I spent my first Shabbat in my new apartment this past weekend. I belong to a Masorti (Conservative) synagogue in Haifa but it is too far to walk. There is a little beit knesset in my neighborhood so I decided to go there instead. I have always been good at rationalizing my decision to break Shabbat by driving in order to observe Shabbat by going to shul. That’s the way I was raised. In Judaism, tradition trumps logic.
But since I moved in, I haven’t made any friends. That gets lonely. I figured that walking to the local shul would be a good way to meet nice people in the neighborhood. I was right.
Services are supposed to begin at 8:30 am. I know better than to arrive at the beginning of a Jewish service. The gentiles are more efficient at praying. In a church you can be in and out in an hour. Jews can’t. I never understood that. We have been praying the same way for over a thousand years and instead of figuring out how to streamline the service, we keep adding things to pray about. We never drop anything. The gentiles know how to mix things up, keep congregants on their toes. Jews do the same thing week after week. Tradition trumps logic.
The Jewish service consists of many parts. There are the preparatory prayers followed by the preliminary prayers. Next come the psalms. After that, the real praying begins. I like to show up just before the real praying. I tried coming a half hour late. It wasn’t late enough. We hadn’t even gotten to the psalms.
I put on my tallit (prayer shawl) and sat down near the back. It was a cozy beit knesset, with tables and chairs. Old books lined the walls. It looked more like a classroom then the sanctuaries that we like to build in the USA. It reminded me a lot of the Chabad shul my parents go to in Venice, Florida — minus the teenage Chabad rabbi with 4 kids all under 2 years of age. About 20 men were in the room. Nobody was paying attention to the chazan. They all know the service by heart. The man to the left of me was studying a page of Talmud while simultaneously glancing at the siddur (prayer book) He handed me his siddur already open to the correct page and got himself a new one. I didn’t ask for his help. He must have somehow known I had no idea where we were in the service. It could have been the fact that I was the only one wearing a non-standard black and white tallit. My tallit has red, blue and purple stripes. It is a lot like the coat that Jacob gave to Joseph. Just like Joseph, I am not into humility. They only sell tallit like mine to tourists in Jerusalem. (Email me if you want the store address).
The man to my right wasn’t even praying. He was reading the newspaper. I was thinking he only came to services to escape his wife. In most Israeli synagogues, the women are separated by a wall. This shul had a great big wall to keep the one 70 year old lady who came from distracting us from our newspapers. After all, who can focus on the news when a hot septuagenarian is in the same room?
The gabbai came around and started handing out honors for later. I was given the sixth Aliyah. This is always a big plus for me, I love getting to stand up in front of my people to read the blessings before the Torah. It is the only part of the service I can read in Hebrew without messing up. As I said before, I am not into humility. I like showing off.
When we finally got to the start of the real praying, things got serious. Newspapers were put away. People were focused. Our voices joined together while we responded in unison to the words of the chazzan. I felt the Shechinah descend upon the congregation. I was transported back generations and could feel my ancestors praying with me and telling me to get a new tallit without purple stripes.
I looked around the room trying to categorize the people. Were they Ahskenazi or Sephardi? Were they Charedi or Dati or neither. The answer was yes. All different categories of Jews were here. Somehow, they figured out a way to pray together; nobody was being judged.
My turn for the honor came and I ascended to the bima. Of course, I messed up the Hebrew blessings. Then when the gabbai asked me my name, I forgot the right answer. None of it mattered. He blessed me, he blessed my wife, he blessed my children and my parents. Afterwards, everybody warmly shook my hand and congratulated me as if I had just successfully performed brain surgery.
After services, we had a little Kiddush. Everybody came up to me to ask me where I was from. When they learned I was new in the neighborhood, I received many invitations to come visit. I even got to meet the one lady. She was blonde. I could see why she had to be kept separate from us men.
In Israel, not everybody shares the same values. But in Israel, there is a much higher percentage of people who share my values. In IsraeI, I find a lot more people that I respect. In my little beit knesset, I found the cream of the cream. And they took me in and welcomed me home.
Next week I am definitely coming back. But this time I know to come an hour late.