by Chaim Weinstein (Brooklyn, NY)
At the close of the Rosh Hashana service the rabbi asks us to be seated.
He knows our kids are squirming and hungry but he has a plan. Smiling securely in our modern orthodox Jewish building, the rabbi deputizes each of us to reach out to our increasingly right-moving Jewish community shuls. Our mission, as the rabbi explains it, is to become friendly and join a minyan and style of davening different from our own. We are to break the barriers, say hello to black-hatted strangers, go to a yeshiva minyan, shukkle, mingle and daven. We are to begin this the very next Shabbat and help bring Jews closer.
I make my way through Brooklyn streets in the fading light of a cold Friday afternoon. Hurrying in my knitted purple yarmulke, camelhair coat, and oxblood loafers to a small synagogue, I feel like I’m a robin among penguins, a rose-vine in a field of black orchids, a square peg in a grid of round holes.
I am in a black-hat neighborhood and it feels like enemy territory, even though we are all Jews.
Despite my discomfort, I smile and wish “Good Shabbos” to passersby, but their eyes merely flick past me and dismiss me with mumbled responses.
I hang my coat on the pitted aluminum coat rack in the rear of their small shul and smile: when I leave, my coat will be easy to find in this field of black cloth and marbleized buttons. Like a rebellious peacock, I parade my colors before these plain-garbed men. It is the very choice of my clothing, I know, that fences me off into self-imposed alienation. But it is only in a shul like this where I feel the need to cover my stylish clothing, to conceal my wedding-banded finger with my right hand. I resent feeling like this.
In this overheated large room of white cloth-covered tables and metal folding chairs, these Jews stare with a brazenness unbecoming true knights of the Torah and defenders of the faithful. Though I am a stranger in their strange land, and the Torah demands that they love me, these Jews stare at me instead with pity and condescension, instead of love and concern.
I pull an Artscroll English siddur from the shelf and move toward an unoccupied table. I’m ready to pray and freeze their antisocial stares with one of my own. So I stare back at them until they look away first, and I am as pleased with my win as a petulant child.
Most congregants pray and chant, though some talk and gesticulate, ignoring the open prayer books before them. Others weave through the mass of tables and chairs during prayers, removing scholarly tomes from crowded bookcases during prayer. Their brows furrow in concentration, poring over tiny print. They are learning Torah.
I don’t understand how they can do this during prayer, from whom they receive rabbinic approval. If I had an audience with the American president or with a king, I could not read a book openly in his face during that time. How can studying during a prayer session with the king of kings, even learning Torah, be justified? Their talking disturbs me for the same reason, but I am just a visitor so I keep my thoughts to myself.
The time for evening prayer arrives, and when the sexton asks me to lead the services, I am shocked, but I simply smile and nod slowly. Some skeptics here will now hear their first-ever modern Jew leading services. Still, I give them credit for trying me out, me, with my pale-blue shirt and striped tie and unblack shoes and colorful, little knitted yarmulke.
I know my davening surprises them because it sounds authentically East European. They can’t figure me out, and that pleases me: I like being mysterious.
When finished, I get heartfelt back-slaps and smiles from some worshipers. But others are suspicious. One asks me pointblank, “What is someone who looks like you doing in a place like this?”
I am stunned but say nothing, remembering a Torah teaching about not judging a wine by its bottle. In this shul, my Jewish worth is measured by my clothing and the style and length of my hair. But for me, Jewishness is in the soul, in memories of childhood, rituals and laws forsaken or embraced.
A young man blocks the return to my seat. Arms across his chest, he blurts his demand: “Why didn’t you wear a black hat when you led the services? Why that tiny Pepsi-Cola cap on the back of your head?” I feel like slapping his arrogance, his holier-than-thou aura. Thoughts furiously bounce around in my head. I want to scream: “If you are all so scrupulous about keeping commandments, how could you ask another Jew such a question? Why do you ignore the dictum ‘love your neighbor as yourself’? And where are your manners and observance of commandments between man and man?”
I feel sad that I must submit to my rabbi that his class experiment was a failure, that some fellow Jews shunned and mistrusted each other. I can forgive their social backwardness but not their hypocrisy. I am stone-silent as I think of a song: “It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile,” so I do, and still smiling, I wish him good shabbos.
Then I replace my siddur, retrieve my easy-to-find camelhair coat, and walk out uneasily, disconnected, into the cold night.
For more than thirty years, Chaim Weinstein taught English in grades six through college in New York City public schools as well as in several parochial schools. His poems and stories have appeared on The Jewish Writing Project, and his short story, “Ball Games and Things,” was published in Brooklyn College’s literary magazine, Nocturne.