Sun and stars out for New Year

November 24, 2016 23:12

I'm standing in my Yom Tov best, slightly squinting in the bright sunlight. It's hot, really hot, and the sun is burning my back. That's probably the most disorienting thing about the High Holy Days in Los Angeles. You're schvitzing. A lot of the time. (And I can't imagine what it must be like for the men in fur-trimmed streimels and black coats scurrying to daven as palm trees sway above them).

I grew up in Kenton, north west London, where we wore raincoats for the chagim and looked for conkers in the park on the way home in the drizzle. Here you're in air conditioned cars (unless you're Orthodox, everyone drives, even the Conservatives - there are valets and parking attendants) and the only drop of moisture comes from the plant sprinklers.

Other differences? Let me tell you about a recent Rosh Hashanah. As I walk into services, I recognise someone. I can't place her. Did I meet her in synagogue recently? Hmm. But then I realise – she's the actress who plays the warden in Orange is the New Black. At shul? She's Jewish? Of course. It's LA. I try not to do a double take.

I sit down, and as I look around, I think, "Huh, that woman looks just like Lisa Loeb - the singer from the 90's". A few moments later, I realise. It is her.

It gets crazier. For the appeal, the rabbi introduces "David" to come up and say a few words. It's David Mamet, the playwright. He says a few tightly written, pithy words, which make everyone feel duty-bound to give generously (it helps being a Pulitzer-winning wordsmith), before the rabbi tells everyone he's sorry that Leonard can't be there. That's Leonard Cohen, by the way.

Soggy bread gently smacks against our legs

I know, I know, it's superficial. I resolve not to care about famous faces, and to think about how next year I can be a better person. Especially when it comes to celebrity gossip (although I was just told that Natalie Portman might be coming with her son Aleph).

And this is a shul that's pretty modest, not known for the rich and famous. The flashier synagogues are in places like Beverly Hills, the home of agents, super-agents and network executives. You may not recognise the faces there, but you could end up sitting next to the producer of an Oscar-winning blockbuster. Tickets for those services are said to be in high demand - so much so that Curb Your Enthusiasm did an entire plotline about Larry David scalping tickets for Rosh Hashanah. (That was satire. The scene from Entourage where agent Ari makes deals in shul on Yom Kippur, well, that's another story).

The year before - another radically different Yom Tov experience - at a Reform shul near the beach, in Santa Monica.

At the end of services, an announcement was made to meet for tashlich "on the beach, at the end of Ocean Avenue." Clearly, if you happen to be looking for a body of moving water to throw your symbolic sins into, the Pacific Ocean, sparkling and blue, works nicely, thank you.

But when I got to the beach there were lots and lots of Jews, milling about. As I walked onto the sand (barefoot, quite a revelation as a Yom Tov experience) I saw that different shuls had carefully staked out their spots at the waves. I had no idea which group of Jews was from my shul. I wandered about a bit, feeling horribly British and embarrassed, before finally spotting my rabbi, dressed in loose white clothes, gently strumming a guitar.

He invited us all to sit down on the sand, breathe and sing songs. So there we were, singing am yisrael chai while the ocean breeze gently caressed us, and yes, the sun beat down. I felt beads of sweat run down my neck and prayed no-one could see.

Time for the bread-throwing. Most people had brought slices of gluten-free and organic bread, naturally. We lined up at the water and started ripping up the bread and tossing it in. One thing about oceans - unlike, say, rivers - is that oceans have waves. Which meant that after you throw the bread in, it comes right back at you.

Soon we were all standing with a few inches of soggy bread gently smacking against our legs, as seagulls flew around, squawking with glee.

I tried to hold in giggles at how ridiculous this all was. But if you're going to contemplate the eternal, a vast ocean with a clear, long horizon is a good way to do it.

This year I'm going to another shul (I'm the Goldilocks of shuls round here) which is also near the beach. And this year, along with the organic bread, I'm bringing sun screen. And a hat.

November 24, 2016 23:12

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