Sunday, January 21, 2007

Stage Lighting, the Lion of Judah, and the Bar Mitzvah Class from New Jersey: Congregation B'nai Jeshurun on West 88th Street, Manhattan

I walk up the stairs into the synagogue and a guy starts looking through my purse. This is embarrassing. I’ve had a rough week at work, so he is finding a lot of Au Bon Pain receipts, crumpled flyers for events I probably won’t go to, and okay, a few cookie wrappers. I try to push the cookie wrappers down to the bottom of the bag. The crumbs are falling out of the bag and into my purse. I think he sees them, in spite of my efforts, but he doesn’t really care. He’s looking for bombs.

What a harsh reminder this is. We tell each other, “May you be blessed with Shabbat peace.” And it means – “let’s hope nobody brought any bombs.” Let’s not get misty for the good old days, though, when it meant “let’s hope nobody brought any Cossacks.”

Finally I’ve made it to B’nai Jeshurun. I’m having a hard time writing about it because it is such a known quantity to everyone I work with. To “professional Jews,” this is one of the handfuls of famous success stories of synagogue revitalization. Those to whom I confess wanting to finally try attending religious services here in New York reflexively answer, “oh, you should try B’nai Jeshurun.”

B’nai Jeshurun is the success story, the congregation that under the auspices of a charismatic rabbi grew from fewer than 100 households in 1985 to 1,900 member households in 2001 (2,800 adults and 800 children, according to their website). A professional Jew is obligated to ask herself – how did they do this? Was it a fluke? Was it following some kind of Synagogue Revitalization Effort that professional Jews might be able to write down in a binder, circulate nationally, and bring all Jews back to the synagogues they are currently ignoring so happily?

After I get by the bomb checker – come to think of it, it’s kind of like trying to get by a bouncer into a New York City club; once he decides your driver’s license is real, he’s let you in and you get this little rush of smugness -- we enter through an unimposing and rather confused passageway. People looking for books are going one way; people looking for kipot are going another; people looking for their girlfriends are standing there abashedly and getting in everybody’s way. I push by all these people and into the main sanctuary, which is really splendid.

Ornate wood paneling covers the entire front of the room. It is carved in complicated curlicues and is painted in strong jewel tones and bright gold. An alumna of 1970s Jewish Institutional Architecture, I have only previously seen this type of decorating in Jewish institutions that have been restored by historical preservationists. I keep looking to see if the paint is chipping, if the moldings are dusty. But they’re not. They’re lovely. The back of the room has an old fashioned balcony with a number of additional seats, and the back wall (nestled among still more Moorish curlicues) is painted with these medieval looking crests: one, I think, is the Lion of Judah. The other one is an eagle, or hawk, holding what looks to be the Holy Grail. Or, no, wait, maybe it’s a Kiddush cup?

One of the key moments of this congregation seems to be the Great Ceiling Collapse of 1991 – probably the result of building restoration gone awry. The congregation decided not to replace the ceiling curlicues – really they still have plenty – and instead put up a stage ceiling that’s pitch black except for where it’s dramatically lit in royal purple. It’s all framed by some kind of metal work. I’m usually a historical snob but I actually really liked this. My first thought was that it made the sanctuary look very dramatic and very up-to-date. My second thought was that if things are really collapsing maybe next time I go I shouldn’t sit in the balcony.

A small green “Save Darfur” banner hangs from the center of the ceiling.

We have a whole world pop band set up here in the middle of the room. (As is the cutting edge style, the seating fans out in a circle around the band and the rabbi. It’s anti-hierarchical). My companion and I go up to the balcony to get a better view. Guitars, electric keyboards, Middle Eastern drum, cello and mandolin. A female singer keeps pushing back her hair. Unlike the Reform congregation where I grew up, where they do basically all the components of the worship service Friday night, and keep Saturday open for Bar Mitzvahs, in this congregation they do most of the heavy lifting (Torah reading) on Saturday, and leave Friday almost exclusively for singing. Here again the feeling rises within me: “We didn’t do it that way!” and I have to remind myself, “I didn’t like the way we did it.” I stare down cautiously from the balcony. I don’t know any of their tunes, and the world pop beats seem suspiciously happy.

A number of the worshippers are also suspiciously happy. (I only make fun because I’m envious). They stand, sing lustily, rock back and forth, and move as the spirit moves them. At one point they join hands and start dancing around the room, they’re just that blissed out. I am totally impressed but I am just not in this zone. I don’t know the songs. I have spent the last five days behaving very decorously, and it takes me a while to come down. Not these guys, I guess. I am entranced by their total lack of self consciousness. My companion, noticing the same thing, gestures to a bunch of bar-mitzvah aged kids sitting below. All wear identical bronze kipot. None are dancing. “I bet those guys are all too cool to dance,” he says. It’s true. Why would they want to dance with a bunch of women their mom’s age? But just as we think we’ve figured this out, one of them leaps up, and it must have been the cool one, because all the rest of them follow and join in the dancing. Okay, except for two, who are still sitting there making wisecracks.

I still find this dancing thing very awkward. How can you dance with more than two thirds of the room just sitting there? At Yale, the Very Cool Kids used to throw Naked Parties. (I was never invited, so the dilemma of whether to attend did not come up). The strictest rule of the Naked Party (at which, by all accounts, people did the same things I always did at clothed parties) is that if you enter the Naked Party, you must be naked. When entering the room, you are required to stop in a totally blacked out vestibule where you remove all your clothing. Thus, you can’t see a Naked Person unless you yourself are also naked. I feel like dancing ought to be the same way. If people are just watching, (“aww, isn’t that cute? The young people are holding hands!”) it kind of ruins the mood. Come to think of it, this is a problem with a lot of Jewish programs. The kids might be having a lot of fun, but they just know they’re being watched. Awkward….

The first time I tried to go to B’nai Jeshurun, I accidentally went to the earlier, family service. This turned out to be quite a lot of fun to watch, though there wasn’t a lot to the service. “Tell me something good that happened to you this week!” the charismatic head rabbi asked a shy five year old in his oh-so-charming Argentine accent. And wouldn’t you know it (welcome to New York), the kid goes, “I went to the opera!” The adults all around the room murmured their approval. The rabbi asked another kid the same question. This one was too excited even to finish a sentence, but spluttered “I did…. I went to the….It was the….I really liked….” The rabbi nodded wisely like they teach you in Rabbi School and tried not to crack up. “Okay, whatever you did, it sounds like it was really great. Now let’s all be thankful for the things we did this week….”

When it was established in 1825, BJ was the first Ashkenazi congregation in New York City, the ninth congregation in the United States overall. Clearly it’s gone through a number of changes since then. Back in the day, there were no denominations per se. You just hung out with your ethnic community and you did what they did (unless you said Fuck These Rabbis and checked out entirely, which was another popular option). Then BJ became a Conservative movement synagogue (the Conservative movement’s most recent claim to fame is its governing body’s recent brilliant decision, in the face of community deadlock on the gay rights issue, to rule both for and against gay ordination at the same time.) A number of people today are saying that the Conservative movement is falling apart – its more conservative wing is moving rightward to meet the the Modern Orthodox (all of the rules, none of the dress code); the left wing is moving leftward to meet the Reform movement (fewer rules; no dress code; growing interest in traditional liturgy and decreasing hostility toward Jewish ritual).

But that’s another post, for another time. in the mean time, we’re wrapping up the service. We mourn those who died this week and whose death-iversary falls on this week. We sing more songs that I don’t know. The boys in the bronze kipot, who turn out to be a Bar Mitzvah class from somewhere in New Jersey, pinky swear each other to secrecy about dancing with the middle aged ladies and peace out. We shake hands with a couple of people we don’t know (actually, we’re supposed to, but we don’t – we’re hungry and exhausted and head straight to dinner instead). We all file out; some nice man gives us pieces of challah.

A transformative religious experience? Not exactly. From the way this was sold to me, I got the feeling maybe I would feel instantly at home and have a transformative religious experience without putting in any work at all. Obviously, this was a lame assumption. It’s okay though - It’s just going to take some time.

Next Week: We Meet the Young Catholics


melinama said...

You make me want to visit this place. As far as envying them for their singing: I'd suggest, next time, just going with the flow! Sing along! Ba ba ba bam works pretty well in most Jewish settings.

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