On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, my Dad emailed a New York Times article to our immediate family accompanied by the note: “Now this is taking it a little too far? Agree?”
He is a man of few words.
The article, For Young Jews, a Service Says, ‘Please Do Text’ reports on a Miami Beach Rosh Hashanah service geared towards that mysterious demographic that nearly every Jewish institution tries to attract: unaffiliated Jews in their 20s and 30s. How are they trying attract, maintain and create spiritual community with such a demographic? Inviting them to live-text their regrets, wishes and other holy day appropriate sentiments to a screen on the bima.
The first reply all response: “Kinda brilliant though.”
The second: “I thought it sounded fabulous.”
(Unfortunately for my father, he has a habit of expressing his opinion hoping for cahoots, but is often met with shrugs and counter-arguments.)
The second email response continued on explaining why it was fabulous and even admitting that they might check out the service for Yom Kippur even though they’re married and in their 30s and maybe already too old for the crowd. It ended with a note of nostalgia for Rosh Hashanahs of High Holidays past in New York with the artsy progressive creative downtown crowd and me.
Reading this in a Minneapolis suburb, my home for the 5773 holidays, where I’m ringing in the New Jew Year as Artist-in-Residence with a truly special community of new people, for a moment, I find myself nostalgic for those days too.
I moved around a lot as a kid and “shul1 shopping,” as my mother fondly called it, was an integral part of each move. On Saturday mornings my Dad would go to work and my mother would mother-duckling the three of us out of the house with her zippadee-doo-dah, isn’t-shul-shopping-so-much-fun smile. As the oldest and chattiest, it’s hard to imagine I kept my opinions to myself though all I can remember from those adventures was waiting waiting waiting while my mom carried on endless conversations with strangers. And the Broward County Chabad served potato chips at kiddush – a true revelation for a seven year old. Every shul was any shul, and by the time we became members and I was reluctantly dragged out of bed on Saturday mornings, potato chips or gefilte fish, kiddush was my only motivator.
I was certain that people only went to shul because someone made them feel like they were supposed to, but no one except that loud person in the front row ever really wanted to be there. Shul was where you rattled off Hebrew words that you memorized, but didn’t totally understand, while your Dad, on the off chance he was there, rolled his eyes and mumbled gibberish in your ear to make you giggle. Shul was the place where white men in dark suits spoke to you like they held some secret to the universe that you must be dying to know, and where you either didn’t speak back to them at all because you could tell they didn’t really care about what you had to say OR as you got older, you spoke back to them rudely for the exact same reason you used to keep your mouth shut. It’s very likely that shul was where you developed a distrust of authority figures, especially men, and may also have been the first place where you felt like an outsider. Shul was full of people you knew, but weren’t friends with, people who were supposedly “your people”, but with whom the only thing you seemed to have in common were the matching chai’s and hamsas around your necks.
[At this point in the story, your mother, with her rose-tinted memory, will surely remind you that you sang in the choir, led prayers in Junior Congregation, read Torah, blahblah and exclaim that “you liked doing those things!” She will also, no doubt, assure you that you had many friends at shul. At this point, it is your duty to reminder her, that you sang in the choir and led prayers because, as a budding performer and perpetually pre-pubescent tween, you were desperate for attention and every bit of praise felt like one penny more in your negative-balance self-worth bank. You will also remind her that the only friend you still have from the five shuls of your childhood (six if you include potato chip Chabad) was also an actor friend that you did plays with. And you and he are friends from the “spiritual community” of theatre, more than shul anyway.]
The reality is that I never found “spiritual community” in the place that is called “synagogue.” Not until I was much older and it found me. It barreled over me like a wave you don’t see coming, crashing over your head as you think, “oh this is how people drown,” while you flail in the salt and foam.
That wave knocked the wind out of me in a sweat lodge in Georgia with a dozen other young Jewish theatre artists on a weeklong training for the Spielberg Fellowship in Theatre-Arts Education2.
What happened was this:
I met “my people” who also happened to be “my people”.
That is, artists who also happened to be Jews.
The fellowship training had several goals, one of which was to engage those two parts of our identities – both individually and as a community. I began to explore the rituals, texts and prayers thrust upon me in my youth, using the vocabulary of theatre, politics and culture chosen in my adulthood— with people who spoke both of those languages3.
And it was overwhelming.
Through that exploration, the walls that I had built up against shuls and other traditional Jewish institutions claiming to provide spiritual community slowly began to crumble. And I know they were crumbling because not only was I enjoying creating new rituals and wrestling with ancient texts as a theatre-maker on a daily basis, but when my work took me to a sanctuary reminiscent of my youth, I experienced multiple moments of spontaneous emotional combustion:
the chorus of voices rising and singing Etz Chayim Hi as the ark opened, the gentle way a rabbi looked out to her congregation and repeated every name called out for the Pray for Healing no matter how long it took, the strident tone of that loud woman in the front row (the one who loves shul) elbowing her feminist “V’Imoteinu” (translation: and our mothers) into the patriarchal repetition of the Amidah prayer despite her congregation’s traditional practice.
And that list doesn’t include any of the moments of real prayer within my own budding community. As I grew into my adulthood, I began to create spiritual community at every opportunity – birthday parties had moments of real intention and gratitude, the classic actor rule of listening on stage became sacred, Passover seders evolved into annual epic salons with extended friends and family of every stripe sharing, questioning, politicizing, teaching, singing, rapping, crafting and ritualizing the ancient tale of the Exodus and our own stories as citizens of a modern world.
Community can be created anywhere people are willing to look each other in the eye, face to face, panim el panim, and share space. Spiritual community doesn’t require anything more than the bravery of accepting the integrity of that shared moment, no matter what it reveals. And I’ve grown to learn, in spite of myself, that the magic of spiritual community can happen in shul. And I was right when I suspected years ago that I would discover it other places too: on stage, in a dressing room, around the kitchen table, at a bar, a concert, a gallery, a film screening…
…in your grandmother’s basement?
…the ocean? …a sweat lodge?
Spiritual community must have been what my mother was looking for on our epic shul-shopping adventures, and it must be what my father has found going to shul every week with my mom since his parents have passed. It is what the rabbi of the Miami Beach texting service is hoping to provide for the wandering Millenials of South Florida, and what I’m hoping to create in Minneapolis with my 5773 temporary community, even as I miss “my people” who taught me how to do it all those years ago.
1 shul – The Yiddish word for synagogue, and always the word used among my family growing up. Until we met people who called synagogue “temple,” and then sometimes we would use the word temple. “Synagogue,” however, was a word reserved for explaining Jewish church to curious, usually Christian, Midwesterners.
2 Spielberg Fellowship in Theatre-Arts Education – This fellowship was a joint venture of the Foundation for Jewish Camping and The Righteous Persons Foundation. Faculty included Amichai Lau-Lavie, Danny Maseng and Aaron Davidman, overseen by Naomi Less, and I owe them all great thanks for basically changing my life.
3 people who spoke both of those languages – These people are a motley crew of theatre artists, musicians and magicmakers called Storahtellers from the planet Storahtelling. www.storahtelling.orgemail print