Synagogue Search

A Spiritual Quest

By Marjorie Ingall

Published September 22, 2006, issue of September 22, 2006.
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Spirituality can be a single-player game, but Judaism is a team sport. While solo prayer, meditation and reflection certainly have a role in our religion, the history of our peeps is all about collective action. “Al tifrosh min hatzibur,” we’re told in Pirkei Avot — don’t separate yourself from the community.

Still, being a team player can be tough. Our culture is individualistic. Our time can be fragmented. The wired generation has gotten accustomed to doing everything on demand: We can read tomorrow’s paper online tonight, TiVo “Project Runway” and “Survivor” so that we’re not at the mercy of some network programmer’s schedule, buy songs and books online instead of going to bookstores (which have an annoying tendency to be closed at 2 a.m.), float in and out of instant messaging sessions instead of meeting friends for coffee. The demands for our attention and time peck at us from all sides, like a flock of irritated chickens. Creating the space in all the clutter to hang regularly with the tzibur is hard.

I spent years in the Bay Area, where (generalization alert!) folks talked a lot about community but didn’t seem to have much of it. So many of my contemporaries (generalization alert!) fetishized spirituality as a solo — some might say Onanistic — pursuit. “God” was a construct that made people uneasy; meditation was a far more common word than prayer; “spiritual community” often meant drum circles, body paint and/or hallucinogens. Hybrids were everywhere: here a JewBu, there a Jewiccan — it was hard to find a Jew-Jew. (I take that back. They were all in my Saturday morning Iyengar yoga class.) Everyone was a seeker; everyone was on a journey. People bounced from apartment to apartment, job to job, as the digital revolution gathered momentum (whipping through our lives like a Bengali typhoon, in the typically hyperventilatory language of the first issue of Wired magazine, where Jonathan was working when I met him). Young people were making too much money, feeling superior about riding the big waves of that metaphorical digital perfect category 5 storm, while the rest of the world was sleeping. We were all possibility, living in group houses filled with computers and cheap Indian bedspreads. All future, no present.

I include myself in this mellow-harshing assessment. Spiritually, I was drifting, too. (Note my presence in that Saturday morning yoga class.) I tried a few synagogues, but nothing felt comfortable. Some were too status-y, featuring congregants who seemed to view services as a fashion show while delegating the actual prayer to rabbis and cantors who intoned dramatically with Madonna-esque vaguely British accents and extra-plummy vowels. Some were too hippie, involving the aforementioned drumming plus long, hectoring notes in the bulletin about keeping the sanctuary a scent-free space for our friends with environmental allergies. During the High Holy Days there was always a sermon about self-forgiveness. (Bay Areans are so busy forgiving themselves, they never have time to worry about the pesky business of apologizing to others.) All I wanted was a synagogue that approximated my Camp Ramah experience: informality, lots of Hebrew, lots of singing and no frustrated-operatic-tenor cantor who resented having to lead “Adon Olam.” The closest thing I found was Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, the gay and lesbian synagogue that was conveniently two doors down from the pink Victorian wedding cake of a house where Jonathan and I rented the top-floor flat. Ironic, perhaps, that the closest thing to the traditional service I grew up with was in a nontraditional congregation. Still, I felt like a guest. It didn’t feel like my home.

Time passed. Jonathan and I settled into our life together. Marriage, a move to New York, babies. As a new mom, I felt tethered to home, covered in effluvia. O, the leaking breasts, the dictatorial nap schedules, the feral toddler tendencies! All the forces that conspire to keep a new mom out of organized community life! But now my older baby’s ready for religious school. (Holy moly, where did the time go? Is this the little girl I carried? Sunrise, Sunset!) I don’t want to palm off Josie’s education on the professionals and go to yoga; I want to become involved in the life of a synagogue with her. Al tifrosh min hatzibur. I want her to see that we’re all in this together.

Fall is the season for beginnings — the start of the (religious and secular) school year, the High Holy Days, new clothes. When the days get that autumnal bite in the air, and apples start to appear at the farmers markets, a lot of us turn again to contemplating the direction of our lives. Perhaps that’s why even the least communally affiliated Jews want to attend Rosh Hashanah services. But then, why don’t they pray on a beach somewhere (or do yoga)? Why do we want to be with our fellow Jews now, praying together? There’s something primal about this time, something liminal. No matter how separate we are, we want to check in with tradition, and with each other.

Besides, there’s something special about the physical space of a synagogue. It triggers long-dormant sense memories. The tunes, the swaying bodies, the sea of gently moving heads dotted with yarmulkes like little lily pads. Spirituality isn’t something you just walk around with in your body; it’s manifested externally. I never knew the expression “Hamakom yinachem etchem b’toch sha’ar availay Tzion v’Yerushalayim” (“May God comfort you together with all the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”) until my dad died. I’d never heard “hamakom” as a name for God before. It literally means “place” — why was God being called “place”? Maybe that name was meant to show us that location has meaning, that succor can be found in the right setting. Maybe that’s what we unconsciously seek when we come together in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, however far we’ve strayed in the past year or more.

I’d like the makom, the place of synagogue, to carry as many sense memories for Josie as my childhood synagogue does for me. I think of the smell of the chapel, like old velvet. Mr. Adler, the sexton, pressing crinkly wrapped hard candies into my hand. I viscerally recall the sound of my dress-up shoes on the narrow stairways behind the bimah (and my feelings of big-girl importance because I was using the insiders’ stairway, not the big public stairs). I remember how I loved to study the trippily cool, brightly colored mid-century 3-D Jewish-holiday-themed wall sculptures in the Meeting House, which looked like backdrops from some lost Semitic “It’s a Small World” ride, trying to pick my favorite. I still can hear the voice of that congregant who always read Torah in a reedy soprano with an elaborately fake Israeli accent (the Jewish equivalent of the white guy who pronounces “guacamole” like “ccchwaKKamoooleh,” to show you he is down with his oppressed Mexican brothers). I remember playing Pharaoh in our religious school production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” and I remember the excitement when there was an Aufruf and we got to hurl candy as hard as we could at the bride and groom’s heads, then rush the bimah like little punks at a Green Day concert, moshing for fruit jellies. I remember sitting next to my dad, playing with the fringes of his tallit — brading the strands, wrapping my index finger tightly, watching it turn red, then purple, then unwrapping it and savoring the feeling of my blood suddenly rushing again.

I hope we’ll make a similar soul connection with our new synagogue, and that Josie will find her own way, her own makom, there. And I hope everyone finds a place to feel at home this holiday season. L’Shana tova.

Write to Marjorie at

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