So there I was in Azerbaijan, in the middle of the Caucasus, in the Jewish section of Quba, just down the road from Dagestan. You know.
The small group I was with, which included the mayor of Acre, happened upon a well-appointed but rather incongruous synagogue that could have been transplanted from Or Akiva, one of the towns in Israel with a large concentration of Jews from the Caucasus.
This was a place that felt like its name sounded: Krasnaya Sloboda. In Russian that means “Red Town,” but the name sounded to me like “somewhere way out there in the sticks.”
And it was: In the sticks, in a far-flung land, in a Shi’ite country, hundreds of kilometers from anywhere.
And then, just like that, it was time for the afternoon Minha prayer. As the only member of the nine-person Israeli delegation wearing a kippa all the time, I was the natural go-to guy to lead the services that the bare-headed mayor of Acre, Shimon Lankri, insisted we hold in the shul.
I’m not a big fan of leading services, never have been.
First, my voice is nothing to sing home about. Second, I’ve been scarred by people who have approached me over the years after I’ve led the prayers, and corrected my pronunciation.
“Who needs this?” I thought after the last incident a few years back. Very much a believer in minimizing possible points of day-to-day aggravation, I made a pact with myself to limit the times I lead prayers to when it is absolutely necessary – such as on my mother’s yahrzeit.
Or, of course, when in Azerbaijan.
THERE, STANDING in the middle of a shul with some members of the local Jewish community looking on, with the mayor of Acre urging me to step up and do the right thing, I was not going to demur and say that my throat hurt, or that I had a cold, or that I was an Ashkenazi in a Sephardic synagogue, or that nobody there would be able to follow my Ashkenazi version of the prayers.
So I agreed, and rose to the occasion.
There – in the land of the Khazars, thousands of miles from Zion, in a place where before the Soviet Union’s collapse such an afternoon service would have been a major event – I led the davening.
And when I finished, I was not met by people waiting to shake my hand and mumble “yasher koah” (good job), as is customary, but rather by a camera crew.
That’s right, a camera crew.
“What went through your head while you were praying here?” the reporter for a state-sponsored program on multiculturalism asked me.
“Huh?” I replied, surprised by the question.
I’ve been asked many on-camera questions in the past. What do I think about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; what do I think about US President Barack Obama; what do I think about that special chemistry between the two.
But I’ve never – never – been asked about what goes through my mind when I pray.
I knew what I should have said, and what the reporter wanted to hear. That it was very special being in a place where Jews – surrounded by Muslims, albeit secular ones – were free to lead their lives of faith and pray as they wished; no small thing in a world of attacks on Paris kosher markets and Copenhagen synagogues.
But none of that came out. At least, not at first.
“I was thinking about not wanting to botch the pronunciation of the words,” I said.
“Come on,” the reporter pressed, not believing such a banal thought could actually have filled my mind at such an auspicious moment. “Tell me what you really felt? I saw that look in your eye.”
I wanted to say that she was confusing the glare off my glasses with a sparkle in my eye, but I refrained.
“Right,” I said, correcting myself. And then I launched into what it meant to be able to step into a synagogue so far from home and feel right at home.
Which was all true, really it was; it’s just not what was actually going through my mind at the time.
LIFE IS FULL of those moments, the ones where you know what you should be thinking, and it’s nowhere near what is actually going through your head.
It happens a lot during prayer. But it also happens when you hear that your relatives are coming for a visit from abroad, and your first thought is not about how wonderful it will all be – what you should be thinking – but rather the hope that they don’t stay too long and cramp your style.
Or when a family of six you’ve invited for Shabbat calls to say they can’t make it because the kids are sick. You know that your reaction should be, “Oh, what a shame,” though in fact the first thought is, “Yes, what a relief.”
Or when you are at a classical music concert, listening to a soothing symphony, and instead of focusing on and enjoying the music, you’re thinking about what a waste of money it would be if you did what you actually wanted to do – and fell asleep.
THE AZERBAIJANI reporter’s question brought back other times where I was taken aback in far-flung locales by questions that had to do with Jewish stuff; questions I either didn’t feel proficient enough to respond to, or I didn’t have sufficient time to answer.
For instance, a few months ago in rural Kentucky, after I delivered a 45-minute speech on the Middle East to a very supportive church group, one man stood up during the question period and asked – with the kippa on my head obviously in his mind – “What do you think you have to do to get to heaven?” My first instinct was to deflect the query with humor, and say something like, “Be good to the Jews.”
But instead I deferred, saying I was there to talk about politics and diplomacy, and that questions about heaven were a bit above my pay grade.
And another time in Kentucky, after speaking to another rural church group, two women approached and asked whether they could inquire about something.
“Sure,” I said, preparing for the worst.
“How do you keep that thing on your head?” one of the women asked, very kindly.
I proceeded to take off my kippa clip and wow them with its many uses. I demonstrated how the clip not only keeps the kippa on one’s head, but – as the observant Jew’s equivalent to the butter knife, that multipurpose utensil that serves so many useful functions – it can also extract a splinter like a tweezer, or loosen a screw like a Phillips screwdriver.
The women chuckled; then one of them, rather sheepishly, asked, “Was that a stupid question?” “No ma’am,” I replied. “Not at all. It was a great question, because it was one I could actually answer.”
Better yet, it was an answer she was content with, unlike that Azerbaijani reporter – who was utterly unsatisfied with hearing the mundane thoughts actually bouncing around my brain. ■
A collection of the writer’s “Out There” columns, French Fries in Pita, is now available at www.herbkeinon.com and www.amazon.com.