It probably doesn’t come as an surprise to you that this Yenta finds life in Savannah somewhat understimulating, at best. (At worst, I have a big, bad bag of obscenities that unlocks itself and spills onto the table after I’ve had a few cocktails.) The ironic absence of African dance and drum culture, the bizarre pride in the mediocrity of the public school system, the ubiquity of fried food I’m not finding a whole lot to keep my spirits juiced. Even my Jewish experiences thus far have led me to the edge of becoming a Reform shul dropout.
But I got a flyer in the mail for an all-day “learning experience” at Mickve Israel hosted by Rabbi Arnold Belzer, and even though it probably wasn’t going to be the iconoclastic, “new Jew revue”-type event like the lucky kids in NYC get, I just couldn’t spend another Shabbos staring at the cold, flat ocean.
“Twelve hours at temple…with the rabbi?” shrieked El Yenta Man after I had lured him into the car with intimations that we were going on a long date. Of sorts. “I thought we were going to a cheap motel! Let me out! I’m going fishing!” Thank you, Lord, for child-proof locks.
We arrived to a fairly packed sanctuary, which I’m guessing is rare for a non-b’nai mitzvah Saturday, in spite of the synagogue’s generous weekly Kiddush brunch. Rabbi Belzer presided on the bima, explaining the differences between the traditional Orthodox, modern-but-observant Conservative and anything goes-Reform movements of Judaism, which he broke down as “crazy, hazy and lazy.” (I’d never heard that one before; I think I laughed the loudest.)
My eyes did their usual wandering around the room with its classic nave structure and breathtaking stained glass with inscriptions from the 1800’s, but was distracted by the sound of pens scratching on paper. I saw that some people were listening very attentively and taking notes. I had my pen out, too, of course; I’m always scribbling stuff to collect for this blog, and perhaps one day, a book. Since when do Jews listen to the rabbi, let alone write it down? I thought. Could it be that I am not the only Jewish blogger in Savannah? Then it dawned on me: These people weren’t Jews.
It seems the rabbi’s Judaism 101 talk is immensely popular among Christians looking to find out more about our religion, for various reasons, some earnest, some scary. Not that there weren’t a good number of congregants there, too; I recognized several senior Yentas from my weekly lunch with my mother-in-law. The rabbi, who I’ve always liked a lot but many find to be a little showy for the third oldest congregation in the country, unapologetically framed religion in marketing terms, and admitted that Judaism has pretty lame PR: We don’t seek converts, we don’t believe in original sin and we don’t promise eternal salvation.
I started to get down with the basic explanations of Judaism, learning what I must’ve slept through in Hebrew school. Did you know that Reform Judaism was developed in the 19th-century South in keeping with the Protestant aesthetic so popular in America at the time? Or that the Southern Baptists fund Jews for Jesus? (Rabbi B. invoked meshuggeneh pundit Dennis Prager when one of the non-Jews asked why one couldn’t be a Jew for Jesus: “It’s like being a vegetarian for meat.”)
I was enjoying the learning so much that I was jarred back to reality when it came time for the Shabbat service. This synagogue in particular exemplifies that benign Protestant aesthetic and feels so much like church that I find it kind of creepy. Yarmulkes are the exception rather than the rule. The 1950’s prayerbooks are small, black, read left to right and look like something a Franciscan priest might carry while riding his horse to the next mission. Common prayers like the Sh’ma and Sim Shalom are sung by a choir in weirdly unreachable melodies rather than the easy, familiar tunes that prevail from Scottsdale to Jerusalem to Buenos Aires. It bothered me also that there is no exhuberant carrying of the Torah around to receive a kiss or a touch where is the joy, people?
Rabbi B. made up for some of this crusty WASPyness by changing references to “mankind” to “humankind” in the service and maintaining moderate liberal viewpoints during the following discussions on all the touchy subjects like abortion, homosexuality and the Apocalypse. He also told a quite a few decent jokes: A Liberal Protestant, a Catholic and a Jew are discussing when life begins. The Liberal Protestant says: “At birth.” The Catholic disagrees: “At conception.” The Jew trumps them all: “When the kids leave for college and the dog dies.”
We spent most of the afternoon discussing Maimonides 13 Articles of Faith, comparing Judaism to Christianity and Islam, which rose some hackles when we came to #9 that whole “the Torah is complete, don’t add to it with say, a new testament.” Rambam’s (Maimonides nickname) levels of tzedakeh were also on the curriculum, as was the basic rules of kashrut, which the rabbi taught are not so compulsory. I had to ask: Why is chicken considered meat when it would be impossible to cook it in its mother’s milk? Have you ever had chicken milk? The rabbi’s answer was that many of the tenets that we think of as essential to Judaism are actually religious interpretations ingrained into culture; i.e. the old rabbis thought someone might mistake chicken for lamb meat (uh, only if you cooked the kishkes out of it) and it was just easier to include it in the fleishig category, so it became law. I don’t know if I buy that, and I suspect the rabbi might’ve dumbed down some of this knowledge for the gentiles present.
While I liked what the rabbi had to say much more than I expected he certainly kept everyone’s attention for 12 hours, which is more than anyone in Hollywood could ever do there were a few moments that the “we’re just like you, except for the Jesus part” schtick kind of got to me. Rabbi Belzer makes no secret that he thinks Chassidism and its missionary arm Chabad is for nutjobs, and he used the example of how some Lubavitchers carry around beepers so they can be notified the very second the Messiah comes. The room broke into giggles, but I’m positive there were a few in the Mordecai Sheftall Memorial Hall that would camp outside Wal-Mart if they started selling beepers for Jesus.
Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from Rabbi Belzer and this day of learning for Jews and people who want to know about them is that I have nothing to be ashamed about as a falling-far-short-of-kosher, rarely-attend-synagogue kind of Jew (sheesh, at least I don’t eat bacon.) His inclusive, changeable, “not written in stone, except for the parts that are” interpretation of Judaism falls closer to my own than I figured, yarmulke on his keppe or no. (Even El Yenta Man took away plenty from the day, though I had to promise a cheap motel night sometime soon.)
This notion that we have free will and autonomy as Jews, that we do get to choose how religious, how cultural, how kosher we want to be, is liberating and empowering to those of us finding our way in this Jewish life. All too often I abdicate my own self-respect to those more religious, as if they are better people simply because they read better Hebrew (to note, I surprised myself at my remembered teenage skills those little goyishe prayerbooks had no alliterations.) I consider myself a creative kind of Jew; while I suppose some may critcize me for “picking and choosing” my mitzvot, I do what feels right out of love, not obligation.
So while the Christians got a crash course, the rabbi gave me the gift of affirmation and inclusion into Savannah Jewry, even if I don’t know the tunes yet. Perhaps one day I’ll rock my idea for future t-shirt of the week: “Jewish by birth, Southern by the grace of God.”