My Rosh Hashanah 5776

Last year.

dipping-apples-in-honey-rosh-hashanah[I’m writing this post in response to one of my resolutions, below. Yeah, I’m usually anti-resolution, but strange times call for strange measures, and since this secular year’s theme is still “liberation” and I am still working on it, here goes.]

So, first, a dirty little secret. (The likelihood that you will “get” the detail level of this is low if you’re not an initiate into things Jewish, but here it is, for the sake of full disclosure.)

The reason I haven’t been saying as much about the synagogue this year is that it turned into a problem last fall. The reason is my allergic reaction to someone who moved to the neighborhood, a rabbi who’s the chaplain at the local military base, and who’s become sort of the co-rabbi. The original rabbi, whom I’m a big fan of, is an introvert, but definitely a Chasid, which makes for an interesting combination (how does the leader of a group dedicated to mysticism spread his message if he’s essentially retiring? But I respect him more because he is so unpushy and so emotional in non-demonstrative ways). The new guy is a mitnaged Litvak. I suppose that on points, I should identify more with a Litvak than a Chasid, but I get more than enough intellectualism on a day to day basis and what I’m looking for is that emotional connection with the divine I’ve found in Chasidism.

(Hineni, the prayer that opens the Musaf for Rosh Hashanah II. In my synagogue you would hear it without the piano. English text here.)

So last fall, when I got back, I started going to shul again, feeling at first like I was really at home, but quickly I realized that the summer away had been decisive. While I was gone, the nusach had changed from the tuneful exuberance of the Chasidic service to the mumbling Ashkenazic rush (why spend a lot of time singing at prayer if the main thing you’re supposed to get from the service is the Talmud lesson?). Even more than that, the new rabbi seemed to be hostile to prayer, often talking loudly over the Chasidic rabbi while he was leading services. During the Torah service itself, instead of leaving the reading (which is split up into 7 segments, or aliyot) uninterrupted, he would offer his thoughts on each segment as it was finished. Often these were simply thoughts off the cuff, and not Talmudic at all; just shtuss (a little like his homily today about the Akedah, which was mostly about the significance of beards in traditional Korean culture — I never caught the connection to Abraham’s aborted plan to sacrifice Isaac). Because Litvaks are Ashkenazim, their prayer service is longer, and he insisted on all of his required prayers being inserted into the Chasidic liturgy at the appropriate places — but then never participated in prayer. (The particular thing that annoyed me was Anim Z’mirot, in case you’re wondering, which Chasidim don’t say on Shabbat. I love the song and it would be fine with me to add it, but it’s murder trying to sing it while someone is shouting some mishegoss over you).

Now, usually, if there’s a man I don’t like in shul, it’s easy to avoid him (one of the few benefits to the rigid gender arrangements of Chasidism). Women sit on one side of an opaque barrier and men sit on the other, which makes it much easier to tune out. A lot of people who give a d’var Torah don’t even bother to speak so that they can be seen on the women’s side, so if you want to pay attention, you have to work hard at it. This fellow, however, is it pains for his lessons to be audible on the women’s side, so he poises his lectern at the head of the mechitzah and makes sure that we have to pay attention. I’ve never met an orthodox man who’s so interested in what’s happening on our side of the screen. He’s constantly over on our side, telling his wife what page we’re on, asking what’s up with his daughters (he has a large family).

An important mitzvah (commandment) for Rosh Hashanah is listening to the blasts of the shofar. This is actually a lot like it sounded at my shul. Listening to this always leaves me feeling a little odd. Maybe it should. Our rabbi is really into the mystical meaning of it, though.

One Shabbat last fall, Chol HaMoed Sukkoth, I’d had a stressful week of work and I needed that connection to the divine. I went to shul, but the Litvak prevented anything from happening in terms of flow. First, the mumbled Ashkenazic Shacharit — and once he finished his part of it, he retired to the rear of the shul to talk with a friend, so that I heard the conversation more than the prayers. A Torah service with constant interruptions (somehow he managed to connected Hitler to the parashah, more than once), with him on our side of the mechitzah at least five times. At one point he said, to me, Are you all right? Do you have a headache? I felt like every time there was a chance of me connecting, this man personally interfered to prevent it from happening. Because it was Chol HaMoed, we needed to say Hallel (which was, at least, the very lusty Chasidic Hallel), but by that point the previous stuff had really tried my patience, and I was looking for the service to end when the Litvak rabbi announced that because it Ashkenazi custom, we would now have to read Koheleth in its entirety. Foreseeing another situation in which he would force others to fulfill his minhag but sabotage my kavvanah, I decided to go.

And the guy has a daughter who’s a bit Asberger-y and immature as well and as I left, she trumpeted across the whole shul, Why are you going now?

800px-StbernardusabtSomething in me snapped. I drove straight to the Best Bar on the Planet and ordered and drank five 10 oz. goblets of St. Bernardus Abt 12 from the tap. The bartender even asked me if I was okay. At 10.5%, I had to stay there quite a while to be able to drive home after that.

I did not like that feeling — that compulsion — it is the only time in my life I have ever felt that if I didn’t have a drink right that second I might commit homicide. So I have spent a lot of time thinking about what happened on that day, what triggered my reaction, and whether there is anything I can do about it. As near as I can put it: when I go to pray there, I am expecting to have that specific, almost mystical experience of prayer. I open up all my shields and try to connect with the divine. But it’s like that “inside” that I open up is a piece of sticky tape and when that fellow starts to speak and pray, it’s like someone heaping up dust and dirt onto the sticky tape in the place where G-d should be.

Sigh.

Normally in a situation like that, a woman would appeal to her husband — but I’m not married and as a woman, I’m not part of the minyan. I have my history of difficulties with the gendered nature of this kind of worship (and its consequences for women in particular), but my reaction in this situation left me completely without a voice. Usually, I’d have resorted to Pesky to make my feelings known — but the other piece that had developed over the summer was that Pesky jr. had become the Litvak rabbi’s best friend. I discussed it with him once but it was clear that that wasn’t going to be a mechanism for me to express my dissent.

So, I’ve been avoiding shul when I know from gossip that he’s going to be there. Which is most of the time.

I want to stress that this is my fault: I am responsible for my feelings and when I am exposed to this man who pushes every button I have, I have not been able to control buttons or my feelings. Which means I have to stay away. He’s a lot more important to this congregation than I will ever be, not least to the Chasidic rabbi, who didn’t get much help with anything religious until this man showed up.

But the avoidance has been getting on my nerves. So I decided I was going for the holidays, that I was going to wear a huge hoodie and keep it over my head while I was praying, and sit in the most remote possible corner. The point was going to be doing the mitvot for the holiday, hearing the readings and whatever songs people sang, and reminding myself of the divine and the possibility of the experience of flow, and to think my own thoughts otherwise. Not to try to connect again, per se, but just to remind myself of the potential that was there.

Which turned out to be okay until his wife said to me, today, you’ve hardly been here the whole year, and you really feel it when you’re praying, when you’re not here, we don’t feel it as much, we miss you.

Sigh again.

But in any case, I had a lot of time to think and I have three conclusions which I am operationalizing as resolutions (for a change):

  1. I need to address head-on my self-esteem issues. They are not becoming smaller, and indeed they are starting to harm me in practical ways, including in terms of my writing.
  2. I need to recharge my flow experiences, even if they are not going to be in that synagogue.
  3. I need to return to being emotionally open and honest here — in the place where I have generated a lot of flow up until last fall. I need to recapture the feeling of being able to say most of what I was feeling from the current, walled off situation in which I suppress most of what I feel and what does come out not only reflects unhappiness but also often makes me unhappy.
  4. It’s clear that I do not feel the need to overeat and overdrink when I do not feel myself overstressed. So I have to work harder at cutting off the mechanisms for stress — which means not so much leaving stressful situations as learning not to allow myself to experience stress in them.

Better flow will lead to better balance and the abandonment of stewing in private should lead to a return to creativity.

So. I’m going to try again. Let’s see what happens.

שנה טובה ומתוקה!

And here’s to liberation!

~ by Servetus on September 16, 2015.

21 Responses to “My Rosh Hashanah 5776”

  1. You perhaps need some outdoor , sporting or entertainment activities . Oxygenate your brain !

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    • Thanks for the suggestion, but movement is pretty much anti-flow for me and has been since I was a little kid. Occasionally it’s okay if I’m playing a game and thus distracted from the fact that I am moving.

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  2. I have a notion now what you feel when I’m talking “astrologish” … 😉 my only knowledge of Judaism is based on watching “Yentl”. But from the times back when I attended (protestant) service I can relate to your feelings. We had two male vicars and the older one’s services were so much more “everything”. I really only attended service in the year before my confirmation, but his one’s left me glad, that I got out of bed on that sunday morning and I was feeling good afterwards.

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  3. L’Shanah Tovah, Servetus!
    This is quite a process you have gone through and a very difficult one at that. I hope that next year when you look back, you will feel you have made good progress on your resolutions!

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  4. It’s crazy how easily things like personalities, musical preferences, and yes “flow” (or lack of) can affect our worship experiences – and I think it happens most often when we are on that ragged edge and need it most. I so often turn to music on my own time to facilitate my freedom in opening that spiritual door. Everybody has their own trigger along these lines, of course. I think maybe I see more about what this year has meant to you, its impact…. I do hope that you can keep sharing on an emotional level here with us, and that it will help you rekindle that freedom and creative connection that is so special in you.

    And I have to say I was really touched by what this man’s wife said to you, even though it was difficult for you. Sweet but how ironic. Thanks for sharing this, Serv xx

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    • It’s really been a year of immense learning (on both sides of the balance sheet), which I am always in favor of!

      I told Pesky about what Mrs. Litvak said to me (Pesky knows about my issues w/Rabbi Litvak) and he laughed at the paradox.

      Thanks for continuing to read.

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  5. Well, your outlined plan is clear. You know the triggers, have ideas to implement in overcoming them, see the desired outcome. Now, just one foot in front of the other in that direction, and with courage and clarity you’ll be where you hope to be! And yes, pretty please, take us on your journey.

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    • will do my best! I’m not the fastest, always 🙂

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      • Don’t worry, you know that slow and steady wins the race. Tortoise and Hare….
        Don’t be so hard on yourself. .. failures are successes not tried. Enough cliches, I know, but there is a lot of truth. Even for myself.

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        • In the end, I think there’s no alternative. Or else, I have to look at myself and face facts and find a way to accommodate my dissatisfication (if I can’t change things). One can’t spend life in a permanent state of dissatisfaction.

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  6. I know little about Judaism, but from my own experiences in the Protestant realm, I know how maddening it can be to have a sort of anti-connection with the church hierarchy. This is especially grating when you know it can be so much better, but the only thing you can do about it is to move to another worship venue, thereby dumping not only the offending member but all the non-offending ones, as well.
    It’s comforting to know that others go through the same painful situations that I do. It sounds crazy, but if you can try and find some humor in the whole thing, it can be productive in many ways. Imagine writing a screenplay incorporating your experience—what would bring a wry smile? A giggle? I have to admit that I did a little of that while reading your piece, not because I thought it was amusing, but it was something I could identify with. It made me think of things I can finally laugh about (a little)! Finally. I still have trouble excusing several pastors for lack of preparation and some arrogance, including the one who consistently mispronounced my favorite uncle’s name throughout his funeral sermon, and the one who revised my written dedication to my deceased father by changing the name of the Army company he served in as a paratrooper (he thought I had made an error in my research). Arrrgh.
    Ultimately, I think we all have to do what we need to do to keep our souls intact and our worship, whether public or private, from being spoiled by those who don’t realize how awful they really are as leaders in the church or synagogue. As for the alcohol, I comfort myself with the idea that beer is “proof that G-d loves us and loves to see us happy” (though I just learned Franklin was talking about wine, not beer, when he wrote it). Just do it in moderation. Or call Uber.

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    • You are definitely not alone. This is exactly right — and what is really a condition so horrible that one can’t stand it, when plenty of reasons stand for sticking with the place one is.

      You would have laughed at Rabbi Litvak if you could have seen him today. He was actually wrestling with his son in the back of the shul while a visiting rabbi gave a brief Talmudic commentary. I noticed it but I decided I wouldn’t let it upset me.

      I went to a synagogue in Germany where the atheist members of the congregation did shots outside in the courtyard during the Torah service. that’s probably the best combination. Unfortunately, I was usually involved in the Torah service.

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  7. I claim complete ignorance about Judaism, I’m afraid. However, I see this as both person and practice-related. Also, I see these two aspects as interrelated. What I’m about to write is by no means an attempt to belittle the obvious frustration you feel.
    I have a family member in the States who goes to a church (Catholic, and she’s a regular churchgoer) which is situated some miles away from her home. This being because the whole churchgoing-experience was ruined for her by a priest at the church closest to her home and where she usually went.
    Are you interested in going somewhere else – and is it at all possible?
    What I’m saying here is that this is not your fault. The way you practice your religion is different from how the Rabbi wants to perform his ‘service’. If you enjoy prayer, continue to pray the Chasidic way. I hope this Rabbi doesn’t want to make his listeners (congregation – not familiar with the proper term) religiously “submissive”, and I don’t think you want to be subjected to something like that.

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    • I actually did look into other options this fall (even the Chabad competitor) although I never got as far as visiting one. I don’t know that I’m particularly fixed on this particular liturgy as much as I am the feeling in the synagogue when it’s going right. I’m also to some extent very dependent on the fact that this synagogue is totally within my normal daily “orbit” — it’s less than a mile away from my apartment.

      I don’t think Rabbi Litvak wants to make people follow him so much as he needs to be the center of attention at all times.

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      • It’s got to be about feeling comfortable.
        I’m not a religious practitioner like you, but I often feel much more comfortable and ‘at home’ under the roof of a Catholic cathedral than in a Danish, Lutheran church. Isn’t that odd. I feel calm as opposed to stressed, and I know I’m not supposed to feel that way.
        What I read from your message is that you are annoyed. I would also be annoyed if a priest tried to pull all the attention towards him/her.
        It’s not very charitable towards the congregation (I guess you have the same in Judaism).

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  8. Sigh, it is always the appointed interpreters of religion who end up spoiling it 😦 Mainly by making it about themselves and not the ‘flock’ they are supposed to help guide and council. I am not familiar with the specifics of Judaism but i can’t imagine any religion where the ‘priest’ shouldn’t be there for the people first and the religious exploration, improvement, ascension, betterment – whatever we call it. It is why i don’t like organised anything religious. I do believe in my own way and find peace in the place of worship but the control, absence motivation etc is irritating. Many treat people as children who need to be taught rules and not as thinking, feeling adults with consciences. And the wives of the respective can be even worse in their self appointed entitlement. It end up being about rank (and out-ranking others) and hierarchy. And to me beliefs and values, virtues are very private, intimate things. To me they should be there to guide and serve and help , this does not imply them being better than anyone.
    I’m really sorry that something which should help bring you peace and support ended up being the opposite. I am not sure how much of the experience was valuable before this person in terms of sense of community. If it was maybe you are not alone in the way you feel about the new one. If it doesn’t feel like it and people seem to want to go his way then maybe better to try and find some other place though i understand and know this is generally not easy, finding a place where religion focuses more on support and community rather than judgement is always hard 😦
    But maybe part of liberation is not putting yourself through the unpleasantness of being somewhere where you want to find peace and you find the opposite. Sometimes removing ourselves from where we are not feeling ok is ok as well i think.

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    • I guess I tend to find there are many good religious leaders and also many congregations members who are problematic. But this situation is indeed frustrating. And yeah, I do know there are other people who feel similarly. I guess we’ll just wait it out.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Love and best wishes to you Serv’ xx.

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