Thursday, January 28, 2010

Silent Prayers

"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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Pen Tivokeish said...

Psychobabble bellow:

You are basically saying to them "I dictate the rules". But if you really dictated the rules, you wouldn't care for what they thought. So you don't dictate the rules.

Were you naturally charitable, you would let them think erroneously that they dictate the rules.

Anonymous said...

Why did you go at all?

The Hedyot said...

Psychobabble indeed.

The Hedyot said...

There was a family obligation and logistics did not permit me to remain elsewhere as I usually do in such situations.

Please do not post anonymously without using some identifying moniker.

MouseFace said...

Thank you for putting in words the exact feeling I have whenever I (ex-ortho) go to an orthodox shul (about 20 times a year). Nice post.

Sara A. Maimon said...

do you think anyone really notices whether you're davening or not?

in most ashkenazi shuls, people go to talk

The Hedyot said...

Sara, you're absolutely right. Probably no one notices it. That's why I termed it 'irrational paranoia'.

Although to be honest, after davening, a relative came over to me and made some joke about how I was so well behaved while he was talking the whole time. Wasn't sure if he was just being his usual obnoxious self, or was hinting at how he noticed my atypical behavior.

Moshe said...

"Would it hurt you to shuckle a little?" Very funny :-)

Anyhow, I know how you feel but while I can identify with the need to not submit to their liturgical demands when in shul on Friday night (or melodious demands when at a shabbos dinner) I can testify how eminently fun it is to partake of such a service (or, again, Friday evening zmiros session) with someone who enjoys the experience as vicerally as, say, "you" do.

God! Those are fun times. I'm smiling right now just thinking of someone like you sitting there through kaddish with Rosa Parks determination with a curled lip scowling in calumnious contempt... That was awesome!

But be forewarned. The next time I join someone like you on such a sabbatical adventure I'm going to one-up it. As the chazzan lets the last word fade before shemonah esrah and the righteous nation assumes the mindset and pose of hopping angles I'm going to bellow: "JESUS CHRIST IS LORD! JESUS CHRIST IS LORD! JESUS CHRIST IS LORD!"

so, ha!

I'll win. You'll see. I'll win.


Tova said...

Good post, Hedyot. I understand your frustration and desire to be separate from the 'in-group' of frummies.

Fortunately for me, though, the shul I attend has no black hats, many colored shirts, and funky hats (for the women). It's a 'singing shul' with some talented chazzanim and a kiddush every week. (My uncle runs the 'kiddush club' - does your family's shul have one?) I enjoy going, even if I don't necessarily daven while there.

Pen Tivokeish said...

I loved the post Hedyot.

Just thought I'd say what I would have said as an insider, hence the disclaimer at the start.

tzvee said...

kindly look around next time and pay attention; in teaneck you'd never be noticed

M said...

See - when I go to churches, which happens on occasion for a variety of reasons, I act respectively. I don't genuflect or cross myself, but I don't stand out too much.
When I happen to be in shul, I rarely pray, but definitely stand when others are standing, and sit when others are sitting. Never occurs to me to think of what others are thinking, but I guess deep down, just plain respect for an institution in which I'm in? Whichever it may be?

lostgod said...

I can definitely understand this. This is the reason I got facial piercings. When I would go back to monsey for a family simcha and have to go to shul, I didn't want to be one of them. I have since taken my piercings out, but anytime I'm in a group of frum people, shul or wedding hall, I try to make it clear that I'm not a part of their group. And I don't want to be.

The Hedyot said...

I did stand and sit whenever the rest of the congregation did. I'm not going to do something overtly disrespectful, but I'm willing to not conform when doing so isn't noticed by others (unless they're deliberately watching).

Konjy said...

All I can say, is, I hear ya, brotha.

KokoPuff said...

I am not religious but have attended orthodox shuls in the past for family functions. I cannot understand what a normal person could possibly find appealing about the service,the lifestyle, or the belief system. My feeling is that they do a good job of brain washing the FFB and tend to attract a lot of emotionally unstable BT who need to believe in fairly tales.

Rentsy said...

You may have heard how a sinner can have their sins removed by saying "Yehei shmei raba mevorach l'olam u'olmei almaya".

But there is a deeper level of meaning.

And that is:

A great sinner, an apikorus gamur, is permitted to say "Yehei shmai raba mevorach l'olam u'olmei almaya."

You might have thought that an apikorus was not allowed to say that sentence. But that is not the case.

Jonathan said...

I really look enjoy reading your blog. Most Jews fled from tradional Judaism as soon as the gheto walls fell and left Eastern Europe to get away from the power to the rabbi and organized Judaism. You seem like a very intelligent person, and it's sad that you seem to have been so negatively affected by organized religion and the irrationality that it pushes.

dave said...

Jonathan, it's sad that someone was negatively affected by irrationality?

That's like saying to someone, "I'm sorry that you were so negatively affected by your father's constant abuse."

What do you expect?

s(b.) said...

I miss the men's section. I don't miss the skirts. When in Rome, I do as the Romans do, so I time my visits very carefully. I wouldn't not answer amein or the group parts of kaddish or kedushah, but I'm one of those who would rather focus on enjoying singing with a group than on my personal disagreements with the English translations of any liturgical content. Except for the part in the Haggadah that gets all cranky and requests our enemies be smitten and all that icky stuff. I realize sefer Tehillim has its share of poems like that, but I think of a particular relative when I crack that book open, so it's just part of the realm of a shepherd's emotions. ebb and flow. As far as organized religion goes, I think disorganized religion is much better for me. I don't mind a good chunk of the ideas, it's just the social bs that makes me not want to talk to people.

Mr. Magoo said...

Please explain. What do orthodox Jews find so attractive about their belief system? They seem to waste so much valuable time on seemingly meaningless issues that could be better spent helping their fellow human beings. Also, do most orthodox Jews really believe in the fantasical stories in the Torah and that their rabbis tell or do they just go with the flow to get along with their leaders?

The Hedyot said...

> They seem to waste so much valuable time on seemingly meaningless issues...

They don't think it's meaningless. To them, all these issues matter very much, if not spiritually, then socially.

> most orthodox Jews really believe in the fantasical stories in the Torah and that their rabbis tell or do they just go with the flow to get along with their leaders?

Depends on the crowd. 'Orthodox' is a broad spectrum. But when I was frum, I pretty much believed it all. And I think that most of my family still does.

Carl said...

From your personal experience, what it is that keeps most people attached to orthodox Judaism? I have read the Torah in English and have attended several classes led by rank and file orthodox rabbis. To a person who is not religious, it's pretty obvious that the Torah is a collection of folk tales that is not much different from the folk tales of other groups. Also, the orthodox rabbis I talked with were not able to answer some pretty basic questions about their faith, which is not much diffent from the response one might get from a Christian priest or minister.

Anonymous said...

My personal feeling is that cognitive disonance plays a big role in keeping people Orthodox. Once someone changes his or her whole lifestyle or makes a commitment to live in a certain way, then one will start to rationalize one's decisions to avoid feeling that he or she has made a mistake.

ksil lo yavin said...

many of us are stuck. by the time we realize we had been had, we are married with kids and intertwined in a social network. you cant just pick up and leave can, but it would be devestating to so many people.