By Harriet P. Gross
I’m writing this immediately after Rosh Hashanah, for you to read immediately after Yom Kippur. It’s “inspired” by my husband’s comments as we left synagogue on the holiday’s first day, about how many people were talking during services — and not about what was happening on the bimah. Is the socializing factor something new, or increasing?
This made me think back to my second college year. I was attending a city school as a commuter from the home of my parents, who were titular members of a nearby Orthodox shul. My father actually refused to enter any synagogue voluntarily, claiming his knuckles had been cracked once too often during childhood Hebrew school days, while my mother maintained her contact as a sisterhood activist and even president.
As high-schoolers, High Holy Days for me and my friends meant meeting each other outside one synagogue to show off our new outfits, then moving on to other shuls to meet other friends and do more of the same. (This is possible only in areas with a concentrated Jewish population offering a variety of worship possibilities within easy walking distance. As a result, we kids didn’t do much praying…)
But I suddenly “got religion” at the university as one of a vocal Jewish minority in matters interfaith, and I became dedicated to taking a seat in shul early and remaining there until all was over, an especially praiseworthy (I thought) feat on Yom Kippur.
My boyfriend of that particular year was a local whose parents were regulars at the same Orthodox synagogue, and since my parents would not be there for Neilah (truth be told, not for anything that went on before, either), they invited me to break the fast with them at their home.
Of course, I said yes. But also of course, when they were ready to leave in advance of the final shofar blast in order to get food on the table for others coming afterward, I refused to go with them. All these years later, I still redden with shame over my smug, sophomoric chutzpah: I actually told them that my religion was more important to me than any dinner. Does this win the holier-than-thou prize?
Over many years I’ve had many holiday experiences with congregations in all three major Jewish streams. The extremes I’ve noted run from strict discipline in great Classic Reform temples, where every word of the old Union Prayer Book was uttered in vocal lockstep by determined worshipers taking offense at the very presence, let alone sounds, of small children in the sanctuary, to the chaos of upstairs women’s sections in old Orthodox shuls where everyone was reading from a different prayer book at the same time, with zero possibility of anyone being on the same page, quite literally, as anyone else.
Does a “rule” of conversational no-no make for a more uplifting worship experience? Does intense personal involvement in prayer do the same? Does talking to your neighbor about anything other than what words you should be saying or reading at the moment make anyone less Jewish than those who treasure absolute silence, or those who daven loudly, simultaneously, to the beats of their own drummers?
Times change, and Judaism changes with it. Reform congregations now offer flexibility in worship forms, including some informal services with music far from the kind provided by stately organs, confounding “old guard” classicists. Orthodox synagogues now provide the same prayer books for all women, who no longer need indigenous leaders of the kind my Boubby the Philosopher once was, telling her cohort when the proper times were to beat their breasts and cry during Yom Kippur services.
A Conservative synagogue is my spiritual home today, as it was when I was of pre-college age. Then, mine was a tiny shul in a two-story house owned by a widow of the congregation. Downstairs, most of the religious school classes met in various sections of the single large room that was actually the sanctuary, while the oldest students were promoted to upstairs, where privacy and some homemade snacks accompanied their study. I can truly say today, echoing Robert Fulghum’s kindergarten epiphany, that I learned everything Jewish I need to know in Mrs. Simon’s kitchen.
Mostly, I learned that it’s OK for some Jews to be different from other Jews. And that if some people want to talk during services, even on the High Holy Days, they can still be Jewish anyway. And that, without a doubt, I missed a great break-the-fast meal at Mrs. Barsky’s table.