A few weeks ago, I spent the weekend in a relatively small Modern Orthodox community. It wasn’t completely off the beaten path, but it certainly was not the likes of some towns in Bergen County, where there is a plethora of kosher food establishments, synagogues, schools, and community centers.
At Shabbat services, I watched as a family member was given the aliyah during the Torah reading that is designated for the kohain. As services continued, I marveled at the fact that in a Modern Orthodox setting the rituals are always the same. The prayer books are the same, the order of each part of the service is the same, we read the same portions from the Torah as in other congregations, and so forth. This wasn’t exactly a new revelation, but it was something I noticed more than usual on that Shabbat. No matter the location — at least in the United States — these rituals are the same from one shul to another. Even the less ancient Jewish ritual of the shul kiddush after services could be transplanted from one shul to another.
I don’t mean to sound as though we are a cookie-cutter religion. It’s just interesting to me at times like these when our practices can be traced back to the same place. This continuity bears testament to the power of tradition and adherence to a common law. Ritual alone is not what has helped Judaism survive, but it has kept the Jewish religion alive and thriving.
The ultimate example, as I mentioned in a column a few years back, is the moving Neilah service on Yom Kippur. Congregants across the world declare (albeit at different times in their designated time zones) that our God is the one true God. We say, “Hashem Hu ha-Elokim” in one collective voice. This declaration in itself traces back to the very beginning of our religion, when Abraham recognized the existence of only one Supreme Being. And by saying these words in unison, we make Judaism not a religion of the past, but rather something that is alive in and all around us. It isn’t only personal, but rather a communal experience.
Back to the aforementioned weekend. After we out-of-towners were given a public welcome by the shul’s rabbi at the end of services, people came over to us at the kiddush and asked the usual welcoming questions.
Where are you from? Oh, I’m from Brooklyn, too! I used to live on Avenue N. Oh, yes I remember that store! Do you know so-and-so?
It’s like there’s this constant need for people to connect even further, to mirror our common religious and cultural roots with a more modern form of Jewish geography. It’s like we’re all connected within a web and we are attempting — both through shared ritual and by knowing the location of that same park on Yellowstone Boulevard in Forest Hills, Queens — to pull that web even closer. Whether intended or not, what we are doing is creating a more complex, tighter, closer cultural web with each individual encounter.
And it can happen anywhere. The most amusing place where I witnessed a game of Jewish geography was last year, smack in the middle of the Judean desert, on a jeep tour. The handful of tourists in my car stopped at a lookout point and soon we were joined by another group. And with the deserted mountains of the Holy Land surrounding us, the game was played and won.
Social media is an amplification of what we’ve been doing for years with this Jewish geography tradition. I still would much rather be entertained by the game in the middle of the desert than by the “People You May Know” feature on LinkedIn and Facebook. And still, I am amused by the people and names that pop back into my life. No longer lost memories. I admit that I, too, look for mutual connections.
And why do I do it? Who cares if I know that person? Is it just for my own amusement? Nostalgia? Curiosity? And that’s when I, admittedly, find myself pressing the “friend” button. Not all the time, but more times than would make sense in the real world. In the real world, I don’t have 900 friends. And neither do you, by the way. And please, save it. You know exactly what I’m talking about.
So I ask again — why do it? Why care about who knows this person knows that person knows the other person, whether we find that out via Facebook or at a shul kiddush? I think it’s because we have this very human yearning to connect — and within the Jewish geography web, even more so. It’s amazing to see how interconnected we all are, within a system that stretches beyond our comprehension.
I think that we trace our lineage back as far as “People You May Know” and Ancestry.com and 23andMe DNA testing might allow because we want to feel a sense of belonging. We want to understand where we have come from. And as I marvel at the religious and cultural roots that stood out that weekend out of town, I realize that I, too, am part of the tradition. It’s not only about where we come from. It’s also about the future we create.