Shushers

Do you remember as a child in synagogue being put in your place by some grouchy old man with the proverbial “shhhh” or still worse “shah!”. I think many of us have that not so fond memory of our Shule experience.  Those men or perhaps women, were called “shushers”.  And the name was not used as an accolade.

The Shushers didn’t limit their criticism to children. Oh no, they would silence anyone who dared talk during the services with a sharp shh or sha!  And the really invested Shusher would not limit his shhing to those in his immediate vacinity. He would walk around the sanctuary looking for the schmoozers and with a stern face and disapproving eye shh them into silence.

The Shusher club I always saw as populated by grouchy old men who didn’t know how to let go. They were not my favorite characters in Shule. I saw them as intolerant and judgemental. I struggled to understand why they could not let others enjoy the service in a way that was comfortable for them. Were I hold enough to address them I might have said, “lighten up” or still worse “mind your own business”.

Well I have to confess. As I approach my 70th birthday I am now one of the Shushers. I have become one of the group whom as a child and young adult I loathed.  On any given day I now may be the one turning around with a shh or a sha. And yes, I am the one the child or the schmoozer may loathe.

Now you may  ask, “How did this happen? How did you come to join the enemy? You always hated Shushers”.

I tell you my truth. I indeed am a Shusher but not because I want the guy in front of me or behind me to behave in Shule. I honestly have not changed my belief in live and let live. You enjoy schmoozing in Shule? go for it! I have no need to correct your prayer habits. I am a Shusher not to because I want to change wrongful behavior. I am a Shusher simply because if you are talking you are disturbing my ability to concentrate on my prayers.  I shush you not to correct you but to meet my needs for the ambience that allows me to focus and feel an intimacy with the Divine.

What’s changed? Why did I once disdain Shushers and now have joined the club?

Its really not that I am now old and crochety, though some might argue that I am. It’s not that I have become more intolerant of the likes of others. What really has changed is that prayer has become more important to me. Whereas davening was at one time a ritual to be honored and a religious duty now prayer has become a deep spiritual encounter, a rendezvous with G-d.

When prayer was more casual for me I experienced Shushers as intolerant and unduly self righteous. I resented the condescending quality of the shh.

Today for me prayer requires devotion and a total presence to the moment. If my neighbor makes noise I am distracted and the sacred moment is lost. It’s​ hard enough battling the noise in my head in order to be full engaged in a dialogue with G-d. Additional noise from without makes the battle unwinnable.

So you ask me again, “what’s the difference then really between you and Shushers you resented in your youth?”

I answer “had I perceived the Shushers of my youth as people deeply invested in their prayers and seeking silence so they could have the holy moment they were aspiring to I hope I would not have judged them so harshly. My sense, wrongly or rightly was that the grumpy Shushers of my youth prayed with no more intensity than I did. They just wanted to control the decorum in Shule in a style that they seemed appropriate and at my expense. That kind of shushing even today, Shusher me, finds insulting and high handed.

So have I really become a Shusher. I guess you could say yes. But in self defense I say my shushing comes from a different place. Does that change the way the guy I shh perceives me. Hmm, I think probably not. No one likes criticism. But at least maybe the one I shh knows at some level that my shhing is not about disapproval of his behavior but rather about me being able to be who I need to be in prayer.

About the Author
Yisrael Ben Yosef holds Masters degrees in both Philosophy and in Education from the University of Western Ontario. He was a former Supervisor of Clinical Pastoral Education. He founded and served as Director of the Jewish Institute for Pastoral Care in New York City. He has authored two books "Whence My Help Come:Caregiving in the Jewish Tradition" and "The Torah and the Self", both published by Mazo Press, Jerusalem.
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