September 25, 2003
Synagogue is never mentioned in the Torah. -- Leo Rosten
Like many unaffiliated Angelenos between 30 and marriage, I face a problem every Rosh: How to benefit from this diverse Jewish community while remaining a sort of post-sect/noninstitutionalized member of the family. Intending to find and feel the most righteous things I can, I plan on attending four or five houses of worship over the 10 days of atunement (a word I heard from a New Yorker suggesting letting 3,000 shofars boom at Ground Zero as a wake-up cry).
Where can a single, grazing Jew-without-portfolio go to seek some awe and a cheap place to pray? The first of Tishrei will find me among redwoods in a sloping garden behind the Zen Center of Los Angeles on Normandie Avenue. A shul grows in Koreatown!
The rabbi there is given to delightfully long, serene silences. He lets the smell of the damp trees and a paper handout with a Bal Shem Tov story awaken something within us. What is it about the "Avinu Malkeinu" that taps into our collective unconscious so sacredly? Family memories overwhelm me as the rabbi talks about 2,600 years ago, when Jeremiah saw a friend crying after the destruction by the Babylonians and exhorted to him: "You have your life!"
I wonder what the neighborhood thinks when they hear the blast of the shofar, but I don't get paranoid about it. As a breeze blows through the Normandie garden, women pull shawls over the heads of their babies, making them look like tiny Muslims. I'll take that as a good sign.
On Tashlich I like to take part in an annual tradition on the Santa Monica-Venice border. Everyone on the Westside goes down to the sea to cast off bread I believe they buy at Trader Joe's. They chant for the great ocean ("Oseh ha yam hagadol!") and watch the gulls try to grab the hunks before the waves send thick, gooey globs -- "my sins?" -- back to shore. One can see chaverim from different Santa Monica houses of worship gathered on the beach north to Malibu. Imagine 100 years ago celebrating here like this. What a shtetl! Do the rituals make a community? In Jewish tradition, the community is responsible as long as even one sinner is left on earth.
Watching families dancing, singing and picnicking on the sand, I will desire the living drama of a Brechtian Jewish wife. I'll covet one, even. Kids maybe, too.
The 3rd of Tishri is called the Fast of Gedaliah, but I don't know what that means so will no doubt not observe. On the 9th, I'll be at the Directors' Guild Association on Sunset Boulevard for Kol Nidre. Theater One is usually full, so in Theater Two they beam in the rabbi on a 50-foot screen.
The Directors' Guild influence gives the whole presentation a more dramatic flair. Just the right amount of over-the-top Hollywood progressive prayer to tickle your Yiddishkayt, or set your tuchus on edge, if you know what I mean. Announcements for seminars at Esalen ("Course books are available in the lobby") can be way too-L.A. for all but the most nonpraying customer.
For Neilah I like to attend the Laugh Factory, just a breezy walk down Sunset Boulevard. A true "only in Los Angeles" -- comedy club converted into synagogue.
Hot and packed with the poor and the humorous, the miskayt and the unaffiliated, it looks like Prague in the 1400s and smells like old sugary club hooch stuck to your shoe. The macher of the place stands in the back like my uncles Louie and Willie Kimmell used to stand at the back of their moviehouse in Royal Oak outside Detroit. There may be one joke circulating about "Bush Hashanah," but most remains appropriately solemn and spirited and actually quite rejoicing. A folksy, guitar-accompanied "Aleinu" usually gets everyone going.
High Holiday prayer is a mix of faith and memory, openness and solace.
There will be stirring Holocaust readings, and at least one rabbi will lay into us pretty good. One may say the message of Yom Kippur is: "We are our own best destiny!" Another says Jews attend services every New Year "with so many questions." I disagree. I think I go because this is where I know I'll find answers. This year I can add to the Book of Life instead of just showing up on page 5764. Otherwise, why bother showing up at all? That would be so 5763, wouldn't it?
Hank Rosenfeld is a storyteller on public radio's "All Things Considered" and "The Savvy Traveler."