How Ya Gonna Get Them Back in the Shul….

Let’s jump ahead to the morning of Sep. 19, which if you remember or have a calendar handy, was both Shabbat and the first day of Rosh Hashanah. By the time a friend showed up to our apartment, tallit and siddur in hand, I had already started davening. There I was in the living room with Shekhi curled up on my lap.

There are several questions one might ask about what I just wrote. What are you guys doing in your living room when you should be in shul? If your friend is not in shul, why is he davening at your place? And who or what is this Shekhi, assisting you in davening? Now that I’ve aroused you from your torpor, I can begin the next episode about this continuing tale of woe and disaster.

It has been something like watching a video of a multi-car accident on an icy road, in which additional vehicles, unable to stop, keep crashing into the pileup – and you’re viewing the video in slow motion. You know exactly what is going to happen, but you have no way of stopping it. All you can do is scream at the screen, Noooooooo!!! Anyone here who was paying attention and was willing to face the reality of COVID-19 would have a similar explanation for what has been going on here in The Land the last few months: even if the different factions in the government hadn’t spent their time bickering and jockeying for position, even if the prime minister hadn’t spent his time pondering mostly about his political future, there needed to be a PLAN to slowly bring everything back to normal, and there wasn’t one. Even if there had been one, the folks who live here would have had to abide by it. Israelis pay attention to the rules? When does that ever happen? And it wasn’t just your rank-and-file Israelis who think laws are just suggestions. You have the Hareidim wanting to do their own thing – meaning pack in as many people as will possibly fit (à la the Marx Brothers), and the demonstrators against the prime minister wanting to do their own thing – in the process, wear out their welcome – even though both groups would have stopped the other group if they had their way.

The people-in-charge of traffic in my illustration could have de-iced the road to prevent the initial accident. Failing that, they could have closed off the dangerous section of the road to prevent more cars from becoming part of the pile-up. Instead, they closed the whole road and then the entire inter-state highway, so that nobody could go anywhere, and they waited until the heart of the rush hour to do anything.

That’s more or less how our government has responded to COVID-19. Having no other strategy, sooner or later, they would have had to do another lockdown. I know. Let’s wait until the last minute, the worst possible time, to do it.

If I were describing this scenario to a typical rank-and-file American, I would say this: What would be the worst time to close down the economy in your country? How about the week before Thanksgiving until Jan. 2? All the shopping malls shut down, all the stores that sell clothing, sporting goods, jewelry, books, cosmetics, Christmas paraphernalia, closed. All the restaurants open for take-out only and then shut down completely. Oh, and you can’t get together with anybody for Thanksgiving dinner, or Christmas, or New Year’s Eve, the times when you’d be most likely to spend with those near and dear to you. How would that work?

I would explain to this random American that our holiday seasons here in The Land, around Pesach and the Hagim in the fall serve the same purpose for us economically and psychologically. Depending on whom I was talking to, I might mention the religious component as well, that Shabbat and these special days are the high points of our spiritual year, essential to our well-being as Jews. What’s the point of living in a Jewish homeland if you cannot celebrate with your community? You might as well be the only Jew in Pocatello, Idaho; well, not quite, but you get the idea.

With all the restrictions on synagogue activity (like having to sign up in advance for one of the ten or twenty spots for a particular minyan), and with the well-founded concern for personal safety, this particular friend, and lots of our other friends, have not seen the inside of Musar Avicha since March.

I know there’s this thing about davening with a minyan, but there’s something really nice about davening alone in your living room. For one thing, you’re never late (they can’t start without you!). And if thirty guys singing in thirty different keys upsets your joie de vivre, well, there’s a solution. Likewise, the slower-than-molasses tempo of most shul davening. There’s also something comforting about being able to pray without a mask blocking your vision and – if the minyan is outside – not having to fend off the fly that keeps landing on your forearm while you’re supposed to be focusing on what’s in your siddur.

A novel reason for ‘praying in isolation’ comes from an unexpected source, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In one of his recent articles, he stated that, ‘Tefilla be-tsibbur involves going at the speed of the congregation. It is hard to slow the pace so as to be able to meditate at length on any of the prayers themselves…” My question is, if something is already t-a-k-i-n-g f-o-r-e-v-e-r, how can you go any slower? Reminds me of years gone by when I was a shop steward in a union of civil servants (NYC). There were times when there were violations of our contractual agreed-upon working conditions. The more militant members amongst us would talk about a work slowdown to get the City to fix the problem. My response was, if we go any slower, we’d have to stop breathing…..

Because my memory goes back well before I was born, and my mind works in strange and wondrous ways, I’m reminded of this hit song from 1919, How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm (after they’ve seen Paree), found in an original performance by Nora Bayes on YouTube. The idea behind this wildly popular song was that a doughboy – having left the farm on the prairie to fight in W.W. I, and having seen ‘the sights’ – might not be so eager to return to his plow once the war was over.

How ya gonna get them back in the shul after they’ve been set free, I ask. Many of you might have shared our feelings of astonishment and glee when the pronouncements came out from those who make such pronouncements that because of the ‘situation,’ the davening over Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur could and would be dramatically shortened. You mean that all those piyyutim (medieval poems) that have become an integral part of the liturgy aren’t really necessary, after all? Who knew?

Granted, there are those, including at least one or two people I know, who LUV them, who lustily add their voices in song. I certainly wouldn’t want to deprive them of their pleasure. But what about people like me who are in exquisite pain as the piyutim go on and on, page after page. I’m not knowledgeable enough to comment on the quality of the poetry, but I will say that the tunes employed are b-o-r-i-n-g and the words and music are often not a harmonious fit. (I’ve commented ad nauseum about the vocal limitations of some of my fellow congregants.) You want me and others like me back in our seats in shul if and when things return to ‘normal?’ We can discuss some changes when the time comes.

With everything going on, it was certainly easier for me to daven in private on Rosh Hashana. My friend? Let’s just say it’s quieter here with no young rascals running around; easier to concentrate. And Shekhi? As I wrote on my Facebook feed, why have two cats when you can have three? This young fellow followed me into our building, up the stairs, and into our apartment, whereupon he quickly found his way to the food and water bowls and then curled up on our couch. After a few ins and outs, he is now a permanent member of our family. (FYI. Shekhi is short for shekekiyanu, as he arrived shortly before Rosh Hashana.)

Cute little guy

Our davening on Rosh Hashana was such a hit, that we decided to do a repeat on Yom Kippur. (Same time, same place, same cast of characters.) I should mention that Shekhi, being of the kittenish persuasion, has a keen interest in anything dangling, especially the fringes on a tallit, which can be especially distracting if you’re not used to this kind of interruption. Other than that, the davening was perfect. However, the kiddush, in the spirit of the day, was substandard. We’ll do better over Sukkot, but that will have to wait for the next installment.

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