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.

1 comment:

Alma said...

Wow! Great report. I imagine it must have been like trying to go on with class lesson even though the teacher has been called to the office!