Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Adventures in Judaism

So this past Shabbat I got to visit a piece of American Jewish history: Boston’s Havurat Shalom. What was it like? Well, the best way I can describe it is this:Mea Shearim meets Woodstock.

Quick summary of what the Havurah is, and those of you better versed in American Jewish history please feel free to jump in and correct my oversimplifications here: in the 1960s, lots of young American Jews (most of them raised Conservative) felt alienated from denominational Judaism. Synagogues were for your parents, stodgy suburban country clubs full of old people and unexciting services. There was a whole mass of young people who felt alienated, not from Judaism, but from the somewhat hidebound expressions of Judaism they had grown up with. Groups of young educated Jews began meeting to daven, sometimes just enough to make a minyan, sometimes more – do-it-yourself rabbi-free Judaism, just people gathering to pray and form small, intensely committed, free-thinking communities that had nothing to do with synagogue dues and social clubs and golf games. And so the havurah movement was born: like Jesus freaks minus the Jesus, in a way. Or seen another way, plus the sanity.

The grand-daddy of them all was Havurat Shalom in Boston — in Somerville, to be exact, in the shadow of Tufts University. I think (and here is where those who know this history much more intimately will have to correct me) that the havurah was originally run as something of a commune, and even today there are members who live there in full-time residence. Today it remains what it was then: an old Victorian house as bare of furniture and pretension as it is of rabbis, a vibrant community of aging hippies and newly-sprouted ones, a rollicking, warm, amazing place to spend a chilly Shabbat in early April.

I went because I happened to be in Boston for the weekend, and because a dear friend of mine was leading the davening there, and I was as eager to go as she was to take me. I read Jonathan Sarna’s American Judaism earlier this year (an okay read, fascinating in its treatment of colonial Judaism, but then skip the rest cuz it’s a snoozer until you get to the 1960s stuff), and it has some info on the Havurah, and even a picture! I studied this picture hard, because I knew that this was my friend’s congregation, but the picture was just a black-and-white of the Torah ark at the Havurah: a kind of wicker box bolted to the wall, with a macramé parochet attached. I had kind of thought that was a picture from the 60s, and that when I got there it would all be totally different, but nope—same Torah ark as in the picture, same cheerful macramé decorating the front.

This was really like no other religious service I have ever attended, and I say this as the veteran of more varied and diverse religious services than you could shake a lifetime of sticks at. I got there early, because, well, that’s just what I do, which meant that for a long time I was the only person in attendance at the service, other than the man who was leading the first part. I sort of stood around awkwardly until he invited me into the davening room. Our conversation went like this:

Him: Get comfortable! Here, grab a meditation pillow.
Me: 0_o
Him: Or, you know, you could just use one of those chairs.

So yeah, I went for the chair. (My friend later told me that it used to be, they would only use meditation pillows they had scavenged out of the garbage, out of purity of principle.) But the chair was good, because I had worn a skirt. I had asked my friend the day before what I should wear, and she had been all breezy – “you know, just anything!” Which to my southern way of thinking means, a skirt and blouse, with flats and not too much jewelry. So yeah, I show up looking like some extra from Legally Blonde, all Ann Taylor skirt and professional wear, and everybody there (when they finally got there around eleven or so) was in sweatpants and socks or long peasant skirts with bandannas on their head, and they gave me these very sweet but slightly pitying looks. I ended up slipping off one of my bracelets and resting it on the floor beneath my chair, because when I moved my arm my two bracelets made a slight clanking noise together, and I was fairly sure this was not a noise they had heard before.

Where to start. The service was. . . amazing. First of all, people just drifted in. Literally. And then they would drift out. They would grab some cushions and some herbal tea from the kitchen, and prop themselves up and dive right in. Small children wandered in and out, for the most part trying not to step on people and cups of tea, and they were petted absently, like cherished cows in a Hindu village.

Here was something: they refer to God in the feminine. Not occasionally, not for equal time with male references – always. Consistently. Exclusively. Which, okay, sure, but if you know Hebrew you know that Hebrew is a highly gendered language. In other words, unlike most other inflected languages, even Hebrew verbs have gender. “Give” is a different word, with a different ending, depending on the gender of the person doing the action, and then of course all your adjectives and modifiers change too. So it’s a much more powerful and present thing than it would be in English, where you might catch a few references to “Mother Creator” here and there, but basically all the same, right? Not this. It really threw me off, because even basic berachot that I thought I knew were completely different. I stumbled a few times, though I hope in a low enough voice that those around me didn’t hear me voicing my internalized patriarchy.

Jewish liturgy is an enormously flexible thing, much more so than Christian liturgy (and by Christian liturgy I mean sacramental Christian liturgy, since non-sacramental Christianity for the most part eschews set liturgy, or at least eschews the richness of historical liturgy.) If you woke up on Shabbat morning and decided you were going to do everything that’s in the siddur, well, get comfortable, because you’re in for a good four-hour stretch, and that’s at a minimum. So the result is, everyone picks and chooses, because no one congregation can really do it all (and even the ones who say they do, don’t.) You end up picking so much from Column A, so much from Column B, and so on. The Havurah’s choices struck me as just about perfect – all told, it was about a two hour service. That’s long enough to get to do some actual stuff, as opposed to a drive-by. The real treat was my friend’s davening. She is, I think, a second soprano, but she pitched her voice low enough that everyone could comfortably join her, and her voice — there’s no way to describe it. There was nothing show-offy about it, nothing overly operatic, nothing alienating or distancing. It was a voice that drew you in, that made you want to join your own voice with her rich cello of a voice, and it made me instantly revise my opinion of female cantors (yes yes, see “internalized patriarchy” above.) I just don’t like them, okay? I don’t go to services to feel like I’m at freaking Aida. Their high warbles, their trills and arpeggios — gimme a break, I just wanna daven. A friend of mine and I have a joke that there is only one female cantor in existence in our area, and she hops in her car and bilocates so she can instantly be at every service that we might ever think about attending. A technically good voice is not necessarily a praying voice, is my point. And my friend’s voice is exactly the kind of thing you want to pray with, that feels like it is bolstering your own voice and leading you gently onward, into the heart of the service.

I was offered an aliyah, which I churlishly refused, solely out of cowardice. I didn’t want to look like an idiot, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to feminize the berachot that fast. And even more truthfully, I had no guarantee these people weren’t going to actually expect me to READ FROM THE TORAH at which point I would have had no choice but to fake a brain hemorrhage in order not to reveal that I DO NOT ACTUALLY KNOW HOW TO DO THAT AS I AM NOT EVEN BAT MITZVAH YET STOP SCARING ME OH MY GOD. So it turns out that I could have done it, because they had the little crib cards up there and everything, and no, of course no one was expecting me to chant, and now I’m sorry I didn’t. But they read a nice chunk from the Torah, with a sweet older woman in socks doing the chanting – somewhat incomprehensibly, but still, it was very pleasant.

Judaism, I find, is rearranging my categories of conservative and progressive – or rather, rearranging the existence of those categories at all. For one thing, this was in many ways a very traditional service, at least in terms of the liturgial choices. Much more traditional, say, than my own Temple, which is, you know, well, exactly the kind of place the Havurah movement was founded to get away from – suburban, wealthy, and circumspect in the extreme. But on the other hand. . . well. They were in their socks, and talking about God as a woman, and there were no rabbis anywhere in sight. And yet, what I saw in that little bare room, with women leading the service and children milling about, was probably closer to (if such a thing can be said to exist) mianstream Judaism, at least if you’re defining mainstream as “Judaism as it’s most commonly been practiced over the last few thousand years.” The more I study Judaism of the Talmudic era, the less I believe, well, anything the ArtScroll catalogue is selling me, that’s for sure. Separate seating for women? Probably not before the eleventh century. Women excluded from synagogue leadership positions? Not hardly, in the ancient world, as the archeological record attests. Rabbis? Ehhh, not so much. So what calls itself conservatism turns out to be, in this case as in so many others, in fact a reinvention and an entirely new thing, that depends for its survival on being able to persuade people that “this is how it was always done.” And this is rearranging not just the way I look at liturgy and religion, but of course politics and literary criticism, and oh, you name it. I mean, I’m an enemy of conservatism, no question, but I’ve also been a credulous believer in the myth of conservatism, particularly religious conservatism – the myth that says conservatism is the viable and living connection to the past. When in truth, often what calls itself radical progressivism is closer to “the way things used to be done.” Or at least, it’s no farther away from it, and both are equally reactions to the needs of a particular time and place.

In looking back over this, I don’t think I came at all close to telling you what spending Shabbat there was like. And I didn’t even get to the wonderful afternoon I spent with my friend and her family, and the peace of Shabbat in their warm cozy house with their little boy who kept singing endless riffs on “my toe’s blue, I dropped a hammer on my shoe. . .” and digging for reluctant worms. Maybe it’s because I can’t really describe it. In describing what the Havurah was like, I find it’s easier to describe the incidentals – what people wore, what the small light-filled room looked like – than the essentials, because in many ways I am still processing, still absorbing, and will be for a long time, I think. Maybe it's because I can't look directly at it, the way you instinctively lower your eyes when the Torah ark is open, just for that half-second of awe. I felt very close to something there, and I don’t know if it was God or not; maybe it was my fellow humans, maybe it was Judaism, maybe it was God Herself who pulled up a cushion next to my awkward over-dressed self and leaned over to whisper, “oy, stop worrying so much, you give me a headache.”

So, happy Pesach to those of you still frantically cleaning your houses in preparation for Wednesday. I’m taking the easy way out this year; I’m going the route of “I live with four non-Jews who will kill me if I so much as lay a hand on their bagels and their pepperoni pizza,” so I’m not doing any cleaning or anything like that. I will observe the laws of Pesach in what I put in my own mouth, but not in how I run my house, because my house is shared space. I am attending a seder at some friends’ house for first night, and our Temple’s seder Thursday night, so I expect I’ll post about that, too.

Emended to add: I forgot to say another cool part, which was that even in a place so far removed from my normal worship comfort zone, I still knew tons of the melodies -- most of them, in fact. My friend was kind of surprised that I did, but the actual community I worship with at my Temple is a small group that gathers to daven on Shabbat far from the Bar Mitzvah Factory of the main service. And we are led by incredibly well-educated, painfully hip young rabbis, so I have a feeling I know lots of things I don't realize I know, thanks to them. I was telling my friend about this after the service, in an "isn't this cool!" kind of way, and she sort of looked at me with shock and said, "Led by rabbis! oh, THAT'S no good." Hee.

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