Monday, April 21, 2008

Shabbat and Pesach: Part I.

Chag sameach, friends and blog followers! I'm sure you've all been waiting with breath bated to hear how my ridiculous escapade Friday night went, as I went to the Ortho shul in my neighborhood for the first time. Well, I'll tell you all about that, as well as the exciting seder Saturday night, among other things. Keep reading!

A good friend, Tamara, got online to ease my jets and explain to me that it was all good if I wanted to carry a bag or something. It's obvious that I'm not frum (though I'm not sure that it *is* obvious when I'm dolled up in cardigans and skirts), and either way, I have to do what I have to do and if I'm going to be judged up and down, well, then it's not the kind of place I want to be anyway. Luckily, my problems were solved when I realized it was getting a little chilly out, so I popped on a jacket and stuffed my keys and my debit card and IDs into the pockets and headed off to shul (yes, I rode the bus). My intent for the whole night was to go to shul, then go get some chametz-filled dinner and then go to a movie at 10 p.m. to fill my night up. The night, however, did not turn out as such.

I got to the synagogue and realized that plenty of other women were toting bags, and that in reality it's perfectly fine (within the eruv, anyhow), as long as you're not carrying cash or money or other prohibited things on Shabbat. However, no one is going to stop you (at least they shouldn't) and demand to search your bag, right? So it doesn't matter, really. Note to self: Take a bag next time. I was greeted at the door by several people who pointed me in the direction of the woman I'd conversed with via e-mail about attending services. But before I could get to her, the people at the entry asked if I was set for seders. Well, I wasn't set for a first-night seder and lo and behold I was immediately paired up with someone who had some empty space. I hadn't been there more than 5 minutes and I was set with a seder. That, folks, is hospitality and the Jewish way.

One of the first things I noticed about the sanctuary was that the mechitza definitely wasn't what I was expecting. At the one Chabad service I'd been to, the dividing wall was about 7 feet tall and had lattacing, but you couldn't see the rabbi, let alone anything else going on. At this Ortho shul, though, the mechitza was about 3 feet tall, and divided the men's and women's sections, with a third section in the middle for men where the bimah was. I was -- in a word -- elated. This, in my mind, was a doable mechitza. Yes, the men are still a distraction, but not as much as when they're sitting next to you (for those who don't know, I'm a firm supporter of the mechitza as a tool for ensuring full-engaging prayer).

So I found the woman I'd talked to via e-mail, found my place in the women's section, and sat down as the services began, transliterated siddur in hand. The woman was kind enough to help me if I fell behind, and the rabbi also called out page numbers for both versions of the text. This surprised me, because they didn't even do that at the Conservative shul up the road. I found it pretty easy to follow along, but I have a lot to learn about cues. I don't know when to start and stop, nor do I know how far to go in the text when there is silent davening. I also don't know why there is repetition -- silent prayer by the congregation, then the leader repeats the initial prayer again aloud. Some people stand the whole time, others sit. Some get up at the most random times and stand. The three steps intrigue me, and in the L'Cha Dodi, they bowed once to the back of the sanctuary and once to the front -- I'm used to once to the right, once to the left on boichala, boichala.

There's just a lot to know, a lot to learn, and a lot to understand in order to really be able to get something out of the service. I don't want to be perpetually confused or behind. I want to be an active member of the congregation, if I choose to be a member of Orthodoxy. I can imagine why so many women stay away from the shul in any case when it comes to Orthodoxy. It's intimidating. But the service in and of itself was comforting -- the rabbi's sermon, the chanting and singing of the men, the children wandering through the sanctuary giggling and snickering, all the men with kippot, the women in skirts. It felt to me like what Judaism as a religion is meant to be.

After the service, I met a woman who is a Conservative convert, but is converting Orthodox, and we chatted a bit. The rabbi's wife then came up and asked if I had someplace to go for Shabbos dinner. I was taken a little off guard, because my plan was to go out to a diner and get a burger or to the tea shop and get a pastry -- any kind of breaded good to tie me over, nu? But I stumbled over my words and didn't want to offend, so I told her I didn't have plans. She invited me to the community shabbat dinner, with the caveat that chances are there'd be no chicken for me -- just lots of kugel. Being a guest, I politely thanked her and joined everyone for dinner, where I was crammed into a table of regulars, some who looked less than thrilled that I was packing in at the table. So I had my kugel, made conversation, participated in the songs and blessings and it was chametz free (even though it wasn't Pesach, the shul had to be cleaned of Pesach, so it was all kosher l'pesach food).

After dinner, I was anticipating making it to my movie in time (20 minutes to go!) and maybe even stopping by the tea shop first to get a pastry for my last bit of chametz before Pesach began. As I walked upstairs into the lobby and out the door, the group of people I was sitting with asked where I was walking. I froze. I wasn't planning on walking home, at least not yet, and well, not ever really. I didn't live that far away, but I had my bus pass and I was accustomed to riding the bus -- even on Shabbat. I'm not Shomer Shabbos to the point where I refrain from bus riding or spending money. I turn off (or try to) and I go to shul. But that's my start. So everyone was walking in the direction of my place, so I plodded along.

The thing is, it made sense. It felt like the way to do things. It was as if I were really going through the motions of Shabbat, and not just half-assing it. I went to shul, I ate dinner, I walked home. And all of it? None of it felt archaic or oppressive or disillusioning. It didn't feel contrived or fake or like everyone (really anyone) was unhappy to be doing what they were doing. These people were happy, they were enjoying themselves, they were Shomer Shabbos and they were loving every second of it. And for that brief time, I really loved it, too. It felt like a real Shabbat.

So I made it home, after my 1.5 mile trek in the comfortable evening weather with fellow Jews. I realized that I didn't have any other skirts to wear, and that if I was going to go to shul the following night at 7 p.m. for services and to meet up with the people hosting the seder, not to mention going to W. Rogers Park for lunch on Sunday, I needed skirts, and I needed them now.

What did I do? I desecrated the Shabbat and went out on Saturday, got a chametz-filled lunch (yes, I know the cut-off was 10:30 a.m., but I needed it), bought some skirts, and went home. Nu? What do you want from me.

Stay tuned for Part II: The Seder.