A tale of two shuls

16 Sep

Today I went shul-hopping on the streets of north-west London.

Shul A: A partnership minyan, where women were singing aloud and melodiously, leading those parts of the service permitted to them according to certain interpretations of halacha (Jewish law). Depending on who you ask, this prayer gathering is Orthodox, heretical, Reform, inspiring or, worst of all – full of those – don’t say the ‘f-word’ – feminists who want to be like men. 

A woman carried the sefer torah around the women’s section, then passed it over to a man to carry around the men’s section. The sky didn’t fall down, I didn’t spot anyone slipping down a slippery slope, and the service continued in much the same way as a regular Shabbat morning service elsewhere.

The same but also different. Different because some of the women were active participants in the service, and were that much more inspired as a result. No hysteria, no one turning into men. Clearly women who were serious about wanting to play an active role in Judaism. As someone who generally finds shul boring, I enjoy being part of the buzz of this minyan.

Shul B: A synagogue where I spent a lot of time in my childhood, a staunchly Orthodox congregation, where the women sit in the “Ladies’ Gallery” up above observing the men doing all the fun stuff (if anything related to shul can be considered fun) in the sanctuary down below. From my recollection, if women joined in any of the singing, it was never louder than a barely audible whisper. No feminists here.

I didn’t actually attend the service, I came at the end to the ‘social hall’, invited by an old friend who was holding a family celebration there. I did feel a slight out-of-body experience at setting foot in this place after many years away, peregrinations into other types of Judaism and many twists and turns in my life journey. However, what struck me immediately was that I still felt at home in this setting.

I may not look like the glossy sheitel-wearing, fancy shabbat-outfit wearing super frum women who bustled around me on the women’s side of the kiddush (nor have I any desire to do so) – but I still know this world, and I was happy that I made the decision to come and say ‘mazal tov’ to an old friend.

It seems that however far you move away from your home setting  – whether physically or emotionally or religiously – when you come back, you can still feel an uncanny sense of familiarity.

The moral of the story:

Today I slipped seamlessly between two Jewish communities with completely different practices and opposing philosophies and guess what, nothing happened. The sky did not fall down. In my own chameleon-like little way, I just ignored the “they” vs “us”, this community speaks the truth vs that community is heretical, we are right vs you are wrong, general dynamic of Jewish communal life these days.

How many people actually do this kind of yo-yoing between different communal settings? Where are all the other chameleons who dip in and out of different worlds, who are able to blend a variety of different Jewish identities and still feel at one with themselves? Why do people seem so stuck on defining themselves using one rigid label and will not venture even slightly to the left or to the right?

How about just picking yourself up and walking through the doors of a community that you’ve never set foot in beforehand, that may represent ‘different values’, and see what happens. Rather than the sky falling down, chances are you’ll probably just be yawning before too long, willing the service to come to an end so you can get your teeth into a good fried fish ball.

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