Out There: Happy worshipers

Few are the things Jews like to complain about more than their synagogues; I speak here from experience, because I am one of the complainers.

complaining jews 370 (photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
complaining jews 370
(photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
Few are the things Jews like to complain about more than their synagogues. I speak here from experience, because I am one of the complainers.
I also say this just after Succot, having logged – along with my co-religionists around the world – many dozens of hours in the pews since the start of the “Selichot” penitential prayers that Ashkenazim start saying the Saturday night before Rosh Hashana.
Those dozens of hours provide a lot of time for contemplating one’s maker and for introspection, but also a lot of time to kvetch. Come yet another singing of the Hallel prayer on one of the intermediate days of Succot (hol hamoed), and the mind – unfortunately – starts thinking more about why the shul picked a guy to lead the services who is going to sing, not chant, Hallel, and less about the meaning of one of the verses from that prayer: “The stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.”
Spend as much time in shul as I have over the past month and even the saints would grumble.
It’s too hot, it’s too cold. It’s too crowded, it’s too noisy. The guy leading the prayers is going too slow, he’s going to fast. He sounds too Ashkenazi, he sounds too American. His voice is shrill, he can’t keep a tune. He is waiting too long before starting the repetition of the “Amidah,” he is not waiting long enough. The windows should be open, the windows should be closed. The blinds should be drawn, they should be open.
The rabbi is talking too long, the rabbi is talking too long, the rabbi is talking too long.
But of all the complaints in all the shuls in all the world, the one most common – though not always necessarily articulated because it is uncomfortable to admit – is that one is not getting the honor one feels one deserves: not from the rabbi, not from the gabbai (sexton), not from nobody.
Who out there in synagogue-going land has never been annoyed that he did not get called up to the Torah for an aliya when he thought he should have, or that his young son was not asked as often as Mendel’s son to put the cover on the Torah, or that he has never been asked to open the ark on Yom Kippur? You might, like me, not really want to recite the blessing over the Torah, out of a fear that you might flub it; or not want to open the ark because of a concern that everyone is looking at you and you might open it at the wrong time or from the wrong side. But you want to be asked. If not, you’ll begin nurturing a feeling of being slighted that could – and often does – fester for years. It’s the asking, not the doing, that is important.
THIS HOLIDAY season my shul of the past 18 years, the one I have kvetched about to The wife and kids 18,000 times, won me over by granting me the honor of honors: Chatan Bereishit, the person called up on Simhat Torah amid pomp and ceremony to recite the first blessing over the first reading in the first book of the Torah (Genesis/ Bereishit).
This is an honor so lofty that when you return to your chair people don’t say “yasher koach,” (may your strength be increased) as they usually do when you get called up to the Torah (or in my house, when you pass the salt), but rather “mazal tov,” as they do to a real chatan (groom).
In years past, when this honor was always bestowed on someone else, I consoled myself – and my children who would inevitably ask why I was never chosen to be the Chatan Bereishit – by looking honestly in the mirror and saying I was unworthy. Outside of praying in the synagogue on a daily basis and paying my dues on time, I was not active on various committees, did not donate money, and was not a learned Torah scholar. It was the folks who fell into one of the above categories, or preferably all three, who deserved that honor.
And then, out of the blue, they asked me.
My first reaction was to think that they just ran out of people. This, of course, was my kids’ first reaction as well.
However The Wife, as is her wont, was a bit more sensitive. “Look at it this way,” she said.
“True, you’re not active in the synagogue, you never go to meetings, you don’t volunteer for anything, you don’t give money, and you’re no scholar, but you also sit quietly on the side, make no demands and don’t complain. So in this case the absence of a negative is a positive – you deserve it.”
I was sold. I received this honor because the dearth of darkness is light.
Okay, I complain about the length of the services and the rabbi’s speech, but everyone does that. Otherwise, I’m a low-maintenance congregant; in other words a gabbai’s dream.
If someone sits in my seat, I move over. If someone opens the window when it’s cold, I put on a jacket. And I never, ever publicly complain about the guy leading the prayers, worried that to do so would only invite reciprocity on that one time a year when I lead the services.
EVERY HONOR, however, has its price. Just as there are no free lunches, there are no free honors in shul. And this one comes with a fee that everyone knows: the Chatan Bereishit and the Chatan Torah (the person who recites the last blessing at the end of the Torah) are expected to give a kiddish, or – in the modern era where herring and kugel do not have the same appeal for the masses as they once did – sponsor a speaker or some other kind of program for the congregation.
An interesting, uniquely Jewish concept, that.
Give a guy an honor, and then make him pay for it. It’s like bestowing the Man Booker Prize on a worthy author, and then having him write a check to the nominating committee.
“When is the kiddish?” fellow congregants asked both The Wife and I after my aliya. “What do you have planned?” Humbled by the honor, I just gave a shrug and politely replied that it had not yet been determined.
The Wife, however, could not resist. She said to one member of the shul – a rather serious, straight-laced and normative national-religious congregation – that we were going to organize a square dance.
Our synagogue is many things, but it’s not a square-dancing, dosey-doeing, swing-your-partner hootenanny type of shul. Which doesn’t mean it’s not a wonderful place. It is. Especially now that it made me Chatan Bereishit.