When I was growing up, I protested to my parents every time they told me we're all going to synagogue on Saturday mornings. Give me anything but the drudgery of droning prayers and unentertaining sermons, I told them! I'll do chores, I'll dust the whole house, wash everyone's laundry, I don't care.
But you know how we sometimes over-indulge ourselves with fatalistic nightmares of how boring an outing will really be, when reality tells us different? It was like that with me and imagining my Saturday morning stolen by this routine Jewish obligation pulling me from cartoons and Corn Pops milk slurped from the bowl. I predicted another dreadful Saturday at temple but what often happened were pockets of delight that soon curbed my whining.
I found that synagogue life, when you're a Jewish kid navigating teenhood, can be as boring as you make it. Sure, I could've stayed in the pews the entire service but instead I excused myself often to go to the bathroom and hang out with similarly meandering friends. We were a ragtag bunch; some of us hated synagogue, some of us were going to be religious like our parents, some of us brought along comics or books or - gasp! - Gameboy handhelds to distract us from the liturgy our parents seemed to passionately enjoy singing.
Also, as much as I anticipated sermons to be as interesting as manilla envelopes, they were often the part of the service I looked forward to most, since they were often in English, not Hebrew, and braided on modern morality with Biblical anecdotes. It wasn't all just a history lesson.
The community of synagogue wasn't lost on me, despite my exultations to Mom and Dad to let me stay home next week to watch Thundercats. But I don't think I really appreciated what the kinship of being in this home away from home can bestow on one's identity. I felt Jewish in synagogue. Obviously. But I didn't always feel Jewish outside its walls.
I don't look particularly Jewish, and you wouldn't know it if you only heard my first name. My surname is a dead giveaway. So when I first meet folks and they ask about my Christmas or Thanksgiving, I can see why I slip into their tent as one of them. I don't feel different until those moments, whether positively or negatively.
But I do feel closer to my people when I'm in an institution designed to welcome us all, no matter which religious rung we've hung our family banner. And my friends at shul in those early days had me reconsidering all the complaining I poured out of my tired throat. A Yiddish-like voice would say to me, "Oy, David, why all the complaining, do you really have it all that bad? At least you get some food at the end, unlike the non-Jews and their Sunday church."
What you see in this photo is a screenshot from my solo show trailer, edited by the talented Jacob Frenkel. In Jewnique, I wanted to get closer to what made me a Jew, much like how I wanted to get physically closer to these ancient scrolls that have barely passed across my presence since I was Bar Mitzvah'd. So that guilt has long fermented in my gut, and it tastes as bitter on my palate as horseradish on Passover.
Which brings me to why I'm writing this essay on synagogue as a sanctuary. On Saturday, a gunman killed one woman and injured three more in a San Diego synagogue, six months to the day when a gunman opened fire in a Pittsburg synagogue. This kind of lacerating news makes me sick to my stomach. I've always seen the synagogue as a place of refuge against the vile bile thrown at the Jewish people since, well, forever. To have this holy place decimated by anti-Semitic killers whose boldness to act on their evil ideologies is ramping up...it forces my fingers into palms as a frustrating protest that I can't voice beyond these pages.
Can't or won't? That's a question I've been lobbing between two sides of myself for decades, as I wonder how I can effectively fight the anti-Semitism that continues to ricochet across Jewish neighbourhoods around the world. Maybe my protest song started with writing and performing Jewnique as a way to educate others on how we can get closer to a culture that we may have abandoned in our youth. Maybe my song will end with a refrain that veers away from solo-show performances and leans hard into more direct approaches to combatting an ugliness that isn't abating anytime soon.
Author Elie Weisel once said, "The opposite of love isn't hate. It's indifference." So we (the global we and not just the Jewish we) have to be vigilant against the tendrils of venom dripping into corridors of our communities. Otherwise, it grows, strengthens and becomes another threat to our homes away from home.
About This Blog
I write about levelling up your career as a writer and the steps you need to take to get there.