Saturday, June 7, 2008

A Birthright.

I'm standing just off the curb near the bus stop, watching taxicabs and cars zip by, waiting for a free space in the traffic to make it across Broadway. Really, I'm at ease -- my skirt flapping wildly in the wind; gale force winds have painted the day. I wanted very much to just stand there, eyes closed, early summer wind brushing over and around me, making my kosher-for-shul skirt dance. And then there's a clearing, and I run, sandles clicking against the ground, and I'm thinking: when did skirts become oppressive. And then I'm thinking: I should blog about this and shul tonight and about how it's hard to fight the urge to blog after something beautiful whips around your mind making it difficult to think -- you must get the words out in some form, else they'll continue to stir up and around making it uneasy to concentrate, to breathe.
I showed up 15 minutes late to shul. I followed a young couple in and as they were picking through the headcoverings I opened the sanctuary door to find it empty. I tucked myself into their space and asked if they knew what time services were. I then found out that sometimes they have services in the basement, in the room where on my first visit to the Orthodox shul they'd had a Shabbat dinner and where I'd scooted myself into an already-full table of Jews. I plodded down the steps and there, in the big room, were crowded dozens of congregants separated women from men by a lace curtain divider. I (reluctantly) grabbed my transliterated (brown) siddur and grabbed a seat. The men's side was pretty hoppin', and the woman I'd run into mentioned that when they have services downstairs, there's dancing and lively(er) singing. Now, I'd skipped a service at the Conservative shul because I was hoping to avoid acoustic guitars and the like, so it was funny that the Orthodox shul had a similar thing going down; but rest assured, there were no drums or guitars or anything aside from the voices -- the beautiful voices -- of the congregants.

I quickly found my place in the siddur, but realized for the first time at the Orthodox shul that I really loathe the transliterated version. The thing is, the transliteration does that whole "s" versus "t" bit from the Ashkenazi/Sephardi pronunciations and it just throws me. I know the prayers, but when you're staring at a transliterated page you have a tendency to read what you're given and it's just frustrating. If only everything weren't so ... fast. Yes, if things were slower I could probably keep up in the Hebrew. But at the same time, the pace is what enthralls and excites me. There is so much, so very much, and all of it is beautiful. I found myself marveling tonight at how quickly I was moving along in some of the prayers you find in all shuls for the ma'ariv. I wouldn't change the service at all. It's me who needs to change. The Hebrew needs to be like a second skin, a glove. I should be able to open the siddur and know precisely where we are in the service, know the words and the melodies. And in due time, well, I'll be there.

And there was dancing. On the men's side, anyhow. The women sort of smiled and looked on over the divider as the rabbi and several other (also rabbis) danced in a circle. I wish I could convey the beauty that emanates from this congregation when they're singing and davening. It's like our entire past, all of our ancestors, are in the room voices belting loudly in many different melodies making the most serene sound. I can close my eyes and it's as if the entire room has become Israel -- the people, the entire congregation. And that, of course, is what Shabbat is meant to be. I've never experienced that before, that washed over feeling of generations past and present alive in the voices of those singing and davening.

But then there is the guilt. I left services, opting to skip out on a (most likely delicious) Shabbat dinner to go home. The day left me weary -- the heat was suffocating and the wind left me feeling worn. I need sleep, it's true, and I have many a plan for the weekend (not partying hard, folks, but going to a green market and chalk art festival and book fair). The entire week drifted by seemingly without any sleep, and despite the joy and absolute happiness I feel when joining a Shabbat table, I knew I needed to come home. I trekked down the street and, seeing two buses coming, stopped at the corner and waited. As I stood there, people leaving the Orthodox shul walked by, and a feeling of dread overcame me. I began to think, What will they think of me? Am I being judged? Should I just start walking so they think perhaps I was just taking an idle break?
No one said anything to me. They probably didn't even notice me. I'm sure there are plenty of people who take the bus -- not everyone lives in the eruv or within walking distance, right? I was over-thinking it. But having already started thinking about blogging about services, I'd also turned on my Blackberry, which I subsequently (and shamefully) shoved in my bag. The bus came, I hopped on, pulled out Potok, and read the entire way home.

And now, we're back to where we began.

I'm trying to figure out how to reconcile a lot of things. From what I hear, this (modern) Orthodox shul isn't like other Orthodox shuls. The rabbi is one of a kind. The people? Also unique. The atmosphere? You won't find it anywhere else. I'm beginning to worry: Is this going to turn into another situation like with my "starter shul" back in Nebraska? Will it come to be that no shul on the planet will be able to compare with this shul? On the same note, is this synagogue "acceptable" in its Orthodoxy or is it talked about by the folks up in West Rogers Park and Skokie? Scratch that. Now that I think about it, every year I guess there's a mass migration of new families from this Orthodox shul up to the Orthodox neighborhoods in the near suburbs. They even have little reunions I guess. So yes, it's kosher.

Why am I asking all these questions? Who cares?

While standing in services, not paying attention to the prayer, my eyes floated through the lace curtain to all the young bachelors. I began to wonder (so much thinking going on) whether -- if I really wanted to land me a nice Orthodox boy -- this whole conversion debacle would make someone apprehensive about me, even if I had chosen to convert Orthodox. Would it keep someone from loving me? From accepting me? And how would I handle that. Is it even worth it? Afterall, I've been known to be in love with goyim (past and present).

Oy. My head hurts from all the thinking, but this is what shul does to me. I go, I experience something beautiful, I leave, I begin to think. Sometimes I wonder if my approach to Judaism is too academic, too serious, too fretful. And then I step back and look at those words and think of the sages and great thinkers and realize no, this is precisely what I'm meant to do. It's who I am.

It's my birthright.