Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Welcome to Bnei Hippy! I hope you like hugs!

I feel guilty about this one, I really do. From the time I was about thirteen or so and feeling guilty that I hadn't been Bar Mitzvahed, the one place that I thought might be a good match for me was the local Reconstructionist shul in town. Unfortunately, I was still too intimidated at that point to poke my nose in, and before I could get over my Jew-fright the shul wound up losing its lease and leaving for greener pastures when I was in high school, and I could never find where its new home was.

Recently, however, in my process of recording all the shuls in town and marking them up on Google Maps ("Brit HaMoshiach" has a Christmas tree), I managed to find the Recons. Hooray! For years I've been talking up Reconstructionism to my folks, especially Abbot Yid, who's not at all convinced by the God thing:

Me: "It's a Judaism without God, sort of."

Him: "Wait a minute, but how the hell can that work? Who do you pray to?"

Me: "You sort of pray in the moment. You pray for the experience of praying. If you want to pray to God that's fine, too, but it's focused on what you're getting out of it."

Him: "Hmmm... But I don't think I get anything out of it. That's why we send you off on the High Holidays to pray for all of us."

Needless to say, I was excited to check it out with Shiska Girlfriend. Only things didn't exactly go as planned (seasoned readers will note that this seems to be a trend with us).

First of all, the place was not Reconstructionist. It turned out it was Jewish Renewal. This isn't an issue, per se. I've heard the Recon/Renewal divide described as head versus heart (not unlike the Hasidim/Misnagdim feuds, come to think of it, except on the non-Orthodox, post-modern end of the spectrum). Anyway, I don't object to mysticism, though I think that when it boils down to it, I'm a little too cerebral to take that stuff too seriously. I'm much more interested in analyzing the phenomenon of mysticism than the actual practice. This was great in college but presents something of a challenge in dealing with people that claim to be bona fide mystics or pseudo-mystics.

Anyway, some of the issues I had with this place was that the Jewish content seemed rather low. Even worse, the Jewish stuff didn't seem to have been replaced by much of anything. At least the Jew-Bus have an interesting syncreticism going on. These people had... uh... hang on, let me check my notes...

Ah. got it. Hugging.

No, seriously. The whole thing was apparently one giant support group, led by the congregation's new Rabbi. Most of the "service" part of Kabbalat Shabbat consisted of butchering the psalms (nigguns are great, only including one or two lines of each psalm and then "lai-lai-lai-ing" the rest for a minute and a half is not). I did think that setting up a whole table full of small cup-candles and having everybody light one was an interesting way of including everyone there in candle-lighting, but that was about it as far as positive points.

Shiksa Girlfriend was so perturbed by the experience, it was enough to make her sit down and pound out a few lines herself:

Last week we crashed a parent’s social group masquerading as a congregation. Bnei Hippy meets in a large room rented from Temple Burning Bush normally used for large social events. Some of the round tables that fill the room are pushed to the side and the chairs are gathered in a loose circle around a low table topped with a tray containing two sets of candlesticks and about twenty votive candles.

As the congregation begins to filter in, I notice that they seat themselves in a pattern governed by the same rules as collage classes. The Friar and I had many “conference” classes at college where the professor and students sat in a circle and thus subverted the lecturer/listener dynamic. In theory. In practice, the students would seat themselves in order to create the division. As the seats filled, the two seats to either side of the professor would remain empty as long as space permitted, creating an effect similar to placing the professor at the head of the table.

So it was at Bnei Hippy, despite the absence of the bima, the congregants refused to collapse the divisions of rank and left the rabbi her own side of the circle, with only her drum for company. The drum was quite large, of the style inspired by African drums, with a hourglass shape and an irregular hide tightened by ropes. The sound was mellow enough to meld with the singing and I was not ungrateful for the rhythmic help during unfamiliar songs. At the same time, the use of an African drum as part of Kabbalat Shabbat carries, at least for me, a tinge of cultural imperialism.

But I’m being unfair, because, I would bet, that, for this crowd, that particular type of drum is more evocative of Woodstock, drum circles, and their own youth. I can say this with some authority because the congregation of Bnei Hippy seemed to be former hippies/counterculturalists who became professionals, started families, and now conceive of themselves primarily as parents.

This manifests not only in the song/poem written by a member concerning the joy of parenthood and the special bond between parents and children[ Note from the Friar: getting community involvement to write your own siddur is great. Writing your own specific family prayer which then gets inserted into every Friday night service by virtue of you being head of the siddur committee seems to verge on the masturbatory], but also in the many interludes of discussion that peppered the service. The Friar and I have not reached the stage where we use huge lengths of fabric to tie infants to ourselves, and the rabbi was kind enough to take this into consideration.

Rabbi (benevolent smile at the circle): "And now we need to take this moment of Shabbat to consider the events of past week. Take a moment to think about a time this week when you felt that there was something loving you wanted to say to your child, but --something-- held you back."

"Turn now to your children and share you love with each other."

(The rabbi pauses as her glance passes over us again) "…. or, ..uh…. take a moment to contemplate your love for your own parents?" (big smile).

[Note from the Friar: I actually gave the Rabbi a little more credit here. Maybe she was trying to emphasize that the family dynamic works, like, both ways, man. This way she can get all the adults to be mindful of the fact that they ignore their own parents. I also considered that this could have been her attempt to include the ten or so kids there who were similarly excluded from the "tell your child you love them" speech.]

This style continued throughout the rest of the pauses for discussion. The Rabbi went around the room asking the parents what challenges they had faced this week, and what they had learned from them. One father congratulated his kids for having gone to Shakespeare camp for the third year in a row, noting that "they don't really like it, but we think they're good at it, and they had their performance tonight and they were really great. We think that teaches them the importance of perseverance."

Next the Rabbi asked the kids what they learned this week. They turned to their Dad. "We learned we really don't like Shakespeare camp."

"Yeah. Can we please stop going?"

He looked embarrassed and the Rabbi gracefully took the opportunity to move on. Another parent patted himself on the back for bringing his kid to shul and in having made shul an interesting enough place that he felt compelled to bring along two friends from school. This would have been more convincing if all three fourteen-year-olds hadn't looked like they were about to fall asleep in their chairs. "I think this is teaching him about tolerance," the Dad beamed.

Another thing the Rabbi asked people was what they did that was fulfilling. This was where the group really shined, as they listed a bunch of inane hobbies. "I like gardening." "I like horseback riding." "I get a kick out of music." "Being here is nice." "Yeah, Shabbat is totally nice! And being with you guys, that's nice too!" The grand finale came from a Mom in her 40s: "Just being around my family and community, that keeps me going." Um, great, but... what does any of this have to do with anything?

When the drumming and child-flaunting were finally over the group migrated to the coffee and cake. While the Friar and I are usually happy to stick around for the kibitzing, the snatches of conversation that drifted over were not promising:

“The best thing! Just like Lunchables, but made from organic ingredients with no preservatives!”

“Soccer camp starts Tuesday, so she’ll be missing one of rehearsals for…”

“And it turns out it’s pinkeye! Again!”

So we fled. Just not the place for us.

Yeah, maybe in a few years. Hopefully never. Well, now we have two reasons to never go anywhere near Burning Bush again. Many thanks to the kind and patient (and easily badgered) Shiska Girlfriend for finally writing something down for the blog. More to come.