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.

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50 thoughts on “Snapshot

  1. I haven’t really known what to comment on. I’m simply enjoying your synagogue journey which seems very enriching for you. I’m really enjoying reading the book, “Zealot”. It provides a wonderful rich historical background setting of ancient Jewish thought about, “messiah” and the world Jesus’ followers placed him in when they started writing about him. The first gospel being the gospel of Mark. It is a far cry from the traditional views. A wonderful documentary that seems well researched and yet an easy read. I continue to applaud your sense of “One None Gets Some” and how far you have now traveled. I look forward to more.

  2. i have long appreciated Judaism, enjoyed studying Mosaic law, the profits, etc. and identify with it so much, but then get so frustrated and down on myself for being an outsider by birth that can never be changed

    • Hi Brian, I understand what you are expressing–sometimes I feel like I can never truly “belong” not just to Judaism, but to any faith tradition because I am so deeply an outsider. But I think if you wholeheartedly identify with a faith, you should be able to find members of that faith who will accept you as their own. Have you tried?

      • Thanks, I’ve tried many, many, many, etc. times and continue to. That’s what drew me to your blog initially. I have become increasingly aware of harm from religious affiliations, at the same time I strongly believing in the value of meaningful religious/spiritual experiences. This struggle comes from personal, professional and academic experiences. I’ve come to a s/w uncomfortable position of not affiliating with religious organizations but greatly valuing study and prayer, sometimes taking some comfort in the idea that “church” is people, not a building or organization. But there’s also the shame and fear of disclosing family religious traditions – it does not end well when i disclose those…which is why i envy you being able to do so (not in a bad way). To lighten it up though, when i told a friend that i don’t do well with organized religions he said “yea you seem more like an unorganized religious person.

        • Hi Brian, I can relate to a lot of what you said. The organized part of organized religion is not for me. I like to think of myself as “free believer” in God and Jesus. I have often thought that if I could find a few more like-minded folks in my area, I would really enjoy meeting for spiritual discussions and study, but probably no more than five people. After that, someone always wants to organize it, ritualize it, make up “guidelines” for it…put it in a box…and then I’m outta there.

        • Brian….it appears that you and I were both pounding the keys at the same time, so I didn’t get the benefit of these comments before I wrote those below. I I don’t know how terrifying your family’s religious traditions and roots could possibly be that talking about them does not end well, but perhaps you are talking to the “wrong” people. I think you might look a little further to find people who are more of the “unorganized religious sort.” In the post prior to this one, some a couple of people talked about even atheists finding meeting together a desirable thing. I would echo this….the ranks of the Unitarian Universalists are filled not only with atheists, but with others I would also say were looking for spirituality with out the religious constraints. We may be a bit too “unreligious” for you, but the point is that there are groups out there like yourself. They are just a bit more difficult to find. Again, best wished in your journey. Merrill

          • Thanks Merril,
            It’s not so much down on myself as being invalidated, ignored or unfairly categorized when disclosing too much. That includes experiences with unitarian groups where i was kindly told what my background believed, of course in a very accepting way but fairly two dimensional & stereotyping but mostly just ignored and passed over. It seems easier to say Jewish, Catholic, Episcopal, etc. reasonably expect some degree of recognition. Seems like the most acceptance i’ve experienced has been among the “not so party line” catholics, (and soem non observant Jews) and just being quiet & obscure when someone said soemthing like “you must have been raised catholic”. When I’ve made the mistake of saying i was not raised catholic, etc. it created a distance never to be bridged again. Maybe it’s kind of like if your parents sent you to a fairly obscure college that did not have a great reputation vs. a readily recognizable college, even if you were questioning the value of the ivy league education.

            At any rate this seems like this dialogue has potential to be sorting out some grains fo truth.

            • I would be remiss not to share my story, in part, with you, Brian: I was raised Catholic but converted to Jehovah’s Witnesses on my own at age 17. It lasted 27 years. Restless to find something more metaphysical I moved my spiritual interests to things like Unity and Science of Mind. At first I didn’t want to share my Jehovah’s Witness experience with anyone. I believed that they wouldn’t understand and sometimes I even felt ashamed for being so gullible as to believe that some highly organized group had all the answers. As the years went by it became less and less important to take note of how others felt about my experience and I just blurted it out in whatever group I landed in and really didn’t care what they thought about it. Today, I associate myself with a group called Centers for Spiritual Living. Don’t agree with everything and don’t have to. It’s just pleasant to have a group to hang out with that shares some of my values and to know it is doing good in the world without too many rules. I don’t think of myself as a seeker but more of an observer.

            • Ok, Brian. You have piqued my curiosity. Were you raised by wolves or something! (Please take that as the joke it was meant to be!!,,,,unless it is true, of course, and then I apologize greatly! 🙂 I realize that you have no reason to trust any of us here, but I hope that eventually you will open up a bit more and will allow us to validate who you are……that seems to be a common theme with most of us. Much disagreement in our ideas, but much respect for each other as individuals.

              If there is anything I have learned during the past 9 months, is that just because someone is associated with this or that denomination or belief system, it doesn’t mean that they are cookie cutter believers….do you understand what I am saying. Much more diversity than I ever imagined!! I makes for much clarifying and many questions.

              And thank you for clarifying….feeling invalidated and unappreciated is different for me than being down on yourself!
              Merrill

              • Yikes! Where in the world did that yellow smiley face come from? I used a colon, a hyphen and a final parentheses mark! And up popped the yellow smiler??

              • Thanks Merrill. I love your line about being raised by wolves!!! That actually sounds appealing for me to be able to say I was rraised by wolves – as a press release statement in religious contexts. That would at least be recognizable and get a more predictable reaction. I apologize for any undue curiosity it causes you from my not disclosing more at this point. I very much trust your intentions and others on this blog, but am also aware of the flaws in all forms of communication and discrepancies between intentions & impact. Past expereinces with disclosing much of my religious upbringing have been very mixed, maybe along the lines of being an ignorable outsider, peripheral minority, etc. Not one of the readily recognizable Catholic, Jewish, Methodist, Episcopal, Disciples, 7th day, Witness, Salvation Army, etc. etc. where there would at least be a cookie cutter point of recognition or reference to understand and contrast. I’ve envied people who could say something like “I was raised Catholic, Jewish, etc., and get a good measure of recognition to go on and talk about personal experiences in contrast and be accepted by others from similar backgrounds. I seem to have had a natural connection & affiliation with people from Catholic backgrounds (outside of church) until it became known that was not my upbringing. I was a member of a Quaker group for a while and that seemed an easy thing to disclose to others (it just didn’t work so well with me personally or theologically). So i’m cautiously experimenting.on this blog (and i’m an old guy who barely understands how these things work). btw i enjoy recognition and affiliation in other settings – academically, professionally, social non religious groups…just haven’t found a way to make it work with religious communities yet…i continue to value study, prayer, spiritual experiences with music, including singing folk and religious songs with my mother (who became a Lutheran – good for her!). There’s also a social class issue. I like how Catholicism seems to be one of the more social class diverse and accepting, but then there’s the toxic guilt, sexuality, passive aggressive, anti-science, etc issues.

                speaking of reading…someone who had become quite a world scholar on religious experiences said that as much as she learned and experienced seh realized that southern baptist was still her “native language” my native language is obscure and dying out, probably of it’s own doing, still i deply appreciate my grandad’s simple faith and a little country church that most people wouldn’t even want to go to (and not many did!) and my father trying to carry that on and me trying but not able to pull it off. I think it worked well for a 19th century frontier farm community and up into the 1950’s but then got too rigid or something and is mostly oldsters who are dying off

                Some apologies for going on. I had not intended to but you seem receptive and maybe this is my way of giving some context to a religious background that is not one of the more recognizable.

                • Brian, I enjoyed reading about you and the things you value. You’re really not very far from anyone else on this blog we simply have found a name to associate them with. I hope you will keep reading, writing and responding. We are all unique and learn from each other. You seem to be a fine example of a person who has learned to know himself and evolve with that knowing no matter what others think. Good for you.

                  • Brian, I’d like to second what Frank said. I’ve mentioned this in previous posts, but I think God works with what resonates best with us as individuals. Looking at the spectrum of faith traditions represented on this blog, you can see the diversity of beliefs and approaches, but I think what most strongly comes through is the attempt to understand and embrace a universal idea of good. Some of us define that as God in the traditional Trinity while others see it as a Supreme Being or Spiritual Ideal. The one thing I’ve come to realize is that nobody has the complete picture. At best, we “see through a glass, dimly.” And therefore, I have no right to judge your approach as any better or worse than mine, or Frank’s, or Ginger’s, or Corinna’s etc. On this blog, I’ve read some of the most eloquent definitions of faith written by people with whom, superficially, I share very little in common denominationally. You’re right—many people tend to define others once they know their background, from Roman Catholic to Amish, and everything in between. I try to avoid that, because one of my personal peeves is when someone who isn’t Anglican (or Christian) tells me what I must believe if I’m a member of that church. C.S. Lewis once wrote that of God wanted us all the same, He would have stopped with Adam and Eve, because there’s no point in making billions of the same model. We all of our unique approaches to faith, and I think that’s one of the many ways God works in the world; no denomination of tradition can claim to know His mind.

                    • I appreciate that! I’m getting a sense of a high tech facilitated community of people of faith! Maybe getting beyond labels and categories that get in the way at the same time respecting the integrity of individual identities

                    • And as a Buddhist might say, all the labels and categories–whether tied to religion or profession, etc.–isn’t the “real” us anyway. That stuff’s just the story we tell ourselves about who/what we are.

                    • Sometimes I wonder why we ever thought we needed all these personas to feel comfortable in life instead of just being our beautiful selves. I suppose it was the culture we grew up in or believing that we were somehow internally flawed and needed a savior. While the current generation seems less inclined to wear the old personas many still feel the need to make a statement with tattoos and piercings. I like it better when people like Brian show up who seem to take a look at a bigger picture and pick and choose the things that make sense to them and as the very old song says, “…..and let the rest of the world go by.” It takes courage.

                • Brian, I am not sure if you will still be looking back at this, but this is my recommendation for you: Embrace the “raised with wolves” idea!! Take it to heart. Cultivate a twinkle in your eye and when people inquire about your “religious” past, say this to them: Oh, I was raised with wolves so I developed a straight forward moral system….simple but effective……and you should hear the music.

                  Believe me, I do not think that others will have much to say…..but if they do, just tell them that the pack had their secrets which you have vowed not to tell! And smile.

                  Sometimes the creatively outrageous response works well…..Merrill

        • Hey Brian, Well, if it’s any comfort–it seems more and more of us are in this same boat. We don’t really belong to any one faith tradition, but we want or need some of that wisdom in our lives. Yes, I think I am becoming a firm believer in “unorganized religion.” Ha! Love it.

          • Thanks! That is some comfort. And maybe there’s some sort of paradox like finding comfort through verbalizing our discomfort? Anyway, I appreciate you providing this unique opportunity for this sort of dialogue!

    • Brian, I am not certain that this is what you mean, but it appears to me that you get “down on yourself” for not being Jewish…or something else? For not being born into a different group, so to speak? Am I right about this read? If so, I would just echo what Corinna has said below. Since there is no possible way to change your birth status, you need to find your own acceptance for who you are and then search out members of that group you pine to be apart of who accept where you are on your journey. I was with a mid-aged woman at religious education class yesterday. The subject was identifying the roots of our spirituality. She said: ” I regret my childhood; it was so rigid. And I regret not rebelling against that rigidity.” Mercy!! How can a person regret something….or get down on themselves…. for something over which they had absolutely no control!! Move toward where you want to be now! I wish you a good journey with this. Merrill

  3. Brian and Corinna, Jesus often felt the same way. The Old Testament describes him as “despised and rejected.” The Bible also says about Jesus: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”

    So in God’s eyes, if you are drawn to Him, if you believe, you are “in” no matter how you feel. Feelings will come later.

    Jesus said, “Salvation is from the Jews.” But a true Jew is one who believes, not who just lives by the rules or is born into Judaism. Jesus’ big beef with the Jewish leaders was their insistence on rules over love for others.

    Well, you are having a conversation about the Jewish faith and I have talked about Jesus here. So sorry to jump from OT to NT and into Christian beliefs. Jesus was Jewish.

  4. Could you explain why you think the rabbi gave you a look? I’m curious as to what you think you may have done. Has he expressed to you that you’ve done something?

    Not being belligerent, truly asking.

    • Hi Steven, It was just my impression that the rabbi was a little skeptical of me–his behavior was not overtly unfriendly. Because Jews generally do not try to convince people to become Jewish, I don’t think it’s too uncommon to have rabbis and such be less than effusively welcoming. If an outsider wishes to join, the burden is a bit on the outsider to keep trying even if the rabbi sends you away. However, it could have just been the rabbi’s personality that was less extroverted as others in his congregation were super friendly.

  5. Steven, I wondered about this, too. Was this your perception, Corinna, knowing that you were an “outsider,” so to speak? Or was the rabbi truly not welcoming? Or could you tell the difference at the time? MET

    • Steven and Merrill
      I wonder, since the synagogue is in Santa Monica, a tourist town, if it gets a lot of “lookie-loos” who stop by just to see it, and maybe the rabbi was surprised to see someone (Corinna) actually come back?

      • Well…Corinna can certainly clear the mystery, if she’d like.

        I thought it was a leap to say it without saying what led her there.

      • Hi Tim, thanks for chiming in even on vacation. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your commitment to dispensing of the “us vs. them” mentality that feels so prevalent in our world today (and not just in religion though that can be a big divider). This particular synagogue is actually in Venice (though very close to Santa Monica) and isn’t very fancy-shmancy so I don’t think it gets too many lookie-loos. I think it mostly caters to the neighborhood. I was definitely the only “outsider” when I was there.

        • Well, I have time to comment waiting for my wife to get ready lol. You’re fancy shmancy comment reminds me of a funny sermon about the wedding in Cana. When Jesus told Mary he wasn’t ready to perform a miracle, like any good Jewish mother she ignored him and told the waiters to do whatever he said!

  6. Hi Folks. I’m on vacation and using an IPad so I’ll keep it brief. One of the reasons I participate in this blog is to show that “traditional” Christians don’t all buy into the “us v them” mentality. As Merrill and Ginger said, we can make a choice whenever we choose. The flip side is that, if you decide to join a particular denomination, it’s members are obligated, as Christians or Jews or whatever, to welcome you lovingly. I think that’s where a huge failure has been made. We make it conditional, “You’re welcome as long as you think like us and don’t dare disagree.” Like Shelley said, it gets to be about the rules.

    Brian, I know the feeling re: family. We left Roman Catholicism for the Episcopal Church 9 years ago.. Not a huge leap, but certainly enough to cause plenty of familial angst.

  7. Hello all. A good evening to each and every one of you I know, with love, and a hello to Brian. You have certainly landed in the right place; the right place to discuss, vent, observe. learn, and sometimes even argue (nicely, nicely, of course) and always be appreciated for who and what YOU are. Not for what you are expected to be.

    Like Tim, I am an Anglican, who came to it through many, many variations of ‘church’ and metaphysics. We have all here discussed our beliefs and the variety in them….just go back and check out past blogs, lol. But we all have become friends and learned from each other. Even when there is total difference of opinion, let’s call it, we manage to stay civil and respectful. And if that isn’t possible, we sometimes just keep our mouth shut, lol. At any rate, what I am saying is that although I am a 1928 Book of Common Prayer Anglican, I only have at best at 20% ‘fit’ with my church. There are people there whom I dearly love. And some I don’t but consider lessons to be learned. But I have always known that I don’t ‘fit’. My congregation is vastly Republican and CONSERVATIVE!!!!!!!!!. My husband and I are liberal Democrats. In fact, we consider ourselves to be missionaries in the field, so to speak. I have up front and in their faces disagreed with both my priest and a deacon. YET…….there is still nourishment for me and learning and comfort and caring and fellowship. THAT is what church is supposed to be about. Or synagogue, or temple.

    Sometimes it is hard to realize that there are many differences in my opinion, say, and some of my dearest friends. But, in the same way that this blog manages it, we find ways to unite with each other and care for each other. I would wish the same for you.

    Meantime, welcome.

    Yours in Christ

      • Absolutely what Patti said!

        Well, except the part about going to a conservative, Republican- leaning church, I go to one of the only liberal, Democrat- leaning by a landslide churches in my small town!. We do have a few political conservatives in our UU midst, and I know it can be stressful for them. But we all work at getting along there, too. MET

        • I live less than two miles from the Nixon Library. North Orange County is the primordial soup of right-wing whack job organizations!

  8. Hi Tim! I hope your vacation is lovely. You will get back the same day I leave, I believe. Corinna….I am heading to Ft. Worth, Texas for a week on the 23rd. Home sweet HOT home, lol.

  9. lol….Tim, your fingers are ever on the march….”bust getting our son ready….” I’m sorry..couldn’t resist. I know how crazy things must be. And while work will be a rest, think of all the two of you time you and Rosa will have. Fun!

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