if one thing is certain
I have always been fascinated by the tradition of Jewish communities. When I was young my parents traveled to Israel to study, learn, and tour the places of the sacred texts of the old and new testaments. I remember being so excited for them to have the opportunity to walk in the places where “the greats of the gospels” spoke or walked long ago. My mother and father visited Jerusalem, Damascus, and Bethlehem, they entered synagogues, and they floated in the Dead Sea. I felt like I was the luckiest girl in the world when they brought, from the temple, a cup and a rock home for me. They gave me a necklace with my name engraved in Hebrew. I wore that necklace all the time, not because it was the most beautiful necklace, nor was it a remarkable gift. I treasured that necklace, the cup, and those stones because they brought to life many of my beliefs. These three pieces signified a land far away that still exists, a tradition that still persists. On so many occasions traditions seem to become culturally strange, irrelevant, or outdated; but the gifts from my parents reminded me that a culture so far away in distance and in context still has the same relevance today. There is power in this tradition and there is something very beautiful about the remembrance of it, which brings power and life to a belief. Aside from very few and brief conversations with my peers and some Jewish friends, these three objects hold my connection with Judaism. I had reviewed modern and ancient Jewish beliefs during high school, but this site visit was to be my first true and pure experience among a Jewish congregation. For all of these reasons, out of curiosity and fascination, I chose to visit the Temple.
I was very nervous, but the good kind of nervous, the excited kind of nervous. I wasn’t sure what to wear, if I could take notes, how long the service would be, so after conducting a little informal research (googling) I made my plan. I wanted to have a pure experience and not to be distracted by any peers, so I decided to go by myself. I had the date, the time, now all I needed to do was drive.
Please excuse the metanotes analyses within these observations. Without taking notes during the service these notes come from the flow of my memory, and I wanted to write everything that came to mind as quickly as I could before I forgot it.
February 6th | 9:50am
I almost pulled in to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but with a little help from my gps I arrived at my destination. The building reminded me much of church buildings I have spent countless hours in before. From the outside I couldn’t see anything too fancy, but it was warm and inviting with an outdoor foyer and ample signs. I pulled into the lot, much more nervous than I should have been. I thought to myself and tried to come up with a plan for what to do once I entered the doors. I found a parking spot, which wasn’t difficult because the lot was seemingly empty. I could see only two or three other cars. I began to wonder to myself whether or not I had the right time. I was hoping that I wasn’t about to barge in on a small group prayer as an intruder. Luckily, a woman in a silver car pulled into the parking lot right behind me. I decided for three reasons:
First, I was too nervous to get out
Second, I wanted to be sure that what I was wearing would be respectful enough compared to her dress
Lastly, I simply didn’t know where to go
that I would wait in my car to follow her lead. She seemed a bit frazzled, but eventually got out of her car. I watched where she went and decided to do the same. My plan was to go in the doors, meet the greeters, and have a quick look around before the service began. My plan, however, was completely thrown out the window when I couldn’t even seem to get the door open. Evidently only one of the many doors is actually unlocked. One kind gentleman, who I would later learn was also a guest that day, opened the door for me. I spoke with him only briefly as I was ushered inside. I looked around and read from the many various bulletins, posters, and informational publications the temple had strewn about. The large majority of the information is concerning social activism and community events. I take a peek through the window to the beautiful library. I said good morning to the friendly faces that made eye contact with me. Many said Shabbat Shalom to me, but I did not feel entirely comfortable in my reply. I did not want to pretend as if I was anything more than a guest, a visitor. I did not want to intrude so I continued on with friendly good morning and hellos. The main room was small but welcoming. There were less than twenty people inside. I could smell food and could hear bustling in the kitchen, which I discovered to my right. Women of all ages seemed to be moving in and out of the kitchen preparing cups of grape juice and cups of wine. A long table was set out in the hallway. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I began to feel very out of place and uncomfortable again as congregation members retreated to their conversations after greeting and welcoming me. I picked up a few informational publications to read and decided to find a seat. I walked over to the meeting room only to find that it was entirely empty. It was a medium sized room. It had large, beautiful stained glass windows on either side of the stage reaching what seemed to be the entire height of the building. The sun was shining beautifully through the blue glass onto what I fondly call “church chairs.” I am very familiar with this type of chair. I have sat in that kind of chair for a large majority of my life. The buildings, the congregations, the locations and even, in this case, the religion may not be the same, but the chairs, those church chairs are always there. It was a soothing kind of familiarity. Other than the chairs, the altar, and a few bookcases the meeting room was mostly empty and bare.
Instead of sitting and waiting there all by myself, I decided, as is practice of all good researchers, to attempt in finding a restroom. On my way to the restroom, however, I was stopped by a two elderly women and what appeared to me as their husbands. One woman looked at me, smiled, and said, “you found us.” At this moment I realized just how out of place I must look and seem. A young girl by herself just wandering about the temple reading everything she possibly can. I replied warmly however, and she was most pleased to engage. We talked a bit about where I am from, what I am doing, why I decided to visit. Her husband and I spoke a bit about religious backgrounds and classes we had taken, what he described as being “ages ago.” The other smaller woman (I think this should also be noted, that among being the youngest, I may have been one of the tallest persons there) showed a gleam in her eye as we talked about how I am excited to learn about and experience the customs of other religious congregations. I told them a little bit about my interest in Judaism. They asked what other religions we might look into, and we talked about how many more religious pathways there are now to study and observe compared to “back in my generation.” It truly began to feel like I was speaking with loving, passionate, and wise grandparents. They were warm, welcoming and seemed to have a great joy and aspiration for the day. We continued on when the smaller woman said, “if one thing is certain, god is big.” This was a beautiful thought, and not necessarily a thought I expected. In all of my knowledge of ancient synagogues, or priests, Levites, Rabbis, Pharisees, and Sadducees I never expected such a loving, open, and beautiful remark. Where I expected resistance, judgment, and disdain in a real life experience, in the field, with real people I learned of a much more human story. Just as the cup, stone, and necklace revealed how religion comes from a real world, this small little woman’s words revealed how religion occurs with real people. We all chuckled, her husband replied, “and expanding” and her friend resonated, “like the universe.” The conversation continued on but began to trickle out.
Not knowing how much time I had left until the service began I abandoned my restroom mission and made my way to the meeting room, which now had four people inside. I chose a seat and began to look around for a copy of the Torah. In my long experience with churches, there are always copies of scripture to lend. I made my way to the bookshelves in the back of the room, smiling at friendly faces along the way. A couple greeted me in Hebrew, then again in English likely as a result of the confusion so apparent on my face. At the bookshelf I began to attempt to figure out exactly what I was looking at. I have never held a copy of the Torah before. I found prayer books. I picked one up and started to open it when one of the gentlemen from before looked at me and chuckled. He stepped toward me and reminded me that Hebrew is read from right to left and how I was holding the book upside down. From then he also helped me find a transliteration packet. This packet although he said it still seemed like gibberish to him, could help me participate and follow along in the morning’s prayers. Another woman came beside me and told me she would also be using the transliteration if I needed any help. Feeling nervous, a little embarrassed, but also fully welcome I made my way back to my seat. The meeting room began to fill up. People took their places. At this point I was still the youngest in the room. I also seemed to be one of the only individuals in the room. The majority of folks came in pairs. There was one little girl who came in at that time and sat down with two adults. The Rabbi came to her, welcomed her by name, and told her that if at any point she gets too bored she is welcome to go lend a hand in the nursery. I see a classmate come in and invite her to come sit with me if she’d like.
The congregation is largely dressed in business casual style attire. The two toddlers I have seen are dressed just as my cousin would dress, tutu and all. There are approximately forty members present. They are all later in age. There seems to be an equal distribution of men to women, and responsibilities seem to be equally shared.
Everyone began to settle in, little conversations continued to happen among members. The Rabbi called the congregation together through a chant. Without reservation all members of the congregation began to join in, loudly, in unison, and with clapping and smiles on their faces. Even without being able to understand the meaning of the words they say I too feel called to a centered focus. The men are all wearing Kippahs and the majority of them also wear their tallit. The men of the congregation who do not have a tallit find their way to the rack in the back of the meeting room where there is a rack of them hanging. After the chant is complete everyone gathers, seated and the Rabbi welcomes us all. He begins to speak briefly about the Torah study conducted earlier that morning and begins to guide the congregation in finding a place for prayer. He discusses the purpose of this morning’s Shabbat as a celebration.
The Rabbi leads the congregation in another prayer. Selene and I both find the prayers in our texts and follow along. I am somewhat taken aback. I knew that I was entering into another religious congregation, but didn’t expect there to be quite so much Hebrew. It is fascinating and beautiful. I wish that I could understand what was being said without having to look into the translated book in order to more fully take it in. After the welcoming prayers the Rabbi makes comments about using the English, the Hebrew, and praying in your own path. He speaks about how each individual is on his/her journey and that through the mumblings he/she is guided and brought together. He alludes that their prayers need not be in perfect unison but should be in a collection of cacophony as they gather together to seek their path and pray their prayers. The Rabbi encourages the congregation in the “building of a holy community.” He even makes mention of Robert Bellah. Thinking back to my days in church, I don’t believe I have ever heard a sociologist quoted. The Rabbi says that the building of this holy society is why we have spiritual practices. He talks about the agency of being free in god. He uses the terms agency, freedom, and slave in a discussion of their prayer that in these religious practices the congregation is able to realize their compassionate nature. He talks about how humans inherently speak in the language of “I,” but that this congregation helps us to speak in the language of “we.” The Rabbi continues on about how the congregation is a community and how in this community the disenfranchised can find power and how the hurt, the broken, and the oppressed can be free. In this holy society, the Rabbi explains, the soul can find its true compassionate heart and can fulfill its natural longing for freedom.
As everyone begins their halleluiah chants the room that was once empty and rather plain, and the chairs that were nothing more than “church chairs” to me are filled with voices in unison clearly gathering for something other than themselves. During these chants I do my best to follow along, interpreting English translations, listening, and I even tried to join in a couple of times after an encouragement for each to “mumble their own way” by the Rabbi. My mumbling was uncomfortable, but there was something to be said in the feeling of being included in something, a ritual beyond myself even if it made no linguistic sense. According to various prayers we are instructed to sit, stand, or follow our own customs. We are guided to face toward Israel and are often regarding our brothers in Israel and the rest of the world. The Rabbi leads many in this thought concluding with “Amen.”
Throughout the prayer three small children have slipped into the meeting room with their fathers. The Rabbi summons the five of them (3 children and 2 fathers) to assist him in the opening of the altar. The kids come forward and are involved in the carrying and the Torah scrolls procession. Later these kids walk through the aisles and the members engage them as family and they are not seen as a distraction at all. The scrolls are adorned with ornate velvet coverings and are clearly taken care of. Each member who carries the scrolls is given this duty as an honor. It is a beautiful thing to see the children, possibly four years old, with their fathers parading the Torah to their grandfathers and grandmothers. In this action I saw the true fulfillment of community. The Torah is brought around through each aisle so that each member may touch his or her tallits to it. Everyone participates in this ritual and is blessed or kissed the tallit after it has touched the Torah. Finally, the Torah is brought back to the front and is undressed. After introducing the day’s reading and explaining the celebrations of the day the Rabbi calls forward the first group. A woman comes forward to read the scripture for the day. The first reading is for all birthdays. All the members with birthdays come forward. They listen and then chant together. They all seem to be filled with joy and though many of them are older and have clearly had many, many birthdays they look excited with wide eyes and grinning faces. Finally, the entire congregation begins to sing in Hebrew. At first I think it is just another prayer, but then I recognize the tune. They are singing them Happy Birthday. I smile and laugh a little bit as I am reminded that these are not all just rituals and that their religion is not just a practice, but it is a part of life. These are real people that live in these practices as a part of their life. This specific part of their life just happens to be celebrating a birthday!
The next group comes forward as a group that is celebrating. Many of them are celebrating anniversaries this month, some are celebrating Mitzvahs, and others are celebrating for their own causes. A different woman comes forward for the reading. She is much more timid than the first, seems to be less practiced in her reading. She makes two mistakes, but those around her continue to assist and encourage her. At the last line the entire congregation joins in. This woman is then commended for her reading as she too has recently completed her adult Mitzvah class. The final reading is for healing. The community lists off the people they would like to pray for healing for. This list is very long. I am almost certain they named more people than were present, an indicator of community involvement. Two men in the back assist a man in a wheelchair to the front and a woman helps by covering him in a tallit. The Rabbi speaks to the congregation about being a people of adult faith. He talks about a Hebrew phrase in their Torah reading that speaks of having a “yes” kind of faith. He doesn’t just preach on this though. The Rabbi engages in discussion with his congregation and he knows each member calling them by name. He agrees and disagrees with their statements and personal connections. During this conversation I am struck and amazed by the potential wisdom in the room. Everyone speaks with such eloquence and thoughtfulness; it is beautiful. The Rabbi concludes this engagement portion by discussing the basis of ritual as being a relationship. They do and they act in trusting faith to a God that has told them to move. They conclude the reading with a prayer for mourning. The list of deaths in the past year is again, much longer than the list of members in the room. The prayer is beautiful. After the prayers are concluded the Rabbi asks for volunteers to help carry and dress the Torah during their final few chants, which had successfully brought together their congregation.
After this portion an elder woman is brought forward to introduce a guest presenter. There is a short presentation by the guest about Community Health. Not only is the Temple involved with Community Health, but the elderly woman also asks again if anyone would like to buy tamales to benefit the Seasonal Workers. After this one of the board members, a woman who seemed to be in her mid-thirties was invited forward to give the announcements for the week and upcoming events. She encouraged the congregation to get involved in classes and in their annual community fundraiser (again indicator of social activism and community involvement). After this the Rabbi came back up and he spoke about the potluck for that day and concluded the thoughts and encouragements for the day. The Shabbat service concluded with two more prayers: one was read by the Rabbi alone and the final one was chanted as people packed up their things and exited the room ending their sacred time of traditional prayer and litigious chanting. The people took this chant with them into the hallway where that long table was full of food.
After a brief conversation with a classmate and saying goodbye to her I am confronted many times by the community members. They ask me if I learned things, of what I enjoyed. I was so grateful for them allowing me to join in their prayers and observe and even participate in such a ritually special time. Three or four members invite me to eat, but because of my schedule I have to unfortunately decline. I find the Rabbi, but he is speaking with the gentleman that helped me with the Torah. After they are finished speaking the gentleman comes to me and asks me how it was. I respond gratefully. He and I speak briefly about the Rabbi, whom I am waiting to speak with, about his age. The gentleman is very pleased with the Rabbi and though he remarks him as young he gives praise for how he speaks with wisdom and compassion with the congregation. The gentleman tells me I am too skinny and that I need to join them for potluck. We both laugh, I tell him that I wish I could, but that my schedule is already full for the afternoon. Another woman tells me I must at least try the cookies at the end of the table and that they are from Market of Choice. Eventually I get to speak to the Rabbi, introduce myself and thank him for having me to such a beautiful service and a community of gracious people. He thanks me for visiting and invites me to join them again. He says I am welcome as a guest any time. I thank him and make my way to my car no longer feeling nervous or like an intruder, but as an accepted and valued guest. I have learned so much and have been so encouraged.
My visit was so insightful to the power of tradition that I had always lacked in my more contemporary protestant upbringing. I know that I am supposed to keep my analysis toward the end, but without notes to go off of from in the service this whole write up has kind of taken a turn toward analysis (Please excuse the analyses and metanotes that get thrown in among observation because so much of what was happening really was happening up in my head). There are so many things I saw and experienced that I am not sure I can put into words or that I would remember the proper words to put them into. I don’t understand all the rituals or know their names or their significance, but it was clear that the entire congregation knew what was going on. I am still looking up names for things that I am remembering like the “Bimah.” Even now I am remembering things like how there were three Priuses in the parking lot, how there was a gentleman wearing jeans, how there was a lot of emphasis on money in the literature and how all the seats had plaques on them saying they were donated. I didn’t go into depth about describing each prayer because there was a lot I couldn’t understand, and I am having trouble keeping them all straight in my mind. Still, they all seemed equally yet independently very significant. I was shown the importance of both relationship and ritual as made real in the construction of this Jewish community. I am amazed at the tradition and the role that ritual has taken with in this community in defining how these people live their life. Many actions and traditions have been kept though they hold no current contextual meaning, their power remains in this community. Rituals and celebrations help this community to navigate and bring meaning to their lives together. In this understanding they maintain generational ties and relate to their ancestors and their lands in Israel. Tradition, though for many can seem to be outdated and altogether controlling, holds very real purpose for maintaining an identity in the Jewish community. Both ritual and relationship bring them together from their varying paths to a central meaning and as these important rituals and scriptural guiding work to build a strong community.