My father’s shul of choice, a Modern Orthodox congregation, was located a mile from our home, in the school auditorium at the Yeshivah of Flatbush. The men and women were separated by a mechitzah, a partition. I would sit with my friends and chat, as my father did with his, as people do in Orthodox shuls. We talked about the World Series. My father and his friends would tell Yiddish jokes, and argue about Zionism and biblical philology.
These gentlemen were Orthodox rationalists, the last generation of maskilim, European-born polyglot Hebraists. Some, like my father, wished they lived in Jerusalem, and some, like him, would eventually go and do so, when they retired from good steady jobs as teachers or civil servants in New York. In the meantime, for a few hours on Shabbat mornings, they could conjure a surrogate Israel on Coney Island Avenue.
Our shul at the Y. of F. was formally called Beit Knesset Ivri, Hebrew Synagogue. It had no official rabbi, and various congregants would take turns delivering divrei Torah — commentaries on the weekly portion — in elegant literary Hebrew, not English or Yiddish. This was highly unusual for an American shul, even in Brooklyn. Stranger still, not once in my youth did I see a mah-jongg tile.
When it rained, we went to the Conservative shul, the East Midwood Jewish Center on Ocean Avenue, a three-minute walk from our house on East 23rd Street, a two-family, with my mother’s parents living upstairs. The East Midwood was a domed synagogue in the grand European style, dating from 1929, with a ballroom and artistic wooden doors and even a swimming pool, where for “hygienic” reasons people swam naked, though never on Shabbos. At Sabbath morning services in the 1950s, ushers at East Midwood wore ascots, unless my memory plays tricks.
The cantor, a tiny man with a giant voice, had been an opera singer in Poland before the War, and had lost most of his family. His davening was a long, tragic aria of classical chazzanut, which for an antsy adolescent was unbearable. Overall the Conservative service was way too formal and decorous (and long) for my father’s taste too; out of his lively Orthodox element, he would fidget for hours. I spent a good bit of time, sandwiched between my parents and maternal grandmother, squinting through my thick eyeglasses at the dome overhead, straining to count its thousands of little pieces of stained glass.
My mother’s parents were textbook Conservative Jews: they came from Orthodox immigrant families whose struggling breadwinners were compelled to work on Shabbos. My grandfather had wisely fled a Galician shtetl, where his mother wore a sheytl — an Orthodox wig — to avoid fighting on the losing side of World War I. He started a small business, lost it during the Great Depression, and when I was growing up he sold shoes at 100th and Broadway (three hours every day on the subway), under the fierce judgmental eye of the owner’s widow, a Jewish lady who would give him a day off on Jewish holidays, if never on Shabbos.
But on those holy days, Grandpa was transformed. In his finest suit he would savor every minute of the davening at the East Midwood, even responsive readings of Hebrew Psalms whose poetry was lost in archaic English translation. Most of all he loved the chazzan, through whom, I now believe, he grieved for of all the loved ones he lost in Europe. I can’t know for sure, because he never talked about them.
In my teens, I would whenever possible contrive to play hooky from both shuls, thus presaging my later behavior as an Israeli. And when I stayed home, sleeping late on a Shabbos morning, there was an uncanny likelihood that Jehovah’s Witnesses would ring the doorbell, hawking free copies of “The Watchtower” door-to-door to Jewish slackers like me. Here in Jerusalem, Baruch Hashem, there is no such danger.
Here, what you get instead is an ultra-Orthodox leaflet stuffed in your mailbox, as I got years ago as a new immigrant, on the eve of Rosh HaShanah, sternly warning Jews not to hear the blowing of the shofar at the services of the “Reformim,” who are a “foreign implant in our Holy Land,” and whose synagogue is not a synagogue. In such a place, the flyer gravely declared, he who hears the shofar has not fulfilled the biblical commandment to do so. This was not the only reason I joined a Reform congregation, but it helped. I too was a “foreign implant.”
In my boyhood experience, Reform Jews were as rare as Mormons. My first time in a Reform temple was on tour with my college glee club, on the same weekend as our gig at a Unitarian church: to me they seemed similar, and equally alien. My Reform shul in Jerusalem is more like the Beit Knesset Ivri of my boyhood — warm and convivial, all Hebrew, but with a peaceful tempo and an abridged liturgy that minimizes nostalgia for animal sacrifices. Many members are active in the social justice arena, not least the ongoing battles over religious pluralism in Israel. Best of all, nobody cares if you show up only intermittently, almost like an out-of-towner or a museum-goer.
I have always liked visiting synagogues in foreign countries, as many Jews do. In Turkey, I went to Shabbat morning tefillot at a 500-year-old Sephardic synagogue named “Hagerush,” which in Hebrew means “The Expulsion.” In Luxembourg, I was deeply moved by a synagogue whose cornerstone came from the rubble of the shul destroyed by the Nazis in 1943. “The stone scorned by the builders,” it said in Hebrew (from Psalm 118), “has become the cornerstone.” In Florence, following a tour of the magnificent Great Synagogue, my soaring spirits were dampened by a young American Chabadnik who lay in wait, tefillin at the ready. Did I want to put them on? “No thanks,” I said.
“What, you don’t want to be religious?”
“I am religious,” I said, “but not Orthodox.”
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“I know you don’t,” I said.
Religious but not Orthodox means, among many things, not feeling a religious obligation to pray every day, or even every week, but feeling at home in an atmosphere of prayer. On a given Friday, as the sun goes down, I enjoy putting on my kipa and blending with the Shabbat vibe as the city falls still and the streets fill with Sephardic men in plain white shirts and Anglo-Orthodox women in modish hats fit for a royal wedding and chasidic kids hand in hand, following their fathers like ducklings, all heading for the shuls of their choice. When I arrive at mine, Kehilat Kol Haneshama, I often keep my siddur closed for a while. I hear the familiar words: sometimes they resonate, sometimes they don’t. But soon enough, the davening takes hold, and I am singing at full volume.
I have often encountered non-Orthodox Israelis, religious agnostics or skeptics or self-proclaimed atheists, who explain that they cannot attend synagogue because they don’t and can’t believe, as the prayers insist, that God actually parted the Red Sea, or that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. My usual response — on one foot, as it were — is that I can empathize with their theological concerns, but that these are beside the point. Just as in a museum, you can’t possibly connect with every painting, in a synagogue you may wander through the service until something stops you, tugs at you: a tune, an ethical principle, an exquisite line of poetry, a metaphor of transcendence. Or to put it otherwise: you may cherry-pick. All religious people do it, consciously or not.
You may have heard the words in shul a thousand times before, or never before, but now, on this given holy day, they speak to you, in Psalm 92, “A Song for the Sabbath.” Tzaddik katamar yifrach: “The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree/They shall thrive like a cedar in Lebanon/Planted in the House of the Lord/They shall flourish in the courts of our God/They shall bear fruit even in old age/They shall be ever fresh and fragrant…” Bear fruit, even in old age? Does this apply only to the righteous, or also to a foreign implant, an immigrant no longer young, trying his best to keep the faith and make sense of the world?
Stuart Schoffman, a journalist and translator, is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and editor of Havruta: A Journal of Jewish Conversation.