“Ashamnu” will never feel quite the same.
On a Tuesday in late July, I had the uncanny experience of sitting in the pews of my childhood synagogue among a few hundred strangers, all beating our chests and chanting the Vidui, the centerpiece of the High Holy Day liturgy, acknowledging and asking forgiveness for individual and communal sins. We were dressed for Yom Kippur circa 1959: women wearing buttoned up wool suits and pillbox hats, men in suits with short, narrow ties.
Let’s start at the beginning. A few months prior, on a lark, I had responded to a Facebook post looking for extras for season two of the Emmy Award-winning Amazon series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” A release date has not been set.
I thought playing an extra would be a hoot. Little did I know that encountering a slightly altered and partially made-up version of my real-life High Holy Day experience would leave me changed. I gained a deep understanding of the painstaking attention to detail that goes into a production like “Maisel,” but more important, I realized the inability for humans to reach the level of perfection demanded on set — and therefore our need for Yom Kippur, when we take stock of our mistakes and ask for forgiveness.
The filming day started early, with a 7:15 a.m. call for arrival.
Stepping across the threshold of the East Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn, I saw that nothing had changed except maybe the red carpet, now gray and patterned. There were older women from the congregation milling about the lobby who sent me thinking about Sisterhood brunches on Sunday mornings in the Grand Ballroom on the second floor when, with the pretense of visiting our mothers during a break from the long morning in Hebrew school, we kids would escape there to snag mini Danish, rugelach, or even some prized lox.
On this day, I was sent to check in at the synagogue’s Crystal Room, designated as the “holding area” for extras. I followed the others through a covered walkway joining the synagogue with the school building that overlooks the courtyard where we spent hours playing on High Holy Days. It struck me that the habitrail-like passageway was never a secret, even though we children thought we had discovered it.
The Crystal Room is where junior congregation was held, where I learned to daven Shacharit and to avoid politics. It was clear elected office was not my forte when I lost the election for secretary to one of the Raphael boys, despite my inspired slogan: “Without Jo, you’ll never know, that junior congregation could really be a sensation.”
Hair and make-up stations, at least 15 of them, were set up in the Grand Ballroom, arena of Sisterhood breakfasts but also the synagogue’s social hall, where my bat mitzvah party was held in 1979.
The room looked a little less grand, and smaller than I remembered. It was filled with chairs, lighted mirrors, and the attendant staff. I made my way inside the makeshift wardrobe in the center of the room and wriggled into the costume I had been fitted for days earlier: a brownish wool suit adorned with a gold, floral brooch, brown shoes, pantyhose, a square brown purse, pillbox hat and a pair of square-ish glasses with black frames.
There were lines for makeup and lines for hair, and as I stood and waited and chatted, I saw the day would be full of these small exchanges. I began to feel that my approach to each conversation carried weight: to share or not; to be open or closed; to gather information; to make someone feel better, or just to pass the time; to be authentic or shrewd; to be hard-hearted or generous.
Somehow on that day, these interactions were amplified, a microcosm of a year signifying successes and failures. Maybe it was spending so much time that day with the “Ashamnu” and the “Al Chet,” two of the primary prayers which comprise the Vidui. Maybe it was all the attention paid to the smallest details by the director and the crew. Maybe it was that all of it was happening in this building where my Jewish identity was forged, and where on many occasions, I recited the Vidui because I meant it — or at least because it really was Yom Kippur, and we really were dressed in clothes meant for cooler days ahead.
When we entered the set, we were ushered past sound and recording equipment and into the sanctuary, filling several sections.
We beat our chests with fists and sang the familiar, “Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, debarnu dofi” (“We have trespassed, we have dealt treacherously, we have robbed, we have spoken slander”). Then we mimed. Then we chanted again and shifted into the second prayer, the “Al Chet” (“For the sin of…”), in English. It traditionally includes a very long list of sins that begins:
For the sin which we have committed before You under duress or willingly.
And for the sin which we have committed before You by hard-heartedness.
We started filming. We repeated — over and over and one more time from the top so the cameras could catch us from this angle and now that one; so we could get it just right; so the principals (OK, the stars) could try different intonations for the dialogue they were reciting above our chanting, until they got it right.
“One more time,” the director would call. “Reset. Take it from the top”; or “From the rabbi’s line on embezzlement.” Then, maybe a quick consult with the on-set rabbi, Rebecca Shinder of Temple Beth Shalom in Florida, N.Y., and again, “From the top. This time, background, just mime the words”; or “Now chant the first three words and mime the rest.” “Cut the last four lines. Add these lines instead.” Again and again. “Take a 10-minute break.”
Each time we returned after a break, Bill, my neighbor in our sanctuary seats, would joke, “Which scene do you think we’re going to do?” There was only one scene. All day. For 17 hours.
But there were many scenes in the pews, among the extras, and even a minor drama. Between takes, we got to know the people around us — retirees, fans of the show, nearby residents. Many had Jewish backgrounds or worked in the arts. Most were quietly engaging. But there was one whose imperious, aggressive and arrogant manner was annoying at best, upsetting at worst. A retired dancer to my left had just about had enough of the first-billing wannabe. I listened as she vented her frustration. She thanked me; she called me “generous” for listening.
But really neither of us was generous toward the annoying extra.
“Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, debarnu dofi.”
For the sin which we have committed before You by scoffing.
And for the sin which we have committed before You by evil talk.
Over the course of the day, many of us picked on the director’s artistic choices that made the liturgy odd. “Why are we singing the Shema after reciting ‘Al Chet’?” Bill whispered. “At least ‘Avinu Malkeinu’ would make more sense.” Eventually, the Shema was cut anyway. We felt we knew better.
Is this the sin of a haughty demeanor?
I looked up at the stained-glass window that now held the name of the cantor from my youth in its blue center, and at the seats in the balcony where my parents always sat on the High Holy Days, and I realized that the director could redo this one scene over and over until it was perfect from every angle.
But life isn’t like that. We make mistakes every day, in every interaction. I couldn’t undo the fact that we were unkind to Mr. Imperious or that we thought we knew better than the director. Unlike this painstaking production process, in real life we get only one take for each scene in our lives. My revelation is a little like that not-so-secret passageway; it was there for everyone to see but I had to discover it for myself.
By the end of the day, when the director called “wrap” at 1:15 a.m., most of us could identify with the characters we were playing, who no doubt would have similarly raced out of the sanctuary after the final blast of the shofar — trying to be the first ones to get to the imaginary bagels and lox waiting for us at home.
Some of us felt we had said enough ‘Al Chet’s to get us at least to Yom Kippur 5780. But these 17 hours had shown me how many little sins we commit in the most minimal of exchanges, so I don’t think I will shrug off the opportunity to atone this year. Though admittedly, at least at certain points in the service, I may still hold out hope someone yells “Cut, that’s a wrap!”
Johanna Ginsberg is a staff writer at the New Jersey Jewish News. firstname.lastname@example.org.