Thursday, May 26, 2011

sixty-second visit: May 21st 2011 Orthodox Judaism

9:00am saturday
Beth Hamedrash Hagodol - Beth Jacob Congregation

~ the city's oldest Orthodox Jewish Congregation

810 5th Ave, Pittsburgh PA 15219
downtown, bluff



This, my second of three participations in Jewish services preceding my six-week residency in Germany, is a visit to Pittsburgh's oldest Orthodox Jewish Congregation. Beth Hamedrash Hagodol - Beth Jacob used to meet in a synagogue on Colwell Street, which was demolished for the Penguin’s new hockey arena. (no comment) The congregation now meets in a building that formerly served as a blood bank. It stands at the edge of Duquesne University, a Catholic U, where I taught art last semester. The art department has since been shut down, as well. (no comment) Sigh.

Running behind as usual, I make my warning phone call on Thursday night, dialing the number posted on the synagogue’s website. “…and I am wondering if you know the times services are held?”
“Well, I should know. I’m the Rabbi.”
(May all my future projects be as sincere and simultaneously provide unexpected laughter.)
“… And is there someone for whom you are saying Kaddish?,”
Rabbi Stanley Savage asks me.

The following night (Friday, the night before this service), I receive another email from the artist who served a German residency last summer—the same for which I leave shortly. (see previous post, 61st visit) Serendipitously, completely coincidentally, she writes about her work and to ask a favor: “…it concerns part of an art project of mine that I worked on … called the Mobile Kaddish—Kaddish is a Jewish prayer for the souls of the dead. I bicycled to places where there were unmarked graves and human remains from the camps, with the prayer playing from little speakers on my bicycle. Once I found out about the deaths in Schwandorf/Fronberg, the location of the residency, I spent a lot of time playing it for them there, too. I was hoping that the prayer could continue a bit in my absence if the right person came along, even if it was played only once. I could email you an MP3 sound file of the prayer if you feel interested in playing it from your laptop on the K├╝nstlerhaus balcony?… I feel a long-term sense of responsibility towards that town, which still bears a tremendous amount of pain. I think anyone who can come there with the intention of love instead of hate is very much needed.” It gives me the chills every time I re-read this passage concerning this sacred lullaby for ghosts.

So, Saturday morning I arrive for service at
Beth Hamedrash. I am the second of two female worshipers. A bit later, we are joined by Miriam Meltzer. Miriam and I whisper introductions and more. It ends up that she indeed, has come to say Kaddish—all the way in from Maryland, arriving after midnight last night. Her father’s father, Rabbi Joseph Kaplan helped to begin this very congregation in late 1800’s. But it is her cousin for whom Kaddish is spoken today. She lost him tragically, two years ago. She explains that he came to this synagogue twice a day, every day, and was more like a brother to her. Devotion x2. The same intensity of devotion that I hope to instill in my college art students, to their life’s purpose and to those near them.

Miriam helps me find the correct prayer book. Helps me to stay on the right page. I’m following the English, of course, as always. And because only the Hebrew is spoken, not Engligh, have no source of confirmation of the pace except to sneak peeks at others’ page-corners, and to listen for cues in the form of the sound of turning pages.

During the service, Rabbi Savage introduces me to the congregation. He mostly refers to me simply as "Professor," which makes me want to look over my shoulder to see whom he’s addressing. I can tell it’s because my last name is a little puzzling to him, so I introduce myself using the formal version of my first name: "Rebecca." Which lately (with all due respect to my parents), I strongly, suddenly, curiously, wish was spelled Rebekah. Because I feel that’s more honest to the pronunciation, I guess.

Miriam whispers that it takes the presence of ten men (a Minyan) to make an Orthodox service valid. There are exactly ten. I wonder what happens in the case of fewer male attendees. Do they call someone in? Or is phone-use forbidden on the Sabbath? Each takes a turn reading. The last, with a long, thin face, dark salt and pepper hair, a day’s growth of scruff, chants with a voice I’d pay money and give up studio time to hear. Effortlessly. As if he is deaf to the beauty of his own sound.

After service, I am introduced to two brothers, who look exactly alike, except for differing heights. One is a musician and reacts with enthusiasm when he learns that I make art. Brings up Picasso. (And says: "He invented cubism, right? But he draws like a child, I have always thought. I have never understood.") But children draw so beautifully, their intuitive marks. Then we grow up and forget how.

Upstairs for Kiddush. Rabbi: “Eat, eat. Have the whole Danish, no splitting in half, none of that. Eat. Have another cup of wine. You know you have to drink that in one gulp or you have to have another. (recalls 14th visit, 7th paragraph and 52nd visit, 7th pgh) ...Can you see I’m trying harder to come out of my shell lately? I’m usually so introverted.” (47th visit, 2nd pgh)
I can’t not indulge. To clarify, the cups are tiny. Tiny as in Christian communion style, if that is your frame of reference. And in both cases, a blessing is involved.

Rabbi Savage invites me to accompany Miriam and himself back down to the sanctuary. We search among plaques to find the names of Miriam’s family members. A single light bulb next to each one, so that it may glow at Yahrtzeit. (I already know this one: so close to German's "Jahrzeit" literally meaning "year-time" or anniversary—here specifically implying that of a death).

I finish absorbing the morning. Please come back. We can talk more and you can take pictures then. Miriam wishes for my email. A fist-full of the ephemeral and it’s hardly noon.

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