“Are you looking for something?”
The man in the black pants with the tzitzit strings hanging out could tell that I was getting frantic.
“Is there a yarmulke around here somewhere?” I asked, referring to the religious head covering that every male must don upon entering the synagogue.
My voice came out in a disembodied squeak. This was not me speaking; this was someone else entirely. At the age of 55, I had become a child back in yeshiva again, about to be punished for my forgetfulness.
For me, the most difficult part of attending an Orthodox Jewish elementary school was wrapping my brain around the cultural gap of Grand Canyon-like proportions between what we were taught during the day and what I went home to at night. After attending a Chabad Lubavitch synagogue service yesterday, I am forced to conclude that nothing has changed in the past half-century.
Back then, my mother kept the kosher laws, although my father, an atheist, did not. Neither observed the Sabbath or attended synagogue. Today, along with my Christian wife and Pastor Mom, this Jew boy lives in the parsonage of a Pentecostal church. Then as now, I am torn between two worlds. But here I stand, about to participate in the Shabbat service of an ultra-Orthodox congregation that hearkens back to the days of my childhood.
The man on the patio opened the door and entered the sanctuary, returning momentarily bearing a black skullcap. I thanked him, but I couldn’t look him in the eye.
I know I have a yarmulke here somewhere. Before leaving the house, I searched our bedroom to no avail. In the car, I turned the glove box upside down, pissing off my wife royally in the process. No yarmulke. But I knew there was no way on earth that I was going to walk into that synagogue bareheaded.
With my head now covered, I meekly entered the rear of the sanctuary, trying my best not to be noticed. No such luck. I looked at the floor, but still couldn’t help but catch multiple pairs of eyes following me, attempting to be nonchalant. I was a few minutes late, and the service was already in progress.
We had left the house early enough, but the convoluted directions provided by Google Maps left us lost somewhere in a subdivision. We finally called upon Siri on my wife’s iPhone to set us back on the right path.
My next mission was to find a tallis, the black-and-white prayer shawl that Orthodox men wear during Saturday services. Most regulars bring their own, but there are always a few around for the benefit of those who are without. I found two or three talletim folded neatly on a table in the back. They were the heavy, woolen kind, like the ones my grandpa wore during the winter in New York. Only this is springtime in California. As I shook out a tallis, I could already feel the itchiness creeping up my neck.
I wrapped the tallis around me as best I could, even though it was way too long for me. This must be designed for a six-foot guy, I thought. I sat in an uncomfortable folding chair in one of the rearmost rows, fortunately finding a siddur (prayer book) abandoned on the seat next to me. As the reader droned on the p’sukei d’zimrah (opening prayers) in Hebrew, I flipped through the book in hope of recognizing some familiar words that might guide me to the correct page.
There were more than twenty men in the room, twice as many as are needed for the minyan (quorum) that must be present before the Torah scrolls can be removed from the ark. The folding chairs were lined up four abreast on either side of a center aisle, a long line extending from the patio doors in the back all the way to the reader’s platform at the front. I looked over to the four chairs across the aisle, which abutted the makhitzah, the tall latticed divider that split the room in half. Although I couldn’t see them, I knew that the women of the congregation sat on the other side. A few plants, probably fake ones, trailed over the divider.
To my left were three bookcases pushed together against the outer wall of the building. Scanning the shelves in an effort to make it less obvious that I didn’t know where we were in the service, I noticed the presence of multiple copies of various versions of the prayer book, khumashim (Bibles) and a number of volumes that I did not recognize. Tehillim was the title of one. Wait, I know what that is: Psalms. Scanning my brain for translations that hadn’t been called for in a long time, I was able to cobble enough words together to realize that this book was about the laws of the Sabbath, that one was a volume of Talmud.
Eventually, the rabbi called out the page numbers that we had reached in the “red” and the “blue,” references to the colors of the bindings to the two different versions of the prayer book that were on hand. Of course, I recognized the Shema (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”) and the Ashrei (Psalm 145), although the latter was read at such lightning speed that I hadn’t gotten through half of it before the reader was on to the next prayer. Everything was in Hebrew, not at all like the Conservative and Reformed congregations that are more familiar to me, where many of the prayers are read in English.
Then it was time to take out the Torah. We all stood and the familiar melodies of my childhood brought me back to a warm and comfy place in which I knew all the Hebrew words by heart. Or perhaps the heat I was feeling was more attributable to the rising temperature of a room full of people, relieved only by the occasional breeze of the rear door opening and closing. I took out my handkerchief and mopped my brow, happy that my sweat was not because of nerves this time.
The two Torahs, dressed in their finery, were carried up the aisle. I touched each of them with my prayer book as it went by, then touched the book to my lips. The ritual of kissing the Torah. I asked the guy in front of me to reach me a khumash as the reader began the prayers introducing this week’s Torah portion, the final verses of Exodus. Rather than follow along with the reading, I read the entire portion in the English translation, then went back and began to read it in Hebrew.
Taking a peek at the table of contents, I noticed that my khumash included not only the Pentateuch (the five Books of Moses), but also the five megillot (a Hebrew word meaning “scrolls”). Now, when I hear the word megillah, I think of Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther that we read on the festival of Purim (coming up in two weeks). I didn’t know there were four others! Sure enough, the list included the Song of Songs, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and the Book of Ruth. Of course, Ruth! The book we read on the festival of Shavuot in June! “Your people shall be my people and your God, my God.” It was all coming back to me now.
While my nose was in the Bible, a gentleman whom I hadn’t noticed before slid up to me and asked me my name. I told him. Noticing the perplexed look on his face, I asked him if he wanted my Hebrew name. He did, so I supplied it.
Next thing I knew, the guy sitting behind me was trying to get my attention. “Psst! You’re being called to the Torah!”
It’s not like there aren’t plenty enough men present whom they could call up to the Torah. I’ve never been here before and these people don’t know me from Adam. But I guess I should have figured that this would happen, as there is a tradition (stretching back to Abraham in the Book of Genesis) that the stranger in your midst is to be honored. As to my efforts to blend into the woodwork: Fail!
I’d been tugging and tugging on my tallis the entire time I had been sitting there, my best efforts unsuccessful at balancing the huge thing evenly about my shoulders. If I stood up for a prayer, I would step on it. When I sat back down, I would sit on it. I got to my feet and began walking up the aisle to the reader’s stand, having narrowly avoided tripping over the tallis and falling on my face as I got out of my seat.
The prayer that is uttered before reading each section of Torah was printed on a laminated page on the reader’s desk. The rabbi pointed to it and I began reciting. “Wait!” he said. I had totally forgotten that first I had to help unroll the scroll and touch my tallis to the first word that would be read.
Then it was time, and I sang out the familiar tune in as loud and clear a voice as I could muster. I followed along as the cantor sang the verses, after which (I learned) it was time for the refuah sh’lemah, the prayer for healing. This particular congregation has the tradition of offering the prayer individually for each person coming to the Torah — and for his family. The cantor asked for my Hebrew name again. I supplied it and then stood there dumbly. I didn’t realize that they wanted me to name my family members. After being gently coached by the rabbi, I said “my wife, my mother, my father, my sisters.” I felt like an idiot, or like a Miss America contestant who was expected to intone “and world peace.”
As I returned to my seat, I heard a few men call out “Yasher koakh!” (congratulations) and I embarrassedly mumbled thanks.
The service continued and I began to feel pain in my lower back from alternating standing with sitting in a hard chair. I continued to struggle with the recalcitrant tallis, noticing that it was quite stained, whether with tears or with wine I knew not.
After the regular service ended and a psalm was read, a brief discussion among the men ensued in which it was decided that they would proceed to pray the afternoon service immediately rather than returning to do so later. I’d been too afraid to pull out my phone to check the time (simply not done in an Orthodox synagogue), but I turned around to look for a clock and noticed that it was nearly 1:00 pm. I made a haphazard attempt at folding the giant tallis, left it on the back table and slipped out the rear door. I had been there three hours and I knew my wife would be waiting for me in the car.
My wife could have attended the service, of course, but she is not at all comfortable sitting away from me, on the other side of the mekhitzah with the women, a non-Jew among ultra-Orthodox strangers. I was glad to hear that she had taken a ride and picked up some breakfast.
“They’re not even done yet,” I told her as soon as I entered the car. “They’re going to do the afternoon service and then first have Kiddush. I think we should have our Kiddush at Olive Garden.” My wife smirked and I knew there would be minestrone and salad in my immediate future. “You stole their yarmulke,” she pointed out. It was then that I realized that the black skullcap was still on my head.
While we were eating, we suddenly heard the voice of one of the servers boom out from across the room: “Attention, Olive Garden! We have a very special birthday in the house! Please join me in singing to Ruth, who is 94 years old today!”
We looked over to the table at which the server was standing. Along with the birthday girl were four or five of her friends, all very snazzily dressed, all of whom looked to be over the age of ninety. My wife and I were both smiling broadly as we sang along and joined in the applause.
Happy birthday, Ruth!