Book Serialization Part 3: Six People You Meet in Synagogue

Book Serialization Part 3:  Six People You Meet in Synagogue
For 2013. We present our book in serial format on our blog - God's Favorite Prayers...

Spiritual Textures

ven with my varied background, like most Orthodox Jews I spent a whole lot of time in synagogues when I was growing up. As a son of a rabbi, I’m sure that I sat for more time in a house of worship than the average Jewish kid. As a child, my mother schlepped me to shul every Shabbos (the Yiddish word for Sabbath), and I sat mostly quietly and listened to the cantors chant the formal services, leading the members in prayer. I followed along as the expert readers chanted from the Torah scroll. I heard as the shammoses (i.e., ritual directors, also called sextons or beadles) recited the Kaddishes, as they led the mourners in their obligatory recitations of a prayer for their deceased loved ones.
I was mainly a well-behaved kid who sat attentively through the weekly Sabbath Torah readings and the haftorah, the chantings from the Prophets. I heard the Rosh Hashanah shofar blowings, taking all of this quite seriously, in accord with what I was taught at home and in school. I marched in the Simchat Torah Hakafot, those parades when the adult worshippers joyously carried the scrolls as they marched and danced around the synagogue. We children were allowed to carry and wave paper Israeli, American and holiday Simchat Torah flags that were pasted to thin wooden sticks. As we pranced around the synagogue with our flags, sometimes we fenced with them and looked for trouble.
During the summers, we went to our Long Island summer home in Atlantic Beach. The sleepy Jewish community in that village boasted a single centrally located and nicely maintained rectangular brick synagogue. By design, it was kept Orthodox in its ritual and services so that one inclusive house of worship could serve the whole community, from the more liberal Reform and Conservative to its few ardently religious Jews. Men and women sat separately. But, unlike in other Orthodox shuls, there was no physical wall divider between the sexes. Most of the villagers in fact were not Orthodox in their practices. They’d go home after prayers on Saturday morning and head off quite openly to the beach or to golf, tennis, biking on the boardwalk, shopping or other ordinary weekend activities not normally practiced by Orthodox Jews on the Sabbath.
During those summers out in Atlantic Beach, we happily attended the weekly Sabbath services at the Jewish Center. Back then, it was a well-to-do community, without too much ostentation. To attract worshippers, the shul offered a Kiddush collation after the Saturday morning services, and I made sure to fill up a wax paper cup with sarsaparilla soda to go along with my little rectangle of sponge cake and my handful of salty, dry, octagonal Manischewitz Tam Tam crackers. I never touched the creamed herring and did not care much for the little gefilte fish balls that they put out on platters to the delight of the hungry congregants after their lengthy prayers.
While I sat in these sundry synagogues as a child, yes, I became familiar with the services and fluent in the liturgy. That turned out later to be both an advantage and a disadvantage to my spiritual growth. Indeed, I could participate, perform and lead the synagogue worship in Hebrew. I knew the tunes, the words, and the cadences. But as I grew older and wanted to find more substance, I learned that adult meaning does not flow easily out of what you learn as a child. Later on, it turned out to be quite complex and daunting to open the book of devotion that I knew nearly by heart, that represented what the Jewish tradition calls the “worship of the heart” and try to turn my mind on it, to study it in a mature manner. And I found that it was harder yet for me to extract an adult’s spiritual experience from the services of these synagogues that I had gotten to know when I was a kid.

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