13 months ago, last time I visited B’nai Jeshurun, I was so obsessed with ideological and liturgical minutiae, albeit less knowledgable about both than I am now, that I was totally unable to enjoy the services. This was a recurring theme in my prayer experiences last year.
A few years ago, BJ was dying congregation with an aging population. Now, with a sprinkling of South American clergy, and a band (hand drums, guitar, cello, mandolin, etc.), they’ve become arguably the most musically dynamic congregation in America. Their programming and the dedication of their volunteer is tremendous. They have classes and social events targeted at different age groups (paritcular 20- and 30-somethings) nearly every day of the week. They have two services nearly every Friday night, they’re Conservative, and they have a morning minyna every day. As of a 1995 rennovation, the sanctuary is overwhelmingly beautiful, without seeming gothic or imposing.
Did I mention the music? It’s incredible. I’m rarely happy with the music in a synagogue, but theirs offers something different without seeming needlessly rocking and folksy. It’s modern fusion sephardic or something. It’s great. In the midst of their complete–thank God–L’cha Dodi, they switch melodies to an overwhelmingly upbeat tune and people leap from their seats to join in a dance train that weaves all around the packed space. The dancing is kind of where I draw the line, actually, but I’m glad other people get some Shabat kicks from it. Renditions of Ma’oz Tzur and Mi Chamocha to the tune of Mi Yemalel were particularly good tonight.
A team of devoted volunteers is required to help find seating for people. The room fills up fast–well before services start–and by the time Kabalat Shabat is over and the service has started in earnest, the balcony is overflowing too. I happened to run into Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, whom I met at Kutz this summer. We sat together and chatted before services. Geoff had the night off from his own pulpit. Evidently, BJ is where other Rabbis go on their night off!
As much as I was enjoying Kabalat Shabat, I couldn’t help but feel that something was off. The aesthetic was good–amazing, even. But aesthetic alone, as I am often reminded, is not enough. I found myself wondering if there was any beef, any substance to this.
And I discovered that there was none this week. A sermon was delivered on a load of mystical claptrap. The chazan (I think) giving the sermon asserted that there are a total of 36 candles lit on the eight nights of Chanukah. He told us to trust him that this was so, which it isn’t. The number is 44! He assured us that some Kabalist nut or the other had once noted that these 36 candles represented the 36 hours of pure divine light that Adam and Chavah experienced during the first 36 hours of their existence, from mid-day on the first Friday, through the end of the first Shabat. Problems? 1) Whose ass did this pure divine light just get pulled out of? It was dark all night at the beginning of that Shabat, just like every week. 2) WTF? Who cares? What does this mean?
He then informed us that the Hebrew word Or (light) appears 36 times in the Torah! Goly gee. How fortuitous.
Which is why my skepticism of really beautiful services continues. Is the trade-off for good music and attention to liturgical detail really that I have to sit through a few minutes of mind-numbing Kabalistic number coincidences? Gag me.
Shabat shalom. Chodesh tov. Chappy Chanukah.