Tuesday, August 16, 2011

seventy-third visit: Aug 13th 2011 Orthodox Judaism

9:00am saturday
Young Israel of Greater Pittsburgh
5831 Bartlett Street, Pittsburgh PA 15217
squirrel hill south

Upon arriving, I am nervous during the moment that it takes me to find the women's section. But it's just a short moment. A half-hour into the service, the woman in front of me welcomes me and asks: "Are you here for the Bar Mitzvah?" Her name is Marlene. I explain that I did not know there was one. I explain gatherings. Lucky: I had not attended a Bar or Bat Mitzvah since I was 13 or so. Back then there was a long string of many—growing up, about half of my friends were Jewish. None of them Orthodox, though. All of the Bar and Bat Mitzvahs I attended then were formal and took place on Saturday nights in ballrooms rented in hotels. They were a huge part of my early teen social life, a complicated and not always pleasant period of time. It was nice to experience one in fresh perspective.

The sermon: Why do we repeat things? Why are words and phrases sometimes repeated in holy text? For emphasis, perhaps. Or for poetics; sound and rhythm. Final answer: so that the words become your personal שִׁירָה (shee-RAH)—poem or song (the same Hebrew word means both). The Torah is a שִׁירָה (shee-RAH). Psalm.

Another woman in front of me, next to Marlene—Maya—turns to me and whispers that the cantor we are listening to was saved by Schindler; his family's name was on the list. I breathe in reverse for a moment.

At service's end: Kiddush, in a large upstairs room. I exchange greetings with Rabbi Silver in the stairwell on the way up. Marlene comments repeatedly—we are a small group. I have to say that Young Israel of Greater Pgh is much larger than many churches I've attended, for certain. The room is filled with several long tables and a multitude of serving bowls: lachs, pickled and pasta salads, challah, bottled lemonades and teas; delicious.

I sit with Marlene, Ed, Ed's parents and I talk with Maya. She had been attending different synagogues in Pittsburgh before this one. "After living in a country where there is no religion, you work your way through the levels," she explains. Maya grew up in Russia, under laws aimed to render the practice of Judaism impossible.

A speech of gratitude is delivered by the newly-mitsvahed.

Ed says they must go, as the family is having lunch at their home. And might I join them? I answer that I should really return home, too. Goodbyes and they leave the table.

Maya turns to me: you really should go with them; they are really very nice people and would not ask if they did not want the company. With her description, I realize that the meal is as much (or more) a part of observing the Shabbos as the meal my mother would make after church on Sundays.

I catch up and join the ten-minute walk to Marlene and Ed's home. Then Marlene and I run ahead—Ed's homemade challah, inadvertently left in the freezer, needs to be put out to thaw.
At my hosts' home: I am gently reminded that what has been turned on and/or off since sundown on Friday (lights and switches) stays in the same state until sundown tonight. I stir slaw. Put out another place setting. Meet Gladys and Uncle John. Seven of us all together.

I am humbled by the hospitality, but it's come on a day that I'm more tired than usual, (short on sleep for several days) and though I'm known as a quiet person, I'm a little more quiet then usual today. But this is also my way of taking in, being present. I hope that my great appreciation of Ed and Marlene's opening their home is perceived. This afternoon is pretty incredible in the respect that I've never been offered an invitation to Shabbos lunch; perhaps a once in a lifetime opp? Thank you.

First: hand-washing. From the two-handled cup, three spills of water on the right, then left. And no speaking between this and the blessing. Instead: miming and nods. This was my favorite part of Passover, too.
The food is absolutely delicious. Salads in which every ingredient tastes like the purest form of itself. Ed's challah is well-worth the earlier speed-walk-rescue.

Talk: Every time a Hebrew or Yiddish word is spoken, Ed, Marlene or Gladys turns to me and says the English equivalent, with a nod. To the point where we all start laughing.

We discover that Ed's mother's niece lives with her family three blocks from the house in which I grew up in Wyoming, a tiny suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. This coincidence is pretty remarkable. Her kids attend my same high school, classes of 100 and same swimming pool in the summer. And Ed's Mother (and then Ed) grew up a couple of blocks from where I live now. Ed's mother attended the school we walk our dog past every day. The world is smaller than you'd think.

Marlene hunts for a prayer booklet for me with English translations and the best pictures. The biggest blessing comes after the meal, quietly and to one's self.
... And fruit and homemade meringue cookies: mint and coconut.

Eventually, it's time to go.
One thing I wish I had asked: A life of orthodoxy is not for the passive. It requires a remarkable level of devotion. Every Friday, (after a 40 hour work week), before sunset, two days' worth of work must be completed in the time-span of less than one ... Does Friday night/Saturday feel twice-earned and twice as relaxing? Does this play a role in the way in which one looks forward to Shabbos? (a day away from driving, cooking, writing, photography, spending money, and use of electronic devices)?
I can't say how long the others remain after the meal that day, talking and visiting. To know that this day is set aside for such: Last week I scrambled among three friends (ten emails in more than a day's time) to find an agreeable evening when we were all free to sit together for dinner. Nearly a month out from now.

... At home, I keep a folder of ideas for an upper-level painting class I will be teaching next June. In it I write: "Assignment: Before next class, do something or experience something for the first time." Repeat throughout life's practice.

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