ast forward now to a particularly intense stage of my spiritual life, in 1978. I was on a leave for six months from my teaching and went to live in Jerusalem with my wife and two young children. I decided on an ambitious program—to try to pray at least one time in every one of the synagogues in Jerusalem, the most sacred city in Judaism. That capital city of Judaism has dozens of varieties of shuls for all kinds of worship styles of the various and sundry communities who live there, side-by-side, mostly with mutual respect and in harmony with one another.
During that phase of my life, I imagined in an especially colorful way that I was engaged in a big international quest for a perfect religious experience. In a particularly fanciful fashion, I saw my professed search as a parallel to the one Bruce Brown catalogued in the great film Endless Summer. This famous 1966 documentary film follows two surfers, Michael Hynson and Robert August, on a quest to find the perfect wave. The film documented the two boys searching the globe for simple perfection in their quasi-mystical sport. The movie site IMDB sums up the story of the film, “Brown follows two young surfers around the world in search of the perfect wave, and ends up finding quite a few, in addition to some colorful local characters.”
Back then, the film spoke to those of us who were young seekers, as it did for many others of that idealistic age. Of course, the core of the sport of surfing is the wave and, no doubt, the lover of surfing wants to embark on the quest for the best possible wave. To find and surf the perfect wave is to experience the performance of the quintessence of the sport. I adored that classic Bruce Brown film, with its humor and charm that thinly cloaked a more serious story of sportsmen seeking a form of ultimate perfection in their beloved pastime.
My involvement with surfing was not just as a filmgoer or mere observer. I actually had taken up the sport of surfing in Atlantic Beach when I was a teenager. One summer, I bought my friend’s used surfboard for twenty dollars. I dutifully waxed its surface so I could stand on it without slipping and take it out in the ocean in the evening. I’d then visualize as if I was a California or Hawaii surfer dude out in the big surf. Actually, I was waiting for the little two-foot local Long Island South Shore waves to sweep me lazily back to shore. That was fun, and a way to pass the summer times. But, even with my healthy and vivid imagination at work, all that activity did not become for me a quest of any sort for realization of a surfing goal.
Yet, later on, the experience served me well. My paltry surfing life, along with the basic narrative of The Endless Summer, helped me to form a valid metaphor for what I was seeking in my travels, searching for the perfect spiritual wave—the ideal davening (that great Yiddish word for Jewish prayer) at the ultimate synagogue.
As I saw it, a few years after my teen years in Atlantic Beach, I did embark on a quest in search of that different sort of perfect wave. I spent months and years of travel and research sabbaticals seeking, among other things in life, the perfect wave in a shul, the swaying and the praying that hit the mark, that stayed in the groove, and that fulfilled the quest of the endless davener.
And, like the surfers in the film who found their perfect wave at an out-of-the-way beach at Cape St. Francis in South Africa, during a chapter of my own quest, I once found a single, perfect mystical place of worship at a small, off-the-beaten-path synagogue in Jerusalem.
I did get to quite a few synagogues in Jerusalem that year. There were big and formal ones, small and simple ones, Ashkenazic ones (representing the European style of prayer), Sephardic ones (after the Oriental style), Hasidic in the nineteenth-century Polish fashion of those ultra-Orthodox Jews, and Yemenite in the style of the Jews of some Arab lands. Of course, there were standardized services of prayer outdoors at the Western Wall of Temple in the Old City of Jerusalem, there were regular services in some school auditoriums and there were a few American style Reform and Conservative congregations. I got to pray at many of these and found them often welcoming and satisfying, charming, relaxing, comfortable and, occasionally, frustrating, opaque and foreign.
Wouldn’t you know it, the best of all those choices for me, at that time and place, was a congregation in my own backyard. I found something special at a compact little synagogue called Har-El, around the corner from my apartment on Hapalmach Street in Jerusalem. This was a simple one-room shul-house structure. Its exterior was Jerusalem stone like most of the buildings in the area. That kind of pale limestone had been used in buildings in the city from ancient times. Inside, the little synagogue had a one-wire electric heater affixed to the wall at the front of the room and no fancy fixtures or trimmings anywhere to be found. The pews were simple fold-down hardwood seats. Each place to sit had a cubby in front of it, hanging from the back of the next pew forward. On top of that cubby was a wood stand on which you could rest your prayer book. A plain eternal lamp, with a flickering bulb to simulate a candle, hung above a basic light hued wooden ark that housed the Torah at the front of the sanctuary.
The women sat in the back, behind the several rows that made up the men’s section of the shul. The gender divider of the synagogue, the mechitzah, was a solid wood partition along the bottom with a translucent cloth curtain on the top half, allowing the few rows of women a veiled line of sight and audibility to the men’s prayers up front.
Let me be prompt to add that, even though I’m not at all happy with the segregation of the sexes in the Orthodox synagogue, I won’t digress to delve into that issue in this book. I’m hoping that the insights I share in this work are equally accessible and meaningful to all who wish to find them, regardless of gender, age, denomination, religion, or any other differentiating factor.
At Har-El, the few windows along the sides of the room were made of frosted jalousie glass slats that we opened and closed by rotating their small handles. In the center of the shul, the bimah platform for reading the Torah and reciting the prayers was modest in size and undecorated. All-in-all, the place had a kind of Amish or Puritan simplicity to it.
Most of the members of that minyan were established Israeli Orthodox Jews whose parents or grandparents originally derived from Western European roots. With few exceptions, these worshippers were not recent Anglo or French immigrants, not Sephardic, and not Hasidic. The parishioners knew each other from the neighborhood and respected each other with a formal civility that one had to witness to appreciate.
Back then, it hit me that this was the right mix of the perfect minyan for me. These were my analogs to Bruce Brown’s gang of surfers and to the “colorful local characters” that they met. They were people of different histories and stories but all with shared religious propensities, skills and needs. In this brief snapshot of time and place, clerks and professors, accountants and bankers, business owners, contractors, rabbis and craftsmen joined as one every day in their counterpart activity to surfing—to recite and sing their familiar prayers.
This flock of like-minded peers prayed in the same way, with just the right measure of fervor and with staunch confidence in their mastery of the ins and outs of the liturgy. These people showed no overt interest in petty or grand political divisions or quarrels. They were sincere believers and pure practitioners of Orthodox Judaism in their slice of the universe.
Day after day, I’d go to this little shul to pray, and it never varied. I was on no account ever disappointed. I imagined in retrospect that it was as if I had found a beach where I went out into the surf and, every day, the waves were perfect.
That one season of mystical satisfaction for this “Endless Davener” (that Yiddish word for a person praying) proved to me that, yes, the perfect prayer does exist; it was serene and smooth and seamless. The equilibrium and numinous quality of Har-El was still there for me for a while; and then, alas, when I returned and visited a few years later in 1986, it was gone.
No, the shul building was still there (and is there now) and many of the same characters were still davening there. But other congregants had joined the mix and a few improvements had been made to the small sanctuary. A serious heating unit had been installed and, as it turned out for me, worst of all, they put into the wall a spell-breaking air conditioning unit.
Soon after my arrival back in Jerusalem in the hot summer of 1986, I went to Har-El to pray. I wanted so much to ride again the perfect wave of davening that I knew from the past. The service started out as I remembered, and all the spiritual and mystical feelings started welling up within me. And then I watched as one, two and three people politely got up during our first few minutes of prayers to adjust the plastic A/C cooling ducts. First, a familiar looking person whom I knew from the bank got up to point the ducts in his chosen direction, and then another synagogue member who lived in my building arose and moved them to blow the air in another route. It unnerved me as I imagined surfers who did not like the way the waves were breaking on that legendary beach in South Africa, paddled out and tried to move some rocks in the jetty to redirect the curl of the perfect wave. No, I wanted to tell them, you were not there to tamper with the natural way that the wave formed and moved towards the shore.
One after another after another, the same simple surfers in the shul tried to make over the context of the perfect wave to their preferences. On account of the tinkering with an insignificant air flow, I saw the unity that I imagined in the congregation dissipate. A new technology had disrupted my spirituality. It went poof—and the magic spell was broken, the tides had shifted, and the well formed wave that once was, could not be recovered again. As if surfers had tried to fiddle with the settings of their waves, I felt that the members at Har-El had lost track of some of the small essences of their endeavors, the act of their surfing the waves of spirituality, the core of their davening. Yes, of course, all of this was in my head, my subjective judgment and not some special insight into anyone else’s spiritual being. Yet for me, it looked like my ephemeral quest for an exceptional spiritual pursuit had to move on then to another venue.
I did continue my journey around Jerusalem—and the world—in search of perfect religious waves, and I did find a few more good ones. In the process, I got to meet some colorful real people and, on top of that, from all my searching, I derived another benefit. From what I saw and felt during all of that travel, I started to formulate more clearly my understandings of ideals, of the archetypal surfers in the synagogue.
We leave Jerusalem on this note that the spiritual contents of religious experience, like all of the subjective experiences of life, indeed can be passing and short-lived.
Later in our narrative, I will come back with you to Har-El and talk more in depth about my meeting with the ideal type I call the mystic, and to explore with you further the dimensions of that singular character of Jewish spirituality.
During my quest, I uncovered new dimensions in my own faith; I found out that my religion in its essence is not composed only of abstract philosophy or solely out of a set of religious rules. I’ve obtained that Judaism is better understood to me as the collective thoughts and activity of a group of diverse people and personalities, like the six memorable ones that I met along the way. I introduce them to you soon, one-by-one, along with their prayers and mannerisms. I tell you how I met them, how I got to know them and, through them, how I learned about my own relationship with God.
But as we prepare to set out on our quest, I need first to tell you about the prayer book and, in that context, about some familiar paths into the discussion of Jewish prayer that we will not explore because I have found them to be spiritual blind alleys.