You can say that I was somewhat amused at the throngs of darker-skinned people streaming up the path to the entrance of the synagogue in Srigim, a mixed religious-secular settlement in the Ela Valley region, about 20km north of Kiryat Gat.
“Sephardi prayer services in the shul,” the announcement read. “Ashkenazi services outside under the pergola.” So I sat in the makeshift ladies’ section of about six chairs, which wasn’t even beneath the pergola, but on the path alongside. Me and a handful of men, and even fewer women. My amusement was directed at myself really, as true to the stereotype, most of the Ashkenazim were fair with light-coloured hair. And then there was me, a possible product of a smattering of Spanish blood.
They had forgotten to say that the Sephardi minyan would start on time, but the Ashkenazim are in for a wait. We waited, and I watched as people gradually arrived, nodding at each other, greeting and embracing each other. The weather was pleasant and the atmosphere was warm and spiritually uplifting.
Finally, with a count of 11 men and two Sephardi Torah scrolls set erect on the tabletop, my hands clasped my black Adler machzor, which I lovingly opened to the front inside cover. An inscription in my late grandfather’s handwriting, so similar to my father’s, and which I never tire of reading, caught my eye once again: To Mum, With love from Dad, Leoné & Ronnie, September 1956. My fingers stroked the long-dried ink. “Mum” was my grandmother after whom I am named. On the page opposite, a name and surname in my father’s script that few people I know these days would associate with me. The machzor is old and soon due for rebinding, but it is mine just as it once was my grandmother’s.
The service, however, was far from what my grandmother would have experienced. The pergola stands next to a small park, separated by the path that leads to the small synagogue building, just a few metres away. Gradually, the park filled with people, all dressed in white; people who wished to be present at prayer for the most holy Jewish day of the year. Bare-headed fathers and their daughters sat on benches, following the service in their machzors together; young mothers in baggy pants and white blouses pushed their babies in prams; children whizzed past on scooters; youth with overgrown hair sat along a nearby wall. Some people prayed, others chatted; parents chased run-away toddlers who shrieked with excitement. And there were street cats. Everywhere. This was the norm. This was acceptable. And it was beautiful.
Yet I couldn’t understand how it was tolerable to hold prayer services with such a cacophony, on Yom Kippur of all days. My body tensed up with frustration and in my mind, I heard my father’s appeals to the congregation for decorum. But the voice of my friend, Avishai, came to me, with the reminder that nothing is perfect: “You are such a perfectionist. You want everything to be perfect. NOTHING will be perfect.” So I kept repeating to myself, “Not perfect, nothing is perfect. Accept, embrace, enjoy. Not perfect.”
And then the thought crossed my mind: Could it have been that this was exactly how many Jews in ancient times had prayed? A cluster of worshippers in an outdoor setting, people milling about and stopping by to pay respects, teenagers hanging out, children playing and calling to each other, roaming cats – and more cats. Is this full circle? Throughout our history, we have aspired towards perfection in our prayer services, amongst other things; to refine its character in line with the conventions of our adoptive communities around the world, only to return to our Land and to what we may have once thought was least perfect.
This year I strive to embrace the imperfect in myself and in others, thus completing part of a circle on its way to becoming whole.