Friday, October 11, 2013

My Absolutely, Very Last Word on the Pew Survey, and a Modest Proposal

            Jews love to hear bad news. Well, maybe not, but our history, our “Oy Vey History,” has conditioned us to it, to the extent that we embrace bad news, and clutch it to our collective bosom. I have been, for most of my life, a Pessimistic Idealist—meaning that, I believe Messiah (more like a Messianic Age, with all of us as messiahs, provided we do our part to stop b*tching and moaning and, instead, help to clean up humankind’s collective mess) will come, but, in the meantime, I would less than surprised to leave the building this minute to find that I have, not one, but two, flat tires on my car. Growing up in a bad neighborhood in New York City will do that to you.
            As for the Pew Survey, I have read the collective hand-wringing articles, as well as the brave, Leonidas-at-Thermopylae responses by rabbis, cantors, and Jewish professionals young and old (mostly young; the older types, like me, have been chuckling into our tea and going on with what we have been doing for decades: teaching and leading), and believe that, now, it’s time for me to put in my two shekalim.

Something We Should Do Immediately, Which Will Benefit Everyone

Move Bar-Bat Mitzvah up to Age 16—or better, even: 18, just before the little darlings go to college. This 13-year-old charade does us no good. The worst, absolute worst thing one can do with one’s child is to take a 13-year-old, just when they’re starting to become a mensch, and tell them, “That’s it, Kid. You now know everything there is to know about being Jewish.” Then, we throw in a DJ, disco lights, a game of 7-Up vs. Pepsi, and sit back to stuff ourselves on overcooked prime rib (trafe, of course) and watch Bar/t Mitzvah Babylon.
A 16-year-old is hardly mature, but she does have the sitzfleish (Yiddish, “attention span”) to absorb the more complex parts of Maimonides’s 13 Principles, a page of Talmud, some of Judah HaLevi’s poems of yearning for Zion, or Abraham Joshua Heschel’s majestic prose.
Of course, this will require a major, massive buy-in by Jewish parents everywhere, nuclear families, single moms and dads, interfaith families, the works. I hope that, perhaps, some chavurah in Oregon or South Dakota may adopt this idea. Because without it, we’re just Jewish lemmings, and it’s a long way down.

Otherwise—and here, I address myself to our “cultural Jews”—I’m kind of cultural, myself—when and where were you turned off to, and by, synagogue-based Judaism? Things have changed; the old rabbis with the herring breath (They were my teachers, too) are all dead and gone, let them rest in peace. Shul is different, now. Visit a shul some Friday night, just for fun. Bring your doubts, your dislikes, your neuroses. Maybe the service will be different; maybe not. Is there a discussion group before or after the service? If there is, be prepared to ask your questions—though I realize that most people are too shy to speak up if it’s their first time there. Does anyone come over to greet you, show you a prayerbook, ask if it’s your first visit, offer to show you around, answer your questions?
What about the rabbi—is she personable? Young? Old? Perky? Cerebral? Does she seem to know what she’s talking about? And the cantor, if there is one—does she teach the music to the congregation, or concentrate on tours de force? Are the children invited to be an active part of the service? Is there a discussion, or a sermon, or both? Do congregants comment, in a give-and-take format, or does the sermon come Down from The Mount?
I attended a local church recently, as guest speaker, and noted that the lyrics of the songs were projected on the wall, PowerPoint style (no big hardware investment, there) while a three-piece musical group—electric guitar, piano, and drums—played. The singing and hand-clapping were joyful and loud. The service was a derivation of left-wing Christianity, in which Jesus is regarded merely as a teacher, and so they did and said nothing offensive to people of other faiths. I wondered how many “chameleon Jews” were in the congregation that morning, besides me and the congregants from my shul who had come to support me. Jews make very good chameleons, fading into the gentile milieu; sadly, I have met far too many Jews only after they had died, uninvolved with the organized Jewish community, but wanting only a Jewish funeral. Ah, well....
My congregation is traditional at our Shabbat morning service; we sing a capella, with a traditional cantor, and it’s 80% Hebrew. We do make transliteration sheets available, and many folks learn the tunes and the words, just by coming. There is nothing warmer or more satisfying than singing the old tunes together; it's really Jewish meditation, but no one ever thought to call it that. 
The Friday Night Service, on the other hand, is in what I have named a “God-Shmooze” mode; I summarize the Torah portion, point out the contradictions in the text, describe any and all halachote (Jewish laws) which may have originated from them, and ask my congregants for their reactions. We may also touch upon any and all Jewish issues of the day, which we also do in our weekly Jewish Current Events Discussion Group. Friday night is an hour, 7:30-8:30 pm; Shabbat morning is two-and-a-half, but folks come in late, and no one chastises them (9:30 am-12 noon, with an abridged Torah Reading and two rabbinical comments, one before the Sh'ma, and the other before the Torah Reading). 
 One of our main selling-points is that I love to challenge our congregants about the old-style beliefs they may have learned growing up and which they have held dear all their lives, even without understanding their meaning. I explain the origins of Jewish law and custom, and remind them that our ancestors, prophets and paragons all, were still human beings, just like us. We love to talk, sing together, argue, and shmooze over coffee, tea and cake at the end of the service. Most of them are seniors, and I cherish the stories they have written in my Memoirs Writing Class, and the life-lessons that they teach me, every time I go. I am the richer for knowing them, and honored to be their rabbi.
We have a sizeable contingent of younger Jews, as well, and Jews-by-Choice, whom I treasure. I am very careful to take nothing and no one for granted, and am always ready to explain and simplify our Jewish complexities. I find it endlessly fascinating how our faith and practices can complicate what ought to be simple-- consider shatnez, for example-- that esoteric mixture of wool and linen, or the Orthodox practice of making an eiruv tavshilin, a mixture of meat and bread, to enable a traditional housewife to cook on the second day of yuntef (holiday) for Shabbat. Only we Jews, a people devoted to casuistry and deep thought, could have created Judaism-- but we have all of our lives to learn about it, and pick and choose.
Still, there are many different kinds of shuls out there, and I invite you, Reader, if you have not done so recently, if you are content to stash their Judaism deep within, along with other determinants of your personality—political party, sexual orientation, city- or suburbs-dweller, coffee or tea, Yankees or Red Sox, smooth or chunky—to take your Judaism out, from time to time, lay it on the table of your heart and mind, and ask yourself: What am I doing now, this minute, to identify with my people, the Jews? The best place to do that is not in a deli or coffeeshop. It’s still in the synagogue. Give the synagogues, and their rabbis and cantors who work so hard, another chance. Thank you.