Sunday, September 18, 2011

ninety-eighth visit: Sept 29th 2011 Reconstructionist Judaism, Rosh Hashanah

9:30am thursday
Congregation Dor Hadash
Rosh Hashanah services, day 1
5898 Wilkins Ave, Pittsburgh PA 15217
squirrel hill

Two points of significance to this visit:
1) It's the first day of Rosh Hashanah. For more about this the Jewish New Year, please see my 2nd visit. I have so many other things to write about, beyond the important meaning of this High Holiday...

2) the uniqueness of Congregation Dor Hadash (in structure and beyond):
a) Like Bet Tikvah (5th visit) and YPS (85th visit), here worship is not led by a Rabbi. I pulled this from their website, as there is no better way of explaining:
" Services
• are led by our members and our lay cantor, Cheryl Klein. [who is absolutely amazing, may I add].
• welcome participation by members and guests
• are gender egalitarian
• are open to all, including interfaith families
• integrate a deep respect for traditional Judaism with the insights and ideas of contemporary social, intellectual and spiritual life"

b) This is a Reconstructionist congregation, and if I'm not mistaken the only such in Pittsburgh proper. So, Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox make up the four movements of Judaism in North America. Reconstructionist is a modern movement that grew from Conservativism (1920-1940), and encompasses a range of philosophies based on the notion that it is not possible to follow many aspects of the traditional Jewish belief because of advances in knowledge and in daily modern life. This is a brash simplification, but for the sake of length, I'll trust you to research further if an interest exists.

I particularly look forward to this visit because of a coincidence I can't help but to share. A New York artist I met in Germany this summer told me to keep an eye out for her friend—Pittsburgh artist, Wendy Osher.

Less than two months later (ten days before this visit), I am randomly introduced to her by a mutual friend. Moments later, I learn she is a member of Dor Hadash, my sole remaining synagogue visit, which I had been saving for today, Rosh Hashanah.
I also learn that she is a member of a Jewish-Muslim conversation group, made up mostly of members from The Muslim Community Center in Monroeville (84th visit) and today's congregation, plus some. I'm dying to talk to her more about this.
And to add to the richness: Wendy is the daughter of a Presbyterian minister.

Today she invites me to sit with her and her husband, James, who is also an artist.

A huge benefit of congregations led by laypeople taking turns at the pulpit, I have come to realize, is the amount of energy and the amount of life-experiences each is able to store up and pour into each talk delivered. On the other hand, imagine the way this usually works: one person having to come up with new inspirational insights to present to a room of listeners every single week of his or her life.

Congregant Mike Zigmond speaks today. One can feel, without a doubt, that he stirs the room. Below is his eloquent talk reduced to a few stubby sentences, yet hopefully not stripped of the power of his ideas:
He speaks about his son practicing both Buddhism and Judaism. Passionately, fully. (Did you know that here is an actual term for such believers? Jew-Bu. I learn this a bit later.) Mike goes on to say that in daily conversation, you will hear the words "religion" and "faith" used interchangeably. Not in Judaism. Faith is only part of it. The rest is action. Deed. We have to join together in action: Jews with Muslims with Christians with Buddhists. We must get past our differences and work together.

I feel lucky and inspired that of these final ten visits, many so strongly hit on the concepts driving gatherings.

For not knowing any Hebrew (besides the first fourteen syllables of most prayers), I am able to follow and participate fairly easily during this service. Prayers, blessings and psalms are written phonetically on opposing pages of the prayer book. Scholars' comments and observations are included "below the line" on each page. And some sections are spoken in English, including a Mary Oliver poem.

Immediately after the service:
Those who wish to participate in a ritual called Tashlich (explained below) gather outside the synagogue. During our walk to Chatham University's pond, where Tashlich is to take place, we talk. One woman says I look like I am from a different time and place. I tell her about gatherings. When explaining this project, I usually don't use the word "art" until my final few sentences, because I have found that otherwise it confuses my listeners. But before I get to this point, she says: "You are an artist, correct? And this is your art project?" I totally want to hug her.

Tashlich: a tradition of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, with origins in the Middle Ages. My favorite part of today. Because I had never done this before. And because of what it is. This ritual requires either a body of moving water, or still water with fish. Each participant, standing at the edge of (in this case) a fishy pond, receives a very tiny ribbon-cinched nylon bag filled with breadcrumbs. We meditate on our misdeeds of the year. We toss the breadcrumbs on the pond's surface. To be carried away. By the fish—fish with eyes that never close, like those of the all-knowing. A symbolic casting away of misdeeds. But it is important to note that with this act, our misdeeds do not disappear as if they never existed; but instead they are acknowledged and transformed. A clean start to the New Year.

Wendy brings up the length of our time at the synagogue today. I feel that it's nice to be away from quotidian obligations. The long, quiet inward focus. She says she believes that that is part of the purpose. I enter normal life again, sometime just after 2:30pm. I leave normal life again at 4:00 to enter my studio. Although, defining when and where obligations end and belief or art begins can be a tricky thing sometimes. And that's not all bad.

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