Forever light

Part-way through the Friday night Sabbath-welcoming service, the singing stops and the rabbi makes his way to the front of the room. Several individuals break from the congregation to join him.

This is a joyous occasion, the rabbi explains, because tonight the newest addition to the family before you receives her Hebrew name. Only then do I notice that one of the women is holding a tiny bundle in her arms and I put the pieces together: this is a naming ceremony, one of the most significant of the Jewish life-cycle rites of passage. Boy babies are normally named during a bris eight days after being born, but female newborns are named at the synagogue in front of the entire congregation.

The mom, holding the infant, huddles with both grandmothers. The rabbi wraps their shoulders in a single prayer shawl, pulling them in close. He speaks to the women, expressing sentiments you might expect to hear: how this baby is the future, the continuation of all of her ancestors who lived before her. Then he flips the script and addresses the baby directly. “You will one day be an ancestor like us,” he tells her. For me, his words conjure an image of this room in 70 years: this brand new human is the older generation wrapped in a prayer shawl giving out special names.

I still have that in mind when the congregants begin singing the Mourner’s Kaddish. When I first realized this prayer for the deceased was a part of every service at every synagogue, I thought it was intended specifically for those who were grieving. When we came to it, all those who had lost someone within the last year or so stood, and sometimes the rabbi requested them to call out the name of the departed. I didn’t know or understand the significance of the Hebrew words being recited by the congregation, but I sensed it was a sorrowful lamentation, the shaking of a metaphorical fist at the cruelty of death. I thought people stood because they were meant to see one another and thereby know they were not alone in their grief and to allow the rest of the congregation to identify those in need of our support. I believed the reciting of the Mourner’s Kaddish was akin to other life-cycle ceremonies in Judaism—whether a naming or bar mitzvah or wedding—that act as markers in a person’s life tying her to millions of others in the past, present, and future. The ceremony might transform what feels like an ordinary occasion into one with extraordinary potential or it might reassure a person who feels overwhelmed that what they are experiencing is actually very ordinary.

I was surprised when I saw an English translation of the Mourner’s Kaddish and realized it doesn’t even mention death. It’s simply a collection of lines praising and thanking God. Only then did I learn the true purpose is to rise up and proclaim your joy and love at a time when you might feel bitter or lost or angry. But the Mourner’s Kaddish continues to be spoken by the entire congregation day in and day out long after the official grieving period for any one person has passed. The gratitude it expresses is offered on behalf of all those who are departed, giving voice to worshipful words they can no longer utter here on earth. Through future generations, the dead continue to honor God.

Only then did I sense how those who are no longer here rely on those who are to continue expressing faith thereby carrying on the task of bringing light into the world. It’s such a big job, no one generation can do it alone. It’s an on-going responsibility that rests on the shoulders of countless generations. Only together can the ultimate goal of Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world, be achieved. I learned that the literal translation of Tikkun Olam is something like “forever light.” Each generation after the next working to endlessly shine light here on earth is how the healing takes place.

In the round

A circle is a powerful symbol. I think most Kabbalists would agree that a circle represents one of the most potent forces in the universe. The Jewish mystic tradition divides the world into two basic components: the source of all power, infinitely giving energy and light, and the repository of this power, which holds and gives it shape. In Kabbalah, the latter is referred to as “the vessel,” often symbolized by a circle, like a container’s open mouth. One might think that the source of power is the force in the universe that demands all our attention, but Kabbalists emphasize the critical role of the receptacle—without which the power would be undirected and useless. Much of Kabbalah concerns the proper management of this power and the word “Kabbalah” means “to receive.”

After the service at a conservative synagogue, I mentioned my intention to explore Kabbalah to a middle-aged lawyer with gentle, watery eyes. “Be careful,” he said, his eyes widening like two pools swelling, though whether he was warning me about L.A.’s Kabbalah “Centre” specifically or Kabbalah in general I wasn’t sure. Kabbalah has a reputation for being unsafe and stories abound about its ancient practitioners losing their minds, driven to madness during the exercises meant to tap into the universe’s power; these include chanting, singing, breathing, dancing, meditation, and visualization. The trick is not just drawing the energy but being able to properly channel it. When this transaction is not mastered, a person may cling to the power, feeding unhealthy self-interest—or misdirect it, fueling negative objectives. For this reason, Jewish leaders often say that only mature pupils under the guidance of the most skilled teachers should attempt to practice Kabbalah.

Yet, Kabbalistic notions seem to permeate all aspects of Jewish life. Casual references to Kabbalah and Kabbalah scholars peppered the talks of rabbis at practically every service I attended. Basic Jewish concepts were described to me using Kabbalistic ideas: the emphasis on passive activities on Sabbath is designed to foster the “receptive,” rather than “productive,” aspects of our nature and women are excused from many traditional practices because our vessel-like qualities are naturally more fine-tuned than those of men. I even encountered an explanation of the Messianic era in these terms: the period itself will be one of receptivity, which is the source of the peace that will prevail, like a Sabbath that extends indefinitely.

Without meaning to, I happened into a special Kabbalah-inspired service at a reformed synagogue. I thought it would be a typical Friday night ceremony that welcomes the Sabbath like those I had attended at other synagogues. I expected something bare bones, just a handful of people led by a lone rabbi. But this was different. The folding chairs in the large room were arranged in concentric circles starting with a small one at the center and spiraling out; by the time I arrived, the only spaces available were along the outer ring almost to the wall. A photocopied sheet explained that this “new model of worship” began a few years earlier; introduced as “Fifth Friday,” it initially took place only when a month had an extra Friday, but it was such a huge hit, they introduced it as a regular monthly service renamed “Kabbalat Shabbat.” If synagogue leaders were hesitant at first to officially label their new model Kabbalistic, they were emboldened by the congregation’s acceptance. In addition to seating in the round, the entire service is sung by everyone present.

I found an empty seat sandwiched between two young families facing the boyish rabbi and female cantor in the middle circle…

Poetry in motion

After a few hours of Sabbath lolling back at my dad’s house, I’m once again standing in Barbara’s living room. The dining table is exactly as it was when I left, dirty forks dangle from plates that bear the remnants of lunch and glasses sit puddled with water and wine.

We set out on our walk, just as Barbara and her husband have done thousands of times. Our destination this evening is not the synagogue, but a small building owned by the congregation several blocks up from the beach.

At the building, Barbara and I separate from her husband and enter through our own door. The women’s side of the room is cordoned off by a thin curtain, through which I can see the silhouettes of the men, the outline of fedoras as they take turns leading the prayers. When it’s time for the rabbi’s talk, the curtain gets pushed open just enough to give the women a view of him at the podium. He is a young rabbi with a scraggly beard and an excited gleam in his eyes. He says he finds the subject of animal sacrifice fascinating because, while the practice is suspended for now, at some point in the future when the original temple is restored, a decision will need to be made about if and how it will be resumed.

Rabbis and Jewish scholars all over the world debate the topic and theories abound as to what might happen because, to the contemporary sensibility, the idea of killing animals for God seems archaic. Today, people expect their religious leaders and their butchers to be separate people. But, the young rabbi explains, this could change. One theory purports that the general public will come to see animal sacrifice as no worse ethically than killing animals for food and will embrace it as an acceptable practice. Another theory proposes that new rules from God will materialize upon the completion of the temple—and that perhaps some new thing, like sacrificing plants, will be an option. Finally, the rabbi arrives at the last theory that he promises will “blow our minds.” He explains that some scholars suggest animals may evolve in such a way that in the future they will understand the meaning and significance of being sacrificed and will volunteer for the privilege. A wave of chuckles sweeps the room, and I think we must be sharing the same cartoon thought-bubble of cloven hooves in the air with the caption: “Me, pick me!”

What happens last is short and poetic, like a 3D haiku that bids farewell to Sabbath. It’s just Barbara, her husband, me and three other men. While Barbara’s husband straightens up the room, the three men gather around a plate. The oldest of the three holds a large woven candle. He lights it. He pours wine into a cup and sips it. He opens a small box and inhales deeply. As he does this, one of the younger men unscrews the lid on a typical spice jar—the plastic kind you can buy at any grocery store—and smells the contents. He passes it to me and I put it to my nose, taking in the sweet aroma of cloves. I give it to Barbara who does the same. I’m mesmerized as the men study their hands in the light of the candle and utter a Hebrew prayer. Then the oldest one douses the flame with the wine from his cup. All three touch the drops of wine that have landed in the plate and then press their fingertips against their closed eyes. Each step is like a single line of a poem whose meaning is allusive but by the end conveys perfectly the joy and sorrow of life; this final act leaves my heart heavy but full.

In front of the building, the six of us say our farewells. The sun has set and the sidewalk is bustling with Saturday night revelers. Music and laughter spill from a crowded Mexican restaurant. The eyes of passersby linger on our small group and I recognize in their expressions the quiet curiosity I’ve felt on occasions when I’ve happened upon a pocket of people engaged in something I assume is both sacred and private. I recall the awe with which I would consider my old orthodox neighbors as I watched them playing and how it was tinged with resentment at my exclusion. I want to reach out and touch people as they pass and whisper, “I’m one of you.”

If a stranger cared to listen, I might tell him: “This religion thing is not the impenetrable mystery you think, but so basic and beautiful you can grasp its meaning if you desire.”

The conversation

The conversation during the meal at the orthodox home I’m visiting is a heated debate about current events and Israel. I’m familiar with the tones of this discussion, the impassioned voices that make it sound like no one at the table is agreeing when actually they are all nodding vigorously. As a teen, I was exposed to this aspect of the Jewish dining ritual, which alarmed me at first until I realized that each person is simply honing their argumentation skills. The only difference here is the politics, which are decidedly right wing. I had heard that some Jews, particularly those on the orthodox side of the spectrum, can be conservative, an affiliation born at least in part from a die-hard support of Israel.

So contrary is this from the politics of the Jews with which I’m familiar—who struggle with the complicated affairs of Israel and the role Jews play in the region—that I was inclined to believe they were mythical creatures too rare to encounter during the course of this exploration, and certainly not likely to attend a synagogue in Venice, California. If I closed my eyes, I would have thought I was sitting with far-right Christians, who also adamantly support Israel, though they do so because the “gathering of the Jews” there is an essential piece of New Testament prophecy to ensure the return of Jesus. Both groups’ opinions overlap at this thin sliver of foreign affairs.

As I ate, I busied myself surreptitiously sneaking peaks at the woman sitting on my right, thinking that one of the great ironies is how separating men and women can make it so much easier to check out members of the opposite gender than those of your own.

I finally get the opportunity to unapologetically stare at the woman next to me when she takes a moment to tell the table about herself. She grew up in a Hassidic family in Brooklyn, she explains. Today, in her 40s, she remains observant, though she’s obviously taken her own approach to the guidelines for attire. She dons a long-sleeved black top that would provide excellent coverage but for the fact that it is entirely mesh. Every detail of her leopard-print bra is visible. Her scalp is crowned in long platinum hair extensions. I know this because from my vantage point I can see where each cluster of fake hair is attached to her real hair. I try to imagine what her parents must think of this daughter who knows every Hebrew prayer by heart but looks like Paris Hilton. When she explains that her dream is to get married and maintain an observant household, my heart breaks a little. I sincerely doubt hers is the typical profile on JDate, the Jewish Dating website. It’s one thing for someone like me to visit this world for a short time, but it’s another entirely for a person to have a foot firmly planted in two worlds seemingly so at odds with one another.

At the end of the meal, I reach to take my dishes to the kitchen but Barbara tells me no, I should leave them, she will clean after sundown. I am momentarily paralyzed by a mental tussle between two sides: what makes a good guest versus what makes a good Jew.

As we say our goodbyes, Barbara asks if I’d like to return to her house later that day, just before sundown, to walk with her and her husband to the small evening service that officially recognizes the conclusion of Sabbath.

I’m happy for the invitation because earlier one of the rabbis at the synagogue mentioned he would be giving a brief talk during this evening gathering about the future of animal sacrifice within the Jewish faith. I’m curious to know what plans exist for the bronze altar.

The mitzvah

“I…I…I’m not Jewish,” I tell the orthodox woman in red who has invited me to her house for lunch. More than wanting to protect myself from humiliation, I’m hoping to shield her home from my ignorance. I understand enough to know that a Jewish home’s dining room has, without the temple and bronze altar, increased in significance. Food on a table, especially on Sabbath, is a sort of offering to God.

I explain my situation in a nutshell: how I am married to a Jew who feels alienated from the faith, that I am interested in Judaism and religion in general, how the visit to her synagogue is a tiny step in an effort to educate myself.

She nods slowly. I can see her considering my words, measuring them with private weights. Perhaps she consults God. Whatever the case, the result is in my favor. “So you’ll join us? We don’t mind if you drive.”

Now it is my turn to consider. If she is willing to put up with me, how can I refuse? “Okay,” I say. “Yes. Thank you.”

“Wonderful,” she says, offering the first smile of our exchange. She tells me her name is Barbara and gives me her street address; I repeat it to myself over and over again, as I am not writing on Sabbath. “My husband and l will start walking home in about 10 minutes, so give us a half hour.”

About 30 minutes later, I approach what I hope is the right house. As I get closer, I spy Barbara through the screen door sitting with a group gathered around a dining room table. “Hello?” I call, marching in, not even thinking to stop and press my kissed finger tips to the little mezuzah posted at the doorframe. This gesture is meant to remind all those entering of the unifying presence of the Divine. Instead, I offer my toothiest grin as everyone turns to watch me ignore God.

Four men and one other woman besides Barbara and me sit around the table. As Barbara introduces me, I make sure to nod a polite greeting to the men, congratulating myself on knowing that orthodox men and women do not shake hands upon meeting. Barbara directs me to an empty seat on the lady’s side of the table. Barbara’s husband occupies one head, and the oldest gentleman present sits at the other. Two younger guys roughly my age sit directly across from the women. The table is set beautifully for seven and, knowing it would have been prepared the previous afternoon, it suddenly makes sense why Barbara pressed me on whether I would be joining them. Mine was the spot left empty in case God sends a lone traveler; feeding me is a mitzvah, or good deed.

When it’s time to eat, everyone takes a turn going into the kitchen for the ceremonial hand washing. The counters are crammed with the remnants of yesterday’s meal preparations, everything left just where it was when the sun set. The oldest gentleman shows me the ropes: he pores water from a pitcher over my hands and then asks me to repeat the Hebrew words after him, feeding them to me a few at a time. I try desperately not to mangle them. It’s the basic prayer before eating when the meal includes bread and translates as, “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe who brings forth bread from the earth.” After washing, we return to the table in silence and wait as Barbara’s fills each of our plates with the meat and beans from her slow cookers.

 

Dearest miners,

As promised, here is the podcast of my conversation with Justin Campbell of The Two Cities website. Among other topics, we discuss how the One None Gets Some project has revealed to me the importance of vulnerability in any spiritual quest. I hope you enjoy it, and please tell me what you think.

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.