Ceremonies: Shabbat at the Synagogue

Erin Carver becomes jealous of a thirteen-year-old while struggling with a decade-old desire to be Jewish.

Photo by Duke Geren

Photo by Duke Geren

Growing up, I desperately wanted to be Jewish. I didn’t know any Jews, my middle school experience was entirely devoid of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and I knew virtually nothing about the religion except for dreidels and Stars of David, but I desperately and inexplicably wanted to be Jewish. I found out in later adolescence that this was not an uncommon desire: many of my friends have referenced “that time in my life when I just really wanted to be Jewish.”

I’m not sure what prompted this desire. Frankly, it’s more than a little disrespectful: “I would really like to be part of a religion that has weathered some of the worst, most violent discrimination in history, whose mere existence has been threatened dozens of times—barely fifty years ago, even! It just sounds like so much fun.” But maybe, in some way, that’s it: Judaism has a sense of being culturally and historically legitimate, with millennia of existence as an ethnic, cultural, and spiritual identity. Jewish history can be traced back thousands of years before Christianity became a sect of the religion, and then broke from it. Their membership requirements are far more stringent than their messiah-based religious kin, based in law keeping and a historical cultural background. Christianity broke from these requirements to accept anyone willing to believe in Jesus as the messiah, which in my mind seems like a bit of a cop-out when you’re breaking from a highly regulated religion.

For me — liberal, self-consciously open-minded, agnostic — Judaism is an easy religion to crave to be a part of. There’s a sense of connection to a tangible history and a long cultural past, and perhaps, because of this, a little less pressure to actually commit to the “faith” part of the religion. Christians who don’t practice were “raised Christian” or “lapsed Christians.” Jews who don’t practice are still Jewish. Plus, although Judaism is a little more exotic than the Christian background from which I come, it’s still in the same comfortable monotheistic vein. And perhaps most importantly for someone totally unwilling to commit to a religious belief: I could want to be Jewish until the second coming of Christ, but it would take an enormous effort to actually be Jewish. I could walk into any Christian church in town, state my acceptance of Jesus as my savior, and “be Christian,” but converting to Judaism takes years of study and a much bigger commitment to nuances of the religion. Since I’m not from that mildly exotic, eminently appealing ethnic and cultural background, Judaism is, if not inaccessible, certainly much more difficult to become a legitimate member of than Christianity.

I was thinking about my desire to be Jewish, and the ultimate impossibility of that desire, when I decided to attend a religious service that wasn’t Christian, but also wasn’t too different. I picked out my synagogue: Congregation Beth Israel, a gorgeous Reform Judaism temple (one of the finest example of Byzantine architecture in the Northwest, according to the congregation’s website) located in the same Northwest Portland neighborhood as my Catholic cathedral. Then I noticed that their website states: “Our only membership ‘requirement’ is that you be Jewish.” Well, of course. In order to be Jewish, one must… be Jewish. How tautological. But I was concerned about this. Exactly what does being part of the congregation entail? I wondered. Could I go to a single Shabbat service without being Jewish? I wasn’t trying to hone in on their religion, I was just trying to get a sense of it. But what if I got there and they kicked me out? That hardly seemed likely, but how embarrassing if it was true.

So I called the office, all awkwardness. “Hello. I have a question that is probably really silly: I want to attend a service but I’m not Jewish. Can I… do that?”

The woman on the other end of the line was eminently friendly. “Of course! Almost every part of our education and religious services are open to the public. Are you thinking of coming this weekend? We’ll be in the Temple, not the Pollin Chapel.”

My fears of being entirely excluded from Jewish worship were, apparently, unfounded. I prepared to attend Saturday morning Shabbat service feeling confident and eager.

I arrived for the service slightly early — fortunate, as it gave me time to stand outside the domed building and stare at the intricate stonework and admire the stained glass windows. The inside was much the same, carved dark wood and lush dark colors decorated the round room, which, apart from its shape, reminded me a lot of the Catholic cathedral. The rows of seats facing a raised platform, the prayer book handed out in the foyer by older members of the congregation—the whole thing was comfortably, although strangely, reminiscent of a Christian church, although the platform was a bimah, not an altar, and the prayer book was the Siddur.

The similarities between my experience at St. Mary’s Cathedral and at Congregation Beth Israel, however, ended quickly — before the service even began, in fact. At Mass, people arrived in couples or family units and stuck to each other; here, everyone in the congregation knew each other. My neighbors chatted about the previous night’s service and dinner before the service started, and discussed the flu that kept several friends from attending that morning’s service. Everyone waved at the excited, nervous parents of the Bat Mitzvah. The service began with the rabbi inviting everyone to greet each other, and the room was immediately filled with Shabbat Shaloms. The woman in front of me turned and grabbed my knee in greeting.

By far, the most amazing aspect of the Shabbat service — to my uninitiated mind — was that it was more or less led by the Bat Mitzvah. This probably broadcasts my ignorance to the virtual world, but I didn’t have any Jewish acquaintances until they had all been B’nai Mitzvah’ed. I assumed that the Bat Mitzvah would be an aspect of the Shabbat service, maybe a twenty-minute ceremony of Torah-reading and community-welcoming before prayers for the sick and dying. Instead, the long-haired, impossibly young-looking girl sitting on the bimah at the front of the synagogue arose with the cantor, and they both began chanting the prayers from the Siddur.

The Bat Mitzvah absolutely blew my mind. When I was thirteen, I could barely manage to choke out a passage from whatever asinine novel we were reading in seventh grade literature while my classmates half-listened. This girl was standing in a religious sanctuary, reading Hebrew in front of religious elders, family, and friends, as though she’d done it every day of her life. She read beautifully, and when she stumbled, she didn’t panic, but kept going in the rhythm of the prayers, which she spoke in both Hebrew and English.

Eventually, the service turned to the Torah and Haftarah readings, and when she and the rabbi removed the Torah scroll from the ark and marched it through the temple with her family, everyone whispered to them how amazingly she was reading. I learned from the inset stuck between the pages of the Siddur about the Bat Mitzvah that the Torah scroll from which she was reading was rescued from Eastern Europe after the Holocaust, and I actually started crying. She read from Leviticus and Ezekiel, and then spoke, childishly but earnestly, about the importance of observing Jewish holidays to mark the religious year and her hopes for passing her favorite traditions on in the future. The rabbi spoke to her about her hard work and dedication to becoming a Bat Mitzvah, reminded her of the importance of living “as a Jew” in everyday life, not just at holidays, congratulated her — and then she was an adult member of the congregation. Preparing for months, learning a new language and en entire history to culminate in leading an entire religious service — this is an impressive rite of passage indeed. I felt like I got to watch this girl really, unequivocally earn her “Jewishness” that morning — and the huge celebration that (I can only assume) followed.

As for the religious service itself, it’s hard for me to describe, because I can’t really crystallize in my mind if it seemed structured or open, ceremonial or freeform. The fact that it was led by a thirteen-year-old girl, from the prayer to the interpretation of scripture that I can only assume is usually done by the rabbi, made it seem much more open than a traditional Christian service led by priests and pastors.

Of course, this followed prayers from the Siddur, which is hundreds of years old and has roots that are much older than that. But even these ancient prayers had a distinctly secular feel: they directed worshipers to pursue knowledge and wisdom, celebrate with bride and groom, care for the ill and dying. I was overwhelmed with the idea that a traditional, monotheistic religion could be so committed to the concept of wisdom. It stood in sharp contrast to the Catholic priest’s insistence that one’s spiritual connection to God was the most important aspect of living well, and I was significantly more comfortable with the Jewish idea that the entirety of one’s life experience could be connected to and intertwined with one’s religion, but not entirely about one’s relationship to the divine. The reverent treatment of the Torah could hardly have been more ceremonial, but it was in the hands of a child and not an austere elder. Perhaps the best way to describe what impressed me about the service, probably because I was watching a Bat Mitzvah, was that while it was ceremonial and traditional, it was a ceremony and tradition being held in the hands of the community, even its youngest members, not just a highly-trained elder.

I left the service feeling impressed but a little dissatisfied. I’d just watched a whole congregation of people celebrate God, as a community, in a millennia-old tradition — but led by a girl not much older than kids I babysit for. I’d experienced prayer and worship that struck a balance between mortal practicalities and spiritual mystique, and I’d done so in possibly the most gorgeous house of worship I’ve ever been in. And… that was it. I could go to Shabbat again, but I won’t ever be Jewish, because I don’t foresee myself ever being committed enough to spend years going through the conversion process. And having attended a totally fulfilling Jewish service, I (counterintuitively) don’t really want to be anymore. I’ll never really have access to that historical memory, and it’s probably right to leave it to the people who had to endure what it took to gain that history. It doesn’t make it seem any less fair that I haven’t yet found a religion that can say things like, “pursue knowledge and wisdom” while still respecting a very religious, very traditional God; a religion that celebrates its youth and its families and its community above individuals’ relationships to God; a religion that is legitimized by its historical framework.

Attending Shabbat at the Beth Israel temple was fascinating, but ultimately unfulfilling. I understand and respect that Judaism is reserved for those who are, in fact, Jewish, and I know that it’s ignorant to ignore centuries of discrimination to claim, “I wish I was Jewish!” — but it hardly seems like their balanced approach to religion and worship should be inaccessible to us Gentiles. And, who knows — perhaps it’s not. After all, I still have months to find that balanced approach to spirituality in a context where I won’t feel like an impostor.

Erin Carver knows every line of dialogue from When Harry Met Sally and makes a quiche so good it can bring a grown man to tears. She has an English degree from Lewis & Clark College and lives in Portland, where she spends most of her time taste-testing pad kee mao.