Sunday, November 9, 2014

I just might stop to check you out

I have grown to really detest organized religion. I was never a very religious or spiritual person. I had no religious upbringing at all. Sure, I knew I was Jewish and, thanks to my many anti-Semitic neighbors, I was regularly reminded. But I rarely attended services and only observed holidays if it meant a day off from school. 

When I met my wife, I was perplexed by how observant she and her family were. I found it interesting, and both historically and culturally stirring. Although I still wasn't buying into the spirituality, I was impressed and even proud of the centuries-old traditions. When our own immediate family increased by one, we instilled and exhibited the same traditions and pride to our young son. We celebrated Shabbat each week with challah and candle-lighting. We attended synagogue, not only on the so-called High Holidays but for lesser holidays throughout the year. Our son went all through Jewish day school, becoming quite knowledgeable in the history and origins of his religion — knowledgeable enough to wage heated challenges to some concepts and interpretations, much to the chagrin of his teachers. He even accompanied my father-in-law — his beloved Zayde — to the services held at a small Orthodox shul, where, despite his young age, he held his own amid the old guard.

A few years ago, my father-in-law — a very pious, learned and traditionally-minded man — was unceremonious dismissed from his long-standing position as Head Usher at High Holiday Services by a younger, disrespectful regime that had moved into control at his synagogue. He was removed without a "thank you" or grateful sentiment of any kind by a bunch of self-righteous machers, most of whom were shitting their diapers when my father-in-law was already davening shachreit. I felt this behavior went against the very basic foundation of religion. That this was done by a committee under the auspices of a religious organization made it even more unconscionable. Is this what they learned from the teachings of the Torah and the message of Talmud? Ugh! With my already waning beliefs, this was the last straw.  I was so done with religion and synagogue and services and all of it. As far as I was concerned, it was all bullshit. Total, unscrupulous, nonsensical bullshit. I vowed never to cross the threshold of a synagogue again.

Yesterday, I broke the promise that I made to myself. I begrudgingly squeezed myself into a suit and tie and accompanied my wife to the Bar Mitzvah of the son of a childhood acquaintance. I wasn't happy about going to synagogue for any reason, but, I love my wife, so I went.

The service was called for 9:30 on a Saturday morning. We swung into the parking lot at five minutes past the delegated time, just in time to see the Bar Mitzvah boy's grandparents walking in to the building. Jews aren't exactly known for their punctuality, hence the "ish" that is routinely added to appointment times ("Okay, Phyllis, I'll see you around 10-ish for a nosh."). We parked, walked up and through the doors, where we were greeted by an older woman wearing too much make-up and a name tag (designating her importance, as Jews love to show their importance). 

"Helllllloooooo!" she welcomed in a sing-songy voice, stretching the two-syllable word to an impossible nine syllables, "Have you been here before?" and without waiting for an answer, she continued, "Just ahead to the left and then up the stairs." She extended her age-atrophied arm and gestured in the general direction of "to the left."

We approached the sparsely-populated sanctuary where the rabbi — a frail-looking, pale young lady with unkempt hair and a shmata tied around her head — was leading the service with a whiny, yet earnest, voice. The hallway just outside the main sanctuary was dotted with many more name-tagged "potentates," each with their own self-appointed job. There was the smiley lady who was giving out the little Xeroxed programs, explaining what the heck is going on here for those who may have stumbled in just looking for a place to warm up for a bit. Then there was my favorite  — the old guy who was silently checking every male head for the presence of a yarlmulke, like some kind of inventory manager for God. He was also charged with distributing talllit (prayer shawl) to those gentlemen he deemed too stupid to know whether or not they were wearing one.

We chose a seat in the fifth row, just behind my in-laws. All religious services have struck me in a humorous way. I have always equated the ceremonial liturgy and chanting with the incantations I heard in horror movies or tongue-in-cheek recitations delivered by an angry Agnes Moorehead on Bewitched. Is the effectiveness of prayer determined by the proper order of the words? If you stumble over a phrase or leave out a word, does God dismiss the entire plea as null-and-void? If you ask any of the regular ritual attendees, you would think that's the case. 

One of the most intriguing phenomenons of the morning service is how many people sit in their seats with an open prayer book in their hands and pay absolutely no attention to the service. A lot of people (mostly women) aren't even facing front. They are more interested in what every one else in the room is doing. Who's walking in, who's following along, who's on the right page, who's talking to their neighbor. All of these things are way more important than worshiping the deity of choice. Also taking precedent over God is: what is she wearing? who is that new man Sheila is sitting with? and the ever popular I think Bernie is here with a shiksa! The very idea!

Look, I know I've come down pretty hard on religion. I understand that there are a lot of people who find solace and comfort in it. Just not everyone. As the years go on and generations beget generations, the interest in religion grows thin and religion itself becomes less relevant.

It's funny how my feeling towards religion were brought to a head by actions taken against my father-in-law. It's funny because this story is gonna piss him off.

1 comment:

  1. Had to laugh that you said your post is going to piss off your father-in-law. Shouldn't he just be happy that you cooperated and didn't embarrass you at temple? You could copy/paste a lot of your observations and with very little revision make it apply to any number of other religions.