Friday, September 25, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 1 - B'nei Yisra'el

Shul 1: B'nei Israel

There was no question that even if I didn't go to Beth Tfiloh, I would still go to Mom and Dad's place for dinner. It was, as usual for the early dinner before Yom Kippur, a filling affair. My Mom always makes a second side dish, one dish more than any mother who loved their children a normal amount would make. Dad had a number of choice lines, the best of which was "As you all know, I have a great personal affinity for Jesus (!!!), we both went into our Father's business, and both of us didn't quite measure up."

After the fracas of the past few weeks, dinner the night before was inevitably anticlimactic. Jordan and Naomi have now been married for roughly three weeks, and it would amazingly seem that they're still in love.

I of course figured I had plenty of time to make my way downtown to the place I thought I would go for Yom Kippur: B'nei Israel. One of the two old synagogues on Lloyd St. Two beautiful, relatively small, synagogues that date from the 19th century, designed to look like miniature, but more austere, versions the great synagogues of Europe - with their mixed moorish, baroque, and empire style ornamentation.

This synagogue is the later, and more ornate, of the two - dating from roughly 1870. The Ark which houses the Torahs at the front is bedecked with lights like a proto-Vegas billboard. It was originally called Chizuk Amuno - meaning 'Strengthen the Faith' - a splinter synagogue from Nidkhei Yisra'el, because certain members felt Nidkhei Yisra'el was becoming far too lax in its observance. So of course, in a move that was probably motivated one-quarter having to be close to its members, one-quarter being zoned out of anywhere but a majority Jewish area, and one-half spite, Chizuk Amuno built their synagogue directly next door to Nidkhei Yisra'el. The ulimate irony is that both synagogues became lax in their observance, and eventually moved within a mile of each other in Pikesville at the nexus of Park Heights Avenue and Stevenson Road, a locus which contains five megashuls that over the years have probably housed 50,000 Jews who want to stay Jews without actually being Jewish: Beth Tfiloh, Beth El, Oheb Shalom, Chizuk Amuno, and Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (formerly Nidkhei Yisra'el, but no doubt Baltimore Hebrew is a better name for Jews who can't stand being Jewish).

Of course, by the time I arrived across town to Lloyd Street and Corned Beef Row (as they call the old 19th century Jewish neighborhood due to the collection of delis still gracing the street with its deliciously salted smell), I was 15 minutes late; and of course by the time I got there, they hadn't even begun the Kol Nidrei service.

Like all Jews at all Kol Nidrei services, I immediately had the overwhelming urge to go to the bathroom from the huge dinner I ate beforehand. Most Jews resist this urge with every fibre of their being (and we usually can because Jews don't eat enough fibre...), so while most Jews spray the Kol Nidrei service with the inevitable smell of fart - in this case, no doubt provided mostly by the offerings at Corned Beef Row - I decided I would do the charitable thing and not contribute to the gaseous melee. I left to go to the bathroom, and to my shock, when I returned roughly ten minutes later, they had just about finished the Kol Nidrei and I had missed the chanting of the one prayer any Jew cares about on Yom Kippur.

(Lewis Black on the Kol Nidrei)

Kol Nidrei is a prayer that is supposed to be said three times, and generally very slowly. It is not a prayer, it is a legal tender with God, written in the Middle Ages when Jews were often forced to convert by the sword. Yis-ra-el means "He who wrestles with God", and to open the holiest days of the year with the words of the Kol Nidrei: "Our vows are no longer vows, our prohibitions are no longer prohibitions, our oaths are no longer oaths," is a startling statement of defiance - a middle finger to God at the moment when we're supposed to be beseeching him most. Judaism, ever the most practical and legalistic of religions, begins services with an 'out' clause, our vows to both Judaism and other religions, mean nothing. The melody is, like so many melodies in Judaism, a song of a very particular tragedy - speaking not as so many spooky Christian melodies do to the dread of hellfire, but to the fact that this is the world that counts, and this world sucks.

(Kol Nidrei)

Yom Kippur does not feel complete unless you're there for the Kol Nidrei. And yet, it's a Tucker family tradition that we're late for it and only hear the last of its three repetitions. I was not later than the service, and yet, by the time I got back from the bathroom - the Kol Nidrei was three quarters of the way through the last iteration: apparently 'Our shits are no longer shits.'

After the Kol Nidrei, the cantor is supposed to lead us in the  'Shehecheyanu' (the prayer of thanks for living to see this day). At Beth Tfiloh, Chazzan (Cantor) Albrecht uses a beautiful melody that the entire congregation has learned to intone with him, but at this shul the Cantor used a tune nobody knew, a few people cursorily mumbled along, and then we proceeded to the sermon, which was, of course, about Death.

Insofar as he's given me any thought in the last few years, relations between Rabbi Wohlberg and I have not been particularly cozy as I have written him in recent years (documented at least once here) to tell him that I find his rightward turn distasteful. But let's be honest here, Rabbi Wohlberg, for all his many flaws, is as good a pulpit rabbi as rabbis get - and would never waste a sermon talking about shit that is guaranteed to keep all of us out of the pews for years at a time. Talk about anything else in your sermons - talk about politics, talk about family, talk about sports, talk about sex, just don't fucking talk about religion!

Unfortunately, most Rabbis don't get the memo Wohlberg practically wrote himself, and this particular Rabbi might has well have been a Calvinist for all his morbid harping on death and how there is nothing between us and Gahenna but the air. And then, of course, he ended it with two or three awkwardly token sentences about how 'we have to embrace life' and clinching his unearned peroration with a plea to us to chant the 'Shehecheyanu' together like we've never chanted it before. As he began it, the Cantor had what seemed like a fit of ego, and angrily cut off the Rabbi as though to say 'I lead the fucking prayers here!', and in gales of fortissimo shouted out that same awkward tune of the Shehecheyanu, while the Rabbi, clearly feeling very awkward at the situation, shuffled back to his seat.

Clearly, if I stayed at B'nei Israel, it would be a very long fast.

Leaving B'nei Yisra'el was a sad experience. Leaving any urban shul in Baltimore is. These shuls, built to be the center of life in once vibrant Jewish neighborhoods, are designed for whatever the maximum capacity of the community once was. The maximum capacity of B'nei Yisrael was clearly once at least a hundred-fifty more people than were in their pews, and that was just the men's section. Like all Orthodox Synagogues of particularly unsound dogma, women are relegated to the upstairs, a tradition that seems more like segregation in the Deep South with every year.

When you leave an urban shul, particularly at night, you see what the neighborhood has truly become. Directly across the street was a bunch of black kids making noise with sticks on which they beat the ground. I'm not gonna lie, I was a little scared, perhaps without justification, but I was also a little sad. The little glimpse I got of what Corned Beef Row is at night was as sad as any other part of nighttime Baltimore. Urban flight was part of every white community, but no white community rose faster than the Jewish community, and no privileged community still has more shared memory of working-class life in the city than Jews do. The moment we Jews acquired privilege was the moment we allowed ourselves to become just another gated white community. I don't know if it was our exit that allowed America's cities became breeding grounds for poverty and downward mobility, but our exit is more contemporary with that development than any other.

Most Pikesvillians (Pikesvillains?) don't realize it, but we need these cities as much they need us. I decided to not to go to Beth Tfiloh this year for many reasons, but behind them all is the incontrovertible and obvious truth that the gated community of Pikesville is a place without a soul; a Stepfordian echo-chamber full of people who never really lived their lives, where everyone's prejudices are reinforced by hearing all your fears confirmed by your neighbor, who has as little experience of the world outside of Pikesville as you do.

I have very similar complaints about the White hipster community of North Smalltimore in which I live, a bubble of gaudy privilege and self-delusion as amazingly stupid as a sack of hammers (or as Pikesville!). It's as though the wealthy grandchildren of Pikesville's original settlers moved back to North Baltimore so they could establish values in direct mirror opposition to the values of their grandparents - "whatever they believed, let's believe the opposite!" One side congratulates itself on its homogeneity, its shared memories and traditions, its commitment to the ancestral religion and homeland, the other congratulates itself on its diversity, its unfamiliarity with one another's customs, its progressivism and tolerance. People in Smalltimore are perhaps freer and more dynamic than in Pikesville, but if anything, they're dumber.

Neither community brooks much dissent with its ethos. Instead, both sides retreat to a cycle of repression in which there are certain things that cannot be said without being made to feel like a second-class citizen of the community - I should know, I've felt it from both sides, more from Pikesville certainly, but Smalltimore is catching up...

Neither side has any idea what life is really like for the embattled people they claim to speak for. Pikesville is filled with ersatz Jews who have more opinions on the State of Israel than they have words of Hebrew, Smalltimore is filled with ersatz progressives who have more opinions on the plight of poor blacks than they ever have change to spare in their pockets. Both employ militant politics as a substitute for actual knowledge of what they speak (or shout). It's far easier to trust gut solidarity instincts than it is to memorize statistics, far easier to say that you have knowledge of what these people go through because you hear a speaker or two that Beth Tfiloh or Red Emma's selected for you than it is to live their experience for a few years yourself. Is there anywhere in the world that tests your tolerance for the establishment like Pikesville? Is there anywhere in the world that tests your tolerance for the counterculture like Smalltimore?

I was there last year at Penn Station, watching these two groups of people go up against each other in demonstrations over the inevitable clash during the War in Gaza - is Israel a good place or an evil one? As Israel becomes a more and more polarizing issue, these clashes will only get larger and larger. So many people on the Left have already tried to connect a direct line between 'Black Lives Matter' and resistance to the Israeli Occupation that eventually, it will have to stick. If you're a member of the Hard Left, it's probably true; if you believe that West Baltimore is an irredeemable Police State worthy of comparison to Hitler and Stalin, then you'd probably believe the same about the West Bank and Gaza if you knew anything about what's goes on there. And yet, who are we supposed to believe as to what's necessary? Rabbi Wohlberg always said that the two jobs that should always get the benefit of the doubt are teachers and policemen. Both jobs are low-paying, dim-future occupations that are only assumed either to provide for the betterment of their communities, or for the privilege of abusing the powerless. When people who put their lives on the line tell you what is needed to police a place, who are we to argue? If you believe that the plurality of police or teachers have taken their jobs so that they can abuse their subjects, the issue's already dead - there's no way for one individual to solve such an enormous problem, and if you really care, you shouldn't be protesting the conduct because it's already too far gone, you should be doing what you can to get these people out from under the abuse and no longer poster childs for your causes. But... it's not that serious is it?...

The truth is never all with one side of any argument, even if one side is sometimes more right than the other (though not in this case...), and if the two sides ever came together, they would arrive at a greater, more valuable truth. Baltimore needs Pikesville's wealth, its practical sense, its unity of purpose. Pikesville needs Baltimore's experience, its diversity, its sense of where moral priorities should truly lay. The sports cars and McMansions of Pikesville are not as evil as Baltimore's murders, but they're perhaps even more senseless because they're derived from money that could easily be spent on alleviating so much suffering. By and large, Pikesville is a place of overprivileged lives without purpose or fulfillment. It is as spiritually impoverished as Baltimore is materially so.

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