Some impressionistic notes on how I spent Succot, before I forget.
So the Progressive group decided to make Succot into a big flagship event, as part of an initiative to launch themselves as an autonomous community rather than just a group of friends who get together from time to time. They had invited a guest speaker, a rabbinical student named Judith Edelman-Green. She, and the week's events, were wonderful.
The services for the shabbat at the beginning of succot were lovely. Yes, it's a community that is still finding its feet and with a lot of members who are unsure of the basics of Jewish knowledge. Yes, they pitch their liturgy with rather less of the formal structure than I'd ideally prefer. But they are such warm people, really caring about their Judaism and about eachother. Judith E-G is a real hippie; her approach is way out into the kind of tree-hugging warm fuzzy spirituality business that I would hate if anyone lesser were doing it. But her amazing personality makes it work, even for a cynic like me.
"Reciting" the Shema, the declaration of God's unity, in Hebrew sign language, and calling people up to read from the Torah by theme instead of as individuals, were two elements of her hippie, Renewal-ish liturgy that really appealed to me. (Linguistics geeky aside: Hebrew sign is fascinating, because it's at such an early stage of development that most of the signs are recognizable mimes rather than the more abstract symbols one expects from more mature sign languages. I'm sure this is partly exaggerated by the fact that we were being taught it by a non-proficient speaker, but it's still very cool.)
It wasn't exactly how I would have run services personally. But it was close enough to remind me very powerfully of the reasons why I love my Progressive tradition. I've spent a lot of time in the past decade fitting in to communities which are further to the right in the Jewish spectrum than my natural home. And recently I've been greatly inspired by ploni_bat_ploni and her deep devotion to rigorous halachic practice and Jewish learning. Myself, I've been drifting towards more observance; I keep a level of kashrut I couldn't have imagined at the start of this process, and the ways I do liturgy are similarly way over towards the Orthodox end of the spectrum in terms of style at least. None of this is a bad thing at all, but I need to get back in touch with the aspects of Judaism that I really, deeply care about; in the end, this ritual stuff is mainly decorative as far as I'm concerned. I thoroughly respect those who are committed to traditional and halachic forms of Judaism, but it's not my path, and I am going to stop being defensive about that.
ploni_bat_ploni was good enough to join me for the services, and for her it's really venturing out of familiar territory, so yay her. She also invited me to stay over at her place for the Friday night, which was highly enjoyable, both for the excellent company and the amazing food she fed me. Her account gives a different perspective and some really interesting reflections.
During the week there was a story-telling session, which was really out of this world. The GTKY intro involved going round the circle and having people tell stories about turning points in their Jewish lives. And it just turned into the most amazing deep dialogue. I think many of the community are as uncomfortable as I am with the touchy-feely emoting, but somehow Judith got people to open up and there were some really moving and personal stories. That intro more or less took over the whole session, but the planned stuff was excellent too. Judith told three stories from Jewish tradition: the well-known tale of Resh Lakish the highwayman turned rabbi; a fantastic comic vignette from the Talmud about Alexander the Great being outwitted by some Amazonian women; and a really dense midrash about arrogance from Rabbi Nathan's Ethics. What a storyteller!
The morning service (not Progressive) on Thursday was an interesting experience. There were a bunch of Jewish schoolchildren there, and Judith. I was rather late, and had somehow got it into my head that you're supposed to do tefillin on the middle days of festivals, and didn't notice that nobody else was because I was in a rush. Judith corrected my mistake in the kindest possible way; I really appreciated that, especially as I'm horribly sensitive about tefillin. And we got to do all the fun stuff with shaking the lulav. Then Judith gave a really lovely talk to the children, insisting on inviting me to join their lesson in the succah; I think some could follow her English better than others, but anyway, it moved me very deeply. She talked of her motivation for training as a rabbi being to make Judaism more inclusive to people from different backgrounds, especially those with special needs.
By the end of Succot both ploni_bat_ploni and I were completely burnt out. The problem with this time of year is that it has rather a lot of festivals crammed into a few weeks, and it can be hard to stay motivated all the way through. I stayed home on Friday evening, I was just too tired and frankly too sick of being in synagogue every other day to drag myself out. The only notable event on Saturday morning was that Judith E-G gave a wonderful sermon in which she wove together all the stories from earlier in the week (having asked permission first, and in anonymized form), into a really beautiful composition which was much more than just a summary of the evening.
ploni_bat_ploni and I had managed to get ourselves roped into helping with setting up for the Simchat Torah evening. So she fed me lunch, and we had a few hours in the afternoon in which to relax. We were both out of sorts with Tishrei fatigue and general tiredness, though PbP was amazingly good at not taking any of it out on me. By the time of the service itself, having spent a couple of hours preparing food and laying the tables, I had almost no thought in my head but wanting it all to be over so I could go home and sleep.
The synagogue was very overcrowded, and there were no clear instructions about whether women were supposed to be taking an active part or not. It was only ploni_bat_ploni's encouragement that gave me the motivation to leave our seats at the back and push through the crowds to the front of the synagogue so we could take part in the dancing. I am so glad I did that; it turned out that they were being more or less egal, and just taking the Torah scroll in my arms banished all my tired irritability. ploni_bat_ploni and I both had the same instinct to cradle and cuddle our scrolls, taking the weight on our hips as women do. Judith mimed taking a photo of the two of us hugging the scrolls and beaming at eachother; I guess we must have been pretty cute. And the dancing and mandatory celebrating worked their physiological effects pretty well; probably could have predicted that would work, had I not been feeling too grumpy to apply that knowledge.
The great thing about hanging out with a fellow blogger is that she writes up the events we attend together. And ploni_bat_ploni is a much stronger writer than I am, so I recommend her account.
lethargic_man is in Stockholm this week, yay. It's lovely to see him; ploni_bat_ploni has claimed him for this evening.