October 11, 2007
Shul tripping—a nostalgic hippie tours the alternative scene
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Drums of Nashuva
Nashuva ("We Shall Return") draws a large, diverse crowd of all ages, including many families, children, teens and young adults. They meet for Friday night services once a month in a lovely Westwood church, and on the nights I joined them, it was packed with about 250 people. There were meditations, healing, a democratic conversation about the meaning of the parasha, as well as prayers and singing in English and Hebrew. Central to the service is a band whose traditional Jewish melodies -- electronic, hypnotic, uplifting -- mix in a dose of gospel and rock.
On Rosh Hashanah, Naomi Levy and many others gathered at Venice Beach for a drum circle as prelude to tashlich. The shofar-blowing and percussion -- loud, soft, with changes in rhythm -- were exhilarating. I joined in, banging on my thighs and swaying. A woman with pastel-colored feathers danced, waving her wings in rhythm with the drums.
The service took me back to events of 40 years ago, when a large crowd's energy would commune on a single wavelength, and the sense of individual self, of separateness, would disappear.
The Torah reader couldn't open the scroll. He tried to unroll it a couple of times, but it didn't budge. Perhaps somewhere else the embarrassed silence would have continued, but not at Shtibl Minyan. Someone started a nigun, a wordless melody. Ha-le-loo ... ha-le-loo, ha-le-loo, ha-le-loo. Quickly, the 30 or so mostly young men and women present joined in chanting the syllables.
A few people stood up and shuffled in place, keeping time. Others banged on chairs or slapped their thighs. As more voices were added, the sounds took on deeper meaning. Children ran to the middle of the room and danced. A joyous, wonderful, spontaneous moment.
The Shabbat service was self-led, passionate, all in Hebrew and egalitarian: men and women sat together, women read from the Torah and carried it. The crowd, full of zeal, had an air of thrift-shop, anti-establishment hip, combined with devotion to progressive causes. A couple of young women reminded me, in style, of those I'd seen in San Francisco 40 years ago. The difference was that at Shtibl their bare shoulders were covered with tallitot.
In this small, simple room, the Torah occupied the central place, not the prayer leader. At Shtibl, the congregation acts as a single entity, responding directly to the Torah, which carries the content of the holy. The person who leads the prayers is an ego-free conduit who helps the community experience a deeper spirituality. Maybe that's one reason why -- in all the places I visited -- so many congregants, including women, choose to wear personalized kippot and tallitot: to signal that the person leading the service isn't the only arbiter of what's holy -- we all are.
I liked the Shtibl Minyan's disdain of luxury, the nonchalance about toddlers running around, the ability to cut straight to the bone of worship. It was a place where I felt comfortable, and where I believe my two sons, 24 and 33, both unaffiliated in all senses, would also feel comfortable.
Aliyot were handed out randomly, even to me on my first visit. There were no musical instruments except table-banging and foot-stomping (a lot of both), and the niggunim bore the stamp of Shlomo Carlebach.
I had learned about Shtibl from Mel Gottlieb, who told me about how Carlebachian minyans "bring a warmth and a joy and engagement. It has really caught on. Shlomo was charismatic and very musical, and he offered a teaching that was soul-based ... so that became very powerful and people wanted more of that."
This was not my first experience of the Carlebach myth. Thirty years ago, in Israel, I spent a weekend with Carlebach and a dozen others at Kibbutz Gezer, then a hippie commune. Carlebach strummed; we danced and sang with him. When he riffed on biblical or talmudic passages, it was poetic and free-form. Eyes closed, deep in some private communion, every few words he'd say "mamish!" (really!), as an exclamation. It was a memorable experience, but I never followed up on it, never pursued Carlebachian minyans either in Israel or in the United States.
In 1992, Sharon Brous said, she was a "disaffected, alienated" college student. "I was going down the list of shuls on the Upper West Side of New York, and I just happened to walk into BJ," -- B'nai Jeshurun. It was a transformative moment. More than 1,000 people were there, led by Rabbi Marshall Meyer.
"I was profoundly moved," Brous said. "As soon as I walked in, I recognized it as a place of vision and fire ... I was captivated by the music. The room was alive with prayer. I had never experienced anything like that before ... It was stirring."
Meyer stirred people all of his life. Born in New York, he was a direct disciple of Abraham Joshua Heschel and carried on Heschel's tradition of passionate prayer and committed social action during the 25 years Meyer lived in Buenos Aires. In the mid-1980s, Meyer came back to the United States and was rabbi at BJ until his death in 1993.
After her studies at seminary and graduate school, Brous was Marshall Meyer Fellow at BJ, learning from two Argentine-born rabbis who had been Meyer's disciples.
Inspired by her experience there, Brous said she was determined to "build a spiritual community [in L.A.] that would be rooted in a serious concern for human rights ... Social justice is the essence of the Jewish spiritual and religious life ... Davening, if it is to mean anything, should be about changing our world for the better."