"Lechu neranena ladonai, nariah letzur yeshainu…"
The loud voice of the chazan startles me just as I step into the shul; all around me, the bustling, erev-shabbos crowd of boys and men break off from their mingling and make their way to their seats as the davening slowly commences. As I awkwardly find myself an empty seat along the wall, I survey the crowd, pleasantly surprised at the makeup of this congregation. There seems to be faint expressions of what passes for diversity in this group. Although the overwhelming majority of the congregants are decked out in the typical yeshivish shabbos dress – dark suit, large black hat – I can still spot a fair number of them standing out in their distinctiveness: a leather kipa here, a light grey suit there, a colored shirt in the back. Impressive, I think to myself. Maybe things have gotten a bit more open-minded since I’ve left.
As I sit at the table, siddur open in front of me, I stare blankly at the words on the page, refusing to grant my lips permission to participate. Next to me, a heavyset fellow is earnestly swaying back and forth to the chazan’s rendition of kabalas shabbos. It’s been a while since I heard them, but the tunes and prayers are all familiar to me; the words instinctively form in my mind, eager to be granted expression. Yet I stubbornly refuse to give them life. As it often does when I find myself in these situations, irrational paranoia starts to kick in, and I imagine that my blasphemy is being noticed by everyone around me. I feel their stares, their disapproving gaze burning into my back. Why aren’t you davening? I hear them ask accusingly. Would it hurt you to shuckle a little bit?
Why do I insist on doing this, I wonder. Is it so hard for me to pretend for just a few minutes? What difference would it make if I just said the words like everyone else? Still, I refuse to comply. For some inexplicable reason, I can’t bring myself to do it. I remind myself - it’s all a lie, that I don’t believe in what these words mean, and that I’m not willing to participate in something that I don’t believe in.
But somewhere in the back of my mind, I know I’m deceiving myself. I pretend all the time. The mere fact that I’m in this shul, looking for the most part like one of them, is indicative of that. So why can’t I just bring myself to answer “amein yehei sh'mei raba” like everyone else? What’s the big deal if I just go along with it and let them think that I’m one of them?
And then it dawns on me - that is the reason. That’s why I can’t pretend. I don’t want them to think I’m one of them.
That’s the real truth. I don’t want to be thought of as part of their group. I don’t want them to consider me as one of their own. If I play along with this theatrical performance, it means that I care enough to want them to accept me. And I don’t. I don’t want them, for a second, to think that I am like them, in their thoughts, their practices, their lifestyles, their goals, their relationships, or their values. I refuse to play along with their game because I don’t want to ever be mistaken as one of them.
And so I sit there, silently.
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