Why I Don’t Go to Synagogue

Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Chabad, I’ve been to them all, some I even joined, despite being an independent thinker, a non-joiner.  I made allowances, tried to fit in, but my history with synagogues is fraught with dismay and disappointment.

I grew up in a Bronx neighborhood where there was a synagogue on every street.  The Yiddish speaking refugee, the assimilated Jew, and everyone in between had a place to go, but I never set foot in in any of them.  For economic or ideological reasons, there were those, like my family, who didn’t join.  Even so, they lived a full, Jewish life.  In those days, New York stopped for Jewish holidays.  All the schools closed for the high holidays and Passover.  People took off from work, and the stores and restaurants in my neighborhood closed.  The streets were thronged with worshipers. At the end of my block was the Jewish Community Center which had a Conservative synagogue, a gym, and a Hebrew school which was only for boys.  I wanted to learn there too, but my Jewish education took place at Grandma’s house.

Every Saturday, we took the train to Grandma’s place where I learned about the sanctity of the sabbath.  As soon as you opened the door, you entered a different world, a timeless place.  It was dark; the only light streamed in from the large front windows.  No radio or T.V. marred the quiet atmosphere.  Grandma sat at the long dining table rather than bustle around the kitchen.  The conversation was subdued, desultory.  I took those afternoons for granted, as the fitting end to the week.  The hectic weekdays were like a balloon, over-filled with activity and care.  On Saturday, the balloon deflated.  There was time and space for suppressed thoughts and feelings to flower.  When we spoke, we were truly heard, and our hearts were open to the words of others.  Grandma was filled with memories of her childhood in czarist Russia-Poland.  She knew the life of the shtetl, the fear of the pogrom, but only pleasant topics were allowed.  Grandma believed as long as there was a Jewish people, there would be a world hostile to us.  The sabbath was G-d’s gift to the Jews and, as the sages say:  “We keep the sabbath and the sabbath keeps us.”

“I want to go to synagogue with you Grandma”, I said one day.  I longed to see what it was like.
“Are you sure you want to go?”, she asked, “It’s a long walk.”

Grandma rarely went to shul once her neighborhood synagogue closed.  The South Bronx had changed and she and my uncle were one of the few remaining Jewish families.  The next week we did go to shul, just Grandma and me.  That was an hour and a half I’ll never forget.  It wasn’t the words or the rituals, but the sights and sounds.  I had never seen Grandma with a white scarf on her head.  It was a beacon in the dark women’s balcony.  As soon as we entered, she stopped talking and concentrated on the service.  Unlike me, she understood Hebrew; her father had been a rabbi in Poland.  Part of me resented being in the balcony, away from the action, as I watched the men and boys below in their prayer shawls and yarmulkes, so busy, so sure of themselves.  We were invisible up in the balcony, but a part of me liked being free to look and think.  I liked being in a special place reserved for women; it made me feel part of a sisterhood.  I wanted to go again, but within the year, the synagogue closed, the last one in the South Bronx.  For the next eighteen years, Grandma stayed home and celebrated all the Jewish holidays at home.  Like all her disappointments in life, she accepted it with grace.  Her favorite expression was “Gam ze le ova”. It’s all for the best.”

When I asked if she missed going to synagogue, Grandma stated that Judaism is a “home religion.”  She celebrated every holiday at home with prayer and food.  Roast chicken at Rosh Ha Shanah, Hamantaschen at Purim, blintzes and pirogen for Shavuot (her favorite holiday) and latkes for Chanukah.  She always bemoaned the fact that there was no place for a succah in the South Bronx, but when, many years later, I had a house and yard of my own, I set up a succah every year and invited those who had no other place to celebrate.  I felt it was a privilege.

Many years passed before I set foot in another synagogue.  It was for my children, so they could get a Jewish education.  It was important because, unlike me, they didn’t have an observant family from which they could learn by osmosis.  We tried one synagogue after another.  When we liked the rabbi, he either left or was fired, when we disliked the rabbi, we liked the congregation. At one point, we turned to the Workmen’s Circle after school program where kindly, old Mr. Grynspan taught Yiddish and enthralled the children with tales of the old country.  As my daughter got older though, I was desperate to find a synagogue for her batmitzvah.  A brilliant, young rabbi at the Reform temple welcomed us and all went well, for a while, but then it was time for my son’s barmitzvah.  By then, we were disappointed in the turn that Reform had taken, emphasizing inter-faith initiatives over Jewish solidarity and support for Israel.  When the rabbi left and an incompetent interim rabbi cast a pall on our son’s important day, we left.

We resolved to stick to Conservative synagogues, not realizing how much they were changing too.  True, their mission is a difficult one, to conserve the essentials of Judaism while keeping up with the times.  A generation too late, they started welcoming inter-faith couples, but, rather than trying to adhere to conserving, they struggle too much with adapting and changing.  How sad that they even bothered with such trivia as their recent announcement that Ashkenazic Jews can now eat rice on Passover!

There was only one stop left on our journey, Chabad.  Warm, welcoming, inclusive, we loved it for a while, but then we realized we would always be on the receiving end, never be true participants.  But, as a result of Chabad, we now light candles.  At first it was to honor the rebbetzin, but now it’s for personal reasons.  Now I refrain from shopping and other tasks and try to keep the sabbath.  It gives me a chance to catch my breath and it invigorates me for the week ahead.  That brings me back to Grandma and her wise words.  Judaism is a home religion, at least it is for me.

 

Helen Applebaum

Helen Applebaum

Helen Applebaum is an artist, writer, and teacher who has lived in New York City for most of her life. Her artwork is in the permanent collection of the Museum of the City of New York. Her articles have appeared in Women in the Arts newsletters, Art Times Journal, and Salt Magazine. She has visited Australia six times and plans to relocate there soon.