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.