This year, only God will see us ‘attending’ shul

This year we cannot all be together. There will still be talking and laughing and eating, but no reshuffling the seating so that you get to sit next to someone else for pudding.

September 18, 2020 13:37

Rosh Hashanah is far and away my favourite festival (I’m discounting Christmas as, despite the presence of too many family members, too much food, and too many arguments, apparently it’s not all that Jewish...). For me, the highlight is our big family meal on erev Rosh Hashanah when we gather, usually at my in-laws squared (my brother-in-law’s sister-in-law’s — do try to keep up...).

There will be soup — of course there will be soup! Are we savages that we should sit down to a feast with no soup? A whole salmon, cooked to perfection, more salads than is reasonable, homemade mayonnaise — not made by me. I’ve made it only twice in my life as I’m too impatient: Add the oil, one drop at a time... come on!

But this year we cannot all be together. So that means just the three of us rather than 12 or more. There will still be talking and laughing and eating, but there will be no need to reshuffle the seating so that you get to sit next to someone else for pudding.

Usually, the next day, we put on our finery and go to shul. For our synagogue, Alyth, which has a large congregation, this means a vast marquee.

When you enter, there is unquestionably a feeling of awe. The tent is incredible: pure white, with the ark fronted by decorated silk doors, and chairs set out for 1,400 people. The sense of community coming together for a shared purpose is palpable and moving.

This year, no tent and we will see the ark, the Torah, and the rabbis robed in white only via Zoom.

Several years ago, our rabbi gave a very good sermon at Rosh Hashanah (see, I was definitely awake — I might not show up all that often, but I do pay attention once I’m there). He said it was important that, as individuals, we find meaning in the reasons why we come to synagogue for High Holy Day services — that it shouldn’t be just a box-ticking exercise: “I go to shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — therefore I must be a good Jew”.

Showing up and being seen is really not the point.

I’m reminded of this when I go to shul to pick up the draft machzorim for this year’s online Rosh Hashanah services. I arrive at the gate to see a lovely holy trinity of rabbi, community director and cantor, masked and stationed on the shul’s forecourt behind spaced tables loaded up with the machzorim. There is a one-way system for people to pick up their books, with those sturdy metal barriers they use to corral protesters on demos but, given that at this moment I’m the only congregant here, it feels a little like overkill.

I talk to our rabbi about Rosh Hashanah and he says people will have to engage in a completely different way — not better or worse, but different. The key difference this year is that, of course, you won’t be “seen” to be attending — only God will see.

He refers to an old saying about the problem of congregants hanging up their soul along with their coat when they arrive at shul.

I’ve never heard this before but his words resonate deeply with me because, at times, I have felt like a horrible fraud at synagogue. God and I parted ways a long time ago. I’m assuming he’s managing just fine without any individual input or prayers from me, but who knows? He never calls, he never writes...

So how do I find that sense of meaning? I often wonder, is it possible to be a spiritual person if you don’t have faith? What does that spirituality look like? Feel like?

I’d like to think that I have at least the potential for a spiritual side, but am I kidding myself? The alternative is to accept that I am shallow, one-note, trivial. I do think about the nature of life, the Universe and Everything, but often, in the middle of pondering some deep question, a cacophony of trivia interrupts my thought processes: I wonder if my existence as an individual could have any significance whatsoever... oh, I must pick up the fish from Corney’s... and I should get some flowers while I’m out... what can I give Leo for a snack after school... God, I’ve barely written 500 words today... I’ll never finish this book... we need lemons... I should write a list... and more honey... oh, I forgot — the Universe — does Life have any meaning beyond what we see before us? Oh — and smoked salmon...

My usual greeting at this time of year is simply “Shanah Tovah” but this year, with thoughts of our mortality, our humanity, and our failings all too visible around us, I think the whole shebang is called for, so I say to you: L’shanah tovah tikatevu v’tichatemu. May you be inscribed (in the Book of Life) and sealed for a good year.

Keep well.

Claire Calman’s fifth novel, Growing Up for Beginners, is out now

September 18, 2020 13:37

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