on Community and rooftops in the holy city of Tel Aviv

Post 1: 11/15/14 – an essay: #telaviv #community #shabbat #synagogue #spirituality #israel #judaism

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We held Kaballat Shabbat services on Frishman Beach in Tel Aviv. The congregants, those who had clicked ‘attending’ on Facebook, arrived in all-white or in festival vests, in patterned floral dresses or in tights, in tie dies and in tapestries repurposed. We read from prayer sheets printed for half a shekel each in the Dizengoff Center Mall and we balanced them upright in the sand that served as sheet music stands – shtenders. We sat in a circle chanting not to a wall or an arc but into the faces of friends. Those who faced West sang towards a backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea unto which a sun was setting almost intentionally slow – like a child before bedtime, it lingered to listen to ‘just one more’ of our songs. Those who faced East faced the famous rainbow colored Dan Tel Aviv Hotel and watched as scores of passers-by on the boardwalk sat in for a psalm or two unsure if listening meant that they were observing or participating. In between psalms we danced or offered intentions and stories. We passed around bottles of Arak and wine. And we reminded people to breathe and to sing even if they didn’t know the words. We were photographed by tourists and Israelis alike. And we were joined by many who hadn’t expected to find themselves in shul – and by some who had expected to find themselves in shul but hadn’t expected to find shul on the beach.

This is not the Judaism I grew up with. I found my spiritual upbringing devoid of spirit. Any ‘spiritual space’ I was introduced to felt as constricting as the tie around my neck. I felt no spirit in the ticket I had to hand in to the Shabbos goy as my admission to High Holiday services or in the gold plated labels on the assigned seats closest to the bima. Prayer was something I ‘had to do’ – like the kepah clips that forced this symbol of ‘remembering God’ that I had to wear unto my head. For my part I offered only the occasional ‘Amen’ or ‘Baruch Shemo’ to words I didn’t even know if I agreed with less because I wanted to participate and more because I yearned to hear my voice without being shushed. My ability to worship with my body was confined by the Rabbi’s permission to ‘please rise’ or ‘be seated.’ I looked longingly upon the aisles I felt uncomfortable walking through as ‘services were going on’ let alone dancing in. And I bowed in unison, only as far as the chair in front of me would allow as if I’d just happened to feel humbled at the exact same moment as everybody else. My prayers could only reach as high as the ceiling and sometimes I felt they even got caught in the crystals of the chandelier our membership contributions supported. I tried in vein to have an out of body experience in cuff links and a tailored suit. In a prayer shall that I only wore because counting and playing with the knots in the tzitzit kept me distracted. With an 800 page prayer book I couldn’t read, didn’t want to read, but was told I must hold. Years later even holding a piece of paper during prayer feels confining to me. I feel shackled by anything I am told to grip between hands and fingers that yearn for freedom to connect only with other hands and fingers. I still don’t know many of the words but somewhere along the way I was let in on a little secret: the spark notes to prayer that I’d known only from Simon and Garfunkel until I was fortunate enough to meet a Hassidic Rebbe in college – lie, lie lie, lie, lie, lie, lie, lie. If only then I’d known that the words were just the vehicle. If only then I’d known that any prayer can be written in full on my fingertips, in three letters. If only then I’d known that the aisles were for dancing. If only then I’d thought to pray with people my own age. If only then I’d known that stained glass windows are better admired from outside. Although beautiful, they don’t hold a candle on the sun they reflect.

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