Tuesday, September 18, 2012

RBOC: Who by fire?

There's just no way for me to enjoy 99% of all synagogue services I have ever attended, at least since I stopped believing in God in my early teens.  And yet I end up going sometimes, usually out of one social obligation or another than any spiritual curiosity of my own.  So it was this year that I got suckered into going to Rosh Hashanah services at CBU: I feel more sense of tradition about the dinner than about the religion, and I just didn't have the beytsim to stop by for the food and then bug out before the evening service.  After which, of course, the tiny congregation's leaders said to me, "We'll see you tomorrow morning, right?"  Sigh.
  • The congregation is so tiny that it includes faculty, staff, and students from CBU.  I feel somehow exposed and thrown off by associating in this way with my students.
  • No brisket for Erev Rosh Hashanah dinner?  WTF?
  • Fucking tuna fish as the protein of choice?  What the shit?
  • There's just no way not to be a little intimidated by the newness of people in a new congregation.  Especially when your Hebrew is really shaky/non-existent.  I completely chickened out of going up to the front to participate, more out of Hebrew-language stage fright than my philosophical disagreements with organized religion.
  • One of the more dispiriting things about going to a new congregation isn't so much the unfamiliarity of the faces, but the unfamiliarity of the tunes.  I hate it when I can just about remember the tune to a prayer, only to find that everyone else has some other (usually lame) tune that they all use.
  • Speaking of tunes: Seriously, cantor?  You accompany yourself on a guitar?  On a fucking guitar?  Who the fuck do you think you are, Reverend Lovejoy?  I don't like it a damn bit; the aesthetics are all wrong.  Just like there's no crying in baseball, there's no strumming in services.
  • Holy crap, he has the guitar because he only knows how to play and sing in major scales.  You know what this shit sounds like in a major key?  Anglicanism.
  • Ditto this English-language bullshit.  Yeah, sure, I'm pretty much illiterate in Hebrew, but at least Hebrew sounds like prayer to me.  We sound that much more insane when we intone prayers in English.  If nothing else, harmonic-minor tunes in Hebrew inspire a sense of contemplation and ontological reflection for me.
  • It's incredibly anxious to be in a little congregation for these things, since you perforce feel  more a part of things, even if you'd like to just hang back by the wall in anonymity.  When you grapple with your feelings about personal engagement with religion, it's awfully confusing and unsettling to be thrown into communal engagement with ritual practice.
  • I dislike the people who are more religious than I.
  • I dislike the people who are less religious than I once was.
  • I really dislike the smug senior who can't shut up about his semester abroad in Israel.  No, I really don't want to hear anymore about it.  No, I am not impressed with you.  No, I do not give a flying fuck.  No, I really don't give a flying fuck.
  • I've identified for years as a Jewish atheist, but now I may have to amend that to Conservative Jewish atheist.  This Reform Judaism business is such a weak cup of coffee that I don't even feel anything against which to rebel properly.  Clearly, I have serious identity issues to work on.
  • I find it deeply depressing to read the language of most of these services.  Declaring our group fealty to an especially fickle and schizophrenic Invisible Patriarchal Ideal in the Sky just rubs me the wrong way, even if the leader of the prayer is hippie-dippie enough to re-word some of the language to refer to the deity in the feminine.  Once in a while, though, the language strikes a contemplative chord with me — like the following:
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquillity and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.
And then I realize that Leonard Cohen said it better in his rewrite.  And then I start thinking that I should write a service based on Leonard Cohen songs.  Because I would totally freak out with excitement if I could come to services and hear/see something like this:


  1. "Holy crap, he has the guitar because he only knows how to play and sing in major scales. You know what this shit sounds like in a major key? Anglicanism."

    Laughing my butt off right now. And Leonard is strumming, for the record.

    1. I would gladly grant a formal exemption for Leonard Cohen, especially if he can bring along a lute player.

  2. This sounds just like my husband, minus the "and then I always have to explain what I'm doing here" part. Once I stop giggling, I'll gloat in silence and leave you Jewish atheists to your identity issues :-)

  3. At least they weren't projecting everyone's texts up onto a big screen behind the rabbi.

    1. holy cow, that's...something. i wonder how many folks tried to list all those alphabetical transgressions in 140 characters.

  4. Although I do not consider myself religious anymore, I am most grateful that my religious tradition does not include any kind of music (and in fact frowns on it). Having studied music for a good portion of my life, I have seen and heard some rather dreadful ecclesiastical music.