Before I started attending synagogue services, I thought it would be obvious I wasn’t Jewish based on my looks alone. I soon realized this wasn’t the case. Certainly my pale skin and freckles made me an outlier, but not out of the question. One afternoon my friend, Lisa, and I stopped by her mom’s apartment in Marina Del Rey for a visit. Although not observant, Lisa’s mom is extremely knowledgeable about Jewish genealogy and history. I explained to her that I had blended in so far among the reformed Jews; I suggested that maybe among the orthodox no one would identify me as an outsider. She shook her head in disagreement. “Oh, they’ll know.”
“How?” I asked. The smile that spread across her face was priceless. I saw in it the memory of a dozen lessons learned the hard way. “The second you do something wrong.”
Of course she was right and I found there was very little I did right, especially in the beginning.
For example, I had no idea about the Torah-kissing ritual. Just before the rabbi’s Torah reading during the Sabbath service, he or she, usually with a few helpers, hoisted the holy book in the air and paraded it around the sanctuary. Members of the congregation would crowd toward the aisle to kiss the Torah as it passed, either touching it with a prayer book or with the fringe of a prayer shawl and then bringing it to their lips—whether they were kissing it or letting it kissing them, I was never quite sure.
Even when the women were separate the men would bring the Torah to an opening and we would rush to it as if to glimpse a rock star. Sometimes the Torah passed so quickly hardly anyone got a good kiss in, and a handful were left to toss a kiss in the air as it whizzed past.
The first few times I witnessed the carrying-out of this tradition, I stayed firmly planted in my seat, hopelessly marking myself as an outsider.
I read that this practice of Torah smooching is considered an archaic custom by some, one that reformed synagogues may have abandoned, but I found it in effect almost everywhere I went, lending credence to my observation that many reformed places are embracing old traditions, even passionately so.
For the last Sabbath service of my trip, I went to a hipster synagogue I kept hearing about and was finally able to kiss the Torah not once, but twice. Centrally located in the middle of West L.A., this synagogue caters to liberal Jews from all over the area and has a reputation for being particularly unorthodox; it was the only one I visited with a female rabbi. Yet, besides the rabbi’s gender, the main thing that seemed to distinguish it from more conservative places of worship was the level of enthusiasm with which the congregation embraced even the smallest prayers and rituals. Something as minor as the Torah procession was performed so wholeheartedly everyone was given ample opportunity to kiss the good book as many times as they wanted. The Torah-procession came down the aisle once and then circled back around.
I had rushed through the first kiss, trying to seize the moment quickly, so when it came again I went in for a second. I put my prayer book to my lips and then reached for the Torah and then brought it back to my lips so that no matter what was kissing what, I had it covered.
That last time, I kissed the Torah like I meant it, like it was a dear friend I might not see again.