Even though I was educated in the yeshiva system, and loved spending hours poring over sacred texts, the inclination to pray has always eluded me. My Jewish practice was and is primarily an intellectual endeavor rooted in study. But as a child, being in shul with my grandfather and fellow Holocaust survivors, hearing them pray stirred something inside of me. When davening with my zayde present I felt viscerally connected to the eternal.
After getting married, my wife and I decided to join my zayde’s shul. We envisioned celebrating the bar mitzvah of our son, who carries his full Yiddish name, in that same sanctuary as a tribute to ancestral endurance. And while the norms of Jewish life have shifted over the years, making the synagogue space less central to my generation than it was to the generation of survivors, I nonetheless tried to honor his commitment by spending time learning in the shul every day.
Over the years, however, that once sacred building became a hollow edifice. The loudest institutional voices started to privilege things other than spiritual growth and connection. Serious ethical missteps by the rabbi were covered up or excused. Self-appointed clerics issued missives about how disgraceful it was to see fellow congregants coming late, or talking during services, infantilizing those whose spiritual journey was different from their own.
Happening in the background of this shift in attitude was the tragic enabling factor of time: The generation of Holocaust survivors who founded the shul, bulwarks of hope and decency, were dying. The presence of those who survived the Holocaust, both physically and spiritually, kept the zealots at bay. For example, our elders would often chat loudly during the service. And anyone with the chutzpah to shush them would be unabashedly rebuffed. My zayde and his peers had little patience for the noisy, self-righteous expressions of observance made by the powerful. They much preferred an honest and simple laugh to an uninvited pontification. For them, the fact that they were alive and able to share a smile and a l’chaim in an explicitly Jewish space was itself a miracle. The synagogue’s new severity was born of privilege and a rapid forgetting of the spiritual wisdom the founders of the shul brought with them from the fires of Europe. This was no longer my zayde’s shul.
And so I went on a hunt for a religious space that would, at the very least, inspire prayer in someone who found it unnatural. There was a Hasidic shtiebl that I went to every day to study the Daf Yomi in Yiddish. The space fed my nostalgia for a type of Judaism that probably never actually existed in Old World Europe, but there was no place in this space for my wife or children, so it could not be our family’s shul.
We tried two different modern Orthodox institutions that were much better for my children, populated by the families of their classmates and offering a liturgy similar to what they were exposed to in their day school, but left me feeling spiritually adrift. I didn’t want a shul that felt like a progressive community Hebrew day school. I wanted my grandfather’s safe space, or at least somewhere I could close my eyes and commune with his memory.
And then the unexpected happened. A dozen or so of my neighborhood peers became equally disenfranchised by the existing shuls and their spiritually regressive approach. And in an act of righteous rebellion, they hosted DIY High Holiday services in a private home. The davening there was what my late mentor, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, would call “en-chant-ing,” as the collective sang ourselves into a different state of being. While the large synagogues had become spaces for performance, this minyan exemplified participation.
The experiment was a success, and the group moved from a living room service, to taking over a house under renovation, to finally settling into the space formerly occupied by the Hasidic shtiebel. Growth in the neighborhood Hasidic community had stagnated, and so the rebbe had decided to relocate his shtiebel to New Jersey; while it was a shame to see him go, the opening up of that space provided an exceptional opportunity for an upstart group with tons of spirit but little capital. The shtiebel was now ours. And while not helmed by a Hasidic rabbi (or any rabbi, for that matter), we embraced the concept of the tisch, a wonderful Yiddish term that not only refers to an actual, physical table, but is also the signifier for the gatherings that convene around the table on Shabbos, holidays, or often just because. The tisch is the Jerusalemite heir to Dionysian revelry, for even as our ancestors rejected Olympus, they embraced the wisdom that through a combination of wine and communion mortals could achieve a mystical oneness.
Our shtiebel’s tisch drew folks from all over the neighborhood for an excess of food, drink, inspiration, and, perhaps most importantly, solidarity. One of the petty criticisms lobbed at our shtiebel by the eternally discontented was that our group had formed simply for the purpose of hosting a kiddush after it was banned at the large synagogue. My response to that is if indeed our religious space was “nothing more” than a place to hold tisch, it would be the holiest space in our neighborhood.
Just weeks before our son’s 13th birthday, we decided to do what was previously unthinkable: celebrate his bar mitzvah not in the synagogue that had been the center of my family’s religious life for decades, but in this small basement shtiebel. Sure, we had been praying in that space frequently over the year, but with the understanding that for life cycle events one still returns to the big synagogue. Except we didn’t.
The moment where it all clicked for me came a few weeks earlier while in New York City launching my new book with Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and Wilco’s lead guitarist Nels Cline. During the Q&A, an audience member asked Nels to expand on the wisdom he gained through musical improvisation. He explained that the willingness to regularly be vulnerable in a crowded room of strangers was quite common in our religious past. We experienced a wordless consensus when we would gather in a church or synagogue to sing together. We allowed ourselves to be fully present and participate in the creation of something that was so different from the everyday interaction that we labeled this type of singing as sacred. This is what he sought to replicate in improvisation.
It was this insight that solidified for me how to best honor my grandfather at his namesake’s bar mitzvah. We gather in religious spaces to be vulnerable together. When we sing and daven, we share with fellow congregants the extension of a wordless consensus that started with our ancestors. The best way to commune with them was to join the cross-generational wordless consensus. I needed to be safe enough to just feel. That feeling would not emerge in the physical space haunted by their memories, but in our shtiebel.
In that space, it didn’t matter when people showed up, what they wore, what school they sent their kids to, or if they chatted with their neighbor during a lull. When the moment of en-chant-ment arrived, the entire room was belting their hearts out. Why did the davening in the shtiebel feel so different than that of the synagogue? Because in our shtiebel, we all felt safe to be ourselves, safe in the knowledge that we were vulnerable—together. Only then do we join the wordless consensus wholeheartedly.
Earlier this spring, we made our son’s bar mitzvah in the shtiebel—and it was a fitting tribute to ancestral memory. Equally important, it was a grounding experience for the next generation: My son was grateful that we chose to celebrate him here, in a comfortable and intimate environment. We had found our spiritual home, and committed to make new memories in this holy space.
Then, just a few weeks later, word came down that the owner wanted to sell it. Our shtiebel was coming to a heartbreaking end.
And so we are, once again, spiritually homeless. But after the experience of the past few years, I know that davening in a guarded state is meaningless. I know that a shul that wants me to chant the words that my grandfather chanted, but not let me laugh and drink and feel what my grandfather felt in that space, is a dishonor to memory. And I know that we need to be more than witnesses to sacred continuity; we need to make it happen. What is “it”? That I don’t know. It’s not my zayde’s shul, but it will be a place to keep our cross-generational conversation going.
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