Maybe it’s because he’s gettin’ religion, or maybe it’s just because he knows I think he looks sexy in a tallis, but my dear husband researched and planned for us to attend Shabbat services during our 10th anniversary trip to Puerto Rico.
Like Savannah where all three major Jewish denominations have dug roots in a little city, eensy-beensy Puerto Rico is the only Caribbean island to host Judaism’s top three flavors: Sha’are Zedeck, the Conservative synagogue, is the oldest and wealthiest; Temple Beth Shalom caters to the Reform crowd, and there’s a small but popular Chabad House nestled in between resorts along the beach. Even though he’d never set foot in a Conservative shul in his life, El Yenta Man thought we’d check out Sha’are Zedick for the historic factor, though compared to our own Mickve Israel (founded in 1733) it’s a baby: Jews weren’t welcome in PR until it became a U.S. territory in 1952.
We arrived too late last Friday in Old San Juan to find our way back out again through the charming, steel-blue bricked streets, but we arose bright and early Saturday to catch a short cab ride to the more modern part of the city and being us, still managed to be late. We ducked into the foyer, grabbed prayer books while a man on the bima spoke in spitfire Spanish. Mi espanol is about as good as my Hebrew, which is to say I read it okay in a certain context, understand a little when someone’s talking and embarrass myself wildly when I try to have an actual conversation, but I understood that we were just in time for the Torah service. EYM slid a tallis off the rack and swung it around himself; I resisted the urge to smooch him (I don’t know why it makes me so crazy when he dons religious garb, but if he ever starts laying tefillin, I’ll never let him leave the house.)
We plunked our tushes down in a pew towards the back and I had barely scoped out that there were about 60 or so people there, that the sanctuary was modern with clean lines and that we were on page 426 of the (thankfully) English siddur when a woman in a sharp suit and hip glasses came over and whispered “Leviokhain? Leviokhain?” EYM’s lovely brown eyes lit up like panic pinball, but because I had recently attended the Conservative shul at home with our son, I knew she was asking if he was a descendant of the priestly Levite or Kohanim (better known as Levi and Cohen) tribes, making him a preferable candidate to perform certain tasks during the service. (There was a friendly gentleman at the Savannah service doing the same thing, orchestrating who was going to open the Ark and carry the Torah, etc.; as a visitor I felt very honored to dress the Torah at that service and thought it quite democratic of the Conservative folks to get everyone involved. Those in the know: Is this a universal practice?)
Since our last name is a derivation of Levi, EYM shrugged and kind of nodded. Next thing we knew, the woman was dragging him by the elbow up to the bima and waving at the rabbi, yell-whispering “Psst! Levi!” while pointing and poking at my husband, who I hadn’t seen look so pale since he tagged along with me when I went to interview a bunch of female mudwrestlers for a column I was writing and I bought him a lap dance as a joke.
There were four or five men up there already, and they opened their ranks and brought him into their circle. One leaned over and said something into his ear and he brought a corner of his tallis to where the rabbi pointed. I saw him inhale, kiss the cloth and then, as if the same DNA that had been present in some holy Levite standing in the Temple of Solomon had been activated in his blood, he launched into the blessing in a clear, unshakable tenor: Baruchu et adonai ham’vorah…
Well. I found this incredibly impressive and quite awesome. From where I was sitting, it seemed like my guy had been doing this every Shabbat his whole life, but I happened to know he had not stood in front of a Torah since his bar mitzvah 25 years ago. The rabbi read the Torah parsha (portion) and I watched EYM’s brows furrow in concentration as he followed along in the scroll. After the end of the reading, he delivered the post-Torah blessings in the same warm, confident tones, and I could see even from the back that he was enjoying himself. He came back to our pew with his face glowing” I don’t know where that came from! Did I sound all right? There wasn’t even a transliteration!”
I could have jumped him then and there but, y’know, that would have been really inappropriate. Still, we held hands all through the sermon, listening intently even though it was in Spanish.
After the service, several of the congregrants clustered around us, asking where we’re from, how long we were in Puerto Rico, to stay for kiddush lunch, which we did (saffron couscous with pomegrante seeds and dill tuna salad, mmmm….) Everyone was kind and mostly spoke English, and we learned that the congregation was in between rabbis and the service had been led by its community leaders, most of whom are of Cuban descent. Sha’are Zedeck also serves as Puerto Rico’s Jewish Community Center and on a short tour I got to see their brand-new, ginormous social hall that was built to inspire families to hold b’nai mitzvot, weddings and other simchas on site rather than local hotels. It hasn’t been working yet, one member confided, and the project had left the congregation several million shekels in the hole, which sounds like familiar story for a lot of American synagogues, nu?
The day took a decidedly downward turn when one of the men offered to take us to a gallery at a university where his art was showing; he dropped us off and sped off, and being us, of course, the place was closed. The rest of Shabbat was spent walking around in circles and finally hopping on a public bus back to our hotel, The Gallery Inn. In fact, the rest of the trip was something of a clusterf*ck, what with Tropical Storm Omar baring its fangs off the coast and sending out bands of rainrainrain for days (I would regale you with tales of the overflowing septic systems on another little island where we spent two sodden nights, except I’m not quite over the smell) but whenever we were tempted into sniping at each other out of the uncomfortable, out-of-control feeling when travel plans get changed, we would talk about EYM’s aliyah, and how marvelous it is to be a Jew and go very far from home and find the same prayers, the same traditions, the same Hebrew language. Even if it was lightning-fast with a Spanish accent.