Friday, September 24, 2004

It is erev Yom Kippur and L is having two meals. Two meals? Yes, apparently it's his tradition, one before mincha, another afterwards. The first milk, the second meat, but with washing and bentching and the stuffing of faces at both feasts.

The baynonim family is eating once, after mincha, as we do every year. Is L's double meal a widespread custom? Should it be added to my ever expanding list of Jewish Customs I Reached Adulthood Without Ever Hearing About? (watch for it next week, and a high-five to the person who suggests a less awkward title for the list.)

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Jordan makes a good contribution to this post below. He says the halacha doesn't require us to stand for an open aron. He's right. I knew that. I should have pointed that out myself.

I guess I am observing that the shul and the shteeble respect the Torah differently. The shul stands for an open aron, and wouldn't dream of sitting with their backs to the arc. The shteeble stays seated when the aron is open if the Torah won't be moved, and sometimes their backs even face the aron; instead they show their respect for the Torah, in part, through their clothing. (I don't mean simply that they dress acording to the law; I mean that they insists on hats, or white shirts, and, in some cases, fur hats and frock coats.)

Of course the shul thinks the seating habits in the shteeble are disrespectful, and the shteeble thinks the clothing people wear to shul is a disgrace, but that's a problem I can't solve with a blog. Unfortunately.
What time did you finish? (Rosh Hashana)

What time did you finish? What time did you finish? That is the question on every Jew's lips on the days following Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

In the shteeble they were done at 2:30 pm. In the shul at 1 pm. And both sides were feeling mighty proud of themselves (I was out of town, with my parents.)

From L: The Rav (who was the chazan for musaf) poured out his heart, and really brought us together. How could they have finished at 1? They really must have rushed

From the big pediatrician: We had a nice tight service at the shul, with plenty of time to say everything properly, but no dragging. Lots of singing. Our hired chazan chose excellent tunes, and kept us all singing. How did they finish at 2:30? They really must have dragged it out.

I'm baynonim, so let's deconstruct this.

The shul had a 5 hour service, with no break and a brief 10 minute speech. They started at 8 am and, aside for ten ten-minute sermon, went straight through until 1 pm.

The shteeble also started at 8 but took a 30 minute snack-break before shofar blowing. Also, the shteeble davens sefard, meaning there were 3 sets of shofar blasts during the silent musaf amidah. This takes longer, because the person blowing the shofar waits until it seems that most everyone is ready. I've been to the shteeble for Rosh Hashana and the silent musaf amidah is a good 30 minutes longer. Also, the shteeble sells aliyos before torah reading. This takes, perhaps, 20 minutes. So factor in the delays and the actual shteeble service wasn't much longer than the service at the shul. Maybe 15 minutes longer, if that.

As for the hired chazan vs using the rav debate? I think it's simple.

Hasidim, traditionally, believe their Rabbi is an intercessor, so of couse they want their Rabbi to pray the important prayers on their behalf. To the Hasidim, it doesn't matter if their Rabbi can sing or not; they just want the best lawyer at the bar on the Days of Awe. ( Though the shteeble has only a handful of Hasidim, the Rabbi is Hasidic, and as the Rav he expects to take the amud. Because it's his shul, the people have no choice but to let him.)

Non-hasidim don't need an intercessor, but they need to be inspired so that their own prayers are a powerful as possible. A hired chazzan is something of a cheerleader. It's up to him to arouse the crowd, to invigorate the service, to keep the people alert and involved and praying with all their might.

Sounds like both the shul and the shteeble got what they wanted - and needed - this year.

NB: An argumnet for hired chazans. For the most part, the hired chazans sing the "set" pieces (haMelech, Aleinu, Kol Nidrei) with the familair, traditional tunes. The amature prayer leaders I've heard in the shteeble sometimes introduce unwelcome varieties. Even their Kol Nidrei is different. Professionalism and good training has its place. Hat tip HM for the article.

Who can explain?

When the aron kodesh (holy arc) is opened for a prayer-poem on the Days of Awe during services in the shul, everyone stands up.

But when the arc is opened for a prayer-poem in the shteeble some people stand, but most people remain seated. I know that sick people are excused from standing, but these sitters look healthy to me. Are all the sick people in town praying at the shteeble?

As MoChassid, blogger par excellence, might say: What's pshat?

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Something new for the Miss-orah?

On the first night of Rosh Hashana we eat foods that have symbolic significance. Mostly they are puns that remind us to ask God for certain favors, or serve to remind us of blessings we might request in our prayers the next day. For example, tamar is Hebrew (and tamri is Aramaic) for date. In Hebrew the word puns with consume, thus we eat dates and remember to ask God to consume our enemies. An incomplete list is here. (scroll down.)

This year, the father-in-law had a new idea. He brought out celery and raisens, put them together and said, "May it be God's will that we all receive a raise in salary!"

Housekeeping Interlude

"Simon" has brought to light new and important information about The boy whistled, and the gates of heaven swung open. His contribution is in the comments. 9/22/04

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Also? I refuse to call Madonna "Esther."

I can relate to Madonna, as I am also an Italian Catholic who secretly wishes he was Jewish. But you don't see me forcing a red, friendship bracelt on my henpecked British husband, do you?

Don't you sort of wish she'd just go back to insulting the Catholics?

L wants to know when he can expect his next appearance on the blog.

I'm touched. I didn't know L was a reader.

"Just do something silly or hypocritical and I'll be sure to post it," I promised.

At that, he laughed. What a good friend.

The boy whistled, and the gates of heaven swung open.

You've heard this story, if you went to any sort of Jewish school. It's the one about the congregation that was itching to start praying one Yom Kippur eve, but couldn't because the Rabbi had seen the Gates of Heaven and they were closed. A small shepherd boy went to the front of the shul, pounded on the table, and from the depths of his soul, he whistled. The congregation was impressed by the boy's act of devotion and so, apparently was God. "The Gates of Heaven are open," announced the rabbi, and the Yom Kippur prayers commenced.
(Note: Please read the comments. "Simon" has brought to light new and important information about this story. 9/22/04)

I hate this story on many levels. It's offensive to logic, to the tradition and to common sense. On one level, though, I like this story very much.

First the gripes:

1 There has not been a Rabbi since Moses, who could see the Gates of Heaven, and tell us when God's favor was withheld. The Rabbi in the story is lying. He has some other reason for putting off the prayers, or maybe he's demented or drunk. In any event, he's not being honest with the congregation and his dishonesty is leading the congregation to sin, because...

Prayer services aren't delayed. We're required to pray at set times. There's nothing in the rule book about putting off the services in the unpresedented event God decides to hang a "Be Back Soon" sign up on the pearly gates.

3 Gates of Heaven, in fact, is a Christian conceit. Jewish heaven isn't some upper class community with stern walls to keep out the riff-raff. Nowhere in our books is it ever described thusly. in the Jewish imagination heaven is a study hall, not a private resort. Perhaps when the story was first told, God was called angry, or absent. That's a mistake, but at least it's a familiar Jewish mistake. Despite the efforts of the Rishonim, Jews persist in assigning emotions to God. (See the Yad, Sefer Maadah, where the Rambam makes it clear as an unmuddied lake that god has no emotions like anger, and he's not the sort to take a vacation.)

4 Acts of devotion, like whistling, mean nothing to God. He doesn't want whistling. He doesn't want acrobatics. He's no fan of fire eating. He wants us to follow the laws, to the best of our abilities, and that is pretty much it. (Being "a good person" covers a great many of the laws, but not all of them) If it's time to pray, he wants us to pray. If the gates of heaven (or whatever) were actually closed, the congregation should have been praying. If God appears to be ignoring us, the answer is always prayer. Not whistling. Prayer.

5 Whistling, is not a form of prayer. If it was, the Anshei Keneset HaGedolah would have prescribed it. They did not. Instead, they gave us all those words to say. Tiresome, I know. If you find it boring, by all means stay home. In fact, stay home and whistle if you like. But, please, no pretending that whistling is a suitable substitute. It isn't.

Ok, now let me tell you what's good about the story.

This morning one of of our vendors, a middle-aged Jewish lady, called me. We never discuss Judaism, never even acknowldge that both of us are Jewish. I always imagined she was reform, or reconsturctionist, or indifferent. Today she wished me a happy new year, and after a few seconds conversation about shul and brisket and other things Jewish I realized that she's probably Conservative, and that she takes certain rituals very seriously. She heard shofar on Thursday and Friday. She'll fast next week. She eats matzo on the first night of Passover. She's not perfect - none of us are - but she does more, cares more, than I thought.

The point? We have no idea who is holy, and who is not. Our eyes and ears can detect physical flaws and physical merits. They are not wired to detect holiness or its absence. People who anounce their holiness, through their clothing, for example, are sometimes like the pig, an animal which announces he is kosher by showing us split hoofs, though he is, in fact, quite treif .

We exist, to an extent, on the merits of others. This is why we pray communally, and speak communally in our prayers. But whose merits? No one knows. It could be the rabbi at the front of the room who's holy enough to see that the gates are closed (snort) Or it could be the dirty, shepherd boy. Being able to whistle is not meritorious, so the shepherd boy in your shul, in your neighborhood, is not a whistler. He's learning in secret, or he's taking care of the sick, or he's giving charity, or he puts the honor of his fellow man, above his own, or he's superbly meticulous about Shabbos. You'll never find him, but he's there. It's impossible to know who is good and who is not, and this story, for all its flaws, is urging us to remember that we are men, and our perceptions are imperfect.

Monday, September 20, 2004

It's easy to check the origins of a line of poetry or prose. Are you wondering who said "Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense?" (Hint: It wasn't me) A trip to the library, or a few clicks on Google and the answer is yours.

Don't you wish you could do the same thing with music? Who composed the haunting tune our Rosh Hashana chazan used for Unisana Tokef? Was the melody he used for L'kel Orach Din an old tune from Europe, or was it that latest Dedi offering? Was the composer a famous rabbi or was he a famous cantor? Is this a mideival song, or a dressed up peasent tune? Did the Rama know it? Did the Rambam?

Is there an easy way to find out? Can I hum a few bars into a search engine and get the answers?

This week, the Lord of Hosts sits in judgment, so why not baynonim?

What follows is a list of pet peeves, complaints I know are small, though they irritate me like an eyeful of sand. I've recorded them during this season of forgiveness and introspection, hoping that writing them down might free me to begin the new year serenely and with too high a spirit to be further encumbered with this old nonsense.

1 - Selling aliyos: Why is the shul transformed to a shuk on the holiest day of the year? Why are the services interrupted to let a huckster take the amud to cajole us into reaching for our wallets to purchase honor? The first time I saw this carnival, my father-in-law called it "taking care of business" and he's right. The modern shul is a business; it must sell something to survive. But must we do the selling in the sanctuary on Yom Kippur? It always reminds me of Jesus driving out the moneylenders and who wants to be reminded of Jesus on Yom Kippur?

I've brought this complaint to the shul powers. They respond: we need the money. Isn't that a prostitute's argument? Does money answer everything? And what's next? Will we allow the local pizza place to put an ad on the paroches? The Rabbi is a broad man. Quite a large ad indeed could be made to fit across his back. Inapprorpaite? I agree. But so is selling aliyos.

2 - Starting kiddush before davening is over: Kiddush is a sacrement in the shteeble. Food begins to appear the moment the moment the chazan finishes kedusha, though if the Rabbi is strong it might wait until after chazeres hashatz. At the signal, the young boys throw down their siddurim, rush to the kitchen, and return with plates of fish and cake, and bottles of soda and single malt. Meanwhile the chazzan is struggling through a communal prayer like kaddish or the last part of shemona esray. I suppose we adults are supposed to sit quietly as the food is distributed, without breaking our concentration, but of course this is impossible. The end of davening is always a disaster. Why is this tolerated? And why is it tolerated by people who look down on people who leave shul for kiddush during maftir?

3 - Throwing candy at an open torah: I grew up in a shul where the custom was to wait until the end of the haftarah before pelting the groom or bar mitzvah boy with bags of candy. By this point, the torah is wrapped and to the side. You can hit the celebrant, without worrying about hitting the Torah. In the shteeble, the candy is thrown immidtaley after the groom or bar mitzvah boy has had his aliya. The Torah is still open and on the table, which absolutely drives me wild.

Am I becoming a grumpy old man? Possibly, though I have years to go before I'm even middle aged. Perhaps now that I've transcribed these complaints, they'll belong to the ether, and not to me. Kesiva v'chasim tova.

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