Out There: Sitting tight

All those years of worrying about where to sit in shul has shaped who we are.

hopepray88 298 (photo credit: )
hopepray88 298
(photo credit: )
It's High Holy Day season, and Jews the world over are scurrying around in preparation. Some are rising early to say special penitential prayers, others are practicing shofar-blowing, still others are wondering whom to invite for dinner. But one oft-overlooked common thread that unites most Jews during this season is concern about where exactly they will sit in the synagogue during those long hours of prayer. Will they get a seat next to the window, or the air conditioner? Will there be enough leg-room? Will they get an aisle or a center seat? Will they be stuck, again, next to that guy who talks incessantly, or the rotund fella who hogs the armrest? Will there be seats for the kids? The High Holy Day seating plan is as much a High Holy Day ritual as are apples dipped in honey, only much more stressful. One of its beauties, however, is that it crosses denominational lines. The feeling of seat-persecution - of not getting the pew one rightly deserves - is as much a staple in Reform and Conservative congregations as it is in Orthodox ones. After all, getting the honor one feels one has coming is a universal phenomenon. And not only on the High Holy Days, but throughout the year. WHEN I first came to Israel some 25 years ago, my heart bursting with affection for my people and my land, I walked into a Jerusalem synagogue and sat in what looked like a fine seat. I remember a man coming up and unceremoniously informing me that I was in his place, even though there were numerous empty seats around us. Embarrassed, I slithered to the other side of the shul, until there, too, I was told I was sitting in someone's place. Feeling like one of the three bears in a Jewish Goldilocks story, my balloon was burst, my affections diminished. I vowed then to never act in such a manner. Ah, but I was so much younger then. I didn't have my own shul, with my own seat and my own name tag on it. That honor would come only later - after a real job, a real wife, a hefty mortgage, four kids and an overblown sense of self that comes from all of the above. Only then would I understand the security that one's permanent synagogue seat provides. It's weird, a telltale sign of aging, but I've become attached to my seat: It's familiar, I feel secure there. So much so that it enrages me when someone dares plunk himself down where I should be sitting. I've turned into that tormentor I vowed never to become. And I know better. I know I shouldn't kick someone out of my chair, and that there is no "nice way" to do it. But something just builds up inside. Do I tell the person to leave my seat, and feel horrible afterwards? Or do I let the guy sit there, and then eat myself up inside over his gall? It's like eating at a restaurant next to a table of smokers. It's a no-win situation. If you tell them to stop smoking, chances are an argument will ensue, and the resulting aggravation will ruin your meal. But if you don't, you'll be tormented all evening about whether you should have told them to extinguish their cigarettes, and the ensuing aggravation will ruin your meal. THIS SEAT obsession is, however, obviously not solely mine. Indeed, it's a phenomenon that goes a long way toward explaining Israel's political culture, in which no politician, regardless of misdeed, malfeasance or incompetence, voluntarily gives up his cabinet or Knesset seat. I'm no anthropologist, but our democratic culture oftentimes seems rooted in the culture of the synagogue. And in the culture of the synagogue a good permanent seat (makom kavua) is highly prized. The fear of losing that seat seems a Jewish trait, unconsciously ingrained in the Jewish makeup - not dissimilar to some of those other well-known Jewish traits, like the vaunted Jewish smarts. I remember as a boy always being so proud and amazed at how smart Jews were - how many Nobel Prize-winning scientists, economists and writers we produced. And I remember in Hebrew school asking one of the teachers why this was, and being told it was because of all those years of Talmud study. "Ah, right, that must be it," I said to my teacher, thinking he too was really smart to come up with such a wise answer. Until I thought about it for a minute longer, and it dawned on me that this couldn't be the case, since most of those Jewish laureates never studied a page of Talmud in their lives. Never mind, I was told, all that talmudic give-and-take over the years penetrated into the culture and became part of the Jewish gene pool the Nobel laureates dipped into. BY THE SAME token, all those years of worrying about where to sit in shul has also filtered in and shaped who we are. Granted, some of the politicians in question don't spend a whole lot of time in shul, but this fear of losing one's seat is there, unconsciously a part of their makeup, a part - dare I say it - of the greater Jewish consciousness. For all those struggling to understand why this country's political situation looks like it does, why no one here will ever - but ever - voluntarily give up a cabinet or parliamentary seat, I have one piece of advice: Look at synagogue seat-politics these High Holy Days. The fear of seat usurpation has seeped in and become a part of us all, whether we acknowledge it or not.