A Night at the Synagogue

399px-Aeish-sheliTwo of our daughter’s friends were having their Bat Mitzvah (the female version of the better known Jewish Bar Mitzvah coming of age ceremony, normally held when they are 12), to be held on the Sabbath at a Jewish Orthodox synagogue. Never having set foot in a synagogue, let alone attended a service, we all took the opportunity to go. So in the grand tradition of “naive European abroad writes of his ignorant impressions of strange lands”, here is my dispatch from the front.

First impressions: certainly friendly people, ever ready to shake the hand of a stranger, albeit the “enforcer” (official title apparently “President”) ensuring stranger plonks a kippah (the Jewish skull cap) on his head.

Second impressions: much bobbing, weaving, bowing, mumbling, chanting and clapping by the Rabbi, who, unlike in a Christian church, spends most of the service with his back to the audience. The Rabbi has been doing this so long that he tends to bob around even when he isn’t doing the service.

With the women safely separated behind a stained glass partition, from which they could really only view the proceedings in the parts where everyone stood up, it was interesting to observe the goings on. My impression of the proceedings were the women spent most of the time chatting while the men engaged in a mixture of participation and chatting to each other; how many business deals were concluded that night, I can only guess.

It was an interesting mix of rigidly orthodox beliefs and relaxed attitudes. There appear to be three kinds of hats: the luminaries, like the bearded black-clad Rabbi, wore a broad-rimmed black hat. Most of the men wore the kippah but a few wore baseball caps. Nor were the latter riffraff off the streets: one, who frankly looked like one, was reading from an all-Hebrew book and turned out to be grandpa. Apparently frayed baseball caps are kosher. As noted, they are even relaxed about chatter during the service. Only when it got too loud would the Enforcer (a rather grim-looking man during the service, but at the party after, affable and prone to sharing around out of his bottle of Johnny Walker) pound on the furniture and shush them; and when someone’s mobile phone went off loudly (very naughty) he muttered “Unbelievable! There’s a sign at the entrance and they still do it!” (I could hear this because he was sitting behind me: I do wonder whether that was because that’s where he sits, or so he could keep an eye on the gentile who came in without a hat). Most charming was the attitude to children, who not only occasionally rambled across the room, but when the Rabbi’s little daughter (he has 10 or 11 children) was sitting up in his little area and getting antsy, he just stopped in the middle of what he was saying, kindly picked her up and told her to go play with her sister, then continued where he had left off. No fuss, nobody minded.

Finally the glass partitions came down and the Bat Mitzvah girls were allowed in to receive their certificates and give their talks. They acquitted themselves well.

Afterwards was a big party. Unfortunately there’s usually music and dancing with a Bat Mitzvah, but since it was Shabbat electronics weren’t allowed, so it was just eating, talking and drinking (thank God, as it were, the Jews don’t mind alcohol, unlike a certain other Abrahamic religion). Apparently they always do this after the service, but it was bigger this time because of the Bat Mitzvah.  That was another thing I found strange: the Shabbat insistence on no electronics – yet there were women serving the food and carting off the dirty dishes, which is surely more “work” than flipping a switch. I guess practicality has to win out sometimes but not always. Maybe that’s what the Talmud is for.

We sat opposite some 12 year old boys, including two twins born a minute apart who looked completely different (different eye colour, body and face shape, hair colour…). Very Jacob and Esau but they looked at me blankly when I said that. Either my pronunciation wasn’t Orthodox or when they said “boys can’t read the Torah until their Bar Mitzvah” they meant not at all. But interesting conversations with one of them (the “oldest” twin):

Boy runs down the list: “So, you are Christian?” No. “Hindu?” No. “Buddhist?” No. Finally:
“We just believe in one less god than you do.” “Oh”. Me, for once being diplomatic: “We regard all gods as equal.” True, but inoffensively so. What is happening to me??? Then:

Boy: “God created the world and Adam and Eve in 6 days.”
Me (smiling): “You shouldn’t say that to an evolutionary biologist.”
Boy (somewhat more forcefully): “But God did create the world in 6 days.”
Me (arch diplomat): “That is what is written, yes.”
Boy (having none of it): “It is true!”

It was also interesting reading their book during the service (I think it was a chumash, which contains the Hebrew and English text of the Five Books of Moses). Very praise God this, God is great and wonderful that, though I did wonder how they cope with the cognitive dissonance of God is the King of Kings who protects us from our enemies, and Hitler (who was mentioned in the “sermon”, with what sounded suspiciously like a Jewish swear word after his name). And an interesting mix of writings about God and very specific, detailed instructions on where and how many times to bow at what stage and what to leave out in certain circumstances. In a way, looking at how related religions do things is like studying related languages: clear similarities, with odd or even jarring differences where they have diverged over time.

The other oddity to me was that they and their book called God “Hashem” (or plain “God”), a term I have never heard before but I now know is used in Judaism when avoiding God’s more formal titles.

All in all, an interesting experience of a foreign culture preserving itself in our midst. Indeed, that was the point of the Rabbi’s sermon (I guess it was a sermon, though whether he always does one or it was just for the ceremony, I don’t know): that we live in a democracy, which is great, but that the majority aren’t always right and we minorities should maintain our identity and morals, and the girls should keep that in mind.

Shabbat shalom!

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One Response to A Night at the Synagogue

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