Saturday, September 19, 2009

Shana Tovah, Baby

I have accepted an invitation from my local congregation to serve on its board. I have accepted the invitation, because I'm a sucker. But it's a terrible idea, on a number of fronts.

In the first place, I have no time. None. I have scrupulously ignored every email and entreaty and request from the board and other members, ever since signing on. With my work schedule, and travel schedule, and gradual school work, and house- and child-keeping, it's just not something that's high on my priority list. It should be. I accepted the responsibility. But it's my Bridge Too Far.

Also, I'm already over my limit of dysfunctional organizations (limit = 1, and that's the company I work for).

Also...well, I hate to say it, but I have very ambivalent feelings about the whole Temple thing. I always have. My religious life always moved back and forth along a continuum between Attraction and Repulsion, my whole life.

When I was twelve, deep in the bowels of Bar Mitzvah training, moving slowly along the track and preparing myself for eventual expulsion out into the world, I told my father that the temple we belonged to was a Bar Mitzvah mill, and that I wanted out. It was the mid-1970s, and the traditional position of the Reform Jewish family towards its congregation was that it was a place where one slowed down to about 20 miles per hour in order to eject the kid for Sunday School, before zooming off to do more interesting things. And, of course, it was that place you went for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in order to keep the guilt at bay. But that was about it. So when I told my father that our temple was a god-awful place that processed kids more than educating them, it wasn't like he was going to know whether I was telling the truth or not. So he hauled me down to the place to confront the rabbi (which is more than most fathers would have done, back in the day), and said, "The kid says this place is nothing more than a Bar Mtizvah mill." To which the rabbi replied, with a traditional, rabbinic shrug, "He's right."

And that was the end of that.

I started taking private lessons with one of my father's students, who was Orthodox, and going to Saturday morning services with him at a tiny, store-front schul a few miles from my home (for which the rabbi gave me special dispensation to ride my bicycle). This was a revelation to me. The congregation was no more than a dozen families. I understood, for the first time, the role of community in the shabbat service. I understood why the Bar Mitzvah was important--they needed people to do things. And I understood the role of study--because every weekend, we didn't just listen to a Torah portion and then a sermon--we studied the Torah portion and then argued about it. Argued! Fiercely, sometimes. Long before college or grad school, I learned what a seminar was. And I understood why our religion placed such an emphasis on study, and on analysis, and on argument--because you were expected to hold your own, to speak up--to say your piece--to help the group work through a thorny and complex story. THIS is why they trained you to read the Torah and give a speech about it, for your Bar Mitzvah.

I loved it.

But, of course, I wasn't Orthodox, and my family wasn't particularly interested, and I had not one to talk to about it, or do ti with, was a long bike ride, and winter did eventually arrive. And I was 13.

And that was the end of that.

When I got to college, I did not join Hillel. I did not find a congregation. I did not even go to temple for the high holy days. Well, I went once. I sat in the back row and felt terribly out of place and wrong. I no longer remembered any Hebrew. The whole service felt like something I was supposed to know, but didn't know, so I felt out of place and foolish. I didn't stay long, and I didn't return.

But I felt bad about not observing anything. I mean, I went home to do Passover with my parents. I exchanged presents at Chanukah. But what about the high holy days? What about Yom Kippur? The whole idea of atoning for your rotten deeds and committing to do better--that was important stuff. And yet, going to temple did nothing to help me feel those things or think about those things.

Eventually, I started going out of town for Yom Kippur, to some national park or other Awe-Inspiring Location. I went alone and spent the day in silence--hiking for a while and coming to rest at some beautiful spot, where I could sit and think and...pray. I would say the shema, which was the only prayer I remembered, and then I would talk through the year that had passed--what had gone well, and what had gone badly. I apologized--to myself and Whoever was out there--and I promised to do better. And then I hiked down to whatever passed for civilization and had a big dinner.

Even now, years later, having belonged to congregations in Brooklyn and Tucson, raising children in them and sending them off to Sunday School (even teaching in the Sunday School for a couple of years in Brooklyn), I often feel as though I am missing out on the Real Deal when I sit through services and mouth the litanies. Yes, I am part of a community now. Yes, I am saying the words that my ancestors said, and participating in the rituals of my people. And often it's nice.

But it's never more than nice. It's never awe-inspiring. It's never difficult. I never really take the time to find some silence and really think about the choices and actions I've taken in the past year...and atone for the ones that have fallen short of my hopes for myself. Even when they give you time for silent reflection in temple, it's only about 30 seconds. And I have two fidgety boys to keep an eye on.

But those boys adore the rabbi and the cantor, and feel connected and at home in the congregation--and that's a hell of a lot more than I ever had, growing up. So...good for them.

And for their sakes, I care about the place. And for their sakes, I sit on the board.

But I'd much rather be sitting under a tree.