Monday, March 10, 2008

In which we move beyond the comfort zone

...and things get predictably awkward.

Shiska Girlfriend knew this was coming. I've been saying it for weeks. "We still have to visit the other Reform shul. I feel like you were short-changed by Temples Ol'Faithful and Touched by God. Besides, I need more blog fodder."

She isn't fooled, but she's a good sport.

So we headed off to Temple Raise the Roof.

Raise the Roof suffers from what can best be called, "macher envy." Whenever people start perusing the synagogue menu in town at the Reform end of the spectrum, the first place they look is invariably Temple Touched by God. It's bigger, more well-known, and this understandably pissed Raise the Roof off to no end. One way they cope is with a totally not-phallic mega-dome, a Wang upon a Hill, if you will. [SG- I disavow and take no responsibility for this remark.] Luckily, the sanctuary inside is actually very beautiful, more so, I would say, than Touched by God's.

I had actually been inside Raise the Roof a few times previously, for the sporadic Bat Mitzvah way back in Middle School. Raise the Roof was also the setting for my father's last showdown with organized religion, about more which another time (the long and short of it: things didn't go well, I never got Bar Mitzvahed, my father still occasionally fantasizes about running the now-retired rabbi down in his Toyota).

I'll say this for Raise the Roof- the people were pretty friendly. The first person to say hi, it turned out, was the rabbi, who introduced himself using only his first name (we didn't know who he was until the service started and he started telling everyone which page to turn to).

We settled into plush mahogany seats (no pews, thank you very much) and were met with a very pleasant surprise: Mishkan freaking Tefillah! More on this in a later post, but let me just say: very impressed, very jealous, and it made a very big difference in how the service went. With everything transliterated and translated, the entire congregation could actually follow along and participate like they knew what they were doing. On our way out, I spotted an old, forlorn copy of Gates of Prayer- as I suspected, every tran-s-litera-ation was sup-er hy-phen-a-ted, and large sections of the prayers, well, weren't. Miskhan Tefillah is a major improvement. Big plus.

Raise the Roof, like Touched by God, has a rotating Shabbos schedule. This week was "choir Shabbat." Just as another comparison between the two big-wig Reform shuls: when Touched by God had their musical Shabbat, they brought in a weird quartet with a violin, bongos, keyboard, and tambourine. At Raise the Roof, it was some guy on a borrowed giant piano, "the grade just below concert grand," he told us. So, still pretentious, but less out-and-out weird.

For the most part, the choir was fine. Some of the psalms and songs actually sounded quite beautiful when sung by a chorus (though it would be nicer if the cantor didn't feel required to let people sing just because they're the only ones that show up or volunteer for solos; willingness doesn't necessarily equal talent). Some things I could have done without, like the piano accompanist trilling up and down the scales like he was about to start scatting.

[Sidebar: this did, however, give me the seed for an entertaining daydream in which I whipped out a harmonica (that I suddenly learned how to play) and we jammed in a cool "Blues Shabbos":

Wuh-wuh-wuh-wuh! Woke up this morning,
Wuh-wuh-wuh-wuh! I went to shul.
Wuh-wuh-wuh-wuh! No one was there,
Wuh-wuh-wuh-wuh! I felt like a fool,
Yeah, I got those, "Jews don't go to shul on Sundays" blues!

...What can I say; I get bored.]

Also, once again I find myself disliking a cantor. SG says this is a widespread complaint of mine, which will be discussed at a later time. Long story short, I don't like bossy showoffs, which seems to be a lot of cantors' unofficial job descriptions these days (someone should check- did the cantor union sneak something into their new contracts?)

The rabbi was friendly and engaging, and we got another fun surprise- a drash! Yes, how I've missed the Friday night drashes since leaving college. The rabbi talked about the recent attack on Merkaz HaRav yeshiva in Jerusalem. I was pleased that he wasn't afraid of talking about important (and relevant) current events, but also was able to keep the talk from devolving into a major political discussion. On the other hand, I wouldn't have minded some Torah/textual commentary relating to the incident instead of a long bit of background about Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and the yeshiva he founded.

Incidentally, the big thing that bothered me about the drash- and I wouldn't have noticed it if most of his focus hadn't been on Rav Kook- was that the Rabbi seemed to be sugarcoating/whitewashing the ideology of Merkaz HaRav and the Religious Zionist movement. A.I. Kook was indeed a wide consensus-builder, brilliant thinker, a political maverick, and, compared to a lot of his peers, fairly universalism-oriented. But his son, Tzvi Yehuda Kook, who really disseminated his teachings to the last several generations and was the primary ideologue of Religious Zionism and the settler movement as we know it today- wasn't.

T.Y. Kook was interested in Greater Israel and settling the land, and if his disciples are any indication, his approach towards non-Jews, especially Arabs, was probably mixed, at best. Religious Zionists know this. Everyone in Israel knows this. And the Palestinians know this, too. Merkaz HaRav is indeed a symbol, but that symbol and its reputation have a definite double-edge, and a lot of observers, especially in Israel have been theorizing that this may have been one reason the madman picked it as his target. So for the rabbi at Raise the Roof to portray M.H.R. and its founder as some Utopian universalist institution just seemed bizarre, somewhat along the lines of, "Al Qaeda attacked us because they hate our freedom." I'm sure most people didn't notice, but it made me feel like I was being talked-down to.

And now a lovely extended anecdote from Shiksa Girlfriend:

I agree with most of the above from the Friar (minus the unnecessary phallic comparison); the building is beautiful, the new book is sweet, the rabbi is nice, but kind of pushy.... bringing me to the part of the visit the Friar has yet to address.

As discussed by [every religious jew ever], there is an ongoing concern about the state of the youth in Jewish practice. You know, that whole rebellion/apathy thing that leads to the youth falling away into secular society. This is, as far as I can tell, sort of true. With the exception of the Evil Minion, the Friar and I are frequently the only members of our age bracket (20's) at services. I have detected before at Temple Beth Elderly a little bit of the "Ooo, a young couple! Maybe they'll come again! Maybe they'll stay!". Anyway, for a congregation that's top heavy on the 45 and over, and low on the youth, we look pretty desirable. Except. Except for that whole Shiksa Girlfriend thing. Now this has come up before in a number of situations like the Prof. of Jewish studies at Ye Old Private Collage who frequently mentioned that "intermarriage will destroy American Jewry *meaningful look at me*" or the Carlebachian Minyan where our friend counted the minyan of 10+me, or the time I "came out" to the gabbai at Temple Beth Elderly, or the time I scandalized the dinner guests at LOP's house. However, never before has anyone been so blunt as to actively offer to convert me.

After the kiddish, I notice that the 4ft challah still has a good 1.5 feet still to be eaten, so I go to grab some. The rabbi takes this opportunity to grab my elbow and extract some information.

Paraphrase from me: That's almost my name, thanks for trying. I've lived in the city for 8 months, since graduation. Yes, I'm from North Caro-Missi-bama by means of a large Northwest City. No, I don't have an accent. At this point, he counters with the Jewish-Geography tactic (which was a good attempt, considering his knowledge of the Jewish scene in the South can't be all that much). "Hey, that other woman over there is from Atlanta, and her family is from Mobile! Maybe you've got a connection though the hive-mind of various Southern synagogues!"

I've faced this before, like at LOP's house, and I usually put it off by demurring that "my family didn't really participate in the community (ie. because they were going to church!)". However, this isn't going to work with him, so I skip the side-step and admit my X-tian heritage. He wants to know if I had been "studying" in college.

I'm momentarily puzzled. Um, yes, I studied and wrote about some esoteric books by morbid, gay, 18th century Englishmen but I don't think he cares about that. Oh, he means studying for conversion. No. I haven't made it there yet. So, he issues an open invitation that I can come talk to him about this anytime. Thanks, Rabbi, now I do feel like I'm back home. In the South. Facing the friendly but determined followers of Christ. Thanks for that.

Well, that may be a little harsh. But really, did he have to offer me that within 15 minutes of meeting me? I just feel like he was basing this offer on the idea that a Young Couple=years of membership dues, kids for bar/bat mitzvahs, energy for projects, etc. The fact that I'm a SG is a easily-solved problem, from his perspective, but the reality is obviously more complicated.

I'm not put off forever, but I am a little cynical about any other interest he deigns to show in me. I guess I just don't like being pegged as either a liability or an asset to someone else's conception of Judaism in America.

Raise the Roof's custom for Mishiberach is to have congregants speak the name of people who need healing aloud while the rabbi walks among them, repeating the names through his Borg-style mic (a practice I'm not a huge fan, of, btw). While this was going on, I happened to hear a name I knew. I turned around. Ye Gods! Some familiar faces! Specifically, parents of an old classmate of mine, a couple I'll call the Noseybergs. After the Kiddush, I came up to them (I waited until I could remember their first names), staring at Mrs. Noseyberg until she recognized me. This wasn't very hard, considering I look like a shorter version of Abbot Yid.

The Noseybergs were very pleasant, and it was fun doing the whole catch-up thing. I did think it was strange that the first thing they did after hearing that we were shul-hopping was ask for my phone number so they could give it to the chair of the membership committee. (A, no matter how much it is, I can't afford it. B- isn't it customary to ask us if we want her number?)

Also, and this was hilarious, Mrs. Noseyberg proceeded to give us a whirl-wind 2 minute summary of their experiences 20 years ago back when they were looking for a temple. I have faithfully reproduced her comments below, arranged in limerick form for my own amusement:

Conservative would just make us nod,
And they're such snobs at Touched by God,
Temple GLBT
Was too gay, you see,
And B'Nei Hippy was simply too odd.

Another cool development- an old man complimented me on my super-awesome Bukharian kippa- the one my mother says makes me look like "a Muslim terrorist." When I told her about this, her response was, "You wore that there?"

"...Where else would I wear it?"

All in all, it was a little strange, certainly very different, but I'd go back again. If only to hear another few drashes and ogle Mishkan Tefillah.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Just Saying

Dear Temple GLBT,

I like that you guys wrote your own prayerbook. I'm not crazy about the fact that it's about half the size of a phonebook, but that's ok. I think it's cool you have tons of songs in there I've never heard of (even if you never seem to sing most of them). And I like that you include alternate versions of some prayers (even though ten different forms of the Amidah seems a little much to me).

But there's one thing that you did last week that kind of bugged me. Well, aside from the rabbi's drash which seemed to go on forever- I don't know what they told you, but when you talk about something quasi-mystical or intangible you are not required offer four or five synonyms for your first word- you are a rabbi, not a thesaurus. Also, please stop cribbing from Heschel's Cathedral in Time shtick from The Sabbath. Just because you both want us to be mindful of "Holy Time" and of experiencing the "pure, perfect nowness of Shabbos" doesn't mean I want my Time Cathedral being bulldozed by drawn-out and painful abuses of the English language.

Anyway, I understand that being gender inclusive is your "shtick," and I'm not trying to step on anyone's toes...

But switching around the pronouns in Veshamru seems weird to me.

It's not just that "b'nei Yisrael" (V'nei in this link) means "children of Israel" and is classically understood as gender-neutral.

It's also because the rest of the prayer goes on to say, "keep the Sabbath as my covenant for all time."

Don't get me wrong. I like Reform. If I had to identify as something, it would probably be somewhere between Reconstructionist and Reform.

But God dammit, why the hell are you bothering to change the pronoun on a prayer that goes on to talk about freaking Sabbath observance? When it comes to Shabbat (which, I'm sorry, Reformies by and large do NOT observe in the same way as it has traditionally been understood), you seem to be just fine with keeping the traditional text in and letting people interpret/ignore/struggle with it however the heck they want. But at the sight of any gender stuff, it seems like the first instinct is to switch it out.

It just seems silly, that's all.

(Now for Hinei Ma Tov, you might actually have a point...)