Every year about this time, if you were a Jewish kid in Salt Lake City who got out of 4th grade for a day or two for services, you would spend a good part of the day at Temple, usually somewhere near the back, where you could barely hear the Rabbi’s intonations in Hebrew. But because of a great guy, a goy, mind you, who had been hired for years as the cantor of the Temple, we actually learned to sing a number of the prayers and, something they don’t seem to do in the eastern provinces, what the translations of those prayers meant. Kenly Whitelock always seemed to me to have been an ‘older’ person. (He was actually just about my mother’s age, born in 1915, and in 1958 would only have been in his early 40s.) Maybe it was the balding scraps of grey hair which in the 50s meant ‘old’, but he was a high spirited soul, whose eyes would glint through his granny (grampy?) style glasses. He sang with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, a local Methodist choir, and had the knack of being able to look at a piece of music, or hear it once, and play it straight away. Not only that, he’d early in the 1950s written the Olympus Junior High School song.
I always get hammered by my family when I describe how our services were in those days, as if I am proving that once again, being from Salt Lake, I’m not a real Jew. But you are what you think you are, or you are what you say you are. But like most of the things we grow up with, we think of them as the norm, and no matter what else transpires in the intervening years, those are the things which seem the most ‘real’ and with which we are most comfy.
I can still remember with great detail those Saturday mornings, the whole of the Sabbath school populace in the sanctuary, with Kenly leading our singing ( you could call it ‘chanting’.. but that would be wrong..), and repeating the verses we were to learn. Like our sense of smell, there is something quite astonishing about memories of sound. To hear a phrase embedded deep in memory, no matter how long ago it might have been, will rekindle a moment from an earlier life. Each time I hear the beginning of the prayer which praises God – the Mi Kamocha.. it fills me with a kind of warm remembrance, a feeling once again that even sitting on that not so comfortable pew with my folks, or trying to pretend to pay attention on a Sabbath school morning service, it would produce the most profound sense of assurance and fulfillment. Maybe those are the kind of moments that truly make you feel what you are.
If there were a test to see who gets to be a Jew (maybe that should be Iris’ next book – So You Think You Can Be Jewish?) I m pretty sure that I would fail miserably on most of the detail questions of liturgy and orthodox tradition. Hey, I’m the guy who went to a deli with Uncle Mac twenty years ago, glanced at the menu without really reading it, and ordered (clearly without much reflection) a ham and swiss sandwich, and a glass of milk. These things happen!
Yet, I know that in my own heart, I make a good effort to try and follow those most simple words from Micah, the ones Iris cited the a few blobs ago: What does God demand of us: To do Justice, love Kindness and Mercy, and walk humbly before your God. It doesn’t get any simpler than that. I know that for centuries scholars have gathered for days on end to determine the correct way of interpreting this or that scripture, in hopes of some new discovery of what God meant when he burned a bush, accepted an offering, or caused a river to change direction. I suppose I will leave those details to the learnéd. We have so overtaken the simplicity of our lives with things both good and bad, but so many of them, that little time remains for simple reflection. For me, the services this morning were a chance to glance through not only the Holiday prayer book, but the Old&New Testament bible (the Fabrangen services take place at the N Y Avenue Presbyterian church, the simple elegant notion of which never fails to impress me) and read a number of verses in the Bible which are extracted in the service. My ability to read Hebrew is pretty bad (I’m sure I’d end up running a lot of road signs by accident were I to drive in Israel), so during those long recitations, it gives me time to wander back into the other scriptures and read things which I have probably not, except for a possible skip through at a Marriott hotel years ago, ever read.
The sad thing for me today was not to be with Jordan and Iris, as they are in Boston. Iris baked two superiour Challahs last night. When I called, I could almost hear the ooohs and awwws of Jordan’s roommates. And rightly so. She has pretty much mastered the giant knotted bread thing. (Gary S., take note, your seminar will begin shortly!) After today’s service I walked several blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue looking for a bakery that might have some (storebought) Challah. None today. For some reason it will be all over town tomorrow. Go figure.
I did find (at the Bread Line.. a great little inhouse bakery/salad place near 18th st.) a wonderful floppy piadina bread, grilled, with humous and some salad on it. The big floppy, folded over loaves reminded me of the middle eastern breads that I used to enjoy in Egypt and Jordan with eggs for breakfast. The grilling adds that sublime smoky taste. The other stuff sort of stays stuck in there while you take a first New Year’s bites. For a moment I’d left the Euro tradition and was back in the ancient desert. Eyes closed, I chewed silently, amid the din of the cafe. Feeling the touch of a New Year beginning with the promise of hope and the threat of worry. And somewhere over the cacophony of the office crowd, hustling through the cafe, their minds no doubt fixed on a later meeting, call or strategy session, I could hear the tenor voice of Kenly Whitelock, the firm masterful tones, this time in English reminding me that
Who is like Thee
O Lord. among the gods
Who is like Thee
Lord there is none else
You are awesome in praise
Doing wonders O Lord
Who is like Thee, O Lord
We’re just sayin’.... David