Did someone send a universal memo out to every shul, temple and synagogue? No matter the geography or architecture or its history in the community; even irrespective of its denominational home or the siddurim on the shelves, whether the pews are ornate or the congregants sit in chairs-by-Costco, folded and stacked up against the wall after davening/praying/meditating – there is always an unofficial, self-appointed institutional representative who greets the stranger with bad jokes and puns and a dose of self-deprecating humor. On my last find-a-place-to-daven-close-to-the-hotel trip, it was the stand-in shammes who good-naturedly joked about the nusach of the chazzan, the rabbi’s poor choice for a favorite baseball team and the competing Russian and Israeli accents of the guys in the front row.
The Kiddush might be Californian vegan or Upper West Side cholent; the drash could be a brilliantly thundered sermon or a simple vort; and the average age of the minyanaires can be post-Medicare or wall-to-wall young singles. Notwithstanding the very real differences, and the (OK, my) predilection for getting caught up in the compare/contrast game, I’ve (nearly) never walked away without being bowled over by how much sameness there is – how much serious commonality one can find.
If, instead of those of us (read: all of us) who walk in with preconceived notions of differences, a theological anthropologist entered these buildings, with a scientist’s blank slate to be filled in with objective observations. What would be her findings? The easy stuff: there’d be Hebrew of course (yes, some more, some less; accented differently, pronounced either haltingly or as if the speaker was double-parked – but it’d be there). A word or a phrase sprinkled into an otherwise all-English sentence, or entire pages of prayers and conversation, but instead of the (our) focus on they-use-too-much/they-use-too-little, we forget the subtle power of even a minimal diverting from society’s lingua franca.
Albert Hourani, a British Lebanese historian, persuasively argued that the Arabic language was more impactful on Arab history and society than Islam itself. The choice of language – and, I would posit, all the more so in the (still, predominantly) mono-linguistic culture that’s found in the U.S. – is incredibly telling with regard to one’s deepest affiliations (one’s tribal affiliations). The use of a different word – much less the hard-won decision to speak that different language – is a linguistic signal to one’s co-tribalists; it’s also a signal to those outside the tribe – in and of itself a reason, for some, for hesitancy, even worry.
Along with Hebrew, our intrepid anthropologist would note a connection to geography thousands of miles from the home and history of these various institutions’ affiliates. Again – differences, many, many differences. About borders, about its relative centrality in Jews’ identities and certainly about policies and positions. But just like the use of Hebrew, the fact of its presence in these buildings is unassailable. With the rarest of exceptions, Israel plays a part in the lives of our houses of worship.
That phrase – house of worship – would lead our investigator to another common characteristic: the significance afforded to study. Where conventional (“traditional”) sectarian religious buildings were (and to some extent, still are) focused on liturgical expressions, Judaism has always ensured that prayer and study were co-equal and mutually reinforcing principles. Our visiting ‘pologist would note that, along with the expected devotion to a Deity, there was an insistence on study – and more study.
It’s almost banal to mention it, but whether temple, synagogue or shul; if self-described as Aquarian/neo-Chassidic/post-theological – or “just Jewish” – Torah will be central. As a moral guide, as history book, as the living word from Heaven – Torah will be in every building.
But these are easy, tangible, obvious. When I walk out of one of these – any of these – buildings, I always come away with a sense of being at home. During Torah study, I’ve tried to keep up with intellectual references from historians on the Upper West Side (do they have to use that much German?); I’ve been puzzled by the addition of words and entire prayers into a liturgy I thought I knew; I’ve sung through the siddur using folk-song melodies and have been treated to iconic Klezmer and have been transported by spontaneous harmonies during Hallel. It comes in different forms, sometimes subtle and sometimes in-your-face – but it’s there. California Chabadniks and tikkun olamniks and those passionately invoking their grandparents’ histories (none of which are mutually exclusive) – no matter the hook, there’s always a hook. Better, there’s always a connector.
Mini-anecdote from this last on-the-road-Shabbat: there was just a minyan-plus-four (for which the joker/greeter deeply apologized – though he quickly added that there’d be more at Kiddush for him). Their usual designated Torah reader was away, but the sub was more than up to the responsibility. The drash was a little convoluted, but began and ended with memorable images and a joke at no one’s expense. During the run-up to putting the Torah away, one of the regulars walked up to the center of the room, clearly on a well-worn route, and recited, slowly and with heavily accented (Russian, not Israeli) Hebrew, the prayer for Israel’s soldiers. Even with less than fifteen present, there had been a pretty steady buzz of background conversation, but not then. There was a dignified quiet during those few minutes, which returned to the low-level hum of comments and conversation when he finished.
It’s not that the recitation of this particular prayer is unusual, though it’s not typically offered in synagogues within their “affiliation” category. It was the manner in which it was delivered, and the way it was received. At Kiddush I asked him if there was a particular reason – a relative, a friend, someone about whom he had read who was serving or who had served. No, no one in particular (that he shared) and nothing specific, that day or that week. It is something that he does, because he feels connected. With no prompt or nudge, he added the ultimate Jewish tagline: We’re all connected.