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A Congregation Can Be Like a Family—for Better, and for Worse

I pray with angry, damaged, and difficult men. I stay because they’re like my brothers. And because sometimes they change.

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock and Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)
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The man who led the prayers was handsome, but he had a crooked smile. (Was he sneering at us? We couldn’t tell.) Last year his father passed away, and shortly afterward there was another death in his family, followed by a string of family yahrzeits and prayer “obligations.” It was these compounded bereavements that led him to monopolize the prayer stand where he droned with impunity. Even though there are no melodies in the weekday service, his voice sounded like sandpaper on wood.

I groused: “He’s not even a member.”

Someone approached him and asked why. “I don’t want to be a member,” he responded with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Not my kind of people here.”

“But you want to lead us in prayer?” I said, stupefied.

“And why shouldn’t I? I make donations,” he countered, as if that entitled him to full privileges. The way he said “donations,” elongating it, he sounded like a rich man. Word had it that he was.

This lack of brotherhood didn’t seem to bother him or anyone else very much. But it disturbed me that he had such disdain for us and yet wanted to lead us in prayer, as though we were just a gallery of people to receive his Kaddish and his prayers.

One morning, listening to that very man leading the prayers, I felt like filing a motion, a petition against the hardness of man and the hollowness of tradition. I began to think: What other questionable deals are made in shul, deals between man and man, man and God, and man and himself? But what could I do? I was as responsible as anyone for this state of affairs. After all, I kept coming to services.

***

I grew up in a quarrelsome congregation, a seemingly godless and broken-souled place. There were rivalries: Hungarians versus Poles. Some were minor hoodlums. Rough Jews, the lot of them. Tenderness was not spoken there. Shul was utterly lacking in any of the fantasies, magic, or miracles I associated with Judaism. There was no burning bush, no menorah made of gold, no sacrificing of animals or sprinkling of blood on the altar or fire coming down from heaven. Instead, there was dysfunction, a litany of banal human transgressions I wanted to protest.

In one shul, the people were miserable to each other. So, I switched to another, a large and wealthy congregation, but it was mainly a place to mix and flirt—a fashion show, nothing holy or pious about it. I tried other shuls, some better, some worse. Ultimately, I settled on one where I prayed with people I didn’t care for and who didn’t care for me, and even with people who didn’t care for God.

Why did I put up with this?

The answer relates deeply to my mother and father’s concept of what shul really was. Both my parents came from a generation of Yiddish speakers for whom shul was not exclusively a bastion of belief. Rather, shul was an extension of the family. Yes, God was in the synagogue, but he lay hidden in the seams of human relations.

In other words, God, the God of the Jewish people, was in the family and maybe in some sense, subservient to the family. The mishpacha, not God, was the fortress, the iron dome, the sanctuary and altar of atonement for many of life’s ills. And I couldn’t really leave them behind. They were mine.

So, these men in shul, like them or not, are my family. And as with family, there are spats, blow-ups, insults, and people who are impossible to tolerate for even a second longer. But the bond that holds us together remains.

That’s what I tell myself when I encounter another example of puzzling people in shul: One man I know hates the rabbi and yet he is there every day—morning, noon, and night—and on Shabbes, too. Every time the rabbi says something, he mutters expletives under his breath. Sometimes he will badmouth the rabbi to whomever is sitting next to him. One day I asked him with some tenderness, “Why not pray in a shul where you like the rabbi?”

“It’s true that I have my reservations about the rabbi,” he stammered, “but I still haven’t made up my mind about him.”

“How long have you been coming here?” I asked.

“Ten years.”

It was my unhappy duty to ask for membership money from this fellow. Good luck. I felt like Moses asking to get water from a desert rock. Talk to the rock, talk to the rock, I told myself. Here was a man, tall, yet bowed. Physically distinct, wrapped in tallis and tefillin. His piety did not appear to be put on. Before the High Holidays he formed a “self-improvement” study group to achieve the “highest levels of penitence.” What is man that thou dost consider him?, I heard him quoting from the liturgy. And yet, I knew he was hard, hard, hard. No one has yet to receive a penny from him.

Another man I often pray with, awkward in body and in soul, his prayers too loud, has a sharp look, his face red, his hair thick and still brown though he is way past 50. He prays in short bursts like a horse breathing in cold weather. He puts a few coins in the pushke. Nary an intelligent or soulful word has passed his lips in more than a decade, and yet he is there every morning. He seems to want to say something both to God and man, but his heart seems hard and he talks to neither.

Another man for years was going through a bitter divorce. He talked down his wife to anyone who would listen. He cut a sympathetic figure, a victim for sure, but rumor had it that he had kept a mistress—before, during, or after that marriage. A checkered personal life to be sure, yet he had a piece of the old world about him, the shuckle, the bending down of the head in prayer. He was an enigma, he was, bald and tough, as though he was purged of hair and all that was left was skull muscle that seemed to throb when he got excited. The nusach, the liturgy, was in his bones; he sang beautifully, but he was a house divided.

I have seen another man—he has hair and a beard like steel wool—cut through people without mercy. He owes me and the dentist and half of the rest of the shul money, but he carries himself like a princely beggar on horseback. His bad behavior affects me even though I have nothing to do with him. I see him winter, spring, summer, Hanukkah, Purim, Kol Nidre, standing near the door with an evil smile, salt-and-pepper beard sharp like flinty rock. He is a monster father who threw his older son out of his house for not being “religious” enough. His harsh deeds vibrate in the shul like a double-bass instrument in an orchestral suite. The man sickens me to look at him. And yet, he gets to say Amen with the rest of us as though there isn’t a thing amiss. That’s how family is.

***

At times, synagogue piety can sometimes feel like a group conspiracy, a family that covers everything up. But deep down I know shul is much more than that; change comes very slowly in a man’s heart—whether that man is a fellow congregant or a close relative. Sometimes people can redeem themselves. Even though the people in our families and in shul seem static, they may be following an invisible journey of sorts. They may have to do the same thing almost forever, commit the same sin, so to speak, until one day they have had enough and they stop. Even though it doesn’t always happen, it happens enough to prevent me from giving up. I may have to distance myself for a time, but I don’t walk away.

The divorced man knew he was wrong. Yet he minimized, denied all the years, he blamed his wife always, but one day in shul he told me that he had been reviewing his life and it had begun to sink in just how wrong he’d been. I could only guess at what precisely he was referring to, but it didn’t matter. There had been some kind of change.

I was surprised at this turn-around, but not completely. After all, shul’s dynamics are fluid. Slights, insults, and injuries can be forgiven just as they are in a family; disagreements, rows, even full-blown assaults are often metabolized. Amid the fragrance of idealism and sacredness and through the necessity of physical closeness, the day-in, day-out passage of years, even villains might became saints, and if not saints, then gruff and grating people can become at least tolerable. What is hard can be made to soften. I am reminded of Ezekiel the prophet who said in the name of God centuries ago, “I will remove the heart of stone from you and I will give you a heart of flesh.”

It happens. The rich man who led us in prayer but didn’t want to become a member eventually ponied up the money for full membership. He is there three times a day. The other week he led the prayers again for yahrzeit. One of the machers confided to me, “You know, now that he’s a paid member, his voice really does sound a lot better.”

***

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A Congregation Can Be Like a Family—for Better, and for Worse

I pray with angry, damaged, and difficult men. I stay because they’re like my brothers. And because sometimes they change.

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