I would make a terrible Jew.
On Saturday I visited my first synagogue and attended my first Jewish services since Hiram Samel’s bar mitzvah in 1972, thus this is the first Jewish visit of the series. It was a reform congregation in Hyannis, one founded in 1933, located on Winter Street in a contemporary building that is at most thirty or forty years old. I give my participation a C minus at best, but throughly enjoyed the service, particularly the warmth of the congregation and the high degree of communal participation by all in attendance.
This was the most confusing service for me to participate in, with some serious revelations into the depths of my complete ignorance of the Jewish tradition. Example: I did not know the Jewish name for God (Adonai) I certainly do not know how to read Hebrew, let alone pronounce it. I am not used to reading from right to left. I could go on, but let me forge on first. I approach this entry gingerly as good mensch friends like Uncle Fester are sure to howl at my Judaic Ineptitude.
There are not a lot of synagogue options on the Cape. The other synagogues I’m aware of are in Falmouth, a “Chabad” in Hyannis, and of course the oldest in the country, the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. When my eldest son was in third grade he participated in a “Local Heroes” project which paired him and his classmates with local leaders — his “hero” was the former Rabbi of the Cape Cod Synagogue — and so he shadowed the man for a term, visiting the synagogue on several occasions. Of the religions I hope to learn the most about in this project, Judaism leads the list due to its venerable age and traditions, and its commonalities and differences with Christianity (shared geographical locus, Old Testament history, etc.).
I arrived for the Saturday morning shabbat or service, said hello to the people in the lobby or narthex of the temple, and borrowed a yarmulke and a prayer book from a table near the entrance. The men in the congregation were also taking shawls from the rack that held the spare yarmulkes. I did not as I was not sure of how to deploy it, nor if it was proper for a gentile to make such an assumption. The yarmulke I knew was a requirement as I had worn one so many years ago at the bar mitzvah.
The yarmulke was a difficult fit and balancing act and I am afraid the act of keeping it on my head gave me away as an interloper. The other gentlemen in attendance seemed to have their own far more fancy personal yarmulkes which stuck to their skulls magnetically. Mine slipped, shifted, and came close to abandoning my head on several occasions, forcing me to touch it and try to pat it down like a neurotic teenager fighting with a cowlick.
The temple was comfortable, with perhaps 200 chairs arranged in a large U before a dais with a large, double microphone lectern. Behind stood a large stone wall with two doors in the middle. Those doors enclosed the Torah Ark where the sacred scrolls are stored. The doors carried a brown flame pattern. Above the door was a stylized bronze torch lit within by a lightbulb. An inscription in Hebrew rested above the doors. The doors were flanked by an American and a blue and white Star of David flag of Israel.
The room is shaped like an isoceles trapezoid, with large ceiling to floor windows letting in a bright burst of winter sunlight. While the neighborhood is a bit congested and as close to urban as Cape Cod ever gets, the temple is quiet and very peaceful.
There were perhaps 18 people in attendance. I understand that ten are required for quorum or “minyan.” I also understand that prayers do not need to take place in a temple, but can be performed whenever a minyan is present. The congregation is elderly, and aside from a mother and her two teen aged children, I was the youngest person in attendance. I sat near the back, behind a couple, and replied “Shabbas Shalom” to the other worshipers. A gentleman entered my row and asked me if I would do the “honor.” I was busted. I shook my head and said, “I’m sorry but I’m visiting and I’m a gentile.” He smiled and said, “That’s okay. Welcome. You do need to be Jewish to help.” This encounter was noticed by the others in attendance who gave me some scrutiny.
After a few minutes we began by reading, or rather singing, in Hebrew. The man who asked for my help was accompanied on the dais by a woman who sang the words. I followed in the prayer book but made no effort to sing along as the pronunciation was fairly counter-intuitive. I tried to stay with the words, but on several occasions became completely lost. When that occurred I tried to note where we were in the prayers. There seemed to be a “liturgical” order to those prayers. My note cards read (with spelling errors I assume) the following words:
- mishan t’filah
- Elu d’varim
- Chatzi kaddish
I knew the word “kaddish” from the title of Allen Ginsburg’s moving Kaddish written on the occasion of his mother’s death. It’s a good poem. I have no idea what the context of it was in the service I observed. Various members of the congregation were invited up to read and participate. When they returned to their seats they shook hands with the others. It was a very small and intimate set of friends who all knew one another.
I don’t believe the rabbi of the congregation presided as the gentleman who led the service said the Rabbi was on vacation. We continued to sing prayers and on a few occasions switched to English. Much of the singing and sentiment was around the issue of the sabbath and the importance of setting aside one day a week for things of the spirit and not of the physical world.
A brief sermon on the topic of “luftmensch”, or dreamer was delivered. The message was it is important to hew to the realistic and the achievable and not spend the proceeds before buying a lottery ticket.
The Torah was removed from the Ark. There was singing and a move similar to a genuflection that involved a bending of the knees and bowing of the head. The Torah was “dressed” in an intricately embroidered covering adorned with a silver plate. The tops of the “spools” were covered by two silver ornaments. I assumed the man who carried the Torah down from the dais and out to the sanctuary where we stood was the man providing the “honor” I had been offered.
A small ceremony behind the lectern saw the removal of the ornaments which were placed in a special rack. The slip covering was also removed and the Torah was laid on the lectern table and unrolled. Evidently it had been previously scrolled to the appropriate section which coincided with a handout I picked up on my way in.
The sections were read and concerned the rights and responsibilities of a person who borrowed a neighbor’s animal and what the fine would be if certain conditions were found to be true by a judge. This confused me as I struggled to find a parable to interpret and apply.
The Torah reading concluded. It was “re-dressed” and put back into the ark. After a few more prayers the acting Rabbi turned to some prayers for specific people, then he made some announcements such as putting in an early reservation for a community Passover Seder.
The service concluded with a greeting — similar to a Christian church. I exited. Returned my yarmulke and prayer book and left the synagogue.
- A very relaxed atmosphere with a high degree of congregation participation
- I assume some familiarity with Hebrew is a prerequisite for being a devout Jew. I also assume that occurs before the bar mitzvah/bat mitzvah.
- I need some clarification between the Torah and the Talmud. Does the Torah contain the Old Testament?
- Yarmulke. A tricky hat. I suspect a bobby pin or other hair clasp is needed for full yarmulke control.
- Pretty cool doing a service in Hebrew which, if I think about it, is not a dead language.
- This was a Reform congregation. I look forward to contrasting that with an Orthodox rite at Touro.
- The parking lot demographic — big Audi crowd.
- I bought 13 bagels on my way home at Panera. Which is like buying fresh pasta from a Jewish deli. My sons appreciated the bagels but pointed out I was tricked into accepting reduced fat cream cheese spreads.
Next: Jehovah’s Witnesses at the Assembly of God in Falmouth. Doubling up this weekend and next to get ahead while the weather stinks and cabin fever rages.