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Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Anthropologist of Shul

My running joke is that it's my "secular New Year's resolution" to go to synagogue with the family. 

Of course it is easy to make this kind of resolution when a kabbalist tells your father that your ancestors on the Other Side are "pleading" with you "to come back to the fold."

And you get little reminders here and there in the form of seeing 6:13 on the clock at opportune moments - such as just before the Sabbath or when you break it.

It might seem like I've suddenly turned over this gigantic new leaf and embraced total religious observance fully, completely and in what you might think of as the extreme. However the kabbalist specifically said that I should take it slow, and I am taking it slow. 

I'd rather do baby steps and stand in each concrete movement forward for a good long while before attempting something else.

Just one less sin...just one less sin.

Shul has been the hardest step for me to take. Going to shul with the family was the request.

The other two areas are emotionally and practically easier somehow. I definitely resist full observance at the moment, but cognitively I can imagine the point at which I might get there.
  • Kosher - it makes conceptual sense to keep the body holy, and is not embarrassing. Nobody really observes if I make a blessing on my food, or what I choose to eat. (Although my workmates have noticed that I show up at lunch with tea and a bag of potato chips now.)
  • Shabbos - feels so healthy spiritually, emotionally and physically. It does good things for the family and we're all in it together. When it gets to be too much - and let me tell you that 24 hours with no computer is most definitely still too much for me - I read on the computer. But no writing, no posting. 
Shul is more of a challenge though. I just don't want to go...don't want to be reminded that I'm not "good enough," don't want to be confronted by fully observant people. I imagine what they think of me, a phony or lazy or some other adjective. I tell myself that only men are obligated to go, so technically it's not even required. 

But I'm going to make myself get up and go, with the family, as instructed. Even if it's half an hour.

Today I went and precisely after half an hour, though I didn't look at the clock, it proved too much for me. I hustled out of there and stood in the lobby. There were people I didn't know milling all around.

Crazy how you can live in a town for fifteen years of your life, call yourself Jewish and even somewhat religious, and literally not know anybody.

It wasn't as bad as I feared it would be. I introduced myself to several people. A few were cold and unfriendly, frankly...just as I had feared. But I didn't die: Another was kind, and warm and friendly. And I saw a couple of other acquaintances, who took the time to talk to me and wish me well.

To calm myself down, because I waited there for my husband for a while, I told myself I was the "anthropologist of shul," a tactic once recommended by a career counselor as a way of acclimating to a new agency. 

I noticed that there were all types of people in the synagogue that day. Some of them from America, some not. Some hyperactive, some calm. Some super-observant in dress, others moderate. Some talking about weddings, others about police brutality and civil rights, others bouncing their babies. Some very ill, and grateful not to be laying in a hospital bed or falling to the floor in a spasm.

We went to the kiddush and stood there. "It was a really nice service," my husband said. "I'm surprised you left there so early. Today it was lots of singing." 

It was true, they had a guest rabbi and the style of the service was more high-energy, more full of emotion. I loved how they sang to the Torah and danced in front of the Ark. I could really feel it.

I  felt bad, and admitted: "I was claustrophobic after half an hour, like always."

"I'm surprised."

"I was standing in the front row," I said. "There were no seats in the back. I felt smushed."

"Oh."

We stood there drinking orange soda.

"It's a nice synagogue," he said after a couple of minutes had elapsed. "A lot of nice people here."

I looked around at the group. It turned out that I did know a few people, after all. I saw the faces of those who were at his father's (may he rest in peace) funeral. Who stood in the cold on a Friday afternoon, made a minyan and selflessly shoveled the dirt over the casket.

"Yeah," I said. "It is. They are."

"You want to go?"

"OK."

We walked out the exit and someone waved goodbye to us.

Maybe we don't ever get over our fears, our hangups and bad memories. But we go forward, we have to, right?

I understood then what my aunt said to me when we spoke on the phone this week.

"As you become more religious, don't go backward in time. Start completely fresh, like a child."

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All opinions my own.