We are sitting on the steps at the JCC watching SUV’s pull in and out of the parking lot. They are weaving, swerving, cutting off people in smaller cars and scaring everyone else off the road. My friend Craig and I are waiting for our sons’ child care bus to return from a field trip. “Aren’t they supposed to be more considerate here or something?” he asks. “At the JCC?”
I look at the SUV drivers hunched over their wheels. “They look like goblins in there.”
He squints. “Hard and dark.”
Craig is in seminary school, and right now he wants to talk about God. Or about what it would be like if we stopped thinking there was a God. “In class today I said, ‘what if there wasn’t anyone up there? If we made it all up as a story?’”
“What did people think of that?” I ask.
“They all got quiet. But it was the first time, I think, that we were all being honest with each other. That we could actually think about what we were doing in seminary school—and in life.”
“You say that because you’re a playwright,” I tell him.
“What’s that got to do with anything? So are you.”
We sit in silence, for a bit, and then he speaks again. “Do you believe Jews are chosen above all other people?”
“Chosen for what?” I reply. “Suffering?” He looks as though he wants to kick me, but does not.
Hard, dark, wolfish is all around us. Not just the SUV drivers at the JCC, but a city and state and country full and neither the Torah or the New Testament seems to have made a lot of headway. Yet tomorrow I will take my son Josh to synagogue, because his father has asked if I’m going to, and his dad is a cantor and we are no longer together. And I don’t want him to think the only place Josh can be Jewish is at the cantor’s synagogue.
The bus pulls into the parking lot and our boys spill out with the other children, holding feathers and crayons. Craig and I say goodbye and as I drive home, I think about what he said. Who is the story, God or us? There comes a time in every story, and especially in every play, when you have to let go of your characters, let them do whatever it is they’re going to do. They act and speak on their own, and all you are doing is moving them through. Is that what happens with us, and is God the Ultimate Playwright? I think of asking Craig this, but I don’t believe he’d agree.
The next day is warm, bright and beautiful; because it happens when we’re on the cusp of summer, Shavuot feels new in ways other holidays can’t approach. Like everything does in summer, it whispers a promise; I’ll be gentle with you, I will be warm, and you won’t have to fast or give up your leavening. Even the name seems easy; Shavuot translates literally as weeks, which came after the Exodus and built up to the time Jews stood at the foot of the mountain to receive the Torah. And because we like to share each others’ holidays, I’ve invited my Catholic friend John.
We are walking into the sanctuary, John and I, while Josh is in the children’s babysitting room. Someone from the congregation is chanting a Torah trope and as we edge closer to our seats, John looks at me. “Catholicism is old,” he says. “But Judaism is ancient.”
More chanting and Hebrew prayers are sung and spoken. Because John is listening so intently, I hear them in a new way, hear the ancient side of words I’d not thought about in ages. And I think, we may be hard, dark and wolfish; and some of us even drive SUV’s. But all of us are standing at Sinai, today, or at least that’s what the rabbis say. And even if we don’t hear them, someone is chanting the Commandments—one to ten.
Do not steal. Do not kill. Do not covet. Honor mother and father. Love God.
I had a replica in my room when I was in grade school, black tablets etched on a white background. Black and white.
Bless the Sabbath and keep it holy. You shall have only one God. You shall not bear false witness.
Maybe instead of Jews being chosen, we did the choosing? As in, choosing to accept these Laws. I don’t know what my friend Craig would say about that, or even if it’s true. But there is something here, in the letters, something ancient and eternal. Days and weeks full of holidays, and at this one we stand together, holding each other up so we don’t fall.
After the service we go outside and I watch as Josh runs around the building with some of the other kids. Ever the gregarious Irishman, John starts talking with someone, while I turn to another friend. “We’re not romantically involved,” I say to her. “I hope people know that.”
“I’ll tell them,” she says, and I laugh. If I had never been to this synagogue, it would still be familiar, and that is probably why I’m here. I would know the prayers and the melodies, the syrupy taste of the Kiddush wine and the tallisim and kipot. Does it matter what the day is or what we are celebrating? Or is the fact that we are here celebration enough?
If there were no Laws and no Torah, there would not be this community, which fills something in me, though I couldn’t name it if you asked. I could say it would feel right to be with them at Sinai. Maybe that would be enough.
Photo by Paul Lowry
Filed Under: Being Jewish