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Shul Hopping: Synagogues Of The Bourgeois

The Upper East Side generally scares me. Walking past its designer stores, I know I do not belong. The stores should write on their signs: “We do not serve dogs or poor graduate students.” The Park Avenue Synagogue continued this theme. The external structure, a cross between a church and a castle, might as well protect itself with a moat full of alligators. As I walked through the massive doors, the security guards and metal detectors made me worry that I was about to enter an exclusive platinum credit card carrying club, but the congregation itself belies the coldness of the structure. As I walked downstairs into the summer sanctuary, a room normally used for a wedding hall, a welcoming committee of two men, a comedic duo welcomed me with some witty remarks, a pamphlet, and a tallis (a prayer shawl.)

The inside structure, a mix between a museum and a king’s chamber, exudes majesty and imposes decorum upon you. The walls felt infused with money. When the service lagged, I walked around as an explorer.  The lower level looks like one of those Harvard clubs Zuckerberg so desperately wanted to get into: two deep velvet chairs around a Mad-Men light with a gorgeous painting hanging above. Walking around, I felt that the place demanded scotch, a cigar and some enlightened conversation. I found art on the wall, actual art, not soul-destroying paintings, but real intelligent engaging Caravaggio-style art: a lithograph of a wedding in Portugal during the 1500s, and an artist’s rendering of Esther beseeching Ahaseurus on behalf of her people.  The bathroom, five star hotel caliber, displayed an automatic hand door cleanser a few inches above the door handle. Yes, it does exactly what it describes, shockingly so. In my peregrinations, I crawled past security into the dark, empty main sanctuary: church-like, high stain glass windows with ornate patterns, a piano in the top right corner, no raised platform in the center, a stained-glass dome with a central Star of David surrounded by cement designs of what actually look like crosses. The sanctuary emits a subdued, hushed, yet regal tone. A fitting house for the Almighty, but an imposing home for worshipers. I feel scared to talk. I expect that praying in here demands a more internalized lonely experience, one in which you embrace the smallness of man, but the actual experience of prayer with this congregation differs.

I came on time, maybe five minutes late, and about 17 seats were filled. I will not lie to you. Before my visit to the Park Avenue Synagogue, I only knew of Conservative Jews in the abstract. To me, they felt like long lost family. The friends of mine who consider themselves Conservative do not consider themselves religiously inclined. They didn’t experience life the way I did in which religion was my everything. This engendered in me a consistent hint of jealousy mixed with slight judgment or wonderment at their free lifestyle full of girls, alcohol, and drugs (i.e. normal teenage stuff,) instead of the guilt that somehow I couldn’t live up to a metaphysical purpose inherent in the world. No one instilled this basic need, neither my parents nor my rabbis ever drilled me in this manner. I simply felt it as a truth of life.

Consequently, I easily spotted the differences between my Orthodox upbringing and this Conservative experience, so much so that I catalogued the differences before I opened my prayer book. Everyone wore tallesim of different types: short, long, lace, and purple veil-like shawls with fringes. Men mostly wore kippahs with the bulls-eye fold from non-use. Woman and men sat next to each other, sometimes touching, sometimes hand in hand. I found the familial aspect of the congregation new, refreshing, and empowering. In terms of the content of the prayers, I felt comforted by the insertions that mainly revolve around a more central role of woman and a more positive outlook towards non-Jews. For aliyot, the ritual calling up to the Torah, not only were women called up, which was simply awesome to see, but couples, whole families came up to bless the Torah. On top of celebrating this divine gift from God, they celebrate their human joys of birthdays, anniversaries and births. This aspect of shul as communal introspection, celebration, and prayer glides throughout the service.

I noticed that despite the differences between Orthodox and Conservative shuls, certain customs or characteristics persist. For some reason, no matter the religious venue, no one sits in the front row. People, as they stagger in, mostly sit in the back and next to the exit. We fear the front of shuls the same way we fear the front of an assembly in school, or the front of the classroom. Additionally, I felt shocked to find out that we eat the same Kiddush food. The same Kiddush food winds itself through Chasidic, to Modern Orthodox, to Conservative shuls: egg salad, chopped liver, pound cake, tuna salad, marble cake, more marble cake, Tam Tam-like crackers, seven layer cake, jelly cookies, gefilte fish, and tiny cups half full of bad kosher grape juice or wine. Also, one bottle of cheap alcohol. Strangely, I assumed, if the Conservative denomination can make changes in Jewish Law, can they not make changes to Kiddush? Is this uniformity of Kiddush the manipulations of a secret society, an unspoken rule or custom? Also, and I cannot believe this shocks me, but reading from the Torah takes time and is mostly boring everywhere, no matter the type of synagogue.

Ultimately though, I found myself feeling ambivalent about this experience of prayer. I believe this says more about my hopes and biases than it does, necessarily, about the shul and its congregation. In terms of politics or social issues, I immediately connected to the presence of powerful women in the midst of the congregation. The female Cantor beautifully led the congregation in both Shacharit and Musaf with an operatic voice. The Gabbai, a sassy woman with an old-style European accent, sported clothing and accessories from what looked like the MoMA store. Most excitingly, a delightful woman gave a ferociously intelligent, insightful, somewhat scathing, speech on the parsha. Though I disagreed with certain details, her ability to speak so honestly, out loud, to mix reverence for the tradition with skepticism towards outdated social values earned my immediate gratitude and respect. I felt empowered by the inclusion of women, by the general congregational desire to tackle social, political, moral and religious issues in public.

However, because of my biases, I found it hard to connect to the prayer service itself. Something felt rote about it, almost pre-packaged. The cantor sang in the direction of the crowd, making it feel more like a concert performance than a prayer. In fact, the whole prayer had a perfomative air, like a fragile piece of glass that any emotional eruption would shatter with the slightest veering from its script. I cannot discern the source of this formality. Does it stem from the Upper East Side aspect, one which dictates a more reserved prayer or perhaps something about the Conservative aspect i.e. a sense of church-like decorum?  Or simply, had I caught the shul on an off weekend, missing most of its congregants, especially its younger ones, because of these hot summer days.

What emerged as clear is that apparently my soul yearns for Romantic prayer, a singsong prayer that taps into the essence of my being. I chafe at the hint of formality or rigidity, but I must realize that we each tap into different aspects of prayer. If God represents both our Father and our King, then part of prayer entails acting as if we stand before a king. You do not yell, even in supplication, at a King. You do not dress down, or engage in idle chatter, or scrimp on the expenses of a sanctuary for a King. You act with decorum; you follow the prescribed guidelines, and feel the majesty of the King of Kings. For me, though I tend to relate to God as a father, why should I pass judgment upon those who also feel his august presence? But the biases, I realized, bore deeper than this.

I realized that unconsciously I imparted too much negativity upon the Conservative movement.  While they feel like family, they feel like family I used too mock, or disrespect. I don’t know where these biases stemmed from. But we cannot easily shed our biases, inwardly, simply by choice; we must root them out at their source through exposure. Throughout my life, in discussion with my more right-wing friends, the consensus arose that Conservative Judaism occupied a qualitatively lower rung than Orthodoxy. We treated them as an innocuous, misguided, assimilated people without a real connection to God or Judaism, a cultural connection at best. Sad, I know.

What I found instead was not only a group of congregants passionately devoted to God, to Israel, to Women’s issues, to all Jews, and to the whole universe, but also a funny, humane, welcoming, and kind group of people. I found an older community who braved the heat to attend synagogue, more than 150 of them. I saw hugs and kisses between friends, between friends and their friends’ children. I felt a sense of warmth and care within the community, not only in their actions, but in their feelings towards one another, one of simple humanly love. Here the feeling of acceptance pervaded the halls. No one judged, or smirked, and no one rolled their eyes at you. Ultimately, I found a group of Jews coming together, connected by love, by family, and by community, united not only in their devotion to certain causes, but in their passion for the relevance of God and Judaism in today’s age, a passion I could only admire, from afar, for now.

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