Saddleback

From the freeway, I begin to see the massive red clay roofs of high-end housing developments in every direction. Once I exit, signs clearly mark the direction of Saddleback. At a final stop light, I have an option: turn left to take the road that leads to the church grounds, or make a right to go in the opposite direction; a sign declares this “Rocky Road.” It’s a joke, as Rocky Road doesn’t actually go anywhere, but dead-ends into a patch of land that appears yet to be developed.

Volunteers direct the stream of cars. I make my way past various parking lots, different sections, with someone at every turn to point me in the direction of the appropriate slice of asphalt. I arrive 20 minutes early, with enough time to explore. I buy a cup of coffee at an outdoor café and stroll past the book and keepsake kiosk.

The Saddleback campus is strewn with large tents. In addition to several permanent structures—including the main chapel where most congregants will attend services—supplemental worship areas are housed beneath canvas canopies. Each tent seats a hefty crowd, and will receive a broadcast of the sermon from the main chapel accompanied with its own unique music and other touches. I stroll past a tent for gospel lovers, another for Spanish speakers, and one called “Overdrive,” where fans of hard rock can crank it up a notch.

Along meandering paths, uplifting music emanates from speakers hidden in rocks. I’ve never seen so much creative use of cement—stamped into boulders, walkways, waterfalls, gentle streams. Smoothed, it forms the glassy floor of an industrial-looking building called “the Refinery,” which houses big open spaces for teens to gather; inside is like a big loft in some urban dreamscape. Around the building the concrete swoops and dips to form the necessary surfaces for skateboarding tricks.

On a big lawn behind the gospel tent, I spy the tabernacle. A high fabric barrier surrounds it, just as historians say it long ago in the desert, a measure taken to protect the sacred site and ensure that everyone entered through the same designated opening. In this re-creation, the fabric is a fine mesh so it’s sheer enough to see through. If this tabernacle had been built according to God’s exact specifications, all of the items would be made of precious metals and rare woods too costly and difficult to secure today. The materials here are more ordinary, but the way it looks—the precise dimensions of each item and how they are arranged—is true to God’s instructions. The tabernacle itself is not that big, less than half the size of the modern worship tents and much simpler in format—just a basic rectangle with fabric panels draped over posts. Inside, the space is divided into a few simple rooms, each dark and bare save for key objects: a large candleholder, a stand for food offerings, and a tray for burning incense. At the far back, in “the holy of holies” where only high priests were allowed, is the Ark of the Covenant, a fancy trunk used to house the stones on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed.

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The Question

Among the Jews of West Los Angeles, I am cautious about mentioning my husband for an entirely different reason: guilt. Judaism is transmitted to children via mothers and even though Phil and I have no children, the notion that if we did my non-Jewish status would rob them of a vital birthright is enough to make many Jews, even those on the less traditional side of the spectrum, uneasy.

According to some orthodox strands of thought, the question exists as to whether my marriage is even valid.

The only thing that could potentially rectify the situation is if I convert. It doesn’t matter that Phil considers himself a None: the onus is on me as the potential vessel of life. When I do mention Phil, I can tell the question is on people’s minds—do I intend to convert?—though they are too polite to ask. I have a feeling that how they perceive me hinges on the answer. Even if I am the one within the marriage who is interested in Judaism, most eager to understand, and the only person who may eventually soften Phil’s heart toward a religion that currently makes him bristle; in my current state, I am an agent of harm to the Jewish people.

Non-Jews who wish to officially convert must receive formal education under the guidance of religious leaders. By contrast, it’s far easier to become a Christian. I just have to accept Jesus as “my savior”—though, frankly, I still don’t know exactly what that means. I suppose it has something to do with recognizing that Jesus sacrificed his life to absolve my sins, but the details of the transaction remain hazy. Luckily, I am about to get a tutorial on this exact subject.

I arrive at Saddleback on the perfect day. The church has constructed a replica of the original biblical tabernacle, which is temporarily being displayed on its grounds.

That the ancient Jewish tabernacle has been constructed at a church is not too shocking, as the Torah has been adopted by Christians as the “Old Testament,” making all the stories and characters it contains vital to their history as well. That the tabernacle is at the Saddleback Church is a bonus as far as I’m concerned since visiting a “mega-church” headed by a celebrity preacher is a gaping hole in my Christian experience.

I had to dig around on the website to find out that officially Saddleback is Baptist, as the denomination is overshadowed by the star power of Pastor Rick Warren, author of New York Time best seller Purpose Driven Life (a book that has apparently sold more copies than any other nonfiction book ever), and frequent Christian commentator on various cable news programs. Online, I find I can choose between three times for Sunday services, given at two hour intervals to accommodate the estimated 20,000 people who attend in person (or via video streaming) from all over the region, country, and world. Apparently, it’s become something of a tourist destination—the Sunday plans for families visiting other hot spots like Disneyland and Sea World. From my dad’s house, it’s about a 45 minute drive south on freeways blissfully free of traffic.

Strange dance

It’s a strange dance Christians and Jews do around one another. When I first started attending church, I was surprised at how often Christians casually mentioned Jews during their services. Looking back, I don’t know why I should have been surprised or how it could be avoided, as most readings from the Old Testament mention Jews directly or indirectly. I suppose I still had Martin Luther in the forefront of my thinking. Earlier in his life, he treated the Jews kindly in his writings, expressing hope that they would soon come to embrace Jesus as the human incarnation of God, their long-awaited messiah. I don’t know why he thought Jews would choose to accept Jesus during his lifetime but when they didn’t he grew disillusioned and angry toward them. In 1543 he wrote a booklet called “On the Jews and Their Lies,” detailing all the reasons he believed Jews deserved to be despised. The fact that this hateful propaganda circulated in the region that is modern-day Germany is not lost on most historians, and some suggest it fueled contempt that simmered for 400 years and came to a head with the Holocaust.

Most of today’s Christians have distanced themselves from this hatred; they are more attuned to the debt Christianity owes Judaism. Jesus himself was a Jew and some of Christianity’s most vital tenets—the belief in “one God” and the idea that each person is valued deeply by a creator—are clearly bred by Jewish thought.

Still, some awkward tension remains. During my months of church-going, I was cautious enough not to mention being married to a Jew, even one as lackadaisical as Phil, until the morning I felt compelled to, and quickly regretted the decision. I was at a Presbyterian church. After the service, during the coffee and cookies part, a group of women gathered around me—the first recognized me as a visitor and approached to make conversation; others joined until we formed a substantial circle in the middle of the room. Several of the women were wearing name tags, and one in particular caught my eye. On this piece of plastic affixed to the lady’s chest was a decidedly Jewish surname. Years of Jewish classmates have made me aware of names common among Jews—like Cohen or Bernstein—and on this morning, in front of my very eyes, was one of these names—as strange and exotic, given the setting, as, say, “Sally Goldberg.”

“Are you Jewish?” I asked her. I couldn’t help it, I was curious. Obviously she wasn’t a practicing Jew, but I wanted to know what twists and turns of history might have led her here.

“No!” she practically shouted.

Our coffee klatch was silent, the air gone out faster than a whoopee cushion stomped with both feet. It occurred to me that perhaps my tone had sounded accusatory.

“My husband is Jewish,” I said. It was as lame as if I had followed a racial slur with “some of my best friends are black.” Apparently, it only made matters worse. The whoopee cushion might as well have been the real thing. Suddenly everyone had very important matters to attend. I was left wondering which had been the bigger faux pas: the question or the revelation? Of all the ladies, Sally herself seemed the least fazed. Before leaving, she returned to me and gave my arm a tender squeeze, “I hope we see each other again,” she whispered.

What could be

Today’s Torah reading covers the last of Exodus, which focuses on God’s instructions for the tabernacle tent. I’m surprised at how detailed they are: according to Moses, God has outlined the exact components for every part of the structure, including their precise dimensions and even what material from which each thing should be built.

God has also made it clear that everyone who is able to contribute, resources and skills, must do so. The people are eager to comply. Carpenters, blacksmiths, weavers—everyone chips in. Even the “working women” give up their precious scraps of metal for the cause. During an informal question and answer portion of the service, the rabbi acknowledges that this may be a reference to prostitutes surrendering the small reflective surfaces they used as mirrors. This small detail, he explains, indicates how even those with very little were willing to sacrifice items essential to their livelihoods.

Once the people understand what the tabernacle is for, they dedicate themselves fully to its construction. They seemed to be soothed by the specificity of the instructions, the lack of ambiguity.

Just as the history of being enslaved helped them grasp how time can be used to draw closer to the sacred, being homeless had made them keenly aware of how a shelter can be used for that same purpose. Experience may have heightened their gratitude for both, but it also made it clear that freedom is the essential ingredient—without it, one cannot organize time in such a way that a Sabbath is possible, just as putting up a structure like a tabernacle isn’t allowed if the land belongs to a person who doesn’t permit it.

With all this focus on homelessness and tents, I can’t help but think about the young people who I found camped on the synagogue steps when I first arrived this morning. Freedom is the ability to say “no,” whether it’s “I won’t work this day” or “I won’t vacate this space until I’m ready.” It’s why the “Occupy” movement is so powerful—people are refusing to leave an area that technically does not belong to them. With their tarps and tents and bed rolls, they are designating a space where everyday rules no longer apply. It’s not all that different from what the Jews did as they trekked across the desert thousands of years ago. The parallels are not lost on the rabbi. At the end of the service, he explains the events of the morning to the members of the congregation, most of whom showed up after the porch was cleared. I don’t know what he could have done differently, but he obviously feels that kicking the occupiers off the porch wasn’t the best choice. “We must ask God for forgiveness,” he says. “We have to right this wrong.” He doesn’t elaborate on what restitution might entail—whether something impersonal like cutting a check to a homeless shelter or more intimate like opening the synagogue’s basement as a shelter on stormy nights—but it reminds me once again what I admire about religion. It doesn’t automatically make you do the right thing, but it helps you imagine that there might be a right thing, lighting the way from what is to what could be.

Snapshot

For as many years as I orbited the synagogue on Main Street in Venice, I find it remarkable that I had never entered its sanctuary. I’ve passed by countless times on foot and by car and, as of the previous week, I celebrated Purim here, which took place in the basement, and participated in the Friday evening Sabbath-welcoming service, held in a small adjacent chamber. Having attended these preliminary events, I feel as if I’ve passed some small test and proven my mettle to gain access to the holy of holies. Today’s Sabbath service will be held in main worship hall.

In the foyer, I greet the rabbi.  He says, “Good morning,” with a smile. His eyes offer a less enthusiastic look that suggests: Oh, you again.  I pick up a flyer that details the history of the building and step through a second bank of doors. The most surprising aspect is how big and plain it is. In my imagination, it sparkled like an opulent Catholic cathedral, but in reality it looks like an auditorium for a particularly large high school with dozens of rows facing a stage. I find a spot in the middle towards the front and settle in to read my flyer, which explains that this building, the oldest synagogue in West Los Angeles still in operation, was constructed just after World War II. To save money, the design was borrowed from a military base theatre. It’s like these walls claimed this enormous space and then froze it in time.

The flyer explains that over the years Venice—“the Coney Island of the West”—became “a haven” for Jewish families and retirees and, at one point in the 50s and 60s, the boardwalk was lined with Jewish delis, kosher butchers, bakeries and tailors. I take a moment to imagine this version of the boardwalk—the suntanned limbs of bodybuilders replaced by fedoras and suits. Most of these Jews would have come through New York and made their way across the country by train or plane drawn by those age-old magnets: sunshine and Hollywood. Here was an unlikely, if natural, end point to the diaspora.

A man I recognize from Purim and the Friday service spots me and waves. At those events, he was outgoing and friendly and elaborated on certain aspects of what I was witnessing. I deeply appreciated his efforts to make me feel welcome.

Today, he takes the seat next to me and fills me in on a tidbit not included in the flyer. “See how there’s this middle section of seats,” he says, “and then smaller sections on the left and on the right?” I nod, noticing how an aisle on either side of where we’re sitting separates us from a narrower bank of seats. “That was a compromise. Originally, the middle section was for men and women who wanted to sit together and then for those who still wanted to sit with only their gender, the two sides.” Today, all three sections are coed.

He explains that when the synagogue was built, some congregants were starting to embrace the idea that not all the traditional rules were necessary. This more relaxed approach was formalized in the 1950s when the congregation joined the conservative movement. Members who wanted to remain orthodox broke away and started a synagogue located directly on the Venice Beach boardwalk. Since then, the rule-following spectrum has expanded further to include the more lenient reform movement. It’s a history that continues to play out; the seating arrangement in the auditorium offers a snapshot from this evolution.

The tabernacle

After the golden calf debacle, Moses returns from his second trip to the top of Mount Sinai with instructions to create a special place in which the people can worship God. It’s a nice compromise: a location to help people dispense of their anxiety without sullying the notion of a single unifying divinity. The people can’t have icons, but hey can have a place. Perhaps God cannot be touched or seen, but God can be experienced. Of course, this edifice needed to be portable—a tent or “tabernacle,” as it was called—because these people were on the move.

All synagogues are modern incarnations of the first tabernacle in that they are physical structures in which people focus on God. The ones on my list to visit in L.A. were often so nondescript on the outside that I took to driving past them hours, even days, before the service I plan to attend. More than once I was convinced the synagogue in question had gone out of business—the office building or warehouse it once occupied was abandoned, the Hebrew letters a forgotten remnant of its former life. Even after being reassured by phone that the place was indeed still in operation, I was never fully convinced that I had found my destination until I crossed the threshold into a sanctuary as vibrant as the exterior was dormant.

The contrast between inside and outside made me wonder if modern-day synagogues have also inherited the emotional legacy of the original tabernacle; when translated into a stone structure in Jerusalem and renamed a temple, it was destroyed—not once, but twice. In the plain facades, I sensed a reluctance to invest too much energy into a physical structure, an acceptance of impermanence, and a desire to go largely unnoticed by the city at large. Even a synagogue with a lavish exterior like the Sephardic one I visited in a ritzy neighborhood—its façade of white limestone leading to an intricately carved wood door—announced its purpose quietly: a simple metal menorah affixed to one of the blocks of stone. As I approached, I believed it was likely I would find the entrance locked, a small sign announcing the congregation had packed up and moved away.

My second Sabbath in L.A., I arrive for services just before the front doors open at 9 am. It is held at the synagogue I stared at from the dinner table with my friends the week before. In the middle of the night, a storm rolled in and I awake Sabbath morning to find the usually blue skies blanketed in grey and rain pouring down. I head towards the building under the cover of an umbrella. As I approach, I see that the entrance is crowded with people trying to stay dry under the overhang above the doors. I get closer and realize the people have camped here for the night, a dozen young men and women who are now rolling up makeshift bedding and folding tarps. A few worn out signs say “Occupy Wall Street,” though where one might do that around here is a mystery to me. I join them at the top of the steps just as one of the front doors opens and the rabbi sticks his head out to check on their progress. As they hoist their packs and sleeping rolls and descend the steps to leave, the rain dissipates and the sun emerges. It’s a trick that seems almost as remarkable as the parting of a sea.

The Hammies

After the noise-makers are passed around at the Purim celebration, it’s time for the business of the evening: the “Hammy Awards,” a spoof of the Academy Awards where winners are given a “Hammy” in place of an Oscar. It’s a poke at Haman who hoped to kill the Jews in his kingdom, transforming a solemn topic with fun.

The Master of Ceremonies is a rabbinical student with wheat stalks glued to his t-shirt. He announces the category for “Best Queen.” He reads, very seriously, “…and the nominees are: Queen Elizabeth…Queen Latifah…the rock band Queen…Queen Esther for saving the Jews. And the winner is…” he pauses for dramatic effect, “Queen Esther!”  The crowd goes wild. Noise makers in the air, feet stomping the floor, rabbi chugging beer. A beautiful young woman dressed in robes and a gold chain across her forehead makes her way to the front of the room. She graciously accepts her award, which is a shellacked hamantash pastry spray-painted gold. Mordecai wins for “Best supporting Jew.”

As I left the synagogue that night, I felt giddy and a little baffled. Since Rosh Hashanah, I had been cataloging my sins and adopting the appropriate attitude of remorseful sorrow. I had prepared myself mentally for this very serious mission, one that would culminate in several weeks with Passover, when Jews remember being freed from slavery and the promises they made to God. I had not anticipated my very first stop would be a raucous party-like celebration. I did not realize Jews had a holiday where the point is to be loud and dress up and get drunk if you want to. It reminded me of the Catholic tradition of Carnival or Mardi Gras, the wild public partying before the somber season of Lent. Some historians suggest that Purim and pre-Lenten celebrations developed in tandem as a result of Christian and Jews living for hundreds of years in proximity. They seem to capture parallel moods: a burst of joy before the dutiful weeks leading to Easter or Passover. Regardless of religion, it seems to be human nature to crave levity—a joyful respite in the midst of a serious journey.

I have my eye on the door of the restaurant because I’m nervous about Nina showing up. But as soon as I see her, I know it won’t be like that. She’s all of five feet, but she might as well be the biggest person in the room from the size of the smile on her face. We hug, and I am flooded with relief. After tonight I’ll email her and hopefully set up a get-together with just the two of us to catch up on the more serious aspects of the time we’ve lost. But when I see her I know this evening isn’t for that. We laugh and swap lighthearted stories. I relax and focus on how good this is—how wonderful to be reunited with Lisa and Nina. I’ve struggled with moving past my feelings of fear and guilt to carve out enough space where a sense of thankfulness and joy might flourish. Life is its own serious journey, and these moments of fun can help grow gratitude—if you let them. Tonight I’m just plain appreciative for my old friends—people who know firsthand the terrible mistakes I’m capable of and smile when they see me anyway.