Monday, September 27, 2010

sixth visit: Sept 25th 2010 Orthodox Judaism

9:15am saturday
Congregation Poale Zedeck
6318 Phillips Ave, Pittsburgh PA 15217

squirrel hill south

As mentioned in my last post, Carol, whom I met the night before at Bet Tikvah’s service invited me to Poale Zedeck’s worship. A gift from someone who had just introduced herself minutes before. I can’t be more grateful for an opportunity to attend an Orthodox service with someone who is able to answer my questions and brief me on observances: Do you have a scarf that you could bring to cover your hair? Oh, and it’s best to wear something with sleeves. “Collarbones and elbows should not be visible,” chimed another contributing to the conversation. “But there are always the ‘weird visitors’ and everyone knows they are just the ‘weird visitors’ and you could just be one of them.” Hhmmm. I think I’ll always be exactly that no matter how hard I try, but I do want to experience as fully as possible.

So between 10pm and 11:30pm that night, I make the post-service addition to my dress: a head scarf. Gather a ¾ sleeve cardigan from my closet the next morning. At 9:30am I leave my bag in the coatroom of the synagogue. One more element to note—no bags.

Except for the sermon, which is the only time the Rabbi actively leads the service, all is in Hebrew. Amazingly beautiful. Large number-cards hanging on the wall, are changed periodically by hand to indicate page-where-a-bouts in the prayer book. Tallit (prayer shawls) are much more significant in size than compared to the Hillel service, and worn only by men. All are mostly white with stripes and patterns of blue except for one. Carol is certain this man has bought his rainbow striped tallit in Mexico, where she lives. She sees them every day there, sold as secular blankets. "He simply added the tassels," she says. “Which I think is very, very cool.” Concurred.

Women sit in a specific section of the synagogue—the balcony. Carol explains that for her it does not signify inequality, but focus. If she were sitting with her husband, she would be thinking about him instead of concentrating on prayers. Verses I remember from my own up-bringing are spoken in Hebrew. Children explore the room freely, one rolling down the alter steps, as if down a grassy hill. Another wanders to the very front of the alter and dances in the Rabbi’s swinging tallit. The Rabbi swaying in prayer, pauses to playfully acknowledge the boy. “That,” Carol said, “stops at age 12.” Isn’t that when children are discouraged from drawing expressively, too? Intuitively, I mean, with wandering lines on paper? I’ve read something about that once. Thankfully not all of us listen.

fifth visit: Sept 24th 2010 Non-denominational Judaism (Alternative Congregation), Sukkot

7:30 pm
Congregation Bet Tikvah

Shabbat Service

and observance of Sukkot (harvest festival)

I’m collecting mantras for this project, and yesterday found this: “Never underestimate the odd synergies of art and religion.” It appears here in an article by Ariel Kaminer on NYC sukkahs, no less).

OK. Must say, I can’t let these entries grow in length as this one. I’ll never finish the project’s sewing and drawings … and I am sorely behind. Future visitees: Please don’t take shorter entries personally! I’ll always have pages of notes to prove—it’s just that I must give the other portions of my project a fare shake, and limit my writing-time from here out! But for now, just this once...

Bet Tikvah fills a unique role in Pittsburgh’s spiritual quilt. Their website reads: “An Alternative Jewish Congregation in Pittsburgh for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community, Their Family and Friends. …Services and events are open to and regularly attended by interfaith couples, those wishing to explore Judaism, and heterosexual Jews.” Bet Tikvah has “created their own gender-neutral siddur, mahzur, and haggadah, which consist of traditional Hebrew prayers, English translations, poems, and meditations”—fascinating, no? As mentioned, gender roles addressed in religion and
in art have always interested me.

Bet Tikvah is also remarkable in that services are prepared and led by congregation members, instead of a sole-guiding Rabbi. As Deb, my initial Bet Tikvah contact,
explains to me (paraphrasing): “You end up experiencing a multitude of approaches to worship and you get to see a side of your friend [when leading] that is usually not revealed in daily interaction.”

This night, Psalm 23, so often also part of Christian worship, is read. In Hebrew. The reader (who grew up in Israel) points out passionately how the beauty of the psalm—beauty in meaning and sound—is innate to the original language. “There is an English translation here,” he says, “but it is not the same in beauty.” As a child, when I memorized these words in English, no one ever mentioned. The world opens in front of me. (more? see aside at end)

After: Outside, we gather at the sukkah. For those not familiar, a sukkah is a temporary hut, constructed each year in celebration of Sukkot. Sukkahs symbolize shelter
by way of belief, referring to the time when Israelites lived nomadically in the desert for forty years following slavery in Egypt. Here Oneg Shabbat takes place—the blessing of wine and challah (a braided bread, made with many eggs, deliciously sweet). All hold hands in a circle for the sake of touching someone who is in turn touching the challah. A member comments: “I still haven’t figured out from which summer camp this part of the tradition came.”

It is required that the roof of the sukkah have tiny interruptions to allow one to see the stars. Hhmm: maybe to provide feeling of connection with peoples of antiquity—in the desert, under the same stars? (Wise comment post-ers, please chime in.) Or is this because of the Sabbath and (and other observances) are timed not to our present-day 24-hr clocks, but instead begin at sun-down and end the next day with the sighting of the first 3 stars in the night sky. Even if it's not the answer, I love this manner of simple but exacting nature-driven time-telling.

Bet Tikvah is not affiliated with any particular branch of Judaism—in fact many members also hold memberships with additional congregations of varying movements. I experience a benefit of this aspect first-hand when Carol invites me to attend an Orthodox service with her, taking place tomorrow morning. I foolishly (embarrassingly) hesitate at first—an exercise class and Catholic Mass already planned—but what am I thinking? Obviously this is an opportunity not to be passed up. And so it is not.

ASIDE: I am definitely feeling my usual shy self this night… another reason the challenge of gatherings is personally good for me. However there are tiny moments this night that seem to exist for the purpose of assuring me. For sure, it is not my intention to frame my gatherings experiences in a way that renders them self-serving. But the following: coincidence? You decide. I’ll just list: After a gracious host warmly welcomes me (one of the owners of the grand yet cozy home where this gathering was held), I settle into one of the chairs the front room. The woman next to me introduces herself. “I’m actually not Jewish,” she volunteers. The service opens with a stanza celebrating (paraphrasing) the “gathering of Jewish and Non-Jewish under one roof.” Earlier in the week, Deb, my initial contact, read my 9-18-10 post and so kindly sent me links to articles on current gender issues having to do with the Western Wall in Israel. During the service, when it comes my turn to read a stanza aloud, I was left with one that mentions touching the Western Wall. Need I go on? Joseph Campbell would say I was in the right place.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

fourth visit: Sept 19th 2010 Episcopal

10:30 am
The Episcopal Church of the Holy Cross
7507 Kelly St, Pittsburgh PA 15208
homewood south

I have been looking forward to attending a place of worship in the neighborhood of Homewood since the idea for this project was born. I am drawn to Homewood for two reasons: 1—it is significantly, wonderfully urban in appearance, which makes me homesick for Baltimore. 2—It's not much of a through-way to other destinations, leaving the area less stomped, creating for me a sense of mystic and a desire to learn more.

The people I meet at CHC are special. Behind me Kay Fritz twice offers my her hymnal, open to the appropriate page, as I scrambled to follow the service amongst the "African American Hymnal," "Book of Common Prayer" and "The Hymnal 1982". "We like lots of books here," she said. (At Rodef Shalom yesterday, I had helped those behind me keep up with prayer book page numbers... karma is real.) Reverend Moni McIntyre comes up to welcome me during mid-service greetings, though she had not yet received my email and phone message. Art Butler (King Arthur, the Butler) claims accurately that it takes just one minute to know him. He hides nothing and announces that I owe him $1, as all visitors do, and $2 for my partaking in refreshments at the social hour. Kay also takes the time to talk me through the symbols of the east wall's hand-painted mural giving homage to African American accomplishments and related events in Episcopal and local history.

I've been spoiled by my surroundings — yesterday at Rodef Shalom and today at Church of the Holy Cross. Gorgeous structures. This on the register of historic landmarks and designed by Carpenter and Crocker. I welcome an unexpected aspect of the project: I'm learning a bit about the 'burgh's architects along the way...
Were there any architects who built places of worship for one religion, then agreed to also build one for another? I have not found one yet, but this is just the beginning.

third visit: Sept 18th 2010 Reform Judaism, Yom Kippur

4:00 pm saturday
Yom Kippur Services at Rodef Shalom

intended but missed this time: Congregation Bet Tikvah
4905 5th Ave, Pittsburgh PA 15213

I had been wanting to take part in one of Bet Tikvah's services because of a personal interest in the manners in which different religions address gender. The Bet Tikvah congregation has created their "own gender-neutral siddur, mahzur, and haggadah, which consist of traditional Hebrew prayers, English translations, poems, and meditations." Fascinating, no? Moreover, services are led by congregation member volunteers. The service I attend is a true gathering in that Bet Tikvah convenes in the same building as Rodef Shalom's congregation for High Holidays. The main sanctuary here: spatially stunning (huge) and truly gorgeous.

Note added 9-20-10: I just recieved an email from Deb at Bet Tikvah, and apparently her congregation did have a service in the same building, but separate from the one I attended—in a room in a different section of the building. I actually had a feeling to this affect upon arriving and even asked more than one greeter, finally settling in after I was assured by a kind dear well-meaning gentleman that Bet Tikvah was included in this service. Though I thoroughly value my experience at Rodef Shalom, I am of course a little sad for intended opportunities missed and definitely slightly embarrassed. The good thing is that I am looking forward to attending a future Bet Tikvah gathering. Plans are in the works.
In the end, of course, there is no loss. Please read on about Rodef Shalom's service:

Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement, the end of the Jewish High Holidays. The book of life is sealed—solemnity. A mourning of those who have passed during the year, names spoken aloud. I lost a friend in Portland, Oregon just this past Thursday, whose family is Jewish. The service's solemnity was certainly felt. I think of him again this evening while I sew (to my dress) the fabric-and-embroidery-addition that corresponds to this service. Meditation in the synagogue, continued meditation in the studio. For many, art-making and meditation are inseparable.
(...and apparently for some Monks, see 76th visit, 4th paragraph)

Yizkor— a service of remembrance.
One of the four Rabbis states, "We remember because we cannot forget." universal truth that even those who claim not to be religious cannot easily dismiss. 

Sunday, September 12, 2010

second visit: Sept 10th 2010 Reform Judaism, Rosh Hashanah

9:30 am friday
Rosh Hashanah Services
Hillel JUC of Pittsburgh

4200 Fifth Ave, Pittsburgh PA 15213
north oakland

I always insist that a call-back is not necessary, but
despite her multitude of responsibilities with the start of the High Holidays, Susie Sheldon of Hillel took the time to do so—offering options of services, making sure I understand locations and leaving me feeling that my visit is genuinely appreciated. Just as the shofar trembles the air (and pervades ones bones overwhelmingly, like you would not imagine), attending a service that falls outside your own upbringing is a humbling endeavor. Or is humility part of the intention always, even when attending ones own? (If one has a familial belief to claim.)

To be humbled by a language not previously understood... Could this be the state that artists sometimes seek in the studio as well?

No matter that I grew up in a suburb where half of my friends were Jewish, my adolescence filled with Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, I had nearly forgotten, and today I rediscover:
How Hebrew unites a room.
How admirable I am of those who studied to learn, my friends spending their weekend mornings with so little mention, my background so very simple in comparison.
How, growing up, I definitely took this for granted.
The beauty of chanting.
How I still remembered the first ten syllables that make up the first two lines of many of the prayers.
The repeated kissing of holy objects, a gesture of reverence. (In my childhood, I never got to kiss in worship. I find this is so beautifully expressive.)

Echoing Rabbi Scott Aaron, Community Scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning: "Happy Birthday World." Remembrance and reflection. And never to assume in which book names live. Something that carries across many religions, I think: discouragement of brash assumptions. Rabbi Scott Aaron mentions another: "Ah, but all religions make us feel unworthy at times." Another level of humility, I suppose. The certain ease constantly underlying Rabbi Scott's voice allows for comfort, demands shedding of pretense, implies a winking smile. Content never fully eclipses his personality, but is woven naturally. I have never quite experienced this level of humanity during worship. The two hours passed quickly, and I spent the following one writing so as not to forget. Happy New Year.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

first visit: Sept 5th 2010 Church of the Brethren

10:30 am sunday
Pittsburgh Church of the Brethren
3503 Beechwood Blvd, Pittsburgh PA 15217

I chose this as gatherings' first place of worship because my mother was raised Church of the Brethren. It is also appropriate, I learn this morning, because the building is multifaith and multinational in purpose. On alternate days and times, it houses two additional congregations, one of them Lithuanian. (Baltic characters boldly don one interior wall.) Thankfully this and other small signs like this add up toward confirmation that my actions are not out of place. See, my drive to take on this project comes largely from the fact that I am daring myself to do it.

I settle into my pew at 10:33 and the service starts immediately—to the second. It dawns on me that they had been waiting for me to arrive.
During celebrations and concerns I receive the warmest welcome and support from Pastor Joel Wilcher and his small but strongly present congregation when I introduced myself and my project. Thank you. More remarkable than the fact that I can count the number of worshipers using the fingers on my two hands, is that upon leaving, I can probably provide you with the first names of each.

The sermon's focus on honoring humility carries true in this congregation, even in the hymnal melodies expressed in pure a cappella, sans the fanfare of organ.