The ProsenPeople

Finding a Religious Home

Friday, December 11, 2009 | Permalink

In her last posts, Abby Sher, author of Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying (Among Other Things)wrote about revisiting her childhood synagogue and the anonymity of praying at a Hillel. She is blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

Flashback: It’s Yom Kippur, my favorite holiday. This year I let myself have some coffee. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that, but I really do just fall asleep at the first Barchu otherwise.

I think it is also the first year that I am actively trying to make my own spiritual practice.

I have just written a book, Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl who Couldn’t Stop Praying, about my obsession with prayer. I’ve spent years repeating the same phrases without knowing more than the rhythm and solace they offered as they buzzed on my tongue. I feel responsible now that I’ve published the book to accept this as my past and move into the present.

There’s also a kid to think about. My delicious little girl who is smushing cheese in her hands and dancing to NPR, but one day will hopefully come with me to temple and listen to these songs for the first time. My husband is not religious and he’s said she can do whatever she wants as long as she gets to experience a lot of choices. What do I have to offer her if all I know of Judaism are the prescribed songs and recipes that I’ve repeated over and over, often locked in a closet for hours at a time?

Union Temple is the oldest congregation in Brooklyn, founded in 1848. It is in an old building by Prospect Park and the seats creak. The bathrooms smell like cool disinfectant. There is a hunched man, whose name I think is Henry, always making sure people have their siddur and that they know when to go up on the bima for aliyahs. At Kol Nidre, Rabbi Goodman speaks passionately about the universal right to health care. Her voice is so urgent I feel ashamed for my inaction.

This is where I want to make my new religious home. I haven’t told anyone yet. Haven’t paid any dues or even introduced myself after services. There is still part of me that doesn’t know how to let go of my rooted traditions and to hear these prayers for the first time. There is a part of me that can’t believe or accept that I am the mommy now, starting an entirely new story. And there is a part of me that is embarking, growing, somewhat timidly, but yes evolving, joining my voice with whomever is near me in song, and then dipping out to wander home, feeling these new melodies swell inside me.

Abby Sher is the author of Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying (Among Other Things). Check out her official website here.

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Hillel House, University of Chicago

Wednesday, December 09, 2009 | Permalink

In her last post, Abby Sher, author of Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying (Among Other Things) wrote about revisiting her childhood synagogue. She is blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

Uh oh, these are real Jews, I thought.

Kids my age – all around twenty or so – reading the Torah and praying like Woody Allen did in Take the Money and Run when he took an experimental drug to get out of prison and turned into an Orthodox rabbi for several days. I had been only in my Reform synagogue for my first eighteen years of life, so I didn’t know anyone without a beard could practice this fervently. I was humbled by their piety and discipline. I was especially nervous when they did the silent Amidah and everyone was saying something in a low burble, many people rocking too. I tried to repeat the English parts as fast as I could but I was always the last one standing and had rarely gotten more than half way through. I never understood what I had read either and what if the most important part was at the end?

But something that I did enjoy about these services was the anonymity of this kind of worship. I had been to temple solely as the daughter of my parents, another generation of a lineage. When I went to Hillel, I loved that I could slip in and try new harmonies on songs and brush my hair on the other side and even stand up for Kaddish and nobody knew me or my history. I loved that I was here in this moment for the first and only time.

I tried a few more shuls in Chicago, mostly when I had an invitation from a friend, and once I moved back to New York I started looking in Brooklyn, usually with a shul buddy. But I felt mildly displaced; standing on the edge, maybe getting my navel wet, certainly not ready to dive under. I told myself it was the unfamiliar music that jarred me. Or the slightly too conservative liturgy that made me feel stiff. But then I tried a service with a guitar and mellow singing and that felt even more awkward.

I went back to a service at Larchmont Temple for my little cousin’s Bat Mitzvah and the closing song had changed tunes on me. I thought of chanting one of my yoga mantra’s in the background, in protest.

Abby Sher is the author of Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying (Among Other Things). Come back all week to read her blog entries. And, check out her official website here.

The Shuls, They Are A’Changin’

Monday, December 07, 2009 | Permalink

Abby Sher, author of Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying (Among Other Things), is blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

There are some things I love to change -– my socks or stationery, for example. I’m also okay with changing radio stations, as long as it hovers near NPR. But with most other aspects of my life -– which train I ride, which journals I write in, which side of the bed, side of the debates, seat at the table, coffee filters, pens, did I mention I’m wearing my t-shirt from sixth grade graduation as I type this? -– when it comes to personal evolution, I’m not so great.

Which is probably why I found it particularly unacceptable when my synagogue decided to feng shui its sanctuary. Larchmont Temple is a Reform congregation founded in 1948 that stands near Manor Park in a stately brick building with broad white pillars that as a child I often felt were G-d’s sturdy open arms, welcoming all inside and holding up the roof as we sang the Shema. I’m sure there were plenty of structural reasons for the shift -– the sanctuary I’d grown up in was long and narrow, sort of like a bowling alley with the rabbi and cantor at two pulpits surrounding the ark. There were a few dozen rows of benches, but for High Holidays they had to open the back doors and put out folding chairs through the hall where we usually had our oneg. Sometimes a television was even wheeled in to the people stuck in far corners so they could see what they were missing on the bima.

There could have been religious reasons for the move too. There is an entire wall of exquisite stained glass that spells out many of the prayers and in the old setting; it was kind of just a backdrop, or really side-drop. Which was fine with me because it gave me a beautiful place to wander when we were supposed to be listening to the sermon. But after the renovation, the ark stood in front of the side wall. Everything was moved into what I thought of as the center of the room. Even the special flickering lamp that was supposed to represent the eternal flame. I always wondered if it really flickered when they rewired it. I felt bad for the electrician in charge of that one.

Whatever the motive, it was done, and my mother was none too pleased about it. I had already graduated college and settled in Chicago at this time. Home for few days’ visit, she brought me over to take a look. Rabbi Sirkman was a good friend of ours, and happily showed us around.

“That’s cool,” I offered, wandering towards the commemoration wall, where deceased congregants’ names were written above small ledges. There were pebbles on the bottom so family members could place a marker as they said kaddish.

“Yeah, it’s nice,” Mom said. Then she sighed loudly, “I don’t know, it’s just not the same.”

“Sorry, Joan,” said the rabbi.

It was a peculiar sense of homelessness. The entrance even looked like it’d been tipped sideways. The familiar clangs of the coffee urns being rinsed in the kitchen were replaced with a soft swish swish of vacuumed carpet under our feet.

As we left, I felt bad for my mom, and also for myself. I knew that I was supposed to be an adult. I paid my rent on time, brushed my teeth and held down a job, but I was unprepared to find a house of worship on my own. I thought that eternal lamp was fixed in G-d’s indelible scheme. How would I know where to find that kind of safety and stability again?

Abby Sher is the author of Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying (Among Other Things). Come back all week to read her blog entries. And, check out her official website here.