Sunday, September 13, 2009

Passion, Fire, and Self-Respect.

First it happened in the House with Joe Wilson. Then Kanye west spewed his guts without thinking on the VMAs. Whatever happened to self-respect? Restraint? The human filter of decency? Here we go ...

"So you're completely out of Selichot books?" he asked the clerk.
"Yup. But, you know, my shul is right down the road. I've got more than enough Selichot seforim there, and, you know, our's is a little bit, well, shorter. Because, you know, we're closer to G-d," the clerk said with a snicker, shifting his weight from one leg to the other.
I think he was joking, but maybe only half joking. And this was how our weekend in New Jersey for Shabbat and Selichot ended. Sans selichot seforim and with a clerk making jokes left and right about being "closer" and nearer to G-d.

I don’t want to say I didn’t have a good time in West Orange, but I feel like there were a lot of things playing against me. We arrived at Tuvia’s mom’s place about 10 minutes before the absolute latest candle lighting time (that was using the 18 minute leeway). I’d wanted to shower, but there was no time. Tuvia ran off to shul, and I, being frustrated, exhausted, and all-around grumpy, stayed home, lamenting my hair (sad, I know). Add to this that the weather was miserable, and, well, this kvetcher is set.

In the morning, I arose to the most hideous display of Chavi-hair ever. Tuvia suggested I throw on a hat “Want to be married today?” he asked. I thought about it for about a half-second and decided that no, that would not be a good idea. I didn’t want to confuse all the little old ladies and family friends. I did my hair the best I could, got dressed in a new skirt, and plodded off to shul. Tuvia’s grandmother set me down in a back-ish seat of the shul to daven, because I actually wanted to focus on my davening, and didn’t want to intermix with the chatty folks. And I was good to go until right before the Torah service when these women came and sat all around me. I suddenly realized that there are some things that I will never – I repeat never – be able to adjust to in the Orthodox shul.

I understand that there’s this unspoken thing that says that it’s okay to schmooze in shul during davening. That the older women are permitted because they’ve seen it all, and I get that. But most of the time they whisper. They have the respect – the self-respect – to whisper. But the women who go to shul, sit in the sanctuary, and do nothing but talk? I don’t get it. If you’re going to shul to socialize, not to daven a SINGLE WORD, then why are you sitting in the sanctuary? There’s a whole shul of space where you can air your dirty laundry without disturbing the beauty of the Torah or the importance of Kaddish or the Shemonei Esrei. And even when the guy in front of the bimah would stop the reader, in order to garner the attention of the crowd, to get everyone to shut up and listen, these women just kept talking. At full strength, full volume, as if they were in the crowd at a Yankees game. I was baffled. Truly baffled. I could have moved, but would it have solved the problem? No, it wouldn’t have. The men were talking. The women were talking.

Whatever happened to sacred space? Respect for the book? Self-respect? Shame?

Things only got worse. I mean, women at my shul jabber away, and I found a different location and sort of made it clear that no one can sit next to me when I’m davening. And it works. After the service, I go to the social hall, and we all do our thing. We talk. We schmooze. But the Kiddush was, well, something out of a horror film. It was What Not to Do at Kiddush 101. Now, it was a big Kiddush. They were honoring a pillar of the community, an amazing man who just hit 85 and is still going strong like a young buck. The man deserved the festivities, but the people – the congregation – didn’t show this man any respect. There was nothing but gluttony, selfishness, rudeness, and an utter lack of self-respect. It reminded me of that scene in “Mean Girls” where the main character imagines the cafeteria and everyone’s slinging food and acting like jungle creatures. Or maybe like a soup kitchen from the Depression Era. Kiddush can be outlandish at my shul (people pushing and shoving and acting like they’ve never seen kugle before), but at this Kiddush? Because of the pure magnitude of people and food, it was like a massacre – of food, of respect, of everything that I cannot adjust to Jewishly.

I’m a Midwestern girl. I may have a backwoods Ozarkian family, but my parents taught me patience, they taught me manners, and they taught me not to eat out of things with my hands, not to double-dip, to use a napkin, to pick up after myself, to not cut in line, to have respect for your elders, and just generally how to act like a decent human being – not an animal.
But there, in this shul, I had people shoving me out of the way for a meatball, I watched a 10-year-old girl double-dipping chicken in a sauce dish about a half-dozen times, a kid trying to reach five people ahead of him for a plate even though he was, well, five people deep. I watched adults dropping food on the floor, and leaving it there, probably assuming the help would pick it up. I watched people setting their dirty and disgusting plates down on tables with fresh food when there was a trashcan about a foot away. I had to step back from the crowd. And watch. I was disgusted. Is the Jewish way to be self-fulling? The idea that Jews – especially the Orthodox type – are messy, impatient, cheap, and pushy?

I’ll never be like that. And you can sure as hell bet my children won’t be that way. No sir. Not this girl.

I can’t explain the disgust I felt during that experience. After a while, I just wanted to go home. I didn’t even go back for mincha or maariv or the special talks they had with their scholar in residence. I wanted to not be there at that place, with those people, who lacked a sense of self-respect and common decency. I wanted to run away, find an Orthodox synagogue where the people are calm, patient, kind, respectful, and want to be there more than anything to daven, to share a sacred space with G-d, and then get their social fill afterward in a calm and respectful manner.

Does such a place not exist? Is this going to be my Jewish pipe dream?

We ended up going back for Selichot around 11:45 on Saturday night. There was a speaker and then davening at 12:54 in the morning. There weren’t nearly as many people there, but the crowd was calmer, more relaxed, more attuned to what was going on. Or maybe everyone was just exhausted. The chazzan’s voice was mournful, soul-piercing. My eyes welled up when he cried out the words, speaking to G-d with the most beautifully sad voice. And then it was a rush of quiet davening, and then it was over. Where was this during Shabbat? This passion, this fervency, this communication with G-d?

Sometimes I feel at a loss. Like I’m walking a lonely and quiet path, where my way doesn’t meet up with the majority way. I want to daven in organized chaos – the sound of voices mumbling together, but mumbling with a purpose, devotion and a passion. Not voices discussing other people or random things irrelevant to the prayers at hand. I get that davening isn’t for everyone, and I get that not everyone wants to go to shul to daven, and that shouldn’t deter people from just going, I guess. But how is someone like me supposed to reconcile all of this?

Overall, this weekend left me confused and frustrated. I feel very much like no one understands how I function as a Jew – religious, passionate, thoughtful, serious, hopeful. Sometimes the cheese does stand alone. To be Orthodox, must I alter my personality into something that it isn’t? Something loud and pushy and unconcerned with prayers and people?

Where is the fire? What happened to the fire in our souls?