Monday, February 26, 2007

Young and Soft Spoken: "KZ" on the Upper West

About KZ:
Kol Zimrah is a five year old "independent minyan" that meets on Manhattan's Upper West Side. They also have an arm in Jerusalem but I don't know anything about those guys. "Independent minyan" means that it's a Jewish group for religious worship that owes no allegiance to any larger American Jewish institution (it's not part of the Conservative Movement or the Reform Movement or the Havurah movement or anything like that). They currently meet about once a month for Friday night services; the rest of the month, those members who pray regularly go elsewhere. The night I visited, they were meeting in the Jewish Home and Hospital on 106th street.

I was late.
Grr. I hate being late.

The Jewish Home And Hospital

What a jarring experience it was to walk into the Jewish Home and Hospital. The Jewish Home and Hospital is a very large and slightly run-down-looking institution that houses a number of older and infirm individuals. It looks like exactly what its name sounds like - a cross between an old folks' home and a hospital. After waiting for a tiny Chinese grandmother and her two granddaughters to walk slowly out of the front door, and then for a black grandfather in a wheelchair with his two kids to go out, I walked in the front door and asked the door clerk about the prayer group. We felt that this couldn't be right, but he nodded recognition and told me the group was meeting in the auditorium on the third floor.

I'm sure Jews will live in Manhattan for many generations to come. But the Jewish Home and Hospital is one glimpse of the future - institutions founded by Jews for the public benefit now inhabited by other folks who came to Manhattan at other times. (Though I'm rarely morbid about the Jewish future, sometimes I imagine that in a couple centuries the only Judaism left in this country will be Orthodox Jews; people who are paid to be Jewish (rabbis, non-profit directors); and Jewish-named buildings.)

The auditorium is a big gray-tiled room with a few Jewish paintings on the walls and a few kids' drawings beside them. There is a stage at one end of the room and a dark wooden ark (possibly with a Torah inside) stands kind of slantwise in front of the stage. To the other side of the room stood two tables where people put their potluck dinner entrees. One one table, vegetarian food; on the other table, officially kosher vegetarian food. (This compromise allows anyone to bring food and for the kosher people to be able to eat with the nonkosher people. This is important and wise. It is a truly upsetting thing, on a very deep level, when someone in your community won't share food with you. Two tables is no big deal.)

The Worshippers
The worshippers, about fifty of them, sat in disorderly concentric circles in the middle of the room, facing inwards. The average age was about 24. Some were formally dressed, others in jeans. Some stood aside and prayed while leaning against the walls of the room.

At first, it was impossible to figure out who was leading the service. AFter a few minutes I figured out that it was two soft spoken characters who were sitting in the center of the circle - a guy slouched forward in his chair and a young woman quietly strumming a green guitar. I actually know both these folks and they are great. But the leadership style of this service gave me a lot to think about.

Basically, the prayer service was completely anti-authoritarian - the opposite of the Big Man On Bimah model I and many other suburban American Jews grew up with. The two prayer leaders spoke very softly and sang very softly. In fact, they were so quiet that the group had a hard time following them - it took a couple measures for us to figure out what tune they were using to sing any particular song or what key they were singing it in. The guitar occasionally seemed to be playing in a different key altogether. Nobody seemed to mind. In fact, in a way, it was very restful. Nobody cared, really, what anyone else was doing - what they were wearing, how they were singing, or where they were in the prayer service. Though most participants used a common prayer book (a xeroxed packet with a plastic spiral binding), a substantial minority had brought their own books, which presumably held similar prayers.

On Page Numbers.

A minor issue that I have now heard come up several times in discussions of Jewish prayer services - as it clearly represents a larger issue - is the issue of Page Numbers. No, seriously. Right now, for a lot of people doing this Jewish prayer thing, page numbers are a big deal. In my congregation, growing up, the rabbi would periodically announce the page number we were at, in case anybody was lost (or daydreaming; or taking kids to the bathroom; etc). In super traditional congregations, nobody tells anyone the page numbers because you all pretty much know the prayers already. These newfangled prayer congregations, particularly those that are not tied to a movement, vary in their opinions on the page number issue. To announce the page numbers for the benefit of the newcomers and non-Hebrew-readers seems benevolent and inclusive. However, it is also disruptive to the overall flow of the prayer experience. And if you're really working on getting into the prayer experience, the page numbers maybe break that up for you. For a lot of independent minyans, page numbers represent them deciding what kind of congregation they want to be. Are they for people just learning how to pray, or are they for people who know the prayers and want to lose themselves in the prayer rhythm without any guy telling them from the bimah where they should be in their books?

God and Theater
I have no particular opinion about the announcing of page numbers, but for me, KZ was too far to this anti-authority end of the spectrum. I just think they were a little bit shy! If you're going to play a guitar with some people who are singing, play the guitar! If you're going to guide us as to which of the 100 tunes for "Adon Olam" we ought to be singing, guide us! Nobody will mind! These young, polite, sweet, inwardly facing young praying-people left me a little bit cold. I thought I would like that nobody was being pushy or showboaty. But I just don't have the internal prayer thing down well enough to enjoy doing this communal-but-on-your-own thing. I still need a little theater, a little showmanship, a little more leadership, to help me get into the right kind of introspective mindset to be able to even begin thinking about God. I just can't do it all by myself.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

My Friend Nino Visits a Southern Baptist Church

Nino is a good friend and music junkie who lives in DC. Here's his report on visiting a Southern Baptist church for a musical event.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

More American Jews Found; Lost

Among Jewish professionals, surveys are big, expensive instruments of political warfare. Believe that Jews shouldn't marry people of other religions? Commission a study from the right person, and he or she will give you the headline you want: "Jews who Marry Christians Less Likely To Raise Kids Jewish." (Angry community dialogue ensues). The opposite perspective can also be commissioned for $100-150K from a willing demographer. These aren't joke surveys either. People put a lot of work into them. But the conclusions usually boil down to one of two stories:

X is Good for the Jews (i.e. "The Jews are Flourishing")
X is Bad for the Jews (i.e. "The Jews are Floundering")

Watch this at work with the latest study to come out, called, "The Jews Are Multiplying", which says there are more Jews in this country than we thought before. (The people commissioning the previous and corresponding "The Jews Are Dwindling" study, apparently forgot to account for all the young people without landlines or who weren't home at 6 PM when the surveyors called).

The Jews Are Flourishing perspective: our numbers are growing!
The Jews Are Floundering perspective: there are millions more Jews out there that we, the people with money in communal institutions, have failed to reach through our programs! Woe is us!

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Right Across the Street from Lincoln Center

As the Holy Book says:

The Book of Mormon is a volume of holy scripture comparable to the Bible. It is a record of God’s dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas and contains, as does the Bible, the fulness of the everlasting gospel.”

“The book was written by many ancient prophets by the spirit of prophecy and revelation. Their words, written on gold plates, were quoted and abridged by a prophet-historian named Mormon. The record gives an account of two great civilizations. One came from Jerusalem in 600 B.C., and afterward separated into two nations, known as the Nephites and the Lamanites. The other came much earlier when the Lord confounded the tongues at the Tower of Babel. This group is known as the Jaredites. After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.

The crowning event recorded in the Book of Mormon is the personal ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ among the Nephites soon after his resurrection. It puts forth the doctrines of the gospel, outlines the plan of salvation, and tells men what they must do to gain peace in this life and eternal salvation in the life to come.

After Mormon completed his writings, he delivered the account to his son Moroni, who added a few words of his own and hid up the plates in the hill Cumorah. On September 21, 1823, the same Moroni, then a glorified, resurrected being, appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith and instructed him relative to the ancient record and its destined translation into the English language.

In due course the plates were delivered to Joseph Smith, who translated them by the gift and power of God. The record is now published in many languages as a new and additional witness that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God and that all who will come unto him and obey the laws and ordinances of his gospel may be saved.
Concerning this record the Prophet Joseph Smith said: “I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.”

In addition to Joseph Smith, the Lord provided for eleven others to see the gold plates for themselves and to be special witnesses of the truth and divinity of the Book of Mormon. Their written testimonies are included herewith as “The Testimony of Three Witnesses” and “The Testimony of Eight Witnesses.”

What I Knew Before Sunday

The one thing I knew about the Church of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), commonly known as the Mormon Church, was that they believe in posthumous conversion.

My mother went through a serious genealogy kick wherein she spent many hours at our local Mormon church’s Family History Center. The ladies who worked there were lovely and helpful people who made their genealogy database freely available to her. It was then that we learned that the Mormon Church collects genealogical information because they believe that people can be baptized into the Mormon Church after they have died. Many Mormons, understandably, have felt the urge to baptize their ancestors. And guess what - a lot of their ancestors are your ancestors too! Thus, no matter what religion or form of atheism you and your family currently practice, odds are, many of your great-grandparents are now Mormons. So are most of our country's Founding Fathers and the deceased United States Presidents (Is this disturbing? I haven’t decided. On the one hand, it is not very nice of them to convert people without their permission. On the other hand, if you don’t believe that their conversion of your ancestors is valid, then why concern yourself about it?)

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, to give one perspective, has argued that baptizing deceased Holocaust victims destroys their dignity, seeing as to how they died more or less for their religion. In 2005, the Church issued the perplexing response, "It is important to stress that the freedom of choice remains a prevailing concept behind baptism for the dead... The freedom of the recipient to accept or reject the ordinance is an overarching principle ... " The Church now says if there are any objections to someone being baptized, you can ask them not to do it.

I went into this weekend’s religious experience without a guide because I do not know any actively practicing Mormons in New York (there are about 40,000, according to the Church). I do know, though, where they spend their time. The LDS church has a Temple in Manhattan, directly across the street from Lincoln Center. The building is only a few years old. It's built of classy, understated stone, and it really matches Lincoln Center very well. On the top of the building stands a statue of the angel Moroni (the one who gave the tablets to Joseph Smith).

I called the temple in the middle of last week to see if it allowed visitors. A nice lady by the name of Sister Ann Frost answered the phone. She seemed to be about 100 years old and she did not seem to know very much about the services. She did know that visitors were allowed in the chapel part of the building, where the regular worship services were held (there are three services each Sunday morning), but not in the Temple part of the building, where the more serious rites are performed (baptisms and such). This is a standard difference - there are LDS chapels all over the place, but there is only one Temple in New York. And unfortunately, only members of the Church who had been members “in good standing” for more than a year were able to go in it. This pretty much excluded me and my co-adventurer of the day, the Companionable Atheist.

Oh well. Fear Not The Gods is nothing if not devoted. The chapel would have to do.

On the bright side, Sister Ann Frost told me that one of the three Sunday morning services was at 12:30 PM. This meant that I could sleep until 11:30 and still pay my weekly homage to the gods.

Entering the Church

As I walked up toward the building, I saw people leaving from the last service. A mom in a floral print dress, a blond dad in a suit, and a little girl in a velvet dress and tights posed for a photograph in front of the doors.

Though the LDS building’s fa├žade is impressive, the entrance and everything I saw was quite modest. Honestly, it looked like a small, modest hotel lobby, with a floral print couch (it looked like the one Hillary Clinton made her “I’m running for President” speech on), and a couple florid 19th-century-style paintings of Jesus doing various things.

A friendly receptionist greeted me the moment I walked in the door. (This rarely happens when you go into a synagogue). I told him about Sister Ann Frost and said the magic words, “We’re just visitors, we’re curious about the service,” and he just melted. “Great!” he said. “The service is on the third floor. I believe Colin is going up there right now. Want to go with him?”

We went over and introduced ourselves to Colin, a tall guy in his early 20s. Colin wore a nice suit, but he had a messy pile of hair and a sleepy stare that said to me, “In another life, I could potentially have been a huge stoner.” In this life, as far as I could tell, Colin was a devout Mormon, and he was definitely a friendly guy, totally comfortable with having a couple of total newcomers thrown his way. Recently returned from his two-year mission trip to Rio de Janeiro, Colin was finishing up a Construction Management major at Brigham Young University. Along with his sister Lucy, Lucy’s boyfriend, and a couple more related young people, Colin was visiting his brother in Brooklyn and scouting out a potential move to New York.

I explained myself and my background. I have this shtick totally down by now (that I’m Jewish, that I’m visiting different religious communities and looking at their approaches to involving their young people). Young religious people tend to respond very well to this shtick – as minorities within the broader American culture, they often feel like visitors. Older religious people tend to respond to it well because they’re thrilled when young people do anything religious. Even though my intro lines are completely true, I still feel like I’m putting something over on my hosts when I give them. I think this is basically because most people who come into worship services for the first time are spiritual seekers looking for homes, and while I’m a spiritual seeker in some sense, I’m honestly more like a spy.

Colin visibly brightened when I explained my background. “Oh, that’s so interesting. Yeah, that’s cool. My dad lives here in New York. He’s a lawyer. He has a partner of the, um, the Jewish faith, Ira.” Colin was clearly not sure whether it was okay to call someone a Jew. I thought that was kind of cute.

We went up to the third floor in a wood-paneled elevator, which was decorated with wood engravings of beehives. Colin, taking his job as emissary very seriously, explained that Brigham Young adopted the symbol of the beehive to represent his group’s hard working spirit (Utah is now known as the Beehive State). The Companionable Atheist noted that this is an image from the Aeneid.

The Sacrament Meeting

We entered the chapel. Spoiled as I have become from my tour of New York religious institutions, I was slightly disappointed by the chapel. I could not have imagined a simpler, plainer room. The back half of it, in fact, was a basketball court. A movable room divider divided the chapel from the basketball court. The divider was noisily closed at the beginning of the service, and then noisily reopened about half way through, when so many latecomers had showed up that the pews were all filled up.

The front half of the chapel was just a room – a nice room, with bare walls and polished wooden pews. (“Mormon temples are all built with the finest materials,” Colin explained.) There was not so much as a cross in sight. A podium stood at the front of the room, on a raised stage. A blue Kleenex box sat prominently next to the podium. A plain wooden organ stood behind the stage.

The hundred-plus churchgoers all seemed to be under 30, which struck me as peculiar until Colin explained that I had wandered into the “singles’ service.” (I am sure it is not a coincidence that the singles’ service took place at 12:30 PM. What a great idea. Episcopalians and Jews: Take note!

I found these churchgoers to be a strikingly homogeneous group. They were all under 30, nice-looking, well-groomed people. The vast majority were white, though I did see a few blacks, Asians and Hispanics.

Mormon scripture says the following:
And [God] had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people, the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. And thus saith the Lord God; I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities." (2 Nephi 5:21)
2 Nephi also forbids miscegenation between the races, and describes Native Americans as being idle and "full of mischief and subtlety" (2 Nephi 5:24).
However, the LDS church has altered its approach to non-whites in recent years, and since 1978, African-Americans have been allowed to become priests in the Mormon church.

The men looked earnest and well-groomed. The women wore skirts or dresses (not one pair of pants in the place) and were perfectly put together – not a hair out of place, not an ear without an earring, not an eyelash without mascara, not a foot without a dainty high heel. I felt, and I’m somewhat ashamed to say this, as if there were a big flashing sign with a flashing arrow pointing at my head, that said “BIG JEW.” My hair was frizzy. My boots were dirty, and my skirt was totally wrong.

But whatever, they couldn’t have been nicer to me. I was just prejudiced. And nervous.

The weird thing was that they seemed to be nervous too. All the people who went up to give prayers were so nervous they could barely get the words out. Many of the women continued to seem nervous in the Sunday School that followed the service. They generally answered questions tentatively, or vaguely, and many spoke in high registers that were clearly not their normal tones of voice. Clearly, these were some really, really good girls.

The service was entirely lay led. A couple Brothers (official church members) were in charge of the whole thing. After everyone shuffled in and the organist stopped playing, one of the Brothers read the announcements (a brilliant approach to the ever-problematic announcements, because nobody is bored of being there yet). Colin’s sister Lucy sat in front of us during the service, and cuddled and smooched her boyfriend a fair number of times throughout. However, her boyfriend too was so clean cut and friendly looking that it was hard to see how Colin or even a Brother would have been able to object.

They sang two hymns. The singing quality was excellent – everybody actually sang in four part harmony like the hymnals say you’re supposed to.

Next, a solemn cohort of about eight guys went up to the front of the room and began to pass around the sacrament – the Mormon equivalent of the Communion, representing the body and blood of Christ. However, since Mormons don’t drink alcohol, they passed out tiny individual plastic cups of water instead of wine. Instead of communion wafers, they passed around silver trays with torn up pieces of what looked like Wonderbread on them. Colin told me I could partake of the sacrament if I wanted to, but I passed it along.

We then got to the core of the service, which was two “testimonies” given by two relatively new members of the congregation. These two, a man and a woman, both about 25 years of age, had been tapped by leadership to give their personal testimonies on the theme of “Faith and Jesus Christ.”

Wow. These were the most gaspingly emotional and sincere, as well as the least coherent sermons I have ever heard. The man tried to give a straight ahead lecture on the meanings of the word faith. The woman read from her conversion journal. Apparently she had found the faith beginning around the age of sixteen, when she started going to LDS services with a cousin. The community welcomed her, she said, and she embraced the faith fully. However, this did not in any way shake her relationship with her father, a lapsed Catholic. She interpreted her father’s dramatic recovery from a heart condition (after a successful surgery) as a miracle, a sign from God that the religion was true and that Jesus loved her. She spoke lovingly of her father, even though he didn’t understand her faith. She said she knew he’d join her in heaven. Both speakers ended with what must have been the ritual closing words, which were something like, “I testify that these books [gesturing to the Bible and the Book of Mormon] are true and that Jesus Christ is our lord and Gordon Hinckley is our modern day prophet.”

Gordon Hinckley is the current (fifteenth) Prophet and President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Then another young congregation member sang a Christian pop song, accompanied by a pianist.

Then another volunteer came up to give a closing prayer for the service. Like the opening prayer, this seemed to be spontaneous, or at least to have no specific form.

The Sunday School
At the end of the service, which lasted a little bit more than an hour, almost all the churchgoers split up into groups to go to Sunday School. Everyone, of every age, goes to Sunday School in a Mormon church – each week, the topic of discussion is assigned by headquarters in Salt Lake City.

We went up to a classroom on the fourth floor. Another earnest young man – maybe early thirties – led the discussion, which was on miracles. Forty or fifty young people crowded into the room to join the discussion.

Like the service, the class began with a member of the rank and file giving a prayer, “that we’ll understand and use what we learn today, and that we’re thankful for everything we have.”

Then class began. “Can anyone tell me what a miracle is?” he asked. People raised their hands and gave the standard definitions – something you can’t explain, something out of the ordinary. “Do miracles happen today?” he asked. A girl raised her hand, and answered, “Maybe we don’t notice them because The Adversary is so much stronger these days and with all the technology we don’t really know what a miracle is.”

The point about the Adversary got my attention but nobody really pursued this line of thinking. It is difficult for me to recap the thread of the conversation, because, quite frankly, the participants seemed totally confused. No elements of Mormon theology were made clear to me. There was almost no teaching; almost no reference to any text. The one text they did use was the story in the New Testament, I think in Mark, where a woman touches the hem of Jesus’s robe and is cured. All agreed that this was a miracle. Comments were something like the following:

“It was a miracle that he knew who she was, when he turned around and picked her out of the crowd.”

“It was a miracle because he didn’t set out to cure her, she was cured just by touching his robe.”

The Sunday school teacher let participants lead the discussion, which wandered away from the theme of miracles as God does them, and toward, if you give a homeless person something to eat, is that maybe a miracle? The teacher didn’t seem to have an answer in mind, so people just kept bringing up things they thought might be miracles.

The one theological element they did agree on was that miracles shouldn’t be used to prove to unbelievers that God existed. “Miracles are a magnifying glass,” one girl said. “It’s like your faith is written on a piece of paper, small, and a miracle just allows you to see it better, but it doesn’t create faith.” She said that someone had taught her this in seminary, and it was the closest thing to a coherent point about faith anyone made in the 45-minute class.

After class we said goodbye to Colin, Lucy and their friends. “Does one of you have an address?” asked Colin. “So we can send you a Book of Mormon, maybe?”

I happily gave him my card – it’s my work address, so I’m not worried about anyone showing up on my doorstep - and I escaped into the cold air.

When I got home, I Wikipedia’ed until my eyes burned. The story of Mormonism – both the founding story, and the subsequent travels of the LDS church’s followers, are truly astounding. I bought a book about Joseph Smith’s life and I’m going to post excerpts here over the next few days if at all possible.

And one last note - on the way home, the Companionable Atheist and I passed the Society for Ethical Culture (basically an Atheist Club), and the Companionable Atheist said, “You should go there next!” I rolled my eyes. “Come on! Those guys? But, ugh, they’re so self-righteous. So set in their ways, so uninterested in anyone else’s point of view…. Um….”

The Companionable Atheist raised an eyebrow. And yea, Hannah was thereupon shown to be a hypocrite. So we’ll probably go at some point. But what I really mean is that it’s probably a whole bunch of nonpracticing Jews, who sit around, talking about how they’re the ones who have the right answers about how a person should live her life….

Oh. There I go again. Oops.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Helen's December Encounter with a Chabadnik

Helen is in a bar at 1:30 AM during Channukah. Two Chabad guys walk in.

Chabadniks: "Excuse me, are you Jewish?"
Helen: "Uh..."
Chabadniks: "You are, aren't you?"
Helen: "Uh - yeah."
Chabadniks: "Did you know it's Chanukah?"
Helen: "Yes."
Chabadniks: "Want to light the candles?"
Helen: "I already did."
Chabadniks: "How many did you light?"
Helen: "Five."


Chabadniks: "Okay. Well, did you say the blessings on the candles?"
Helen: "Yes."
Chabadniks: "Both of them?"
Helen: "Yes."


Chabadniks: "So, want a donut?"
Helen: "Okay."

[Chabadniks place donut on bar napkin in front of Helen.]

Chabadniks: "Do you have a boyfriend?"
Helen: "Yes."
Chabadniks: "Do you kiss him? Well don't kiss him. It's bad."
Helen: "..."
Chabadniks: "And when you marry him, you're going to cut off your hair and wear a wig, right?"
Helen: "Okay."

Helen's boyfriend enters.

Chabadniks [to boyfriend]: "Are you Jewish?"
Helen's boyfriend: "No."
Chabadniks: "That's okay. Have a donut."

Chabadniks leave.

Shearith Israel: The Ethiopian Shabbat Dinner

As my date and I are walking in to dinner, a man in a black velvet hat gestures for us to come over and sit down by him, so we do. We introduce ourselves. Without thinking, I shake hands with him, and then my date reaches over to shake hands with his wife. Uh oh. She steps back half a step and crosses her arms, shaking her head apologetically and saying “I don’t….” My date reels as if she slapped him. No matter how many times I tell myself I need to remember the no-shake-hands thing, I always forget. I forgot to warn him. I feel guilty for the next hour.

Our dinner companions aren’t offended, though. It turns out they have only been members of the synagogue for a few years – and not only that – they’re baal teshuvot (literally: “masters of return,” or, “masters of repentance”) – that is to say, Jews who grew up in secular or liberal households, and who decided later in life to to take on all of the laws of traditional Jewish life, however they’ve decided to interpret that. (There are a lot of different things this could mean, and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise). The husband, Bob, has a Turkish Jewish mother and a Chinese father, and grew up in a liberal congregation in New Jersey. The wife grew up in a liberal community on Long Island, and went to college at Duke, where she barely even attended the Hillel. Since their marriage, they’ve decided to go religious together. And they have that bright-eyed, proselytic air of the newly religious. “I’m so sorry I didn’t grow up religious,” Bob tells me. “There’s so much I’ve missed.”

Bob and his wife are really friendly - they seem to be working to make up for the handshake crisis. Yet our conversation turns again and again to religion. It’s like, my date and I joke morosely together afterward, like they’re joint golf fanatics or pet fanciers or something - you know how couples get into those shared hobbies sometimes? Like, one of them said “I’m not going to turn on lights on the Sabbath.” And the other one said, “I’ll take your no lights on Sabbath and raise you a kosher home.” And the other one said, “Oh yeah? I’ll take your kosher home and raise you Jewish marital purity laws.” Etc. Until they’re in their own world and can’t exactly remember how to talk to people about things other than (golf, parakeets) their religion.

The bright-eyed couple keep trying to convince me to visit a branch of a congregation in the East Village, called the Manhattan Jewish Experience. “It’s an outreach congregation,” Bob says, “but it’s independent, it’s not a branch of Chabad and Aish.”

Note: Outreach is a code word. I could write whole books on it. But to give you the short version - Bob is referring to a couple of Jewish organizations (almost exclusively Orthodox) whose mission is to proselytize to Jews. They’re awfully good, though often obnoxious in their tactics. When I was in college, they used to stand in the middle of campus and shout at students who they thought looked Jewish, to try to get them to come over and perform brief religious rituals. They were moderately successful at attracting students, but they mainly succeeded in giving every single person on campus a complex about whether they looked Jewish or not.

Chabad has a bunch of vans, Mitzvah Mobiles, which they drive around New York City (one often parks across the street from my office on Park Avenue) and try to collar zoned out Jewish students or unsuspecting Jewish businessmen to do the same thing. Everyone in the liberal Jewish community is very jealous of their success – rather than blathering about doctrines and politics, like the Reform and Conservative movements – and rather than focusing on business plans and institutional structures – they just try to get Jewish people to do Jewish stuff. It’s a refreshingly simple message, and one that sells really well: You’re Jews. Do Jewish stuff. Because the Torah said you should. They softpedal the morally conservative underpinnings of their movement, and it’s been tremendously successful. (Note: I don't think college students are getting snowed, for the most part. They know these people don't agree with them politically. But they're getting free dinner and having fun. Everybody wins)

I’m curious why Bob is selling this congregation as being “not a part of Chabad or Aish.” Does he think they’re bad organizations? Too pushy? Doctrinally suspect? I didn’t quite manage to get my head together to ask.

Meanwhile, the Shabbat evening programming begins. The star of this evening is an Ethiopian-Jewish academic, Dr. Ephraim Isaac. The organizers of the event had asked him to give the history of Ethiopian Jewry in ten minutes, which disturbed him greatly. He spends about half the minutes talking about how this was an impossible task. What did we learn? “Thirty years ago, nobody knew about Ethiopian Jews. They all wanted to know. They asked me, how can there be Jews, real Jews, in Ethiopia? And I told them then, what I’ll tell you now – Ethiopia is mentioned fifty times in the Bible. Poland? Not yet once.” He also seems indignant that Jews of Western European descent think that Ethiopian Jews have been “isolated” for the last thousand years. Instead, he suggests, they’ve been “shut off,” or some other phrase that to me meant something so exactly like “isolated” that I can’t even remember it. We are all so afraid of sounding un-PC that nobody has the nerve to ask him what this distinction meant.

Instead, the crowd asks timid, respectful questions like, “In our culture, here on the Upper West Side, we only wear the prayer shawl in the daytime. Why do you wear the prayer shawl on Sabbath evenings?” This kind of question causes Dr. Isaac to go on long tangents beginning: “This is what a Jew wears. You’re all wearing European clothes. Normally, Jews go around wearing a prayer shawl all day long, if you go to the market and forget your shopping bag, you can put the potatoes in your prayer shawl…”

Dr. Isaac led blessings over dinner – you could pick out familiar-sounding words even though the language was different. And again it was the eastern melodies, tight, controlled, ornamented, that give me chills. Dinner was like any other time I’d had Ethiopian food, except the bread was more like pita than like the spongy sourdough injira I associate with Ethiopian food.

Over dinner I turn to my other side. The woman on my left is a member of Shearith Israel, as well. About 40, probably, thin, beautiful, with a tight lacy top and leather skirt. I introduce myself and my date, and when my date returns to his dinner, she gestures at him and asks me, “Are you guys married?”
I say no.
“Are you getting married? How long have you been together?”
I dunno, maybe four months, I tell her.
“That’s long enough,” she tells me. “You should know by now.”
I look at her and try to get a glimpse at her left hand but it’s concealed. I ask her, “Are you married?” Because that seems to be the flow of the conversation.
“No,” she says, smiling, and looking down. “I’ve been really unlucky. But I’ve decided I’m getting married this year.”
“You’ve decided?”
“Yeah. It’s a state of mind. I’ve had a couple relationships that didn’t work, and I was even engaged once, but it didn’t work out. But now I’m really getting married this year. Now that I’ve taken on this state of mind, everything’s started to change.”

Once again, we reach the point in the evening where I am totally emotionally exhausted. After a lot of practice and personal maturing, I can mostly understand the very-religious lifestyle thing. It ties you to a community with a vast, private, special common language and tradition. There’s a right and a wrong way to do most of the things you do in your life. I get it. An Orthodox woman once told me that when she goes around with her husband, who wears a kipah, people constantly come up to them and ask him for directions. Why? They’re Jews. A guy with a kipah must be okay.

So I get this in theory. But I’m exhausted from trying to listen. Why is this woman, a total stranger, telling me about her broken engagements and telling me I should get married? And that she’s definitely getting married this year? I kind of have this theory that in cultures where women are separated from men so much of the time, they bond more quickly with each other. We’re all stuck in the balcony together, might as well make friends.

We had every intention of staying for the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, but we’re too wiped out, so we grab a couple of not-so-traditional-Ethiopian black-and-white cookies (a concession to the crowd, I guess) from the buffet line and make our escape…

I’m going back in a couple weeks because I’ve got to hear this music again. Anyone want to come with me?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Remnant of Spain-Brazil-Amsterdam: The Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, 70th St and Central Park West

There are a couple of things to remember when you go into an Orthodox synagogue. Do not attempt to shake hands with someone of the opposite gender. If you are a man, do not go bareheaded. And whatever you do, remember to turn off your cell phone.

Shearith Israel (“The Remnant of Israel”), alternately known as the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, is the oldest congregation in North America. Not the oldest synagogue building in North America, members are quick to point out. That would be the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island. And you know what? Touro pays Shearith Israel one dollar every year for the privilege of occupying its own building. So really by any standard, Shearith Israel wins.

Sephardic Jews as we generally understand the term, means Jews descended from the vast Jewish community that lived in Spain and Portugal before the Spanish Inquisition. When Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal, a number of them went to Amsterdam and founded a prosperous trading community there, which combined cultural elements of Spanish Jewry with elements of Northern European Jewry who also lived there.

A number of the Dutch-Spanish Jews then went to Brazil. But in 1654, the Portuguese captured Recife, the last Dutch stronghold in Brazil. The arm of the Inquisition, then, extended to the Jews, who were forced to flee on Dutch ships. They intended to go back to Amsterdam. En route, however, a boatload of these Jews were intercepted by pirates. A French ship rescued them from the pirates – and this ship was bound for New Amsterdam, which is now known as New York (factoids from Edward Ross Ellis's History of New York and from tour of synagogue).

Thus, a community of Jews landed in New York in 1654 after what was really by any one’s standards a whole lot of traveling and adventure. And for the 350 years since, they haven’t budged. Their building is “new” (late 1800s) but the ritual practice of the community is virtually identical to what it was in 1654. And for the first 200 years of its existence, this congregation was the only game in town. Emma Lazarus went here. So did Benjamin Cardozo (hear the Spanish-influenced names?)

With my date, I am attending an Ethiopian Shabbat dinner in this building hosted by an American-Israeli exchange/social group that evening. But it says you can come earlier for services, so I do.

At first I can’t figure out how to get inside the building, which occupies almost an entire city block at Central Park West and 70th street. (Shearith Israel has occupied five buildings over the course of its history; each about 20 blocks farther uptown than the one before. It also has occupied three cemeteries in Manhattan, which are all designated historic landmarks). The entrance facing the park is blocked off with an iron fence. Bored people are sitting outside here playing on their cell phones. The real entrance is the side door. I go up inside. People are knotted by the front door, chit-chatting. I don’t know which way to go, but two ladies sweep by me and up the steps, so I follow them.

And it’s a good thing I follow them, because this congregation is sex-segregated; men worship on the ground floor and women worship in the balcony. I actually think the women get the better deal here.

The building is stunning; dazzling. The inside is about five stories high; I’m only about half way up. The walls are variegated golden marble; the balcony is supported with marble Corinthian columns. The seats are golden wood and dark red velvet. Centered on each wall are gigantic Tiffany stained glass windows, in colors that range from emerald green to ice blue to gold. The entire front of the room is devoted to the golden marble doors that enclose the ark, which encloses the Torahs.

In the center of the room is a raised platform, shaped rather like a the front of a boat. It is surrounded by about ten three-foot candles (which are actually lit with gas). The room is dimly lit, so it flickers to the light of these candles.

A rabbi, dressed in an ankle length black gown and a flat-topped black velvet hat, stands in the prow of the ship, facing the ark, leading prayers. Three other rabbis, dressed identically, stand silently behind him, joining in when appropriate. The rabbi sings beautifully, – racing through prayers in a full voiced, easy, ornamented style, without any effort whatsoever.

At the very, very top front of the room, smushed right up against the ceiling, in the right hand corner, stands a choir of about twelve – all men, of course ,since the Orthodox traditionally believe that the voice of a woman tempts a man to sin. The choir stand in a circle, mostly with their backs to the room. They sing traditional prayers in four and five-part styles; in mostly a western style – but at least a couple times in every time, a little thread of eastern harmony creeps in before disappearing.

The vocal interplay between the rabbi and the choir is astounding. It happens so fast. They all sing so beautifully. And the overlap between the rabbi’s eastern melodic phrasings (minor keys, vocal trills and ornamentations) and the choir’s lusty western harmonies, totally blows my mind. I can’t get enough. I’m totally dazed.

When I come to my senses slightly, I check out my fellow worshippers, of whom there are maybe 50 or 60. The majority are in middle-aged are younger. Their dress styles vary much more widely than I would have thought. Some of the men could have come straight from casual Friday at the office (khakis, collared shirt, sweater, kipah), while others wear full “Black Hat” regalia – black pants, baggy black coat, wide brimmed black hat.

The women, too, vary widely in dress. Some wear sweater sets and ankle-length skirts (with no slit, of course), and hats that cover their hair (traditionally, you have to cover your hair if you are married). One even wears a black lace mantilla. Some do not cover their hair at all. And others – quite frankly - look really sexy, in knee-length leather skirts, leather high-heeled boots, fishnets, and lacy camisole tops (though no bare shoulders, of course). I am feeling self conscious until I see one other woman in the balcony wearing pants. She’s an older woman and I wonder what the story is. Clearly nobody is getting kicked out for minor dress mistakes. I make a big show of holding the prayer book and turning the page at the right times so they don’t think I’m totally lost. And I’m not – I can usually follow along, though of course I don’t know the melodies. And the weird thing is, I feel much more comfortable here than I do with B’nai Jeshurun’s worldpop melodies. Maybe I feel more comfortable in a situation where nobody cares whether I’m following along or not. Where I know nobody’s going to try to make me dance. It’s an utterly solid, self-confident tradition. And yeah, I’m stuck in the balcony, but I love it.

As the women vary in dress, so they vary in their interest in the proceedings below. Some sit quietly, follow along, and rock back and forth as they pray. A couple of them blast in late, and spend most of the service talking to each other in not-very-quiet whispers. One woman comes in extra late. She plops her stuff down noisily, picks up a prayer book, and starts praying really fast from the beginning of the service, on her own, rocking extra hard to make up for lost time.

I’m also struck by how young many of these people are. This isn’t a community of old-timers. There aren’t huge numbers of them, but this place is not about to shut down.

The service is barely over an hour long (the heavy duty stuff comes on Saturday morning). We file downstairs, and all of a sudden, the black hats turn into people. Husbands and wives greet each other and schmooze with their friends, dawdling and blocking up the entry hall before they mosey on home.

I take a brief tour of the museum, where they have prayer paraphernalia many centuries old, including an entire Havdalah (Saturday night worship service) kit – hidden in a candlestick – a legacy of the Sephardic community’s centuries of having to hide their religion.

Then I go down to the basement, where the Ethiopian Shabbat Dinner is about to begin.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Jewish life in Casablanca, Morocco

My friend Eric is currently a Fulbright scholar in Morocco. He just wrote an article about the Jewish community there. Stop by and check it out!


Sunday, February 4, 2007

As God Is My Witness: St. George's Church, Union Square

Last weekend, Lauren and her husband Doug took me to St. George’s Church, an old and illustrious Episcopalian chapel conveniently located right by Union Square, downtown. Like most churches, this one seemed much bigger on the inside than on the outside. It looked exactly like what I thought an Episcopalian church ought to look like – shaped like a Catholic church, with tremendously tall arched ceilings, a long nave, and a raised altar in front, but in a way wiped clean – rather than gilded decorations or cherubs or Christs-on-Crosses, the front of the church was a bare white, with a simple giant wooden cross the only decoration. Paint is peeling off the ceiling.

The congregation dates to 1749; the building to 1846. Back when the people of downtown New York went to church, this was quite the scene. J. P. Morgan worshiped here. Now, with attendance dropping, St. George’s Church has an odd sort of rotation relationship with the parish of Calvary nearby. The church leaders go back and forth between the congregations, which has had a destabilizing effect on the church-goers.

As usual, going to the house of God is hard! Awkward! Even after a cup of coffee! Truthfully, I feel the same kind of awkwardness here that I feel in “my own” houses of worship. Because I don’t know what’s going to happen, because I feel like I don’t belong. Religious buildings are an odd combination – they are completely open, but they have very well defined borders. They’re emotional fortresses, and being inside when you’re not, you know, inside, is a truly odd feeling. Mitigating factors for the awkwardness: Since I’m a guest, I don’t feel like anybody is going to collar me and try to get me to do some sort of alarming public act (introduce myself; talk about my feelings; hold hands and dance across the room). Aggravating factors for the awkwardness: Since I’m a guest, I don’t really know what’s going to happen. (Well, okay, I know I shouldn’t eat the cracker.) Throughout the service, I dedicate a lot of energy toward appearing calm and comfortable, and assuming that the genuine feeling will follow. Which it eventually does. Mostly.

Jews joke about “Jewish time” but really most people are late at every religious service I’ve been to so far. My hosts and I are among the first 20 people in the building, though by the end of the service there are 60 or 70. (This is still only a tiny, tiny fraction of the chapel's capacity.) The churchgoers are diverse. There are a few older black women in hats, a few young hip types in jeans, a few young preppy blond couples in khakis and pastels. There is a rock band with a saxophone player. The guitarist looks hung over. The band plays softer rock than the Korean Presbyterians, but they’re not bad. The drummer is hidden behind a pillar, at least from where I’m sitting. Every time he hits his bass drum, a Divine-sounding thunderclap echoes unevenly around the church. It’s really kind of funny. The priest looks like he’s made his peace with this although it’s really not his thing.

Lauren, sweet, beautiful, and put-together, was raised in a non-denominational church. Her husband Doug, bearded and thoughtful, with gold earrings, was raised by a Baptist minister in Texas, but has since made a strong turn toward the high Episcopalian, which he views as more substantive, authentic and traditional. Church shopping has been a serious couple’s project for them. They have been going to St. George’s for a number of months, traveling the better part of an hour from Brooklyn every morning to get there. They settled on it after visiting about fifteen churches; they found it to be the best doctrinal compromise they could manage. Doug would like to go to an even higher church, with more formal ritual and liturgy (“smells and bells,” he calls it), but Lauren as a non-denominational does not find this super-appealing, so they seem to have settled at St. George’s for now. They also like the diversity. “The hipster church,” they call it. It’s not perfect, though -they talk about not feeling part of the church community, even after so many months and after they’ve joined the Bible study group – they think it may have to do with the rotating leadership.

For me, the most striking part of the service was the reading from scripture. I had to write a whole separate entry about it (see below). What else happens? They sing hymns, with the accompaniment of the rock band. They read the Nicean Creed. They read the Lord’s Prayer. They read a lot of things in calm, serious, old-fashioned language about Jesus and God’s mercy and the people’s redemption. They read the announcements, with numerous apologies about how boring the announcements are going to be (see, some things really are universal). They go up to the front of the church and take communion. Some little kids are running around.

After the service, we go around the corner to a diner and continue the conversation. Lauren, who has an art history degree, recently started working at a Jewish arts institution in New York. She’s low-key about it but I can tell something about it has really been eating at her. I don’t blame her. Older New York Jews, left to their own devices, can create this haughty, incomprehensible-to-outsiders in-club. They use words she doesn’t understand. They give her weird looks if she brings certain foods to work. They probably say obnoxious things about Christians or people with conservative “values.”

What’s really throwing Lauren and Doug about these old Jews, though, is that they aren’t even religious. The question they have for me, which they are almost too polite to ask, is, how can these people call themselves Jews, if they hate everything religious? I try to explain and end up giving them the whole history of American Judaism. How it’s more than a religion, more than a culture. As I blab, I keep having to stop myself to try to censor the jingoistic sentences creeping in about how special Jews are, how different we are than anybody else, how our definition of a people is the one that makes sense. These sentences are buried deep in the script that I’m repeating for Laura and Doug, as it was taught to me, and every time I start to go on autopilot, another one of the sentences starts to pop out.

I ask Doug, so, all these Americans who call themselves Christian and go to church on Easter and buy a Christmas tree at Christmas – are they Christians, in your book? Doug is also trying to be extremely polite, and he won’t say that the answer is no, but clearly he thinks the answer is no.

I ask him about the gay rights issue, or whatever you want to call it, that’s currently splitting apart the Episcopalian church in the US. Doug reframes the argument as something else – as a larger dialogue about change in the church. If you change one thing, what's to keep anyone from making any other changes? What’s the point of tradition if you can just change it?

This conversation was very interesting but it was very hard. It’s hard to really listen to someone and it’s hard to really say what you think. Most of the time we speak in verbal shorthand to people who are just like us. It’s exhausting to try to use words that carry an accurate and helpful meaning for someone with a different background. After lunch I was hyperactive and tired. I think I wore Doug and Lauren out too. Doug told me he felt uncomfortable reciting the Nicene Creed with us standing next to him. And then he thought, wait a minute, isn’t this what I believe? Isn’t that the whole point of saying it. It’s not a secret. In fact, it’s the opposite – a public declaration. Witnesses remind you of the significance of what you’re doing and saying. They’re powerful – that’s why we tiptoe around them, and that’s why we’re so happy talking to people who are like us, when nobody else is watching. The Nicene Creed is an oath – like a marriage vow, like the Pledge of Allegiance – and it’s still got quite a bit of power.

It’s good to be a guest and to be a witness. It makes you realize how much you take for granted in your own home. Maybe that’s why houses of God are mostly so open – even though prayer is intensely personal - it’s assumed that any guest might come in, and so you should be prepared for that, and be comfortable showing who you really are and what you really believe in, no matter who is watching. And maybe the point of this is to show you that you should show who you really are with all your actions, even when you’re not in church. And maybe one reason to believe in God is that God is like a constant witness to your every action. You do not go unobserved. Your every action has consequence. Everything you do sets you apart from all other people. How do you want to be seen – by others, by God, by yourself? It’s your choice.

Join Us Next Week For: The Sephardic Synagogue. And Possibly: The Darwin Festival.

Last Weekend's Sermon

The Book of Luke 4:16-4:32
16: And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read.
17: And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,
18: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,
19: To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
20: And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.
21: And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.
22: And all bare him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth. And they said, Is not this Joseph's son?
23: And he said unto them, Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself: whatsoever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in thy country.
24: And he said, Verily I say unto you, No prophet is accepted in his own country.
25: But I tell you of a truth, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when great famine was throughout all the land;
26: But unto none of them was Elias sent, save unto Sarepta, a city of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow.
27: And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Eliseus the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, saving Naaman the Syrian.
28: And all they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath,
29: And rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong.
30: But he passing through the midst of them went his way,

Let me tell you this story a different way.

Let’s say we live in this town called Natzrat, in the hills. Nothing too special. We’re just regular synagogue-goers, at, say, Congregation Bet Elohim, in Natzrat. This guy Josh (Yeshua), a real nice hometown kid, has been out of town for a while, and we’ve heard that he’s been up to some interesting things. Josh was always a good Torah reader so when we hear he’s going to be in town for Shabbat, we say okay Josh, why don’t you read from the Torah since you were always so good at it, maybe talk to us a little bit about what you’ve been up to.

Josh goes up to the front of the room and reads from the Torah, and then he maybe reads the Haftarah portion or whatever, and it turns out the portion is from Isaiah, the part where Isaiah says that someday soon God is going to fulfill His end of the covenant, going to come back to heal the brokenhearted and the blind and to free the captives.

And Josh stops reading and everybody sits down and looks at him. And Josh says “This prophesy is fulfilled now.”

And we all go, What?

And Josh goes, You heard me.

And an old guy in the congregation’s a little confused and he asks, “You’re Joseph’s son, aren’t you?”

And Josh says “Yeah. Guys, I know you heard I did some miracles in Kefar Nachum. You’re probably ask if I can do some for you here. But listen. No prophet is ever accepted in his own country. There was a big famine in Elijah the Prophet’s time, and he only saved one widow. And there were a lot of lepers in Elisha the Prophet’s time, and he only saved one, and that one was a Syrian.”

And the synagogue-goers get really mad at Josh because he sounds like he’s crazy, I mean, this just sounds like total nonsense, and they throw him out of shul. And Josh skips town. And we think, wow, that kid sure turned out weird. Can't imagine we'll ever hear from him again.