I work primarily with unaffiliated Jews: Jews who have chosen for now not to have a congregational home. So, when someone contacts me about study one of my first questions is, “Are you a member of a congregation?” Sometimes people say, “No,” and we go on to talk about what they want to learn. Sometimes they say, “Yes” and then my next question is, “Why don’t you give your rabbi a call about this?” Inevitably, the answer is, “I don’t want to bother the rabbi.”
Here’s the deal, folks: your rabbi LOVES to be “bothered” by people who want to learn. He is also waiting for the call that says you need a rabbi because you are sick or your aunt died or your kid is driving you crazy and you don’t know what to do. She is busy, yes, but these conversations are the reason she studied for the rabbinate: she wants to help / hang out with / learn with / listen to Jews like you!
People join congregations for lots of reasons. Many join with a particular kid-centered project in mind: religious school for the kids, bar or bat mitzvah, or something similar. There’s nothing wrong with that. But keep in mind that when you join you get other things with that membership besides religious school. One of them is a network of people and resources when you are in trouble, and when you want to learn. Then all you have to do is give the office or the rabbi a call and say, “Hineni [here I am!]”
If you want to learn, or you are in trouble, and you have a congregation, you are in luck: you already have what you need. (If you don’t have a congregation, by all means call me. I can use the work.) But don’t ever worry that you will “bother the rabbi.” Your rabbi is waiting for your call.
Image: A Jewish man prays from a prayer book. Photo by 777jew.
Sometimes it may feel as if Judaism is full of secret codes and handshakes, and for a newcomer, it can be overwhelming. You may have seen someone gesture over Shabbat candles, or do a little bobbing thing during prayer, or hold a tallit [prayer shawl] in an unusual way, and wondered, “Why are they doing that?”
Judaism is full of small rituals, and sometimes those little rituals can make newcomers to the community feel like outsiders. If you are the one who doesn’t know why the person you are talking with suddenly breaks out with “Pooh, pooh, pooh!” it can be alienating.
The most important thing to know about most of these is that like the many mysterious rituals of the Passover table, a lot of these rituals exist to encourage questions and discussion. They get started somehow (some we know, some we don’t) and then various explanations attach to them, and we’re off and running with a tradition. Some of these are quite lovely, for instance:
If you watch me during the section of the daily service called the Shema and its Blessings, you will notice that during a certain prayer, I gather up the corners of my tallit [prayer shawl], wrap the fringes around the fingers of my left hand, and then use that hand to cover my eyes as I say “Shema Yisrael! Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad!” [Hear, O Israel! Adonai is our God, Adonai is One!]
I was taught to do that by Rabbi Ben Hollander, z”l, when I was a first year student in rabbinical school, in Jerusalem. He taught me that there are words in the prayer which refer to the gathering in of all the scattered Jews of the world, so I should gather up my fringes and hold them during the Shema, as if gathering up the Jews myself. As for covering my eyes, I do that because there is a story in the Talmud (Berakhot 13b) where Rabbi Judah the Prince covers his eyes to concentrate while he says the Shema prayer. Since then, we cover our eyes at that point – either to concentrate, or to emulate a great rabbinic soul.
Are any of these things necessary in order to be a good Jew? No.
However, when you are curious about something you see someone do, ask! If you find the practice meaningful, you may want to adopt it yourself. Learning is a mitzvah. Rabbi Hillel said in Pirkei Avot, “The shy will not learn.” So ASK!
At the same time, “monkey see monkey do” is not a good rule of thumb for learning Jewish ritual. For instance, there are certain places in the service where tradition dictates a bow, but it is forbidden to “multiply bowing” – so choose your role-models carefully. It’s better to do too little than too much.It is a good idea to learn why you are doing a particular piece of choreography in the service, not just to copy the person sitting in front of you. (If you are a newcomer, follow them for sitting and standing and that sort of thing. But if they suddenly start doing a lot of other stuff, just watch and ask them about it afterwards.)
If there’s a ritual you’ve seen and wanted to ask about, feel free to ask here! If I don’t know, I will have a good time looking it up or … asking someone!
P.S. – There may be things you wonder about in this article. I have tried to link each of them to a good explanation. Just click on the link to learn. If you still have questions, ask!
I think I came as close as I ever have this past Shabbat. Linda and I went to the children’s service at Temple Sinai on Friday night, sat with friends and met some people who may be new friends. Went home tired, and slept the sleep of the worn out. Rose Saturday morning, had breakfast, went back to shul for services: a bar mitzvah of a young man I didn’t know, with an aliyah honoring the 30th wedding anniversary of our close friends, Dawn and Mark. Afterwards, lunch with more friends, and a long slow June afternoon at home. Heaven!
A bar mitzvah, you say? Of a young man you didn’t know? Yes: for those of you who avoid bnei mitzvah services, a point to ponder: sometimes the 13 year olds approach a Torah portion in new and exciting ways, precisely because they haven’t been reading the same words over and over for 50 years. And yes, sometimes they don’t. But Torah is always good, and my mind is free to pursue the portion wherever it is led.
But more than anything, it was the slow time of the whole 24 hour period, the songs at night, the long service in the morning when my brain was set loose to freewheel through prayer and inspiration, the affection of friends, the sense of there being “enough” in this moment, that made the day for me.
Many of the established Jewish institutions are in a panic right now: “Where are the young people? We must find the young people! In fact, where are the people? Why is enrollment so low?” Synagogues want “programs” that will attract people and will engage them in Jewish life. Membership in many organizations is dropping, and there is a constant drumbeat for new programs, for new ways of doing religious school, for a new Something to Keep Judaism Alive.
Grumpy old Kohelet tells us in Ecclesiastes that “There is nothing new under the sun.” I tend to think he’s mostly right about that. The Internet is a new tool, yes, but most of what we do with it is not really new. We use it to buy and sell, to tell stories (true and false), and to connect with other people.
That leads me to think that the “new program” so many of us are seeking is probably right under our noses: something already in the Jewish tradition. We just need to update it, or tweak it — or maybe dust it off and start doing it again. You see, I think that the “program” we seek might be a mitzvah we are neglecting.
Recently I invited my Intro students over for a Shabbat dinner at my apartment. I am not a great cook, or even a particularly good cook, so I made a dependable main dish and the rest was potluck. I specified a dairy meal, but told them not to worry about kashrut beyond “no meat or shellfish please.” I cleared my books and computer off the table, spread a nice tablecloth, got out the candlesticks, bought a challah, opened some wine, and voilá: Shabbat dinner! We had fun, they stayed later than I expected, and afterwards I noticed that things had shifted in the group. Our relationships had changed: we, all of us, were closer. And all we did was have dinner together, in my home!
These nice students, some of them Jews, some not, were blown away that I invited them into my home. Then it hit me: the mitzvah we are neglecting is hachnasat orchim, the mitzvah of hospitality.
Right then, I resolved that the doors of my tent needed to be a lot wider. It was true: when had I last invited guests for Shabbat, or for dinner any other time? When had I opened my home?
Like a lot of other people, I’m not a fancy cook. I’m not a very good housekeeper, either, and my dinner table doubles as my desk. I have a nice little apartment but it is indeed little. And so I have gotten into the habit of meeting folks elsewhere, because I’m ashamed of my housekeeping and my cooking and all that, and often in my off hours I’m just tired. And reviewing all that, all I can think to say to myself is “What kind of Jew am I?” Abraham and Sarah had a tent open on all four sides! Hachnasat orchim is an important mitzvah!
So: here’s my resolution, my teshuvah for neglecting this important mitzvah: I’m going to start inviting folks over. The place isn’t fancy, but I can keep it tidy. (Really.) The food won’t be fancy (it may be takeout). The welcome is the thing. I will invite them into my Jewish life, and that of my family, and we’ll have fun. Our relationships will become closer. It will be good for the Jews.
And that, my friends, is nothing new under the sun. But it’s one heck of a “program.”
What if, for one day, we were slaves to nothing and no one? How would our lives be different?
That is the premise of Shabbat: the seventh day, the day of rest, the day when even God rested from the work of Creation. The problem of Shabbat, often, is that many of us are intimidated by the idea of a full-on shomer Shabbat experience. It’s just too much change, all at once, if you are starting at or near zero.
Instead, I’m offering you seven options for letting a little Shabbat into your own life. These are things that have worked for me and for my family. They may need to be modified for you and your family. You may only want to try ONE of them, or one of them may inspire you to your own path to Shabbat. That’s OK.
[For a more traditional set of information about Shabbat at home, there are excellent articles on My Jewish Learning.]
1. SHABBAT DINNER. What is dinner like at your house on an ordinary day? What would make it better? The answer to that will differ from one household to another. What if there were candles on Friday night? What if there were agreement ahead of time that there would be no criticizing or nagging? What if there were guests? What if no one had to cook, if it were all take-out? What if you used the good dishes? If any of these things sound like “work” to you, don’t go there, at least at first. Do something that makes you feel that you could say, “Tonight we are slaves to no one and nothing.”
2. TURN OFF THE CELL PHONE. Have you ever ignored someone right in front of you, perhaps someone you love, because something on the cell phone was Very Important Right Now? Not everyone can turn off their cell phone. Some are doctors on call, after all. But if you can, consider turning off the cell phone and try some old-fasioned conversation. Or just look and listen. Rabbi Micah Streiffer wrote recently about Shabbat as a remedy for Information Overload.
3. REACH OUT TO FAMILY. Shabbat can be a great time to reach out to family who are distant, maybe even as a routine. Do you have a child at college? A sister or a parent in another city? A brother with a busy life on the other side of town? If family is in town, but you never get together any more, maybe get together for a meal.
4. REACH OUT TO FRIENDS. When did you last hang out with your best friend? What about inviting them (and their family?) for dinner and board games? What about a Saturday afternoon bike ride, or hike in the park? If you have friends who celebrate Shabbat, ask them if you can join them for part of it, to get a taste of it. It really is OK to ask, as long as your are willing to take “no” for an answer.
5. GET SOME SLEEP. According to the L.A. Times, 75 million Americans do not get enough sleep. A Shabbat afternoon nap will not make up for a week of 4 hour nights, but it can go a long way to bring some shalom, some wholeness, back into life. Or instead of staying up to watch Leno or Ferguson or any of those late-night comics, turn in early on Friday night!
6. MOVE FOR JOY. Go to a park and play! Ride your bike! Play tag with your kids! Roughhouse with your dog! Get outdoors, find some nature, or unroll the yoga mat for a leisurely session of pure catlike pleasure. Get back in touch with your body. Get back in touch with your spouse’s body. We are created beings, physical beings, and it is not good for us to live in our heads all the time.
7. GATHER WITH OTHER JEWS. Gather with other Jews for Shabbat, at synagogue or the Jewish Community Center. If your town doesn’t have a synagogue or JCC, find out where the Jews gather. If services don’t speak to you, try Torah Study – many synagogues have a Torah Study group that meets on Shabbat, and it is often a group of friendly people who enjoy a bagel and a good discussion. Jewish life and Jewish learning is always richer in company.
These are just seven little possibilities. Follow your heart, follow the hearts in your household. Every family keeps Shabbat in its own way; if you begin the journey, something wonderful awaits!
Someone has invited you to your first Shabbat [Sabbath] dinner. Maybe you are “meeting the family” for the first time. Or maybe it’s just a friendly dinner. But you are not sure about the religious aspect: what’s expected? Here are five suggestions to help you be a great Shabbat dinner guest:
1. ASK QUESTIONS: Every family has their own customs about Shabbat dinner. Some are very formal, some equally informal. Asking a few questions ahead of time is essential:
What should I wear? Dress will differ from household to household, so ask. You don’t want to be the only one at the table in blue jeans, or in pearls, for that matter!
May I bring anything? The answer to that may be “Yes, bring —-” or it may be “just yourself!” If you are asked to bring something, be sure and ask if they would like it to be kosher, or if there are any restrictions you should know about: allergies, etc. Better to ask than to show up with something lethal, right? And even if the answer is “just yourself” it is nice to show up with flowers. Not required, but nice.
Finally, it is fine to ask questions about the prayers, the food, or the objects you see. Some things (a kiddush cup, for example, or a recipe) may come with family stories.
2. BE ON TIME. Your hosts may be juggling the hour of sundown, service times at their synagogue, hungry toddlers or other variables. Shabbat dinner is not a time to be “fashionably late.”
3. DON’T WORRY ABOUT HEBREW. There may or may not be Hebrew prayers or songs in Hebrew. If you feel awkward just listening, you have the option of saying “Amen,” at the end of prayers. As for singing, if you don’t know the words, you can tap your feet, or clap your hands, or just listen appreciatively. The dinner may begin with candlelighting and blessings over wine and bread. If you are not Jewish, you do not have to participate, just listen quietly and observe. Don’t worry that you do not speak Hebrew; many American Jews do not. It is a wonderful thing to learn Hebrew, but no one expects you to know it at your first Shabbat dinner!
4. COMMUNICATE! Shabbat dinner is not just about food. It is also about taking time to enjoy one another’s company. Treat each person at the table as if you expect to learn something important from them. Contribute to the conversation when you have something to say. In many Jewish households, friendly dispute is welcome at the table, but do keep the tone friendly! Off color jokes and off color language are out of place at the Shabbat dinner table.
5. SAY THANK YOU. Write your host afterward and thank them for including you. When you host your own Shabbat dinner (or a similar event from your own tradition) return the invitation!
That is, Menscht tracht, Gott lacht: “Man plans, God laughs.” It’s the Yiddish version of Murphy’s Law. It’s been on my mind this weekend.
My plan to “blog the Omer” took a left turn on Thursday evening, when I posted a commentary on You Don’t Mess with the Zohan to my Jewish Film blog. I said I thought it was racist garbage, and I suggested other films that do a better job of mining the humor in Arab-Jewish tensions.
Someone had a rather strong reaction to my take on the film. Instead of leaving a comment, he or she chose to hack my account and mess up a bunch of the links on the blog, so that all links from 2009 films led to the Zohan entry. What I can’t figure is whether they liked or hated the comment, since if they hated it, why lead everyone to it? And if they liked it, why not just comment?
On the other hand, someone is reading the film commentaries! I’m delighted. If someone out in Internet-land is a little less comfortable about movies that take cheap racist shots, I am doing my job.
Whatever the details, all my blogging time has gone to fixing those darn links, and dreaming up a password that will be harder to crack. I have continued to count the omer, but am only today back to blogging.
I am absolutely certain that God is laughing.
P.S. to the Link Switcher, if you are reading this: Leave me a comment, either here or better yet, on the Jewish Film blog, and tell me what you were trying to tell me with the links. Loved it? Hated it? Let’s argue! It’s more fun and less work, I promise.