So I decided this week that it was about time I tried going to Shabbat services. I searched for the nearest Conservative synagogue, found the address on Google Maps, and set off early this morning.
I’m a pretty good walker. I’m not fast or athletic in any way, but I have a lot of stamina and I like to take long, meandering walks for hours. But in the sun it was rough, and that is my own fault for not thinking ahead and getting sunscreen. It’s a beautiful walk, though, crossing the Experimental Farm and later through a park, down a flight of metal stairs installed on the side of a steep wooded hill. And then a few streets of auto glass shops, because you can’t win them all. Like a genius, I didn’t write down Google’s directions so I got lost at one point and had to stop in at a Canadian Tire to look at their maps.
Anyway, I was triumphant and got there in time. My dad was always mortified if we didn’t make it exactly ten minutes early to church (preferably fifteen) and would fuss about the indignity of walking in on the procession, so that’s what I tried to do. Instead I found that there was no big hurry, and the small group was still waiting for a minyan. They have no rabbi of their own at the moment (Catholics can relate!) but they led the services themselves, playing it by ear (Catholics cannot relate). Everyone was very chill and friendly, especially when I said I wasn’t Jewish and had never done this before, but was interested in converting. They got me a Chumash and siddur, explained what the little squares mean in the Hebrew text, pointed out that we were using the version that included the matriarchs in the prayers, and generally made sure that I was able to follow along.
I was surprised by how much (spoken) Hebrew I knew. I only recently learned the aleph-bet and am pretty slow picking my way through it, but during the prayers and Torah and Haftorah I could follow where we were in the English translation based on vocabulary words that I recognised. Mainly I got confused during prayers that were sung to a melody that everyone else knew but I didn’t, but when those cropped up I just waited, looking at the English text or trying to soak up the melody for next time. I was also thrown by the Torah scroll being carried through the congregation–I could see how the men were venerating it with the tzitzyot, but did the women do something different? Was I allowed to touch it as a non-Jew? I didn’t know, so I defaulted to Catholic liturgical training when faced with a new and confusing ritual: do nothing and stand aside to let other people in the row do their thing.
Of course some of the prayers were in English, and I was even asked to read one, which was awesome. (It was this one, roughly, adapted for Canadian use in our siddur.) The dvar Torah given by one of the congregation was far more erudite than I’m used to from Catholic homilies–my family were always tough critics, and I learned to dread sermons read word for word at the pulpit. This guy spoke from notes but they were actually necessary, since he was citing sources and making a scholarly argument. The other difference I noticed is that it was an argument about liturgy and history, rather than an exhortation to feeling a certain way. (I get that a dvar and a sermon aren’t the same thing, I’m just comparing because they occupy a similar sort of place in the liturgies.) My talks with the American Woman about Mormonism have made me more sensitive to religious activities that try to whip up and manipulate the emotions, and the services here were very much not about that. There were opportunities to focus in on your own feelings, particularly during the silent parts, but no pressure to feel a certain way or to display outward signs of “spiritual feelings”. This is exactly what I want.
I didn’t feel too out of place. All the other women wore kippot and most wore tallitot, but no one drew attention to the fact that I wasn’t. Everyone introduced themselves or introduced me around to other people, made conversation and invited me for kiddush afterwards. I was awkward and nervous, like I usually am with new people, but it was a pretty forgiving environment. (I failed to politely escape taking some gefilte fish, even though I cannot deal with that stuff cold. “Oh, no thanks, not for me.” “No, HAVE SOME.” So I did.) A very motherly rebbetzin said I was brave to come and was surprised that I was trying to keep kosher already, which, my heart grew three sizes that day. It was really, really great to have encouragement. She introduced me to her husband, who’s led conversion classes before, and he was also super supportive and suggested I get in touch with him. Nobody tried to discourage me three times or anything.
In short, OMG WHY DID I NOT TRY THIS SOONER.
Because I eat Shabbat dinner alone, I take pictures of my table when it’s set before lighting the candles. Otherwise I feel like all my work just vanishes into the ether. It’s not as gorgeous as it could be, but I still feel proud of getting things together in time. This summer has been hot. Hot. The American Woman lives in Utah, and has never really experienced humid weather like we get on this side of the continent. When I was out there I found the dry desert heat pretty okay, as per the commonplace dictum, but here I wilt in summer. My place doesn’t have air conditioning, so there will be no cholent until the weather cools off. Instead I’ve been rolling out karaite-style, eating sliced vegetables and cream cheese on whole wheat challah (hidden under the shawl I use as a cover) and yeah, vegetarian sushi last week. It’s not certified kosher, but it doesn’t contain any treif and that’s good enough for me right now. You wanna go? I’ll fight you. My tablecloth (it’s actually a curtain) is wrinkled because I couldn’t face ironing in this heat.
What is hiddur mitvah? It literally means the adornment, embellishment, or beautification of a mitzvah, a practice that can put us in relationship with G., however we understand G.
In practical terms hiddur mitzvah is a personalizing, giving of ourselves, and opening our hearts in any number of ways that allow us to make unique, meaningful, beautiful contributions that connect us to G. This might look like buying a challah that’s a little nicer than others. It might mean setting the Shabbos table with extra care and using nicer dishes. During the sit-ins, hiddur mitzvah was practiced by those who wore their best suits. It is adding a different quality, attention, and level of holiness to one’s actions. [*]
I’m an artist, and also a geek for religion, so this is a topic I feel pretty strongly about. Rituals, liturgy, art, music, sermons and homilies, texts, printing, vestments, sacramentals, jewellery, anything and everything religious that can be made beautiful–I’m all over it. Hiddur mitzvah is a great nutshell term for something that’s always been deeply important to me.
My inclination for the hiddur-est mitzvot of all can get me in financial trouble, in fact, so it’s good for me to hold back a bit and focus on kavana and like, actually doing the mitzvot. Instead of scouring the city for nicer candlesticks. On Wednesdays now I start thinking about Shabbat, what I want to eat and what I should try to incorporate. Without Shabbat, my tendency is to eat whatever whenever, to clean when the apartment is breeding wildlife, and to not stop reading tumblr while I aimlessly shove food toward my face. It’s not easy to put the laptop aside even for Shabbat dinner, but I do. (I read from my siddur or the Bible instead, because I have to be reading something, okay. I can’t sit here alone and stare at my plate.)
There’s a lot that I don’t do yet, and I try to add something else every week. This week I tried the “pre-tearing the toilet paper” thing, but let us say I underestimated my needs. I flipped switches without thinking and twice thought “the hell with it, I’m supposed to break Shabbat anyway, I’m a gentile.” I write on Shabbat. Sometimes I watch TV (which I actually don’t do much the rest of the week). It’s not perfect, and it’s not even imperfect in the ways I want it to be. But I try to make it as nice as I reasonably can, because closeness with God deserves effort. I beautify the mitzvot and the mitzvot beautify me.
So a pretty decent Shabbat this week–I didn’t get my kitchen totally clean, but good food was had, and the LCBO had some different kosher wines in from the usual 2-3 uninspiring vintages. Some years ago I had a really incredible red from sooomewhere in the Galilee, something sweet but complex, and drank it on the front porch with my housemates in Kingston on the night of a massive power outage (or as we say here, pooer ootage). In fact, I drank it from a kiddush cup, because I had bought one impulsively and used it as decor, and it was the only stemmed cup we had. Fancy university living. It was a very good year, is what I’m saying. Ever since then I’ve tried to find another Israeli wine that was as good, but so far I haven’t found it.
I also bought a siddur this past week, which is intimidating but useful. Regarding the intimidation factor, I’m well-prepared because I’ve prayed the Office before–while the latter might be all in English, the amount of page-flipping and ribbon-placing is crazy, and there’s a whole procedure of looking up the date in the little booklet, gluing in the “cheat sheet” cards or using them as extra bookmarks, and finding all the elements of prayer for the day. And besides that, you need several volumes for the whole liturgical year. Is it worth all that trouble? Yeah, the Office is substantial prayer, beautiful and educational. The siddur is well worth my time too, and there’s only one volume, and (as far as I understand it) the services are read in linear fashion without a lot of jumping around. It just happens to have facing Hebrew, and the services are (to put it mildly) not short. I’m slowly learning the aleph-bet and it’s neat to be able to look at the other page and recognize familiar words, and the selections from Scripture, sixteenth-century mystical poems, and other neat bits give me something to pore over while I’m eating Shabbat dinner by myself. The introduction and footnotes in the Koren Sacks are definitely useful. There’s no way to jump in right away and be perfect at davening, just as the Office has a steep learning curve, but in both cases the raw material you’re working with (i.e. the Psalms) is so classic that you’re bound to get something out of it.
It’s also amazing to flip through the siddur and find familiar lines, or totally new things. Stumbling upon Nishmat Kol Chai, I was totally blown away by the poetry:
To You alone we give thanks:
If our mouths were as full of song as the sea,
and our tongue with jubilation as its myriad waves,
if our lips were full of praise like the spacious heavens,
and our eyes shone like the sun and moon,
if our hands were outstretched like eagles of the sky,
and our feet as swift as hinds–
still we could not thank You enough,
Lord our God and God of our ancestors,
or bless Your name
for even one of the thousand thousands
and myriad myriads of favours
You did for our ancestors and for us…
Doesn’t get better than that.