October 21, 2008
A Christian at High Holy Day services
Creator’s Note: I never republish entire stories but ... two weeks ago I took the plunge and attended Yom Kippur services. What follows is the first-person piece I wrote for the Journal about my experience.
My first mistake was arriving when the Yom Kippur morning service at Valley Beth Shalom was scheduled to begin. The flier said 7:45 a.m. and, this being my virgin voyage, I didn’t want to be late.
Naive? Certainly. I didn’t realize Jews attend High Holy Days services like Dodgers fans frequent Chavez Ravine: arriving in the third inning and leaving in the seventh.
The first hint of my folly came when, after poking my head into a nearly empty Niznick Sanctuary, I returned to my car, parked a half-mile away, and bumped into one of the temple’s main rabbis.
The morning rush, it turned out, was about two hours away.
It may be surprising that a reporter at The Jewish Journal named Greenberg wouldn’t know the standard practices of synagogue attendance on the holiest day of the Jewish year, but this ignorance hints at a more complex story of guilt, confusion and married identities.
I wasn’t raised Jewish. Both my grandmothers were, and so too was my paternal grandfather. But my mother was raised Catholic down south and my father as a non-religious Jew here in Los Angeles. (You may know a few like him.)
When I was young—6 or 7—my parents both began attending a non-denominational Protestant church. Soon they were baptized, and, as a teenager, so was I.
My sister and I identified as Jewish in name only, or, more aptly, by our name: When it comes to anti-Semitism, it’s not about whether you consider yourself Jewish but whether others do—and others did.
I still go to church most Sundays, but though I’m not with Jews for Jesus or a Messianic—that’s worth emphasizing—I’ve become increasingly interested in my Jewish cultural history. Yom Kippur, it seemed, was something I should experience.
So I selected three synagogues where I thought I would feel comfortable and find something meaningful to take home: IKAR, where Rabbi Sharon Brous has been recognized for her alternative, spiritually engaging community; Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), to hear Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, one of the leading voices of Jewish conscience from the last half century; and Temple Israel of Hollywood because, well, I have a screenplay to sell.
I didn’t anticipate a problem blending in.
The High Holy Days draw the biggest crowds of the year, and, just like Christmas and Easter services, you can hear the outreach from the bimah.
“To the privatized Jew, hell is other people,” Schulweis said during his morning sermon, paraphrasing the philosopher Sartre.
Yes, he said, huddling close causes pricks and pain, but so does remaining alone outside of a community.
“This is the porcupine’s dilemma. This is the human condition,” Schulweis said, soon adding, “Judaism depends on Jews being Jewish…. In Judaism, believing means belonging. For we are a family.”
At that moment, I felt a part of this family, the Tribe. I was praying and singing in Hebrew, wearing tallit and a kippah, and at 5:30 p.m. on erev Yom Kippur I had begun my fast, which I might have completed had I not driven past Pita Kitchen en route from VBS to Temple Israel of Hollywood. (They make a ridiculous lamb shawarma.)
Guilty? Maybe a little. But the day before I read on Ynet that only 63 percent of Israeli Jews planned to fast. And, besides, I’d already achieved a greater level of observance than at any point in my life.
Temple Israel hammered home what Schulweis had spoken of. I had been bored at VBS; tired from little sleep, with falling blood sugar, and, most importantly, no one to chat with in the surprisingly social hallways. But at Temple Israel I recognized people from the moment I walked into an afternoon breakout session on the presidential election—friends, sources, current and former colleagues.
As the time, spent in community and talking about shared concerns, passed quickly by, I several times reflected on my experience the night before, when I celebrated Kol Nidre at IKAR.
I felt strikingly comfortable in a packed gym at the Westside JCC. It might have been a shvitz because of a broken air conditioner, but when I looked around I saw a packed, spiritually moved house of Jews, many who looked a lot like me: Chuck Taylor sneakers, thick plastic glasses, the curly hair that always has reminded me of my family’s story.
When we prayed, I told myself the room was praying to my God, that I was praying to my God. The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. The God of the Exodus. The God of all creation.
Of course, there was no mention of Jesus, but the sermon was one I have heard in one form or another in churches all my life:
God is good. People are not. But we can do good, we can fulfill God’s will on Earth by stepping outside ourselves, by feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless and helping the helpless—by, in two words, tikkun olam.
Faith is not bad, Rabbi Brous said, specifically taking aim at anti-god avenger Bill Maher, whose new movie “Religulous” ridicules godly observance. Yes, man has used God for his own selfish gain, Brous said, but we can change the course.
“It’s nice to see you here,” a friend said to me as I digested Brous’ sermon. “You should come for Shabbat.”
I wondered: Could I? Could I be part of a religious Jewish community without practicing Judaism, with—and there’s no other way to put this—believing in something that was a heretical outgrowth of Judaism?
Maybe I could just come around on the High Holy Days. I hear people do that.