Saturday, September 23, 2006

Baruch Atah Adonai Y’all

Marty and I attended Rosh Hashana services at Temple Emanuel in Gastonia this morning. Although I tried not to constantly make comparisons to my former congregation in NYC, I couldn’t help it.

The congregation I belonged to in New York is big. It is high profile. The building is a national historical landmark Tickets for high holiday services go for prices you might expect to pay a scalper for Madonna tickets.

Although the temple can accommodate plenty of people, so many people attend high holiday services that most services are split into 2 (except for the Yom Kippur morning service which can’t be split so many of us find ourselves worshipping in a makeshift temple in the Starlight ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria). In the last few years, membership has increased so much that they have even set up folding chairs and a large screen TV in a reception space underneath the sanctuary for those who arrive too late to grab a seat. Oh – and services are also webcast.

There was a period when our congregation met as one. After a fire broke out in the synagogue in the 1998 just weeks before Rosh Hashana, Governor Pataki gave permission for us to meet and worship in the Park Avenue Armory (it required his permission as the armory is a government building and there must be some sort of rules about using government facilities for religious purposes). The size of the armory, decorated on short notice by Robert Isabel, was so massive that for a few years while we waited for our temple to be rebuilt, our congregation worshipped as a unified body on even the busiest of days. These years were punctuated with visits from Pataki and Giuliani, which definitely contributed to the high profile I mentioned earlier.

When the refurbished and rebuilt temple re-opened, it was magnificent. I mean- it had always been magnificent (a girl at my Bat Mitzvah said it seemed more like a church than a synagogue) but now it was simply breathtaking. You didn’t want to walk on the tiled floor because the mosaic was so beautiful. The wooden pews seemed to gleam. The stained glass windows shone.

Of course, what should have been a joyous occasion was marked by sadness. Our first high holiday services in the new building were in 2001. September 11th was a fresh wound and we all felt like targets.

Pataki and Giuliani, who had been honorary members of our congregation for 3 years, who had lent their support when we found ourselves in desperate need, and who were on hand to welcome us back to our home, were newly minted heroes in light of the terror attacks and their presence on our beemah was thrilling. Celebrity shul.

While we had always had security, 2001 marked a dramatic shift in policy and by the following year, getting to synagogue felt like planning a trip to the airport and you definitely wanted to get there early. Thousands of people. Unreserved seating. If we wanted our usual left center seats about 10 rows back, we had to beat the crowd. Plus, long lines formed while people and their bags were manually searched before entering the building.

The tone of the sermons changed too. They became, in my opinion, more political and less spiritual. I began to feel no connection to the rabbi, to the congregation, or to the synagogue that I had called home for most of my 30 years. In fact, the only reason I continued to worship there was because I wanted to be with my family.

Not that I am super Jew. I am not. I rarely go to Friday night Shabbat services, the only time I have been to Saturday morning services in the last 15 years was when a cousin was being Bar or Bat Mitzvahed and I usually have to look up the answers to questions posed to me by my husband’s non-Jewish family

Mother in-law: So Sarah – what exactly is Hanukah?

Me: Um – well it has to do with the Maccabees and a battle and they only had oil to last for one night but it miraculously lasted for 8 and that’s why you eat fried foods.

Mother in-law (slightly confused): Oh.

Me: Sorry. I know. That wasn’t a good explanation. Let me Google that and I’ll get back to you.

Still, I am a spiritual person and the few times I am involved in the ritual of religion, I want it to be satisfying.

So being in North Carolina for the High Holidays was exciting. It was a chance to find a new congregation, a new rabbi, and a new source of spiritual inspiration.

As I wrote in an earlier post, I skipped the large Charlotte congregation (despite the excellent reputation of the head rabbi) in favor of a more local community.

This morning Marty and I chose to go to Temple Emanuel in Gastonia. Although services started at 10am and the synagogue is only 20 minutes away, I made Marty leave the house at 9:15. What can I say – force of habit.

The building is on a corner in downtown Gastonia right down the street from an Episcopal church and a Masonic temple. We pulled into the lot at the same time as the lay leader (the congregation does not have a rabbi) Dr. Brown and we were greeted with a warm L’shana Tovah.

The building – not a national landmark – was built in 1913 and is charming in its simplicity. I was particularly drawn to the curved wooden menorahs on either side of the beemah.

Most rows were marked reserved so Marty and I took seats towards the back and waited. A few minutes before 10, Dr. Brown approached and asked if we were up for doing an aliyah. I think I looked confused (I was – for some reason I was thinking of a minyon) so he quickly began to chant the familiar blessing. After explaining that Marty wasn’t Jewish, I said I would be happy to do the aliyah. Dr. Brown asked Marty to accompany me to the beemah.

Why did I agree to such insanity? I don’t know. I thought back to my NY congregation and to the fact that I’d never – not in a million years – be asked to read an aliyah. Or light a candle. Or dress the Torah. I thought of all the politics involved (not to mention the donations that must be made) for one to be tapped for one of these honorary roles.

And I thought it was so wonderful that here, a stranger to this temple, and I was asked to participate. I was flattered. No – I was honored. So I guess I accepted out of pride.

It also helped that Dr. Brown had a transliteration of the aliyah on hand. As I looked at the words and practiced chanting them in my head, it was like refamiliarizing myself with a childhood song. I mean, I haven’t listened to Really Rosie in 20 some odd years but if someone asked me to sing a song (or 3) from the album, I probably could. And if I had the lyrics on hand, I could get through the whole album.

Services began. A member of the congregation stood on the beemah with Dr. Brown and read the English. He read and chanted the Hebrew and occasionally played a Casio keyboard when we came to a song. Not quite the organ and choir I was used to in NY, but not bad either.

Then came time for the Torah service. I began to panic. Why had I agreed to do an aliyah? I hadn’t chanted Hebrew on a beemah since my Bat Mitzvah – nearly 20 years ago. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was going to embarrass myself. I watched as the first 2 aliyahs were performed. Oh my GOD!!! These people were reading Hebrew from their prayer books. They weren’t using the transliteration cheat sheet. I quickly turned to the transliteration in the back of my prayer book. Could I memorize this in the next 2 minutes before I was called? Could I pull it off? I looked at the words but the panic just grew and so did my ability to process anything.

Marty and I were called to the beemah as “our new friends.” I felt so welcomed – like such a part of the community even though I was a stranger. Although I desperately wanted to read from my prayer book, common sense won out over pride and I stood next to Dr. Brown, who had the cheat sheet laid out next to the Torah. I touched my prayer book to the Torah where Dr. Brown showed me and then touched it to my lips.

Then I began to chant.

Ba-r'chu et A-do-nai ha-m'vo-rach!

My voice sounded high and thin in my ears. My legs were shaking. Had Marty not been there, I might have collapsed.

The congregation replied: Ba-ruch A-do-nai ha-m'vo-rach l'o-lam va-ed!

I didn’t look up at them. I kept my eyes glued to the sheet and repeated: Ba-ruch A-do-nai Ha-m'vo-rach l'o-lam va-ed!

I felt 13 again. And then I remembered, that when I was 13, I kicked ass. I mean – not to brag, but I rocked my Bat Mitzvah and completely put the other girl getting Bat Mitzvahed with me to shame.

And so I decided to rock this aliyah. Who cared that I didn’t know the Hebrew by heart. I hadn’t done this in 19 years and here I was with less than an hour’s notice in a room full of strangers chanting like a pro. I thought – Mom and Dad would be proud. I was proud.

Still, with the post reading blessing still to chant, my legs continued to shake while Dr. Brown read the Torah and I found myself empathizing with anyone who’s ever had stage fright.

Dr. Brown stopped reading.

Ok Sarah. Bring it home.

I looked at the words on the page:

Ba-ruch a-tah A-do-nai, E-lo-hei-nu me-lech ha-o-lam.

Familiar words. I’d seen them and read them thousands of times. But shit – what was the melody? It wasn’t the usual melody was it? I started and then stopped. I think I said “Sorry” and once again found myself staring at the words on the page. Nothing. I was lost.

I turned and looked to Dr. Brown for guidance. A cue. “You got it,” he said. Bar-uch a-tah A-do-nai…the melody came back and despite a rocky start, I made it through the aliyah. I even lingered on the no-tein ha-torah to make up for the dismal start.

After services, we were introduced to a number of people. Many of them complimented me on my reading. I dismissed them, pointing out my gaffe at the end. They said it wasn’t noticeable and that I had chanted to beautifully. Again I thought, Mom and Dad would be proud. I was proud.

As Marty and lingered after services I thought about Rosh Hashana services last year in NY. I thought about my dad and I making a mad dash for the door right after the benediction to avoid the otherwise 10-minute long exit process and the even longer search for a taxi. Three minutes after the benediction we were out of the temple and in a taxi heading up Third Avenue. Of course, we’d left my mother and brother behind and they weren’t too pleased with our behavior. We hadn’t even turned to say “Happy New Year” we’d been so focused on making our escape.

Not an issue here.

After we left, Marty and I drove to RO’s for a couple of BBQ sandwiches to celebrate the new year.

And if that ain’t country, I’ll kiss your…