), much less one so serious it could land me in whatever hell-construct Jews are threatening each other with this week.

So what about Reform? Well, I suppose ideologically, I fall somewhere on the Reform-Reconstructionist spectrum, with the one thorny point being that during college I started going to a monthly Carlebach-style minyan, which I absolutely loved. I loved the Hebrew, I loved the singing, it was just fantastic.

Problems: I don't speak, read, or understand Hebrew. One of my most treasured Jewish possessions is the transliterated Kabbalat Shabbat a Hebrew-literate friend wrote for me. Hopefully this will be something I can address in the future.

So I like Hebrew, and while I'm intruiged by Hasidism, I'm not particularly interested in pretending to be a hippy-dippy pseudo-mystic. If you want to talk mysticism, let's sit around with some friends and talk about how godamn trippy the Zohar is- I spent a year doing that, and it was great fun. But I'm looking for a place that moves my heart without insulting my brain. Reform autonomy is great, but I'm not looking for something that feels so watered-down as to be meaningless. (To be fair, some of this is probably projection from friends of mine with poor views of Reform.)

The one big wake-up call on this I had at a particular Reform shul that, almost from the very beginning I set foot in, just felt so wrong. It was all of the negative stereotypes about Reform being "churchy" without even the anthropological interest that would have come from an actual High Reform service. The straw that broke the camel's (me) back (brain) was when the rabbi delivered his drash on the bimah without a yarmulke on.

Talking with my friend on the way from the shul- "They can do whatever they want, and intellectually I know it shouldn't make a damn bit of difference to me, but... it just was so weird!"

Then there's Recon and Renewal. Haven't investigated them so much at the moment, but pretty interested- though again, my preference would be for interesting and meaningful "folk-ways" (which is a much more attractive and intellectually honest way of viewing traditions and mitzvot since anything I'm doing I'm CHOOSING to do anyway, not being commanded to) as opposed to hippy-dippy-ness or something ripped off from the Buddhists down the street.

Now, for the biggest wrinkle. My dear, dear, Shiska Girlfriend. Love her dearly, hoping to spend many, many years with her. She was raised a nominal Christian (one of the saner sects of Protestants) but would have been a U.U. if I hadn't snagged her into coming with me to the Carlebach minyan, which she also liked quite a bit. She doesn't plan to convert anytime soon, if ever. Fair enough. What's important to me is living a Jewish life and having a Jewish family and home (on my, not Rabbi Amar's, terms).

So join us, why not, on our amusing tale of shul-hopping. We hope to entertain, and eventually, find a spiritual home that works for us.