Tag Archives: ritual practices

Missing my synagogue, my shul

by Tania Hassan (Gilbraltar)

I miss the synagogue.  Not my husband’s exquisitely vintage and stunningly intricate synagogue of his childhood but mine–my synagogue, my shul–the one that started out in a basement with doilies and shiny kippas in a basket by the entrance, and a chain across the parking lot (“lichvod Shabbat kodesh”) that forced shul goers to find parking around the corner.

How can I describe to you the ties that bind me to this most simple of communities or the profound love and connection in which the roots of my Avodat Hashem were planted and watered?

From lap to lap I shuffled as a child, gathering candies and friendships.  From wide-eyed babyhood, I grew into a sulky preteen and then a bride, a mother… all within the warm embrace of my parents’ friends and the fellow  members of Tiferet Yisrael Congregation, or “congregatation,” as the shul president sometimes called it – English not being his first or second language.

This shul was not just a place to pray.  It was our favorite playground. During shul hours, the parking lot and the coat room were begging for our imaginations to transform them into dangerous faraway lands. The choicest hiding spot was under Jack Oziel’s lush mink fur coat, which felt like melted butter against our hopelessly chapped and cracked lips. I can still feel it and smell the musty cloves that lingered in old pockets from havdalah to havdalah.

Believe it or not, in our neck of the woods, during “shalushudis” or rather, seudah shelisheet, we kids were sort of allowed to play in the main sanctuary, stomping on the hollow bimah, hiding in the velvet curtains of the Aron, and even peeking at and kissing the precious scrolls.

We were always shooed out by a red-faced, cranky Moroccan, who, with great flourish and a dismissive wave of his hand, locked us out and banished us back to the coat room.

But it was all a show because the next week, for 20 years, they would forget to lock the sanctuary and ignore the sudden disappearance of literally all the kids from the seudah shelisheet kids’ table.

I grew up pecking the men and women once on each cheek until I was bat mitzvah, at which time the men did a sort of slight Shabbat shalom bow, always amused at my adherence to religion despite my very childish appearance and antics. This familial style of greeting and interacting is very telling of the sort of community we grew up in.  One didn’t proceed to the kiddush or the exit without greeting every single shul goer.

Simchat Torah was The Best. No other synagogue with their enormous budgets and catered lunches could compare to the laughter, dancing, and, of course, fried sharmila and spicy orissa of my childhood Simchat Torah’s.

Age was irrelevant in this place. Old men were the coolest dancers and were always the first to whip those candies right back at us, usually resulting in the candy bouncing off the tinted glass that was our mechitza and hitting another horrified octogenarian. These were the days before Sunkist jelly candies. The older I got, the more sophisticated the candies became.  Rumor has it that now they throw whole packs of Twizzlers, O’ Henry’s, and the like.  Believe me when I tell you there’s nothing like a Moroccan shul.

__________

Yom Kippur. Oh, Yom Kippur, I miss you! I miss leaning on all the mollycoddling ladies. I miss the smell of lemons and Heno de Pravia cologne my grandmother would bring to keep her going. I miss the chazzan whose voice is the one I still hear in my head every time I utter a prayer. His strong, zealous service of God in a stunning clear call that still brings in my own Shabbat here across the whole world or wherever I go, whoever is up at the Bimah. In my ears, it’s always him. 

I miss the unity that I used to feel on Yom Kippur.  I don’t think everyone in that shul was Jewish, but we were One. That night and all the next day, we were shoulder to shoulder, intertwined souls, with the single mission to carry each other to the finish line, supported, cared about, and joyful.

We were happy on Yom Kippur because with all the petty politics of a shul out of the way, we focused on what we liked about each other. We laughed a lot until we elbowed each other or got stern looks from the chazzan or his wife, our eim bayit. We weren’t misbehaving, but we were so happy and united. The little things made us laugh.

We cried too. We knew each other so well—who had lost their mother that year , whose husband was ill, whose conversion was imminent. We prayed for ourselves, but hand in hand.

On this day, the Shabbat drivers put on their leather running shoes to walk home or to the house of a nearby host.  Yom Kippur was sacred to all, and we celebrated that accomplishment of theirs with great pride. To this day I can’t tell you which members were fully Shabbat observant and which weren’t, aside for the obvious ones, such as the chazzan and his family.

The tinkling Spanish of the ladies with their heavy perfumes and broaches, the croaky davening of tone deaf middle-aged men pierced by the melodious honey-like harmony of the chazzanim and their sons, or a delightful guest…the jar of chili peppers in the basement fridge that called our names every Friday night (after which we wiped our lips on Jack Oziel’s mink coat)… the diversity and the oneness… it shaped my entire being beyond the service of Hashem.

The shul shaped my perspective of the world. It helped me understand the world my parents had left behind and tried to recreate on much more frigid, colorless shores. And it embedded itself in the roots of my soul, in that space where self-esteem and formative experiences matter so much as to affect you forever.

People used to make fun of our shul. They saw it as a nebbish smattering of old school Spanish Moroccans, and Israeli and Russian ba’al teshuvas without a grand hall or grand communal accomplishments.  But there were those of us who found the secret to life along with the musty old cloves in deep pockets of simple and happy men.

And if your synagogue held gala dinners, or charged thousands of dollars in annual membership (barring the entry of a poor man longing to connect to His Maker), or catered a five-star kiddush with a VIP table, you just wouldn’t understand.

Tania Hassan is an ABA therapist who lives in Gibraltar, a 2.2 km squared British peninsula that shares a border with Spain.  Her Spanglish is superb, her British accent less so.  When she has spare time, she writes and pines for Canadian winters. 

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Family Gathering

by Carol Westreich Solomon (Montgomery Village, MD)

Past Pennsylvania farms, harvest-bare,
I drive to the cemetery
Where my uncle waits for my aunt
Beneath a half-empty headstone.
Next to me, Aunt Dellie rambles
About Yiddish class
Until crackling gravel announces our arrival.

“Come, so many to visit,” she says,
Scooping stones into my cupped hands.
She dips beneath the gate chain
Protecting the dead.
By height, tilt, shade,
She navigates the headstones
To those she’s come to see.

Her aunts.
Her sister.
Her father.
Her mother.
Plop go the stones, our calling cards.

Tucked among thinning headstones
Her grandmother’s grave.
Faint numbers record the length of her years
But not her strength
When a husband wanders.

Near my uncle’s grave, an alabaster headstone
Straight and proud,
Not yet buffeted by winter winds
Or chipped by mower-churned stones.
Cousin Linda.
“So young.  See all the stones.  They all came for Linda.”

“Who will come for me?”
She brushes dead grass from her husband’s headstone,
The ground uneven,
The marker leaning in.
No family gathering in granite awaits the rest of us.
Planes, schools, jobs
Have scattered us all.

Her reunion done,
Aunt Dellie washes death from her hands,
Then dips beneath the chain
Separating her from her loved ones.
Still, she invites them into my car
And they travel with us
For the rest of the day.

Carol Westreich Solomon has returned to her first love–creative writing–after exploring literature and writing with high school students in Maryland.  As the lead consultant of Carol Solomon and Associates, she previously taught writing to adults in corporations and government agencies.  Her YA novel Imagining Katherin was designated a 2016 Notable Book by the Association of Jewish Libraries.  Her work has also appeared in Lilith,  JewishFiction.net, Persimmon Tree, Poetica, Little Patuxent Review, Pen and Ink, The English Journal, and The Washington Post.

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism, poetry

Yahrzeit

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

In my changing neighborhood
the Asian dollar store has replaced
the old Woolworth five-and-dime.
I go in and ask for a Yahrzeit candle.
The owner quizzically looks at me.
“A memorial candle,” I explain.
He finds one on the back shelf.
It’s the anniversary of my father’s death,
and I have bought the candle to say Kaddish.
Is one candle enough to honor
the man who helped raise me?
Pluses and minuses, Dad, if you must know.
I have trouble lighting the wick;
I struggle over the Hebrew words.
Shouldn’t there be more
in the way of ritual and remembrance?
Light a candle, just one candle, they say.
As I stand over the flame,
I am still debating whether one candle
is wholly insufficient or entirely too much.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Filed under Brooklyn Jews, Family history, Jewish identity, poetry

Floating Between the Denominations

by Pamela Jay Gottfried (Atlanta, GA)

I am no longer surprised when people– upon hearing that I don’t drive or answer the telephone on the Sabbath– ask me if I am Orthodox.  The labels of denominations, and the assumptions about their adherents’ religious practices, are so ingrained that people momentarily forget that Orthodox women cannot be ordained as rabbis.  Personally, I enjoy defying the labels, finding the places where it is possible to be “just Jewish” and observe the mitzvot, commandments.

The week that we relocated to Atlanta I needed to go to the mikvah, ritual bath. I found a listing in a local Jewish directory and called to inquire about summer hours.  From the recorded message I learned that a woman must make an appointment 72 hours in advance and is given 20 minutes in the schedule to prepare and immerse.  In my old neighborhood all you had to do was show up, and with half a dozen preparation rooms there was hardly ever a wait.  Despite my last-minute call, I was able to secure 20 minutes that evening.

In New York, the mikvah attendant provided her clientele relative anonymity and freedom from small talk.  It’s not that she didn’t care who was patronizing the mikvah, it’s just that in what is arguably the most Jewish city in the world the mikvah attendant couldn’t possibly know everyone.  She lived in the house attached to the mikvah and treated the women who visited there as guests in her home.  She was a noble and modest hostess– never judgmental, always unobtrusive.  It was customary to give her a little extra, a gratuity, for her devotion to avodat kodesh, holy work.

That evening I was greeted by the attendant warmly with the requisite question: “Are you new in town or just visiting?”

“New in town,” I replied.  “We just moved here from New York.”

“Welcome! That’s great. We love it here.” The mikvah attendant had immigrated from South Africa many years earlier.

She followed up then, asking about why we had moved, whether we had family in town and where we were living.  She seemed surprised to learn that we were living within walking distance to a Conservative synagogue. So I admitted that I was employed there, but omitted the detail that I was serving as a rabbi in the congregation.  I didn’t want to burden her with explanations about non-Orthodox women visiting the mikvah or walking to synagogue on the Sabbath. I assumed that such a combination of ritual practices would be alien to her.

Finally, the small talk was over and she showed me to the back room, where I prepared for immersion.  Later, when I paid her, she followed me out to my car. Giving me back a few dollars she said, “It’s only 12 bucks.”

I mumbled something about it being customary in New York to tip the attendant.

“We’re volunteers here, so that isn’t necessary.”

As I turned to go, she said quietly, “tizki b’mitzvos,” which translates “be strengthened by [your observance of the] commandments. Clearly, I had misjudged her as judging me.  She recognized that any Jewish woman could be devoted to the mikvah–nowhere else are the fluid boundaries of Judaism’s denominations so apparent.  Thanks to a dedicated cadre of volunteers, the mikvah remains functional, and the observance of its ritual viable.  I promised myself to be a noble and modest guest in her home.

In time I grew accustomed to visiting the mikvah in Atlanta. I still have to remember to call 72 hours in advance, but the woman who coordinates appointments is kind to me when I forget. I have met most of the volunteer attendants and I’ve stripped myself, so to speak, of any disguises; now many of these women know that I am a Conservative rabbi.  In this community of women, I am happiest floating between the denominations, resisting labels and observing the mitzvot to the best of my ability.

Pamela Jay Gottfried is a rabbi, parent, teacher, artist, and the author of Found in Translation: Common Words of Uncommon Wisdom.  A New York City native and graduate of The Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Gottfried teaches students of all ages in churches, colleges, community centers, schools, and synagogues. She strives for balance in her life by spending as much time writing at the computer as she does working at the pottery wheel.

An excerpt of this essay originally appeared in Sacred Days: A Weekly Planner for the Jewish Year, 2004-2005, published by CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of CLAL and the author.

You can read more of her work on her blog, Pamela’s Pekele (http://rabbipjg.blogspot.com/), or visit her website for more information: http://www.pamelagottfried.com/

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