Erik Ross
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Jews. Christians. Couscous.

At an interfaith conference in Geneva, the Spirit of God moved in air redolent of cinnamon, as an outlandishly diverse group 'schmoozed' into the night

Apprehensively. That’s how I started out at the “Roots and Responsibility” conference last month in Geneva.

There were about 50 of us from four continents — Jews and Christians — who had come for a weekend in this “city of peace” to look forward to the future together — and quake, together, I suppose.

What held us together is that we were all religious. That makes us different, in the current year, from the bien-pensant people around us.

We were Catholics of various dispositions, a few Protestants, and some who try to blend Judaism and Christianity. With us were Jews of conservative and liberal persuasions.

Since we were all very serious people, the whole thing focused on talk. I was invited as “a priest who has a blog in The Times of Israel.” I read aloud my first blog post from 2015 for those assembled, which included a couple of Hapsburgs and a former chief rabbi of Vienna. It was surreal — mostly in a good way.

For most of the day, we were in a sterile conference room. Lunch was kosher tuna on a bun in the shape of a shell-casing — with a texture to match. It was all perfectly correct and serviceable.

But it was when the couscous was served that the party started to rock. An improbable thing, since by that time we were all in a synagogue basement.

And not just any basement: as the sun sank, the whole conference migrated to the cellar of the Grand Synagogue of Geneva (c. 1858), a house of prayer so archetypal it looks like the synagogue emoji.

It was Friday night.

Cardboard stereoscopic slide with photos of the Grand Synagogue in Geneva, circa. 1860. At the time, the synagogue was in a deserted area of the city — perhaps not by accident. (Slide from the collection of the Jewish Museum of Switzerland in Basel, LGLou/Wikipedia)

The organizer’s idea to bring everyone to kabbalat shabbat in Geneva’s oldest synagogue was slightly dangerous. The place communicates provenance and not a little mystery. It bellows “Tradition!” without Bock and Harnick’s music and without a single syllable being uttered.

The great chazzan of this Grand Synagogue, Mr. Eric Ackermamn, was there at first to introduce the outsiders to the shul. He spoke off the cuff, throwing in some rudiments of Judaism: here is the bima; here is the aron kodesh.

The Grand Synagogue of Geneva in November 2021. Unless otherwise noted, photos in this article are by the author.

He needn’t have said so much. The building, with its big Moorish windows and tutti-frutti scrollwork — the heavy chandeliers and the curiosity-piquing provocation of an operational women’s gallery that knows not from Bella Abzug — did most of the work for him.

I will even get behind the idea — which might have been a spontaneous mistake — of timing our visit to coincide with the synagogue’s normal Friday night service.

As Chazzan Ackermann wrapped up his discourse, the regulars poured in. They were not there to act as a diorama of Jewish faith practices in the first half of the 21st century. They were there to daven and that’s what they did.

Just at the last minute, someone thought it would be good to hand siddurs to the rest of us.

There wasn’t much explanation.

Ackerman went into prayer-mode, showering shiny fragments of melody in a minor key upon the congregation. By this time, the women had ascended. I was surrounded by vaguely Hebraic masculine rumblings.

Occasionally the cantor would cry out, “Page 143!” — but that was it. The outsiders were adrift in a sea of phonemes. The host had his back to the congregation most of the time.

A lot of “professional” dialoguers would say this is a no-no. They tend to prefer homogenated liturgies in brightly-lit rooms, each earnest participant a photocopied guide in hand. But this service, to someone like me, was reminiscent of the Latin mass. And, by God, it worked. Folks figured it out.

A marvelous moment of spontaneous choreography occurred when it was time to welcome the Sabbath bride. After a dozen repetitions of the refrain “Lecha dodi likrat kala, p’nei Shabbat n’kabelah!” Jewish regulars pivoted to face the door, and, with hardly a half-second of hesitation so did the non-Jewish looky-loos.

When the Sabbath bride came through that door, she must have smiled — if only at the sight of the odd congeries she saw splayed over the pews.

The very fine cupola was supposed to combine Byzantine and Moorish styes. I associate the bands of color with the Mamluks. The cantor of the synagogue is less sanguine: ‘De l’intérieur, on dirait une église ; de l’extérieur, on dirait une mosquée.’ (‘From the inside, it looks like a church; from the outside it looks like a mosque.’)

But the best was yet to come. I mentioned couscous. A while ago, some generous congregants renovated the cellar under the synagogue. Calling it a cellar now would almost be sacrilegious. You go down a nice wide staircase and enter what feels like a showroom for Piaget or LeCoultre — a Genevan experience. The walls are clad in a blond stone that recalls the boulevards of Haussmann. Cropped boxwood topiaries frame the room with constructive shapes: pyramids, obelisks, cones.

This space has what the French call “a well of light”: a skylight that retracts. This brings natural light down to the basement. But more than that: as some readers will have guessed, the skylight allows the synagogue to put a s’chach roof in the cellar, come the season.

The effect of light on stone is magnificent, even if in the background there is a tingle from the knowledge that only a community defensve of its security would make this effort to avoid sitting in a sukkah out where others can see.

A wall-mounted pulpit is original to the building. I’m told the Jewish community doesn’t use it.

Right down the middle was a buffet table. And there was a Catholic servant called Consuelo who must have come from Spain. She was a lady in her 60s and when she saw my monastic habit she immediately presented of herself in the simplest way: “I’m Consuelo! I’m Catholic!”

I think Consuelo knows she plays a role that is centuries old. Her name, in Spanish, means “solace”: a reference to Mary, mother of Jesus, under her title of Nuestra Señora del Consuelo – Our Lady of Consolation.

It was Consolation’s job to serve the couscous.

Boorish I may be, but, to me, this couscous was the highpoint of the whole affair.

More than any stemwinder from a rabbi with multiple degrees, more than any caffeinated elocution from some committed activist, the couscous with its raisins and caramelized onions — and the simmering pot of meatballs in sauce next to it — nourished conversation.

This being Francophonie, there was also red wine. I suppose that helped, too.

The feasters sat around round tables. It reminded me of a Midwestern wedding reception.

The non-Jews were bewitched and thoroughly bewildered by the liturgy they had just experienced. Now they were discovering an Alibaba’s cave in the middle of the banking district, 20 feet under Synagogue Square. It was a blessed moment.

The Jewish community rose to the occasion. Mightily. To use a French expression, they schmoozed themselves hoarse. No schoolmarm was needed to clack a clipboard or blow a whistle to get people to mingle. The Spirit of God moved in air redolent of cinnamon. People of the most outlandish diversity seemed drawn to each other.

A girl from Ecuador who had just learned to say “shalom” was deep in conversation with the daughter of Hungarian Holocaust survivors. A Belgian academic listened to — and heard — the chayal.

We had not one, but two rabbis’ vorts — one in English and one in French. You could’ve heard a pin drop. That tempts me to do my next Sunday sermon dinner-theater style.

A fancy French-speaking pushke (charity box).

What struck me was the way people wanted to pray together. They wanted to talk and eat together. They genuinely wanted to be together.

The first time I was inside the Grand Synagogue, we were still in the pit of the pandemic. At that time, the loaner-yarmulkes in the narthex shared their box with two neat stacks of disposable masks. Folks have been through a lot these past few years — and no one knows what’s coming. This conference was supposed to spark a plan of common action for Jews and Christians in Europe, the basic intuition being that we are all in the soup and would be better off helping each other.

In that cellar, it was easy to believe that Jews and Christians had, in this teetering century, been driven down to the catacombs — together.

But it seemed strangely bright underground. As we ate, we allowed ourselves to take the suggestion that, down in the catacombs, you can still have loads of fun.

Joy comes from God. On that Friday night, we were glad to be simmering together, distinct and separate yet sharing a savory sauce. The Lord was there, and, to force a metaphor, we felt a little like Consolation’s meatballs.

About the Author
Born in Wisconsin, Erik Ross is a priest of the Dominican Order who lives in Switzerland and comes often to Israel. For many years, he was stationed in Poland. He has long been active in Jewish-Christian conversations. He writes here with the permission of his major superior.
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