A few weeks ago I took a trip for a wedding of two friends, and planned to spend Shabbat by a local shul. I’m writing about it because
A) I haven’t taken a lot of trips in the last few years because of both that big weird flu going around the world and a small personal tragedy; and
2) we could use some not-so-negative messages here.
I went a few days early to see family, and settled into the hotel Friday afternoon. About a week beforehand I had looked around for a good shul to visit; this being a pretty well-populated Jewish area I was expecting a variety of options but it turns out the hotel was not actually in the big Jewish area, just around a Chabad and a Reform temple. I’ve spent enough time with Chabad that if I have other options I’ll go to them first (all about that diverse experience) and Reform just isn’t my speed.
I called a few synagogues a few miles away, including a few Sephardic and Persion institutions because, aside from just wanting to meet new people, I haven’t had the opportunity to spend much time in those communities and like to take the opportunity when it arises for me. My first experience in a Sephardic synagogue, in Jerusalem when I was 16, helped orient and define my view of Judaism as a global community and I’ve always held that memory close to me.
Unfortunately, no one called back. Not unexpected, but I also am not one to just show up to a synagogue unannounced, especially during these times of ________ (choose your tragedy).
I did finally get in touch with an Orthodox shul who welcomed me to join them, but also said, “if you’re going to have to be driving, why don’t you not drive so far to us and instead go to Rabbi X.” This rabbi was about half the distance, which was convenient.
Spoke to him and he welcomed me for Shabbat services on Saturday morning, but then also for ma’ariv and Kabbalat Shabbat at his house. I got a feeling he might just be a wayward Chabad shaliach (again, love my time with Chabad but I was looking for some diversity) but wasn’t going to decline out of unconfirmed judgement.
Everyone else in the havurah wasn’t arriving until later that evening and the katan v’kallah were going to have dinner with their families, so I went all by my lonesome.
There were a bunch of dudes in the backyard (in coats and even scarves, despite to me the weather of southern California in December is like summer) and they welcomed me as their tenth for minyan – which only reminded me of the father of a rabbi of mine years ago saying to me that no, the tenth to arrive does not make the minyan alone, for they would not be the tenth without everyone else arriving before them. By the end of services it was a nice group of about 15 made up of some classic minyan characters I’ve recognized over the years:
- a recent bar mitzvah, in this case the rabbi’s son
- a couple Israeli travelers guilted by their imma to find a nice rabbi to have Shabbat by
- a few once-traditional alterkakers who found their retirement in a state far more sunny than New York
- a middle-aged guy who was just a bit too evangelical for my taste
- the consummate busy man, sh’liach tzibur
- a smattering of non-denominational locals
- a couple guys in the same ‘movement’ as the rabbi who patiently step in when the rabbi is inevitably called inside by his daughters or wife to help with one thing or another before dinner
They used a few tunes of which I am relatively unfamiliar, but thankfully my sister visited a few months ago and coincidentally brought some of those tunes with her, so at least I wasn’t totally lost.
I hung around after services to meet the rabbi personally. I was a bit concerned when everyone else left, as I anticipated at least a small kiddush and kibitz following (my time with Chabad trained me in this way). I picked up my hat to leave and the rabbi exclaimed, “drak, you’re staying for dinner!”
Okay, then. I am.
It was absolutely lovely. I was the only guest, and it was a wonderful, intimate, engaging family meal. I mentioned in another post that their ‘movement’ wasn’t immediately evident to me (a friend described them as “modern yeshivish,” whatever that means), but they were orthodox of some flavor. They had a Beis Yaakov cookbook, if that is an identifier? The rabbi is a director with the regional rabbinical council, focusing on kashrut, so there was some discussion about a new kosher supermarket going up soon.
The two younger kids brought some of their weekly parasha activities from school, so there was plenty of learning at the table. The youngest girl started the dinner by giving us a 22-question quiz wherein each answer began with the next letter of the alef-bet (not specific to the week’s parasha), and later in the dinner she presented a handful of different candies, each one relevant to the parasha; I wish I could remember all of them better, but at least there was a candy cane to represent Jacob’s age and a taffy with two mixed flavors that referenced the discussion around Ephraim and Menashe.
The young bar mitzvah read from a book of children’s stories compiled from drashas by a major rabbi in Israel (the name escapes me), which led to a great discussion about a specific moral issue: the main character was ruthlessly bullied in grade school, so his parents transferred him to a religious school despite not being religious themselves. Eventually the boy grows to be a pious, patient Jew and in his heart forgives his bully because the bullying led him to this life. Years later the once-bully sends the man a letter and a check, apologizing for all his childish misdeeds and ending with “if you forgive me, keep the check.”
Would it be right for the man to keep the check, despite already having forgiven the bully?
We talked about whether or not it was bribery, if the bully would be embarrassed if the check were returned even with a note saying that he was already forgiven, and other pertinent questions, but ultimately the rabbi said that the man should keep the check because there was no parameter to when he forgave the bully, just that he did, and that’s all the bully needed to know.
On my evening walk I considered that if it was ultimately ‘proper’ for him to keep the check, he should have at least given it away as tzedakah, as his forgiveness was not contingent on the check and the bully required no further communication.
When the rest of the family was in the kitchen preparing the next course, I commented to the rabbi that I noticed his mezzuzah cases were quite large, and asked if that was a minhag or just personal preference. He said it was just preference, but we got into a discussion about mezzuzot and klafim – he shared some stories about the increase of counterfeit klafim in the world. He also commented that you can certainly order a scroll (of any kind, not just for a mezzuzah) from a website, like what my Chabad rabbi has directed me to do for my new home, but that it carries so much more weight and power to have a direct line to the sofer.
That message resonated with me because that is how I speak about food – whatever diet you follow, vegetarian, vegan, omnivorous, gaseous, etc – it is more impactful and powerful to know your farmer, or at least your vendor, than it is to simply accept that something fits your diet and that’s that (I realize that kosher carries more weight and doesn’t always fit this model). I eat meat, but the meat I buy is from a ranch whom I know well, and I encourage others to follow this method for as much of their foodstuff as practical. As evidenced by most people who partake in a CSA, it makes one more cognizant and conscientious of their food and food habits.
Likewise, knowing who wrote your scroll (or at least knowing someone who can vouch for who wrote it) makes it more than just a box on the doorframe. You are more intimately connected with the words on the parchment and their meaning; it’s more than just a Jewish traditional at this point. It’s part of your life.
So, when it’s time for me to order my mezzuzot, I might be taking a trip back to his area to meet his sofer. I believe there’s one in Denver, too, so that’s an option. Regardless, it’s now something I’m seriously considering.
Something that was oddly uncomfortable to me was how educated and engaged the whole family was in Judaism, and how ignorant I was even compared to the children. It wasn’t just their culture or faith – it is their life and despite me being, for all intents and purposes, an engaged and educated modern Jew, I was sorely behind their class. The Torah, Talmud, and every other book written defining Judaism through the ages are textbooks to them, and they know them intimately. My inner rabbi was itching to get out and run away to yeshiva for a few years, in an attempt to catch up.
I usually take Shabbat evening walks, but this night it was nearly required to process this emotion.
Shabbat morning the to-be bride and groom joined for services (they’d done their aufruf at their local shul a week earlier) and were showered with the requisite amount of mazal and simcha. So that was nice!
The wedding went off without much of a hitch and was beautiful. Another friend’s dad built the chuppah, a robust portable structure which seemed to be able to resist a hurricane, and a local Conservative rabbi officiated. He and I chatted afterwards and I look forward to joining his shul next time I’m in town; he asked why I didn’t attend to start and we talked about the shift of Conservative Judaism over the last twenty years. He sympathized with me and my issues with where the movement’s gone, which was nice to hear. (Jokingly, it was also immediately evident that he was a Ziegler graduate. Not sure why, but I could just feel he wasn’t from JTS.)
Before the wedding one of the other groomsmen showed us a hole-in-the-wall liquor store that had an unbelievable selection of unique liquors, so we each grabbed a bottle to supplement the beer and wine that would be served at the wedding. Whisky, vodka, schnapps. I ultimately went for a bottle of delicious Lebanese arak, which everyone politely tasted and then gave back to me to finish myself.
About halfway through the reception the bartender was confused why he was smelling anise so strongly, and then figured it out when he traced the smell to me and saw us go to the truck for refills of our contraband – he laughed and told us to just stash it under his table so we didn’t have to run to the parking lot so often. He tasted my arak and was actually a fan – he claimed that being from the Dominican Republic he was used to some strange liquor, and shared the name of a drink unique to the DR, for which I’m now on the hunt.
There’s more to say from the trip, Jewishly, but those are some of the highlights. I hope everyone who celebrates this new year is celebrating safely in all manner of the word, and has a peaceful Shabbat!