shlepping to shul

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England, and as such, it was briefly deleted from this site and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

Continuing the story of my visit to Birmingham, on Saturday morning we went to shul. We could go to Birmingham Hebrew Congregation, an orthodox synagogue, or Birmingham Progressive Synagogue, a Liberal congregation. Though I knew that I would probably appreciate the davenning more at the orthodox shul, I chose BPS because I was curious about egalitarian Judaism in the UK. To be a little snide, this service out-Reformed a Reform synagogue in the U.S.: To some extent, what happened was almost unrecognizable to me.

After a 20-minute walk, we arrived at the synagogue before services started at 11:00 a.m. — which seemed quite late. Also, I’m not sure I’ve ever been in synagogue before services started; because the ones I attend on Shabbat morning tend to be about three hours, I (like many people) drift in 30 or 45 minutes late. So we actually sat for a little while, and the very nice member of the congregation who welcomed us explained that because of the summer holidays, attendance would be sparse, and asked those of us who were Jewish to please sing out during the service. Indeed, there were perhaps 25 congregants, and almost no young people. The rabbi (who is a woman) was away, and in her place a congregant (also a woman) led the service.

The service was quite abbreviated, with none of the prayers — including the Amidah — said (or even printed) in full. Many were replaced by responsive readings in English. I knew almost none of the melodies, and I think (though I’m not an expert) that the ones used were difficult to sing, and not that spirited. Honestly, I felt like I was in church, which is not bad per se, but not what I would want in a synagogue.

The Torah service was in the same vein. The procession of the scroll happened only after the reading, and there was only one aliyah, meaning that only a very small part of the parshah was read. And the tallit of young girl who had the aliyah was longer than her overall shorts. (I realize that makes me sound crotchety.) The Torah reader gave a short d’var and then did just that: read the Torah. He didn’t chant it; he just read it from the scroll. He then offered his own translation. I’ve never seen this tradition before, though I was told it is standard practice in these congregations in England. The reader did gain my affection by talking about the points of grammar he considered when making his translation; he even used the words “infinitive absolute”!

After kiddush, we went back upstairs so that the non-Jews could look at the Torah scroll close up. The congregation has four scrolls, which is quite a lot for a 300-member shul. (Most synagogues do have more than one, to avoid constant scroll rolling, since a holiday might make it necessary to read from different parts of the scroll.) The building, too, was quite modern and expensive, which seemed out of sync with its anemic congregation. As it turns out, the synagogue moved just a few years ago: Its original building was bought by a developer planning to build a skyscraper on the property. So the congregation had to pay only about 10% of the cost of the building.

After lunch, we split up into groups to go to different parts of the city to try to get a sense of the multicultural and multifaith character of the city. I’ll just note that I found this exercise a little problematic, for reasons that I don’t want to go into here. But one of the things that I noticed were the near ubiquitous signs reading, “This area monitored by CCTV cameras.” My association with these cameras in the U.S. is the over-policing of low-income areas and neighborhoods of people of color, particularly under the pretext of the drug war — so I found the situation horrifying. But two native Brits confirmed that this level of surveillance is standard (or at least has become so in the post-9/11 and post-2005-Underground-bombings world). None of the natives I spoke to gave a thought to the cameras, and one even characterized Americans as “uptight” for opposing them.

Finally, we finished up the day at dinner with more guests, interfaith community organizers from Sparkbrook. We heard about The Feast, which brings together Christian and Muslim youth, and then from Rev. Richard Sudworth of Christ Church Centre (the first stop in Birmingham, where we heard from awesomely named Mohammed Ali), as well as from Javed Khan, who works in the community around Christ Church, which is majority Muslim. Rev. Sudworth talked about his church’s role in a community that is not reflective of its membership: A new experience, they’ve stepped back and concentrated on supporting the work that is already being done by groups in the area. It really resonated with me, as I think it’s a good model for the kind of work I want to do in a Jewish organization with other groups.

Next up . . . we attend church!

dear diary

Yesterday one of the Hebrew teachers at school sent a notice to the community email list about a missing item, “a clear plastic bag containing a small brown leather-covered diary.” Fortunately, he was able to email the list a few hours later to let us know that he had found it.

He teaches Biblical and rabbinic Hebrew (I’ll have him next year for Hebrew 7 and 8), and he is, simply, an expert. As my Mishnah teacher says, “If we don’t know about a Hebrew word, we ask –, and if he doesn’t know, then no one knows.” What makes this all the more amazing is that teaching Hebrew is his second career: He spent more than 20 years as a lawyer specializing in banking regulation.

In response to this email, one of my classmates, who is at home for now with his new baby, responded to the list: “Maybe it’s the sleep-deprivation, but –‘s email about his lost diary sent my mind wandering: What gems might be found in the diary of –?” His imaginings follow.

I’m not sure if they will translate well to a non-rabbinical school audience. But I share them because they were funny to my class, which is having a rather hard time coalescing as a cohort. Our class dynamic is strained, to say the least, and there are several differing strong personalities. We’ve spent the last month at our weekly class meetings talking about who we are as learners, just to try to clarify expectations for how we each want our classes to go. We haven’t even been able to arrive at a general agreement about how to structure our class meeting time. In short, we are deeply in the “storming” stage of group development. It’s been difficult and quite frankly, for me one of the most stressful aspects of my experience in rabbinical school so far.

But today after class meeting, right when the email arrived, we just sat around the table and laughed. It gave me hope for our future as a class.

(Oh, and the diary in question actually belonged to the teacher’s grandfather, during his U.S. Army service in World War I.)

_______________________________________
Dear Diary,

Another day, another student mistaking the cohortative for the jussive. (Shoot me!) These youngsters wouldn’t know a verbal noun if it was giving them a neck message during community time. But, Diary, they do try.

“–, is this aphel?”
“No, it’s pe’al.”

“Oh, –, is this itpa’el in the first person plural?”
“No, that’s just nitpa’el.”

“–, is that the number 3?”
“No, that’s a bet in Rashi script.”

I need a drink.

Yours,

_______________________________________
Dear Diary,

I’ve had it! Yet again a student has alluded to me curling up at night with Jastrow. True, I do have a love of all things grammatical, but that doesn’t mean that’s all that I love. I also love linguistics and Near-Eastern-religious-history and Sasanian pop-culture. I won’t be pigeon-holed. It just so happens that last night I curled up with an article on the relationship between the rabbinic idiom “af al pi” and the Akkadian god of indigestion “Afalpian.” When I finished the article, I watched “Dancing With the Stars.” So there!

_______________________________________
Dear Diary,

What a glorious day! I have reached new highs in my pronunciation of the gutteral ayin sound. The throatiness, the hollowness, the sound of a choking animal — it’s all there. Perhaps my career trajectory will hold true: high-powered-attorney-turned-rabbinical-school grammar-guru-turned-Israeli radio-announcer. It’s all falling into place!

Lovingly,

tu bishvat

“a carved tree in rock creek park”; photo by rachel tepper (first prize in Washington DCJCC’s “Every Person is a Tree” 2012 Tu Bishvat photography contest)

Today is the Jewish holiday called Tu Bishvat, literally the 15th of the month Shevat. It’s the new year for trees. (There are technically four “new years” in the Jewish calendar: The new year for kings, Rosh Hashanah; the calendar new year, Nisan (the first month); and the new year for tithing animals (the least well known one), Elul.) Originally a date to help farmers obey a Torah prohibition not to eat of a tree’s fruit until its fifth year, it’s come to be a minor festival. Today in Israel Tu Bishvat is celebrated with tree planting ceremonies, while in the Diaspora some give money to plant trees in Israel. There are also Tu Bishvat seders, as well as various ecological or environmental programs.

This is not a holiday that I’ve given much thought to in the past, but when I started this blog I committed myself to reading, reflecting, and writing about the Jewish holidays each year. Consulting several sources, I have learned more than I knew. I’ve attended at least one Tu Bishvat seder in the past, and we talked about the holiday last night at my b’nai mitzvah class, saying blessings over almonds, raisins, and olives). When I got home, I made almond mandelbrot.

But if I am being honest, I don’t feel much connection to this holiday right now. Lots of rabbis and other Jewish educators have said beautiful things this year and in the past about the meaning of Tu Bishvat and the Jewish people’s connection to trees, but I am just not there. I haven’t read or heard anything so far this year that has spoken to me. It’s probably best to just acknowledge that and see what happens next year, when, G-d willing, I’ll be in my first year of rabbinical school. How will things have changed by then?

Until then, I’ll join the ranks of at least two Tu Bishvat curmudgeons. In 2009 I began a weekly adult education class via the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, offered by the local Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning. Over a year we covered both the “Rhythms of Jewish Living” and the “Purposes of Jewish Living” curricula; the former concerned the Jewish lifecycle. In late winter, one of the class instructors, the Hillel rabbi at an area university, shared his theory about Tu Bishvat. He felt that the rise in prominence of Tu Bishvat among Jewish holidays in modern observance was the Hebrew school cycle. Holiday-wise, there’s not much between Chanukah and Purim, so Tu Bishvat becomes more important just because of when it occurs in the Jewish calendar: Tu Bishvat as a glorified Jewish Earth Day. He was adamant about his interpretation of recent history — a point generally lost on us — and rather upset by it. Maybe I’ll be, too, after six years of rabbinical school? However, I don’t think that I’ll ever be as upset as my friend Ben over the spelling of this holiday. But I do appreciate his grammatical fervor.

To end on a high note, I do love this story about Theodore Herzl when he planted a tree near Jerusalem. It seems to prove his famous dictum: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,966 other followers