Tag Archives: synagogue life

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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Filed under Family history, history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism

Jewish Identity: A Round-Trip Journey

by Donna Swarthout (Bozeman, MT)

A life-long discomfort with institutionalized Judaism is hard to shed once you reach the mid-life years. Sure, it’s great to keep an open mind, but there’s also the sense of not wanting to waste time on pursuits unlikely to enrich one’s life. Some of us narrow our options as we get older in a bargain to reduce the odds of having regrets.

Years of involvement with synagogue life had left me without a strong Jewish identity. This could be my own fault for not making a large enough personal investment, at least that’s what our rabbi and congregation president hinted at when we recently decided not to renew our annual membership. What was it that held us back? Years of trying to fit in, find meaning in the services, and carve out time and money for the responsibilities of membership had left us feeling….well, unfulfilled.

But something shifted when we moved to Germany in July of 2010. The vague contours of my Jewish identity gradually took on a clear shape. This was not a transformation of faith, but rather a return to the embrace of German Jewish culture, to the memories of my childhood when I was surrounded by relatives who all spoke with the same New York German Jewish accent and whose lives were a story from a faraway place that I could only imagine.

In a place where Jewish life had been all but extinguished, our family took part in building a new Jewish presence on German soil. A void was filled as I attended services in Berlin among people who shared my ancestry and my determination to revive a part of what had been lost. The sense of connection to Jewish traditions and rituals was present for me in a way that it had never been in the States, at least not since I had left the East Coast at the age of eight to become a California transplant.

Back in the States we were part of the melting pot of Jewish America. Despite all the benefits that come from our diversity, there was also something missing that I had never before been able to put my finger on. In Germany I realized that the missing element was a common cultural heritage that connects us.

As assimilated Americans, we have Jewish identity issues that German Jews don’t have. We come together to share Jewish rituals, but the feeling does not always or often run very deep. We remind ourselves that we come from a long historical tradition that must be kept alive, but we may not feel this in our bones. We worry about things like building funds and membership growth, but how do such pressures help build our Jewish identities?

It was the return to the States that cast a sharper light on the questions that I had struggled with for so long. The journey back to my roots had helped me to find the core of my Jewish identity, but the old doubts about how to lead a meaningful Jewish life resurfaced upon my return to Montana.

One of the first discussions I had with our rabbi after our return was about my daughter’s bat mitzvah. Olivia had been struggling for quite some time to decide if her coming of age ritual would be a bat mitzvah or something outside the Jewish faith. As I listened to the rabbi recite the long list of official guidelines, I was stunned to hear that she would be required to keep a punch card to mark her attendance at services. She would need to have ten punches on the card during the year leading up to her bat mitzvah, with no free coffee or hot chocolate to reward her at the end!

I’m troubled by the image of my daughter holding up her punch card to the rabbi after Friday night services. Would my daughter really be more Jewish when the card was full? If she learned her Torah portion and the requisite prayers, why couldn’t she carve her own path to her bat mitzvah and Jewish adulthood? Wouldn’t a single profound experience at services be worth more than half a dozen boring ones? Judaism in America feels formulaic at times and the punch card rule symbolized a structure within which I often feel more constrained than inspired.

The end of a journey can bring emotions that range from elation to relief, from fulfillment to exhaustion. I returned from Berlin enriched by my involvement in one of the smallest, but fastest growing Jewish communities in the world. But I also had renewed feelings of ambivalence and doubt about my connection to American Judaism. Now I must weave these two strands of my Jewish self into a single thread of my identity. And I must not abandon the effort to find community amidst the melting pot of Jews in America.

Donna Swarthout lived in Berlin, Germany from 2010 – 2012. You can read more about her experiences on her blog Full Circle. Her work has appeared on The Jewish Writing ProjectAVIVA-berlin.de, Tikkun Daily, and in Tablet. This piece first appeared on Jewesses with Attitude (http://jwa.org/blog) and is reprinted here with the kind permission of The Jewish Women’s Archive.

 

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Filed under American Jewry, German Jewry, Jewish identity