Inner City Jew by Justine Sless
I am a fabled Jew of the North, of the red lipstick wearing, Radio National quoting, back yard chook owner variety. I am conversant in acronyms, grant writing idioms and the bureau speak of the not for profit sector from my day job and I can wax lyrical for hours about the perils, pleasures and pitfalls of doing stand up comedy, but the language of orthodoxy sometimes leaves me flummoxed.
The tenets of doing stand-up comedy for me are; fear, failure and humiliation. Laughter from the audience is strangely secondary to being able to control all three tenets at once.
When I go to the synagogue I love as an Inner city Jew, my lack of understanding about Orthodoxy feels similar; but private, without a spotlight glaring down on me and my palpable discomfort inhaled deeply by the audience.
I go to the shule in the city, not because it saves me the schlep of a Southside shule, where I know that there are more liberal options, but because I feel like it is my spiritual homeland, because it’s old and calming and the Rabbi and his wife, despite my complete lack of understanding about so many things are warm, friendly and welcoming.
Like the time I go to shule, to an event promoted in the small magazine posted out to me as a ‘spine tingling event,’ a night of nights.
As I approach the throng gathered outside I know that the greeting isn’t ‘Good Shabbos’ but maybe it’s ‘Chag sameach’, then someone nods and says ‘Good Yontif.’
‘Good Yontif’ I reply. That’s the greeting for tonight’s event: ‘Good Yontif.’
I climb the stairs with other women, the paint is peeling in parts and the walls are thick, cold and very, very old.
I look around as everyone does, to check out who is there.
The Rabbi begins talking. The men are doing that thing they do, seemingly in a private space, but so publicly; swaying and moving their lips silently.
I feel vaguely foolish and gauche, wearing a turquoise sweater, printed skirt and a red scarf, many of the women are dressed in black and some, including the Rabbi’s wife are in white.
Around me there are writers, philanthropists, gallery owners, sons of men who have been barmitzved there, wives and husbands who have been married in this, the oldest synagogue in Melbourne. They appear to know precisely what to do, say and wear.
One of the Rabbi’s sons is taking a book from where the Rabbi stands. I have not even bothered to get a book, because I know that my eyes will only scan the pages. I want instead to just feel the words and not have to flick through the pages, never sure if I am on the right one or not.
Another of the Rabbi’s sons runs into the now packed shule, he is around 6 or 7. This is his life, the rituals, his father speaking, praying and swaying amongst people. The young boy doesn’t look bored, but open and accepting.
I think of my own two children, 2 girls aged 10 and 17. If they were here, they would be sighing and asking when it will all be over, so that they may get back to their screens and to the spaces that they understand.
The open look on the Rabbi’s son’s face makes me think about respect and it makes me wonder which of the Rabbi’s boys will become a Rabbi themselves, and which of them might throw their hands up and reject it all.
I look at the Rabbis wife, she is slim and beautiful, and she always looks happy. I wonder if she is happy because she need not look any further, because this is her life and she is satisfied with it. I wonder is she is happy because she has chosen this life, or maybe it has chosen her. I think about what that must be like, if she grew up knowing that she would marry a Rabbi, the rituals and traditions grounding her in someway and offering a deep and nourishing meaning to her life
Sometimes I catch my reflection in a shop window and so often I don’t look happy, because I am always striving to be better, busier, more competent, more involved. More, more, more and so very rarely just being. So when I am silent in the shule that night, and on other nights, just watching and following and never quite understanding, it is a stillness that brings me calm and in a strange way contentment.
I can sing ‘Morning has broken, like the first morning’, I can recite ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, and I want to follow.’ I can sing ‘All things bright and beautiful,’ but I cannot sing this song on this night of Yom Kippur. My schooling in North East England was entrenched in the Church of England, Judaism was not there in that space, ever.
The rituals continue. I am still and calm. The Rabbi begins to tell us about this ancient night of prayer and song.
Everyone laughs as the Rabbi describes his son hitting his own chest so hard as he said the sins out loud, that he fell over.
We are asked to repeat the sins and hit ourselves on our chests: not to gossip, not to over eat, to be kind and good.
I wish there was one to say don’t worry, just relax unless you’ve been taught this stuff from birth then how can you know it all?
As the scrolls are brought upstairs after the men have kissed and touched them, I am afraid that a spotlight will suddenly shine upon me and highlight my lack of understanding.
The lady next to me pushes chairs aside and pulls me by the arm:
‘You must’ she says, ‘it’s only once a year, you must touch the scrolls. I am a project engineer I can make this work.’
She gestures to the young man carrying the scrolls. I touch the silken cloth, I sit down quickly, feeling embarrassed that a fuss has been made.
Then the songs and words and the rituals begin to soothe once more. I am still, because this place connects me deeply with my past: to my family, to those who perished in camps, to those who have come for thousands of years before me. The Hebrew writing that I do not understand is like a set of symbols that has been the warp and weft in my world, but never enmeshed into a landscape that I can truly understand.
I watch the Rabbi and his wife greet the congregants as they leave. They look like a new bride and groom, thanking well-wishers on their nuptials.
‘It was lovely,’ I hear people say, ‘such a lovely evening.’ Like they have been to the theatre, or out to dinner.
We spill out into the wet night, moving back into our own worlds, my sense of fear, humiliation and failure ebbing like the sound of fading laughter.
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