October 6, 2005
What to Ask a Jew
If you're Jewish, this is not for you to read. Please clip this editorial and hand it off to a close non-Jewish friend. I'm certain some of your best friends aren't Jews. And thanks for sharing.
Dear Non-Jewish Friend:
Every year around this time your friend disappears from work or school for a couple of days to mark the High Holidays. There are many Jews for whom this is a deeply spiritual, life-changing time that reconnects them to their faith, their people and their soul's purpose here on earth.
Then there are most Jews.
Let's assume your friend belongs to the larger group. You assume when he's away from work on one of those holidays that local newscasters pronounce a different way each year, he's living la vida Hebrew, cloaked in mystical garments, eyes drifting upward to heaven. You watched "A Price Above Rubies." You channel-surfed the Chabad Telethon. You assume when we're among our own, it's all circle dancing and full-throated chanting.
It is not.
Too many sanctuaries have all the excitement of a physician's waiting room, minus the excitement. Think of one of those interminable assemblies back in elementary school. After an hour of the fourth-grade orchestra, followed by mumbled student council skits, even the thrill of not having to go to class that day evaporated.
For too many of us, this is the situation come Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Does your friend return to work after the holidays and -- when you ask how they were -- just shrug? Or does he roll his eyes and emit an "Ugh." Or is it just an all purpose, "Oh, fine."
In that case, I'm going to ask you to perform an intervention, a spiritual crisis intervention to stave off insanity.
Insanity is not too strong a word -- because entering dumbly into the same soul-deflating, boredom-inducing behavior every year as though this year will somehow automatically be different is the definition of insanity.
Fellow Jews have tried to help by doing what we do best: We've formed committees. The committees investigate declining synagogue attendance and lack of enthusiasm among younger Jews, and very often their recommendations are spot-on and well meaning.
And we have innovated: rock 'n' roll services, meditation minyans, yoga amidahs (don't ask), free services, elite services, singles services.
I keep waiting for the press release about the bullock sacrifice on mid-Wilshire. (Maybe at the site of the old Bullock's department store.)
That ought to juice things up.
There are engaging services out there, innovative or not. If your friend's rabbi presides over one of them, no need for he or she to take offense here. But the basic trope I hear from too many Jews year after year is that attending their service is more duty than delight.
Your job is to change things. With one High Holiday down and one more to go, you can help your Jewish friend. These interventions typically work around a series of questions. Because you care, but may not know what to ask, here are my suggestions:
Ask them if High Holiday services inspired them.
Be sure to register their immediate reaction. If they squint and screw up one side of their face, take this as a "no." The truth is, most Jews sit through these services looking either intermittently bored or catatonic. Listen and you'll hear the stampede of so many minds wandering so far so fast. At some services I've attended, the snoring is louder than the cantor.
Ask them, then, why they go.
Why accept the status quo? What do they wish they got out of going? What kind of experience are they looking for?
Ask them how they would improve it?
Is it the liturgy? The melodies? The sermons? Do they feel like a stranger to the Hebrew, words, the ideas?
Ask them if they've ever mentioned their boredom to their rabbi?
They might be surprised to find out that their rabbi senses it, can see it in a sea of faces -- might even be bored, too. There, perhaps, is the beginning of a solution.
Ask them how involved they are in Jewish life, learning and prayer the other 360 days of the year.
Making Yom Kippur your only synagogue holiday is like making "Koyaanisqatsi" your only cinema-going experience. You need some background, some study, context and preparation. Otherwise you leave scratching your head.
Ask them if they think their ancestors would be happy knowing they are still going to shul, even though it makes them bored and miserable.
Never mind, skip that question.
Ask them why, if these days are so holy, we treat them so lightly.
Are they something we get through or, as we say in Los Angeles, get into?
Ask them what they will do to make next year's High Holiday services a meaningful and profound experience.
These are questions for you, the non-Jewish friend, to ask. Don't worry about imposing. Your friends will have plenty of time to ponder them in shul.