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Friday, December 18, 2009

Illinois: My American Brethren

Friday, December 18, 2009

Illinois: My American Brethren

It's a half-hour walk from the house to the Chabad orthodox shul. The first Shabbat here, I walked there with my uncle and his sons (who were here for Thanksgiving) and their uncle and his children (who were here to see their cousins, I think). I mostly stood apart from the others, because the sidewalks were too narrow for more than two people side-by-side, but I hovered near them in case there were ever an opening in the conversation. I especially tried to stay close to the girl, because she's been to our house in Israel so I thought this might be a girl who's more likely than most to talk to me in a simple conversation.

When we got to the shul, we were welcomed by the rabbi (who knew my father) and sat down in the back. (As it's an Orthodox shul, the women sit separately.) I noticed that there were very few young people in the room. That's not a good sign, though I shouldn't be judging- I never go to shul back at home myself. It's just not a good sign because it means this congregation is ultimately temporary. There were a few unfamiliar tunes in the prayers, but it was still quite a relief after the previous night. These here were my people. Not like those other ones.

After the Torah reading (for which I was called up), the rabbi gave a ten-minute speech which was entirely focused on one word: "akhai", "my brothers". This word was used by Ya'akov to address total strangers. The rabbi is a good speaker and by the end of it I was thinking: "You know, he's right. I've been treating people like they're alien to me, when these are my people. My family, even. I should be treating these people like siblings." And then I considered how I dealt with actual siblings like Miriam, and I no longer had a problem with considering myself separate from others.

As we walked back, I listened to what my female cousin-squared was saying, and I was ashamed for having been attracted to her. She accepted social norms so willingly! She was casually talking about how men and women are totally different from each other, and in the casual kind of tone that isn't looking for any argument. She was putting up arbitrary divisions between people, without even leaving room to consider how similar we all are. How can I talk to a person like that? We're barely the same species!

When I first heard that I'd be spending Thanksgiving with my cousins, it sounded like a good idea. I don't know why. I've never been close with my cousins. The only thing they seem to be particularly interested in is sports, in which I have no interest at all. Otherwise, all their conversations are of the fluffy sort that add nothing to a day but just fill the time. I sat at that dinner table, filled with foods which to me seemed wholly unappetizing, listening to them chatter endlessly about things I had nothing to say about. (Couldn't they talk about games, or something?) And when someone noticed that I'd been silent the entire time, she thought to start a conversation I could join in on. Awfully considerate. She asked, "How's Miriam doing?".

That's all anyone ever asks. "How's Miriam doing?". My sister has just joined the army, and everyone thinks that's oh-so-interesting. And since she's my sister, everyone expects that I'd find it interesting too. But she's not much of a sister. I've never succeeded (and not for lack of trying) in getting her interested in anything that interests me, so why should I be interested in her? We're related, but that's just a technicality.

So the truth is, my grandparents know more about Miriam's current activities than I do. They care to hear it. I don't. But it's always Miriam people ask about. They never want to know about the games I'm working on, or the music I compose, or even the play I'm playing two roles in. They just want the latest gossip about family. So on Thanksgiving, I quietly excused myself from the table and went down to the piano to play. That's true of every other meal involving large groups of people as well, though not the ones on Shabbat of course. Then I excused myself from the table and went back to reading the novel I'd bought (Peter and Max, by Bill Willingham). If only someone would ask me about that.

My uncle is an Orthodox rabbi. When he came back in the second week for the bar mitzvah, we had more time to talk. I like talking to him, because he lets me talk, but afterwards I always feel like I've been tricked because I realize that he's normal, didn't care at all about anything I said, and was only listening to humor me. At least, that's what I imagine. Who knows what goes on in a normal head. There's no reason to ask, because I couldn't trust the answer. He'd just say whatever's diplomatic.

On the first Friday night, we went to my grandparents' shul which is right next to the street they live on. It's a conservative shul so I knew there'd be mixed seating, but otherwise I expected an ordinary Friday night service. I like the changes conservative Judaism has made toward gender equality. That said, having both genders sit together is surely distracting. Not necessarily in a way I'd mind being distracted, but in a way I know I should mind being distracted in while I'm supposed to be thinking about God. But I was prepared for that. What we didn't know was that the cantor's daughter was having a bat mitzvah that week. That changed the nature of the service.

The layout of the room was a bit shocking to me. It wasn't a room where all the members of the congregation were equals before God, it was a room with a stage in the front that the audience was facing. The cantor and his daughter were facing the audience. This wasn't praying, it was a performance. And as a performance, of course there was a microphone. The rest, I think I might have been okay with. But they were using a microphone on Shabbat, with speakers dangling from the ceiling, and suddenly I just really wanted to get out of there and away from this Shabbat-breaking. I was ashamed to even be sitting in the same room. What made matters worse was that every word was so unbearably slow, like the congregation was struggling to get Hebrew words out of their mouths.

I let my uncle know that I was very uncomfortable to be there. He suggested that we should leave, but a few of us at a time. If we were all seen walking out at the same time, it would be more awkward. I thought that sounded a bit backwards, but any way of getting out of there was fine by me. We went home and prayed by ourselves.

It bothers me that all the doors of the house are connected by an electronic security system. It means any time you open a door, you're breaking Shabbat. But I guess in a luxurious house like this, you really do need it. I always waited for other people to open the doors, so that I wouldn't have to. On the second Shabbat, when it was just me, my uncle, and my grandparents in the house, my uncle decided it was too cold outside to walk to the Chabad shul so I opted to go by myself. I waited for my grandparents to leave the house for their shul (disabling the security system), and then I walked for a half hour to the shul.

The previous week the rabbi had called me up to the Torah; this week he asked if I'd read the haftarah. I said no, it's been a long time since I've done that trup.

It was a nice service. It went fast.

I stayed for lunch, because there wasn't any lunch waiting at home. There was some chicken, so I took it and sat down next to other people and hoped that someone would ask me who I was so that I could say that I live in Israel and I'm here for a house and I'm working on a game and I play piano and I'm starring in a play and I've got strange ideas about art but no one spoke to me. Well, okay. "No one" isn't accurate. The rabbi's wife came over to say that I should say "Hi." to my parents for her. Very important message.

Why can't people be more social? If someone I didn't recognize sat next to me, I'd.. um, I'd... Hrmph. Why can't people be more social, is all I'm asking.

When I went home, no one answered the door so I had to open it myself. Rats.

That night was the bar mitzvah celebration for second cousins of mine. Or "b'nai mitzvah", as they called it. They're twins, a boy and a girl. Reform.

I never thought it was a good idea to go. Warning bells started going off when I heard they wouldn't even have kosher food there, but were going to order some sort of kosher TV dinners specifically because we were coming. I mainly went because I felt like I needed to make it up to my grandfather. That was a huge mistake.

I walked in in my Shabbat clothes: plain white dress shirt, plain black pants. As soon as I saw the crowd, I knew I'd look like I'd come from a different planet. Which of course I had. It was a huge crowd, with lots of preteen girls in skimpy but expensive-looking outfits and boys in brightly colored suits. There wasn't another person in the entire room dressed in a simple white shirt like me. There was a big stage, more raised than in the conservative shul, and there was an upright piano accompanying everything. They'd started the mock-service before Shabbat ended, so my uncle and I got there late. When we came in, the cantor was singing some half-English half-Hebrew song which apparently everyone there but me was familiar with, because they were all clapping along though I'm sure they didn't understand the words. It was just a game of clapping along to the rhythm. They were all pretty good at it, like they'd had lots of practice. I was surprised that during such a meaningless series of kitschy songs, all those half-naked preteen girls were sitting quietly and patiently. For my part, I was squirming in my seat.

The "service" was almost entirely devoid of meaning, and yet it dragged on for hours. Each song had to be a whole production, where the words were repeating over and over again long past the point where anyone was going to hear the words as anything more than a random collection of sounds to hang music on. The prayers were speaking of Shabbat, which had already ended. The "rabbi" endlessly lectured -with the grinning condescension you'd expect of a preschool teacher- about how "traditions" were being passed on, but always speaking in vague generalities since of course there weren't any actual traditions on display here. Almost no one in the room had kept the Shabbat. Almost no one in the room was eating kosher food. Almost no one in the room would be going on to pray to God past that particular night. But ah, "tradition". How warm and fuzzy the word is.

The two kids read from a Torah. I doubt it was a proper, kosher Torah because why should they bother paying for a real Torah when no one really cares one way or the other about its validity? But still, it was a Torah. They'd learned something which vaguely resembled the trup, though they weren't even splitting the sentences right. And I have little faith that they understood what they were saying, given that they were horribly mispronouncing most of the words. They didn't read the actual Torah portion of the day, they just skimmed through it, but they read so slowly that it took forever anyway.

Afterwards, they each gave a little speech about the Torah portion, and that genuinely impressed me. Not the quality of the speeches, but it impressed me that they understood enough of the story to be able to give a speech about it. Even if that speech was "Ya'akov was wrong, because he shouldn't have liked one of his sons more than the others.".

The rest of the evening was all the rabbi and the cantor doing what must be their usual schtick, and trying to get every last minute they could squeeze out of it.

Later I realized why all those preteen girls had been so patient through all this superficial silliness. It was because they were waiting for the real party. [shudder]

As my uncle and I drove toward the hotel (a Hyatt) where the party was, we talked about reform Judaism. He said that if these people didn't have this, they'd have nothing. And I said that they already have nothing, they just don't realize it. The whole service was the illusion of religion. They took superficial elements from the actual prayers, disconnected them from their meaning, and put them on a stage as though that's Judaism. Maybe I'd prefer if they had no connection to Judaism, but understood that they had no connection to Judaism. Better than this flimsy lie, where if no one in the room even believed God exists it wouldn't make a difference.

The party, my grandparents inform me, was typical of the parties around here. But I had never been to such a party before, and God willing I hope I'm never at such a party again.

Even as we walked close to the hall, already the obnoxious techno music was so loud that I wanted to hide in a corner. And so I did. There was a big crowd, and that makes me uncomfortable in itself. But the music is what really put it over the top into sensory overload. I was scared to even look into the hall, let alone walk in. I watched my grandparents from a distance as they got drinks, so that if they went anywhere I could go with them. I didn't take off my black coat, partly because of feeling like I was dressed wrong earlier and partly because it was just a comfort to be dressed in my coat and at that moment I'd take any small comfort I could get.

Eventually someone recommended that I sit in the hotel lobby until we went in, and I was only too happy to get away. I sat there on a couch for maybe twenty minutes, feeling no need to move a muscle but just needing to relax. Then my grandfather came to let me know we'd be eating soon.

Inside the noise was so loud that I was literally concerned for the well-being of my ears. The techno music seemed even more obnoxious at that volume, which was such that no one could hear anyone else talking. And there was a DJ running the event, whose talking was even louder than the music. There was a big screen displaying obnoxious music videos to go along with the obnoxious music, with its constant thumping like someone hitting you in the head with a mallet. There was some sort of dancing going on; it was so crowded there I could barely to stand to look in that general direction. I sat at the table, desperately covering my ears, waiting for whatever no-doubt inedible food they'd serve us. Eventually someone suggested that I go back to the lobby, and I ran out.

There was a grand piano in the lobby, a badly-tuned Yamaha. A distant relative of some sort pointed it out to me, and assured me that no one would mind if I played on it. So I ran over and sat down. I started playing, and I never looked back. I forgot what I'd played three seconds after playing it, already at something new. And though my instinct (being let loose like that) was to play as loudly as I could, I restrained myself so that I could feel like I had the upper hand.

At one point two black guys who were staying in the hotel passed by and seemed to be enjoying my music. I stopped, embarrassed, but they said to go on. Whenever I did anything, they jumped back in shock as though they'd never heard any actual music before. Bizarre. They asked me if I knew any Michael Jackson songs. I said no, and they left. My grandfather told me later that they probably thought I was the professional entertainment. (In that coat, no one could possibly think I was a professional. Like I said, bizarre.)

But I wasn't playing for them, I was playing for me. I needed this, my one and only opening to do or say anything in that entire night. I could clean my head of that endless repetition and mindless thumping and inane lyrics sung by digitally-altered nasal voices.

But then I needed to go back in.

The DJ played a game with the kids, where he'd start some horrific pop song like "I'm A Barbie Girl", then stop and have the kids keep singing from where he left off. So to get points, these preteen girls were all singing this crap at the top of their lungs. I'm not sure which was louder, them or the recording, but I know that I never again want to be in a position to answer that question.

The DJ played 80s music for the adults, and gave moronic instructions like "Pretend you're playing an air guitar!" while all these supposedly sane adults stood on stage and followed his every word.

At one point a friend of the family, who used to be a hotel concierge, noticed me covering my ears and went out to get help. I only know this (I was mostly oblivious of anything going on under this constant pressure) because he came back with ear plugs. They were a tremendous help, I will admit.

The screen sometimes showed the crowd, but only under such heavy digital filters that you could barely make out what was going on.

The kosher food was salad and fish, neither of which I eat. It was probably very expensive for the hosts to get.

There was not a single thing in the entire party which was remotely Jewish, even by bogus reform standards.

My grandfather was kind enough to drive me home early. I had leftover pizza for dinner. It was good.

My grandfather and I often have trouble communicating. I say something, he misinterprets, I need to rephrase, he misinterprets again, then he finally understands and wonders why I'd said it to begin with. Or sometimes it's the same pattern, but with him talking and me misunderstanding. One time we were talking at each other like that and my grandmother looked dubious about whether there was a point. "We understand each other.", my grandfather assured her. "No we don't.", I corrected him. "We never understand each other. It's like we're talking in two different languages."

And that's the truth. My grandfather is pragmatic, I only care about emotions. My grandfather says I should have common sense, and I want him to boil that down into clear and consistent rules. And my grandfather thinks family is important.



At least there was no Molech


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