Religion & Beliefs

Shul Hopping #1: Return To Young Israel Of Flatbush

If you’re going to try and experience as many different Jewish communities as possible, you should probably go home first. Read More

By / July 12, 2011
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Forgive me father in heaven for I have sinned. It has been 8 months since I have returned to my childhood synagogue in Flatbush, Brooklyn. As I’ve transitioned from a yeshiva bachur who prayed three times a day, and who spent 12 hours a day learning Talmud, into a literature obsessed skeptic, I realized that we live in an age of an unprecedented personalized religion. Though we use labels to make sense of our religious world, we live in a time where most people choose to transcend labels. Therefore, in this column, I hope to understand, experience, and empathize with the unique manifestations of religious life through visiting an array of synagogues, those central institutions of yore that have lost much of their appeal to the masses. I begin, at one of the roots of my religiosity, the Young Israel of Flatbush, a modern Orthodox synagogue.

For years now, the weight of the tradition has felt like a burden as opposed to a blanket. As I matured religiously, I avoided those places that reminded me of my old ways, my ways of worshiping, learning and praying out of guilt, pressure, and shame. Returning, I believed, would simply trigger these feelings, but coming back after a separation provided the opportunity for a new perspective. The distance opened up new channels of experiencing old religious rituals.

Walking to Shul highlighted the differences between now and then. Instead of a suit, I wore pants and a shirt, instead of intending to pray, I brought along academic Jewish texts to read, and instead of shooshing others, I knew I would turn into the shooshed. As I entered the rusted, golden metal doors, my tender mind flooded with nostalgia. Nostalgia does not differentiate between memories of pain and those of pleasure. Both fall within its distorting purview. It dulls the pungency, the sharpness of the pain, while it sharpens the beauty of those moments of pure pleasure, allowing us to characterize periods of our lives through specifically powerful memories, if only for a moment. My different experiences in this second home melded together to create one large impressionistic picture of all my life in those once hallowed halls.

As I walked up the 27 marble stairs, I saw in vivid color an amalgam of these poignant pictures from my days of worship. I saw my father crouching and trembling, hidden in his prayer shawl, crying heaving sobs of repentance and supplication; My gay brother dressed for an NYC fashion show, feeling alienated, peering around for mediocre people to poke fun at, unable to connect to the cosmic drama of it all. I stared, transfixed, at my 15-year-old sister, praying as if the destiny of the world rested on her small shoulders, melting into a corner, shadowboxing a cement wall, a fury of supplications and precocious spirituality. I peered over the partition to gaze upon my well-dressed mother looking over the wooden and metal wall, fretful of the appearance of her family while at the same time taking joy in their uniqueness. For some reason, I also recall with fondness, the care with which my father blanketed me in his suit jacket as I fell asleep attempting to stay up all night on Shavuot.

Consequently, as I actually entered the sanctuary, I attempted to approach the services, with a nostalgic rather than cynical lens.  With these adjusted eyes, I focused on the structure’s aesthetic beauty. The main sanctuary contains two levels. Upstairs, on the balcony protected by golden tinted bars, sit those who enjoy socializing without the ire of those congregants who desire silence. As a child I enjoyed running up there to take in the enormity of the synagogue, and it is still enormous. The ceiling towers at least 100 feet over the prayers, providing a sense of the expansiveness of God’s universe. The men’s sanctuary contains over 150 dark wooden benches. The front of the synagogue, the most gorgeous part of all, displays a ceiling above the throne-like chairs of the rabbi and president, painted a sky blue with clouds meant to mimic the beauty of the natural world, and the piece de resistance, a marble arc, ornately carved that stands guard, protecting the animal skin scrolls of our tradition, scrolls that Kafka once referred to as dolls without heads.

The services begin. The Chazzan ran through the morning blessings thanking God for our ability to function. I immediately remember the cadences of the rituals. The speed with which we rush through the initial prayers, the solemnity of the central part of the prayers, the power of the different songs: The slow dirge-like song of a beleaguered people uncertain of its fate, but hopeful in confronting its destiny. The strange juxtaposition of fear and joy, of anticipation and excitement pervading the services.

But let’s not carried away, because even nostalgia cannot hide the absurdities abounding in my orthodox synagogue. The synagogue served as one of the first places I thought I felt God, but it also provided an opportunity for many other firsts: the first time I bullied a younger kid, which felt awful. The first time I stole – cut me some slack—it was a $120 Michael Jordan card, and I was 11. The first time I noticed the cleavage of a woman whose age I’d rather not mention. Also, let’s not forget about the Reverend (I still don’t know what that word in this context means either) who scared all the children by attempting to force stale, old, pink cookies on the lot of us.

Other absurdities: The jail like look of the partition between men and women, the mere fact of a partition between men and women. The clichéd messages of the sermons (be good, I get it, but how?), the men with bloated bellies walking with little subtlety, before the sermon began, to go get drunk at the Kiddush club. The ridiculously long service all in Hebrew or Aramaic that can only be led by men; the strange paradox that quiet people actually talk more in synagogue, the lack of actual prayer from most of the congregants, and the most absurd, the anger and viciousness displayed when someone, anyone, even a child of 13 makes a mistake in the ritual reading from the Torah scroll.

Though many of these details and memories are highly impressionistic, the idea of a disconnect between how we felt at a younger age, and how we feel now, i.e. the feeling of a precarious balance between cynicism and nostalgia, I believe, speaks to the experience of many people. Many of us Post-Orthodox souls, at certain times, wish for a regression to the stage before doubt crept in, but often, aging empties rituals of the inner meanings, leaving us shells that trigger nostalgia for a more innocent time.

I felt this acutely during the silence of the 18 benedictions, the central part of the services. For a few seconds, the market like feel of the congregants’ chatter calmed down to a hush of many mouths muttering to themselves. The ritual words carried little weight in my heart, but in the silence of my mind, I felt something ineffable winding its way through the devotees.

In this still silent moment, I realized I harbor few illusions about my status in the eyes of the God I grew up with: Him and I differ, it appears, on much, but caught up in the comforts of the rituals, in the warmth of communal certainty about life and meaning, I felt awoken to at least the possibility of awe at the mystery of life. In a world in which most people, myself included, as Thoreau put it, “Live lives of quiet desperation,” were we live out the poetry of our lives vicariously through TV, movies, music, or news, the mere possibility of awe, of connection to a possible cosmic drama provides a jolt of hope that undoubtedly will subside in the waves of time. For now though, my synagogue provided a place to pray (to myself, to a God, to my unconscious?) for the ability to push off an inevitable fall back into cynicism for as long as I can until the next battle. But let’s not forget that it’s a synagogue, and therefore for a moment, all of these questions quiet down in the presence of a hearty helping of chulent, kishka, herring, and oily, delicious, burning potato kugel.