Monday, September 27, 2010
fifth visit: Sept 24th 2010 Non-denominational Judaism (Alternative Congregation), Sukkot
7:30 pm friday
Congregation Bet Tikvah
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.