Monday, October 5, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 4 - Bolton Street Synagogue Part 1

To begin this section, we need to start roughly seven months ago, and then we need to venture roughly twenty-five years ago and then go forward chronologically. If I manage to complete this next series of posts, it will make the last series look miniscule.

This series begins in Washington DC, on March 15th - my deceased Bubbie's 100th birthday, when I attended a wedding in DC. A friend of mine, a Jewish friend - but not particularly Jewish - was marrying a Chinese girl. The Orthodox side of the family apparently cried bloody murder, or so he told me, and very nearly didn't come to the wedding. To the best of my recollection, the Chinese girl started taking conversion classes because religion didn't really matter to either of them, for them, changing religion is no important than changing your shirt - but since it was not an orthodox conversion, which can often take years, it was insufficient for the family.

This is a friend who leads a very charmed life. He's a DC lawyer who comes from a DC family of prosperous Jewish professionals, and whether through the seeming ease of his life or a genetic accident, the unfaltering sunniness of his disposition is reflected in the fact that he looks at least a dozen years younger than his early 30's. He found himself a similarly young-looking, sunny-dispositioned, wonderful complement in a wife. Together, it's highly likely that they can look forward to seventy years of happiness together. In every way but the religion, they seem like an ideally matched couple.

This particular group of friends is very Jewish after a fashion. It is dominated by liberal Jewish men who are encyclopedia of every conceivable way in which Jews 'assimilate' to secularized life - and so successfully that I'm fairly sure that the 'assimilation question' doesn't occur to most of them except as an occasional token acknowledgement to ameliorate older relatives. With one other exception, most of these friends are 'barely' Jewish - an incidental fact of their American existences that has long since melded into varying parts of the American experience seamlessly. Easily the most Jewish of these friends - Hebrew speaker and ardent Zionist and exaggeratedly Jewish in mannerisms and vocal cadence - married a lovely atheist Francophile from Indiana who converted to Judaism, and they occasionally go to a non-denominational, basically reconstructionist, synagogue. Judaism and its culture is a genuine presence in their life, but it does not dominate, and they find a fine balance with more secular forces. Another - not so much a political liberal as a progressive - is a self-described 'Jewtino', who finds fulfillment in the Latin culture in which he immersed himself far more than he ever did Jewish culture. He found a lovely 'fellow Jewtino' and they got married last year in a wonderful ceremony in rural Virginia (Jews don't do rural weddings). Rather than speak Hebrew, they speak Spanish with native fluency, they listen to Latin Music and dance Latin Dances with great skill and passion, they've both lived for extended periods in Latin America, and they clearly find Latin Culture more rewarding than the Jewish culture into which they didn't have much contact except to be born into it. And why not? It works for them, and clearly works for them very well. A third, a relatively wealthy West Coast native, married a working-class French Catholic from Boston, and in spite of the differences in background, or perhaps because of them, they have something resembling an ideal marriage. The only Jewish qualities about him, and her, are their superhuman work ethic and intellectual inquisitiveness, which borders on the Talmudic. Were this friend alive a century-and-a-half ago, I doubt he'd have been anything but a Rabbinical scholar. A fourth, a New Yorker of inquisitiveness that is perhaps even greater, is perpetually single, but finds great fulfillment in the culture of New York from which he hailed, so much of which is steeped in the Jewish culture within which its culture's creators grew up.

All five of these friends are Jewish in one form or another without Judaism being the defining framework of their lives - a privilege rarely known in American history until our generation. It was our parents' generation in which Yiddish was forgotten, in which education in general subjects was so involved that there couldn't possibly be world enough and time enough to appreciate Jewish subjects. Judaism became something only manifest on the High Holidays, in loyalty to Israel, and feelings of uneasiness about the prospect of intermarriage.

At the time of this I was a month into my relationship with a girl who was half-Jewish - sadly and truly my first long-term relationship though I was 32 when it began. There are no words for the relief I felt at the prospect of no longer having to spend my life alone. A month in, I already thought I was deeply in love (never a good sign...), and I swore to myself that whether her or anyone else, this would be the very last wedding I ever go to alone.

The wedding itself was a now old-fashioned Jewish blowout at a major hotel with 300 guests and every bit of the family wealth on display. Except for the intermarriage, Simchas like this wedding were a regular part of growing up in my family. Every month or so, my brothers and I were whisked away to a wedding or Bar Mitzvah of some younger relative or child of a parents' friend we barely knew, often in New Jersey or New York, or sometimes in Pennsylvania, or sometimes in Boston or DC. But of all the unfamiliar relatives, none were less familiar to us than the 'Greenies', the subset of Baltimore Holocaust Survivors from Poland and their descendants which comprised the community in which my father and uncle grew up. They were the best friends of my father's parents, whom my brothers barely remember. But every so often, we had events that we were assured were important by our parents at which our presence was required.

Among the Holocaust Survivor kids my father grew up with, perhaps the most interesting was the younger brother of my father's oldest friend. In a community where the ability to tell jokes and funny stories was prized above all else but the ability to make money, this particular person was light years ahead of everybody else. In the Pikesville play I'm writing, I couldn't possibly exclude his idea for a Holocaust themed Bar Mitzvah - with yellow stars as place cards, and seats at the Auschwitz or Majdonek tables. I often think to myself that my parents secretly can't stand most of their friends, but I never heard them speak anything about this guy with anything but the most glowing terms. They truly loved being around him, merely talking about him seemed to make them happy.

This friend was also, sadly, an addict who perhaps never forgave himself truly for the fact that he was gay, and the other joke which my family quoted endlessly was the idea of the 'Felt Eppes' table, where all the single children of Holocaust Survivors would be seated at every Simcha. 'Felt Eppes' was a truly remarkable Yiddish double-entendre. Felt Eppes means "something's missing," a reference to the fact that the people seated at this table were missing both spouses and a certain degree of mental presence...

To the privileged urban white male, there is nothing sadder than being alone at a wedding. When you grow up so spoiled by the blessings of life, there is no circumstance to hide behind your failures in life except your own failures of personality or character. In my case, my massive ego expecting to win multiple Nobel Prizes by now, things clearly went wrong so long ago that there's almost no point in asking where it went so wrong rather than simply stating the obvious and incontrovertible fact. Once you truly become an adult - somewhere in that space between the ages of 18, 21, 25, and 30, circumstances only become an extenuating factor in your failures. Circumstances may contribute to making life harder, but your failures are solely your own - particularly so because your ledger has so many advantages not accorded to others.

About ten years ago, this friend of my parents who was the younger brother of an even closer friend, who had known my father since his birth, drowned in his bathtub, discovered by his sister in law. To the best of my knowledge, nobody knew whether it was a suicide or an addiction relapse or a simple accident. But no matter what it was, it was a sad ending to a clearly brilliant guy who fundamentally had to spend his life alone. My parents were at the funeral and the shiva, and told me it was basically the kind of party that he would have loved and enlivened immeasurably - it was only a shame he couldn't have been there.


I ended Kol Nidrei Night with a visit to Beth Tfiloh. It immediately struck me how much less dull Beth Tfiloh's service is than the other two I went to. Beth Tfiloh is Vegas Judaism - it will never give you a real religious experience, but it gives you the best possible shul experience which money can buy. Rabbi Wohlberg is an astonishing man and speaker and performer, his cantor Chazzan Albrecht, is a fantastic performer in his own right - a truly gifted Baritone and unlike Rabbi Wohlberg, clearly a Jew of deep and true faith, even if his faith is Lubavitch - basically the Christians of the Orthodox world who believe that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the Messiah, and now that he's dead, he shall return and rise from the dead. He seamlessly combines the musical quality of the operatic cantors and the joy of the chassidic cantors - I find it hard to believe that there is a better cantor in the world.

But even so, nobody buys into what Beth Tfiloh sells, and nobody's supposed to. Beth Tfiloh is Orthodox Judaism for people who can't possibly believe in Orthodox Judaism but want the best possible approximation of it. People who value Judaism above all, and wish more than anything that they could believe in it, inevitably end up at Beth Tfiloh.

Having just officiated at the wedding of my brother, Rabbi Wohlberg came over a number of times to talk to our family for the brief amount of time I was at Beth Tfiloh this year, - but inevitably, he and I said nary a word to each other in spite of the fact that we actually used to be something resembling friends. He of course knows better than to come into contact with a loose canon like me who no longer approves of him. Even so, every time he comes over to talk to us, such is his hold on his congregants that it feels like a Presidential visit.

Wohlberg will be remembered in a blaze of glory. The moment he leaves, the most consequential synagogue in the most concentrated Jewish community outside of Israel will be in trouble so serious that there will be no solution. His will be remembered as the Golden Age, and it was procured at the future's expense, by refusing to move along with the times, by refusing to alienate people by taking a true stand, by putting prosperity over principle. The mid-century Jewish-American dream is alive and thriving at Beth Tfiloh, but as it's been as long as I can remember, it lives on time borrowed from its future.

The next morning, I got a brief glimpse of Judaism as its practiced in Roland Park, my neighborhood. A vision of the Judaism that - should I ever have any children or grandchildren (unlikely) - is probably what they will practice. It is the singularly uninspiring world of Reconstructionist Judaism.

The Bolton Street Synagogue (which is actually on Cold Spring Lane) was quite nearly full. A good 2-300 people in it. Not a single person there looked like he or she was there out of more than a sense of onerous obbligation. There were lots of hooked-nosed, tan people sitting next to spouses with blond hair and blue eyes, and their mix-and-match children. It was a nicer, gentler kind of Judaism, blissfully ecumenical and egalitarian. Like at Beth Am, many of the women wore Tallises (Talleysim).

But there is nothing in the reformed branches of Judaism more dispiriting than the responsive English reading. There was little but responsive reading in this - which resulted in a Jewish experience watered down through Christian filter, with Quaker thou's and thy's, and hardly any sense that this is connected to an ancient, Hebrew culture. All that remained is something bland enough to be completely uninspiring to the imagination. Once the cantor started intoning one of their few Hebrew prayers, the picture was complete. It bothered me not at all that the cantor was a woman, what bothered me was that the cantor was a lousy - operatically trained but not well-trained - singer.

This is the Judaism of assimilation. Nobody can fail to be uninspired by it - something so lame that you might as well not do anything Jewish at all. It is a Judaism of Jewish families whom in a generation will not have any reason to consider themselves Jewish, for what of these synagogues could ever have a hold on a Jew's psyche?

Assimilation, the process by which Jews become Americans and cease to be Jewish, is the gravitational force in the life of every American Jew. It is the singular question that defines the role every American Jew plays in the story - do we continue the unbroken tradition and contribute our chapter to its story, or do we let the story end with us? Despite the biased way I frame the question, the answer is by no means easy. Surely it's easier to abandon Judaism - it is a fanatical religion, beset by a culture of annoying practitioners, in which you potentially invite untold oppression upon yourself and your loved ones by being a part. At least half of America's Jews have assimilated, but were Judaism something easy to cast off, there would be untold millions more.

As best as I can do to be a reliable narrator, what follows is a relatively brief memoir of this eccentric's attempts at assimilation, both into America and into Judaism itself. It is, necessarily, not so much a memoir of myself, but a memoir of other people with names changed. It is a memoir of family, of mentors, friends, and lots and lots of unrequited love.

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