Thursday, October 02, 2008

Shana Tova v'Mtuqa!

Rosh Hashanah started Monday night (29 September) and ended Wednesday night (1 October). Tuesday morning Peter, Mary, Joseph and I went to the Great Synagogue on George HaMelekh to see the blowing of the shofar to welcome the new year. I admit to being rather nervous and not my usual adventurous self: would I be dressed appropriately? Would shiksa radar be on high alert? I had bizarre visions of well-dressed, older Jewish ladies in fantastic hats coming up to me and saying in thick Hebrew accents, "Y'aren't from around here, are ya?" I have to add to this that I have similar anxieties when entering any religious congregation. As usual, I had nothing to worry about.

We arrived and Mary and I left Peter and Joseph to ascend to the women's balcony. We found some good seats - it was only 9 a.m. and although there were many people already there and the service had already started, the synagogue was rather empty. The men sat below, the seats arranged around the bimah which was in the center of the room; the bimah is the raised area where most of the important rituals take place, including the reading of the Torah (thanks to Carl for the definition). The choir sat in another raised section between the bimah and the area housing the Torah scrolls (and I can't find/remember the name of!) Above this area a beautiful stained glass window rose high to the ceiling. I couldn't follow what was going on, even though I looked over the shoulder of the woman in front of me to see what page she was on in the Machzor, the prayer book (thanks, Rob, for the heads-up on its name). I instead skimmed through the Machzor to see what words I recognized, and people watched. Yes, I turned into a bit of an anthropologist without a Dr. Livingston-esque persona in sight with whom to compare notes.

Any time I've ever been in a congregation there's a set start and end time, everyone sits quietly and does what they're supposed to do at the appropriate moments: stand up, sit down, sing, kneel, pray. Socializing would be done after the service. Being in synagogue was a very different experience: people coming and going and shaking hands hello; everyone chatting at some point(to my right were three women in their mid-fifties to -sixties gossiping away for most of the two hours we were there); people up and swaying and praying; and my favourite was watching a father below blowing a kiss to his 14-year-old daughter in the women's section above, then a mother holding up her 3-year-old daughter to the railing and blowing her daddy below a kiss.

The shofar is "a trumpet made of a ram's horn, blown by the ancient Hebrews during religious ceremonies and as a signal in battle, now sounded in the synagogue during Rosh Hashanah and at the end of Yom Kippur. [Hebrew šôpār, ram's horn, shofar; akin to Akkadian sappāru, šappāru, fallow deer, and sappartu, tip of an animal's horn, from Sumerian šegbar, fallow deer.]" ( It is a sound that sounds like a signal. You have this instant, sub-conscious acknowledgement in your brain and in your heart that something great and bigger than you are is about to commence. Unfortunately, our shofar blower had a few problems blowing and had to call in the back-up, who did a great job. Then the cantor and the choir began to sing. One of my other favourites was the choir director, a busy little man with precise yet wildly gesticulating hand movements.

Afterwards, as we four walked along George Hamelekh, Joseph said I looked like a secular gingi Jew. We laughed, and I like the moniker, but we both agreed that it sounds a lot like a new JellyBelly flavour. We took cabs to and from the synagogue, a big no-no, and both of our Palestinian cab drivers gave us what-for for doing so. I find it very interesting that if the guys had taken off their kippas no one would know we were going to/had come from synagogue; this one piece of clothing identifies a person. I am continually amazed here that clothing is such a political statement. At home, if I were to cover my head it would mean I'm having a bad hair day or looking for protection from the sun or the cold. A scarf is an accessory. Here, depending on how one wears the head covering, it is an identifiable marker of a woman's faith or marital status; for men, their clothing also identifies them as a member of their specific community. But, really, this happens everywhere, doesn't it? I am purposely throwing that question out there for feedback on this, to help with articulating just what it is I'm trying to convey about the political nature of clothing - here and everywhere. There is something extra-powerful about the statement made via clothing here, or perhaps I am simply more aware of it in Jerusalem than I was at home.


Anonymous said...

Those older Jewish Ladies with fantastic hats are all from town anyway.

RedFairyQueen said...

every time i read that, i pee my pants.