In Search of the Perfect Shul

In one particularly intense, mature and serious stage, while I was on a sabbatical for six months from my teaching in 1978, I decided 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 and mostly with mutual respect and at peace with one another.

During that phase of my life I imagined in an especially colorful way that I was engaged in a quest for a perfect religious experience. I saw my professed search as a parallel to the one Bruce Brown cataloged in Endless Summer, his famous 1966 documentary film of two surfers, Michael Hynson and Robert August, on a quest for the perfect wave. That film documented the two boys’ search for simple perfection in their quasi-mystical sport. The movie site IMDB sums up the story of that 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."

When it came out, the film spoke to those of us who were young seekers, as it did for many others of a more idealistic age. The essence of surfing of course is the wave. And no doubt the lover of surfing wants to embark on the quest for the best possible wave. To find the perfect wave is to experience the performance of the essence 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 some form of ultimate perfection in their pastime.

My involvement with surfing was not just as an observer. I had tried the sport of surfing in Atlantic Beach when I was a teen ager. I bought my friend’s used surf board for a few dollars. I would wax its surface and take it out in the ocean in the evening. I’d then visualize as if I was a California or Hawaii surfer dude in the big surf, while actually I was waiting for the 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 was not a quest of any sort.

Yet later on, the experience served me well. My meager surfing life along with the basic narrative of the film, Endless Summer, together allowed me to form a valid metaphor for what I was seeking in my travels in search of the perfect spiritual wave – the ideal davening (the Yiddish word for Jewish prayer) at the ultimate synagogue.

Fast forward a few years from my teen years in Atlantic Beach and as I said, I did embark on a quest in search of a perfect wave of a different sort. I spent months and years of travel and research and 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, I found one perfect mystical place of worship at a small off-the-beaten-path synagogue in Jerusalem during that chapter of my quest.

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, Sephardic ones, after the oriental style, Hasidic in the 19th century Polish fashion of those ultra-Orthodox Jews, Yemenite in the style of the Jews of some Arab lands. Of course there were regular services of prayer 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 mainly open and satisfying, charming, relaxing, comfortable or occasionally frustrating, opaque and foreign.

The best of all those choices for me was the congregation in our own back yard. I found something special at a compact little synagogue called Har-El around the corner from our apartment in Jerusalem. This was a simple one room shul-house structure with 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 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 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 solid wood along the bottom with a translucent cloth curtain on top half, allowing the few rows of women a line of sight and audibility to the men’s prayers up front. (Even though I’m not at all happy with the segregation of the sexes in the Orthodox synagogue, I won’t delve into that issue here.)

The few windows along the sides were made of frosted jalousie glass slats that were opened and closed by rotating their 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 derived originally by and large from Western European roots. With few exceptions, these 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 for me the right mix of the perfect minyan. These were my analogs to Bruce Brown’s, "Colorful local characters." They were people of different histories and stories but all with the same 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 to read and sing their familiar prayers.

This flock of like minded peers prayed in one and the same way with just the right measure of fervor and with absolute confidence in their mastery of the ins and outs of the liturgy. They showed no overt interest in petty 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 it was like I went out into the surf and every day the waves were perfect.

That one season of mystical satisfaction for this “Endless Davener” (the Yiddish word for a person praying) proved to me that yes, the perfect prayer exists, 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 when I returned and visited 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 others 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.

I went to Har-El to pray soon after my arrival in Jerusalem in the hot summer of that year. 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 got up during our first few minutes of prayers politely to adjust the plastic A/C cooling ducts. First a familiar looking person got up to point the ducts in his chosen direction, and then another synagogue member arose and moved them to blow the air in another route. It unnerved me enough. I imagined surfers who did not like the way the waves were breaking, who paddled out and tried to redirect the curl of the perfect wave at that legendary beach in South Africa. No, I wanted to tell them, you were not supposed 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 the perfect wave over to their preferences. Over an insignificant air flow I saw the unity of the congregation dissipate. The new technology had disrupted my spirituality. It was poof, and the magic spell was broken, the tides had shifted, and the wave that once was, could not be recovered again. As they tried to fiddle with the contexts 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, this was my subjective judgment and not a special insight into anyone else’s spiritual being. Yet for me, it looked like my quest for an exceptional spiritual pursuit had to move 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. And in the process I got to meet some colorful real people. On top of that from the search I derived another benefit. From what I saw and felt during all of that travel I came to formulate my understandings of the archetypal surfers in the synagogue.

We leave Jerusalem on that note that the spiritual contents of religious experience, like all of the subjective experiences of life, indeed can be ephemeral. In my new narrative, I will come back with you to Har-El and talk more about my meeting with the ideal type I call the mystic to explore further the dimensions of that character of Jewish spirituality.

During my quest I uncovered new dimensions in my own faith. I found out that Judaism in its essence is not composed only of abstract philosophy or made up solely out of a set of religious rules. I’ve obtained that Judaism is better understood to me as a group of diverse people and personalities, like the six memorable ones that I met along the way. I’ll introduce them to you in my new memoir, one-by-one, along with their prayers and mannerisms. I’ll tell you how I met them, got to know them and through them learned about my own relationship with God.

1 comment:

Barefoot Jewess said...

I happened upon your blog looking for online Holy Day services. I relate to this post very much. "The Endless Davener", I love it. It also describes me to a T. I hope you don't mind my stealing that moniker for myself?

I've loved the "Endless Summer" films for years (I don't surf). There's something about that search, the desire and focus and devotion, which resonates; it's what they were meant to do. You just know these surfers have found that perfect moment, that at-oneness, and I have always been envious of them. I suppose you've seen "Step Into the Liquid"? I watch it when I need to get into a quieter space; it's a bit like being back in minyan.

I had an experience similar to yours years ago at a shul where I was a member. It was morning minyan. Just me and a bunch of old guys. They were a learned and modest group, and witty and funny and kind. I attended every morning (except Shabbat, of course) for a couple of years. Almost every day was like catching the perfect wave.

When I finally had to leave the area, I would return once a year and could still catch that wave. But so much has changed, almost all the old members have died and a new regime has diluted the liturgy to the point where it's more annoying than anything. I found strength and comfort and stability in that minyan that I have never found again, and certainly not in the rest of life. I always considered that minyan to represent the essence of Judaism, it was pure Judaism practised by Jews who get it and live it, it was so perfect and pure. Sigh.

So I continue to look for the perfect wave. I doubt I will ever find it again, especially since I live in an area now that's really a Jew wasteland and will never have the means to change my circumstances.

It's wonderful to meet someone else who knows exactly what it's like! Just a marvelous, thoughtful post! Thank you. May your next wave be perfect. :)