Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Synagogue and chumus reviews: the next generation

Back in the old days of RRRR39, a popular feature was "Synagogue and Chumus Reviews". Now that I'm back in Israel, having new synagogue and chumus experiences, I felt it was time to bring this feature back. And there's some coherence to it: most of the synagogues where we've done armchair ethnography in recent weeks, and all of the chumus (perhaps by definition), have been eidot hamizrach (communities of the east).


Who would have thought that I would hear Aramaic targum for Parshat Ki Tisa two years in a row? But this time around, it wasn't just for one aliyah during an emergency situation; it was for the entire Torah (and haftarah) reading, and they do it every week. We went to a Yemenite synagogue in Katamon where we had been a few times before, but never in the morning (and therefore we hadn't heard Torah reading before).

We had heard that the service started at 7:30 am, so we got up early to arrive at what we thought would be on time, and they were on Shirat Hayam. Given that they chant the psalms out loud in unison (with amazing unique Hebrew pronunciation, many of them from memory), we figured that they had in fact been going at least since 7:00. Due to the Aramaic translation after every verse and an already long Torah reading, the Torah service was very long, so the whole service ended at 10:20, leaving plenty of time to take a two-hour nap before lunch. Perfect!

They auctioned off all the aliyot and other honors. Some went for 10 shekels, but one high roller bid 90 shekels for his aliyah. (When do people actually pay up?) They followed the original practice in which the person called up for the aliyah actually reads that portion. Some of them read it flawlessly, while others needed to be fed each verse while the previous verse was being translated. Given that, at least by appearances, it wasn't known in advance who was going to get which aliyah, we were trying to figure out whether this meant that a number of people knew the whole Torah by heart and could have read any aliyah on the spot (quite possible) or whether they knew in advance which aliyah they were going to bid for and prepared it.

The targum mysteriously cut out for a few verses, and then we realized they were upholding the rule in Mishnah Megillah 4:10:

מעשה העגל הראשון, נקרא ומיתרגם; והשני, נקרא ולא מיתרגם.

The first story of the calf is read and translated, and the second is read but not translated.
The first one is the story of the golden calf as told by the narrator of Exodus (from the beginning of chapter 32), and this was read and translated as normal. The second is when Aaron retells the story to Moses (Exodus 32:22-24), and this was indeed read without translation.

They were also mehadrin about the rule in Megillah 4:4 :

ולא יקרא לתורגמן יתר מפסוק אחד, ובנביא שלושה

Don't read to the translator more than one verse [from the Torah], and from the prophets [no more than] three.

Three-verse chunks during the haftarah would have been the maximum allowed, but they went beyond the letter of the law and continued to read one verse at a time, as during the Torah reading.

At the end of the service, they read aloud from something I couldn't identify until someone handed me a copy of the book, which I still hadn't heard of. It seems that each week they read a chapter from Menorat HaMa'or. According to the old Jewish Encyclopedia:

It can hardly be said that the division of the matter treated is very logical and systematic, nor indeed does the work lay any claim to originality; but in presenting the beautiful moral and religious truths of Judaism in homely form, Aboab supplied to the average reader a great need of the time. Its skilful arrangement of the various Biblical and rabbinical topics and its warm tone of deep earnestness and sincerity could not fail to appeal to the popular heart. And as in the course of time the sermon, then still in use among the Spanish Jews, ceased to be a part of the divine service because the preacher had to give way to the ḥazan, or precentor, the "Menorat ha-Maor" became a substitute for the living voice of the preacher.

The following Friday night we went to a Syrian synagogue in Nachla'ot, The Great Synagogue Ades of the Glorious Aleppo Community, Est. 1901. We considered making conversation by asking people if they could show us their fragments of the Aleppo Codex, but decided against it.

The order of the service was different from what we were accustomed to in the Ashkenazi world, and also different from what was printed in the (generic eidot hamizrach) siddur. As best I can recall, it was something like: Psalm 29 (sung together, standing up and facing the entrance from here to the end of Lecha Dodi), Lecha Dodi (only selected verses), Psalm 92 and 93 (said mostly individually), Bameh Madlikin (surprisingly this was a place where the ḥazan, or precentor, did some fancy precenting), Psalm 92 and 93 again (sung together), Shir HaShirim, (at least the end of) Psalm 93 for a third time, ma'ariv. There may have been a kaddish here or there too.

EAR reports that the women's section was small but packed.

Unlike the Ashkenazi tradition, where there is a standard Friday night nusach for every Shabbat of the year, the Sephardi cantorial tradition has a different maqam (musical scale) for each week, corresponding to the parasha. Since we were there for Vayakhel, they used Maqam Husseini, associated with the beauty of the mishkan. (Or that's what a table at the beginning of the book, confirmed by the Internet, says they were using. My ear for quarter tones is not nearly good enough to confirm this myself by listening.)


Functionally, there are two types of chumus: the kind that you keep in a tub in your refrigerator, and the kind that you go out for (often ornately landscaped and accompanied by a full host of trimmings). My experience of both types has changed drastically between my previous sojourn in Israel (2001-02) and the present one, due to the "security situation". In those days, I didn't go anywhere that I thought might be a terrorist target, whereas this year (recent events notwithstanding) there hasn't been an atmosphere of fear. So in 2001-02, the first type of chumus mostly came from the supermarket or makolet (Hebrew for bodega) and the second type didn't exist so much in my life. This year, in contrast, the shuk is considered safe, so the first type of chumus can be obtained there for much cheaper than at the supermarket, and is much better chumus as well.

In addition to the neighborhood fixture Bein Azah leVerlin, in the last few weeks I have been to two new places for the second type of chumus: Humus Asli in Tel Aviv (not affiliated with Hoomoos Asli as far as I'm aware), and the world-famous Abu Shukri in the Old City. Thumbs up to both.


On a recent Shabbat morning, we went to a Kurdish synagogue, also in Nachlaot. Now there are lots of Kurdish synagogues in Nachlaot, each one associated with a different part of Kurdistan, and most of them start very early, like the Yemenite synagogue discussed above. This one, instead of having a particular geographic focus, is apparently for all the late risers.

We had been told "they start at '9' but don't seem to hit nishmat until like 10:20". When we arrived at 9:40, they were still saying korbanot (which took a while, since it was all recited out loud), and they got to Hodu (the beginning of pesukei dezimrah in the Sephardi liturgy; Baruch She-amar doesn't come until later, so that the berachot surround only the essential core) at 9:53. Nishmat was at 10:28, and when we left at 11:40, they had just finished the Torah reading (no haftarah yet). This kind of timing may be normal in the US, but not so much in Israel, particularly among eidot hamizrach. I certainly had no complaints! (If it weren't on the other side of town, you could leave the aforementioned Yemenite place at the end of musaf and still make it to this Kurdish place for shacharit.)

The atmosphere was refreshingly chill. People were dressed in jeans, and some even had shirts with writing. (Likewise, the Syrian synagogue may not have had so many jeans, but definitely had more sweaters than suits.) When we arrived, there were about 5 men and no women. The men were sitting on upholstered benches around the periphery of the room, each with a table in front of them and a cup of coffee or tea. They directed me to the rows of benches in the middle of the room (presumably for guests who don't have their own regular spot).

Since there were no women at the beginning, EAR asked if there was an ezrat nashim. They pointed her to the stairs and gave her a key, since the door to the balcony was locked. Soon a woman with a cane came into the main part of the sanctuary and had a loud conversation with one of the men before going to a corner near the entrance and sitting down. So we figured she sat there because she couldn't go to the ezrat nashim because of the stairs. But later, more women (without canes) came in, and also sat in the same corner of the main sanctuary. And then we realized that the reason the ezrat nashim had been locked was because they don't use it - the women sit downstairs with the men (albeit off to the side). So when EAR asked for the ezrat nashim, they must have thought it was because she was extra frum!

Here too, they auctioned off the aliyot, and did them all before the Torah service began. However, there was a preassigned Torah reader, and the people who purchased the aliyot just said the blessings, as is more common nowadays. They were also more discreet about conducting financial transactions. Instead of announcing actual shekel amounts, they said "chai", "2x chai" or "3x chai". (Except for one person who bid 26, presumably because it is the numerical value of the tetragrammaton.) It was a small enough community that everyone seemed to know everyone, so the auctioneer announced the winner of each auction by name (and by his father's name). The 6th aliyah is called "samuch", and the 7th is called "mashlim".

They did the mi shebeirachs, the prayer for Israel, birkat hachodesh, and all other public business before the Torah reading began, so once it began, it was strictly business. No Aramaic this time.

On the way out, they invited us to come back every Shabbat. They also offered us hot drinks multiple times.


Last Friday night, for a change of pace from the communities of the east, we visited a synagogue with strong influences from the communities of the far far west. Not that there's anything wrong with that. American Jews are just as much a part of the Israeli tapestry as Yemenites, Russians, and Ethiopians.

A few months ago I wrote in a comment on Jewschool:
Also, we should avoid using any of the words “independent”, “transdenominational”, “pluralistic”, “havurah”, etc. (each of which differs in meaning from the others) as a synonym for “good” (regardless of what correlations, or even causations, we may see). If we could stop doing that, then perhaps people will stop trying to apply those terms in cases where they don’t belong (”Yes, technically it’s a denominationally-affiliated synagogue with a rabbi and a staff, but it’s a really wonderful community that’s doing great things, therefore it’s basically a pluralistic independent havurah.”). These terms should be descriptions, not value judgments.

On behalf of all the independent and/or pluralistic Jewish communities that I have been involved with, I do find it flattering that these attributes have become synonyms for "good" (it certainly beats becoming synonyms for "bad"). But this trend is dangerous because it pollutes the language. There should be a way to talk objectively and substantively about the properties of different communities without having "You're not pluralistic" misinterpreted as "You suck." I don't actually think all communities should be pluralistic, nor do I think that pluralistic communities are always better than non-pluralistic ones. (Also, as usual,
#include <hilchotpluralism.h>
. )

Last Friday night we saw this trend taken to extremes. We went to the Yachad Minyan, a monthly (?) service billed as "pluralistic" that takes place at Moreshet Yisrael, the mother church of the Conservative movement in Israel.

What does "pluralistic" mean in this context? It's not clear. The service was egalitarian, took place in the main sanctuary of the synagogue (and I believe it was the only service happening there that Friday night), used the Hebrew liturgy from Siddur Sim Shalom (out of which pages were announced), and was followed by a one-table (Table 2) potluck which we didn't attend, etc. Now there's nothing wrong (or inherently unpluralistic) with any of those things. But it's hard to see how this is any more pluralistic than what happens at Moreshet Yisrael on other weeks. (Does this mean that Moreshet Yisrael is always pluralistic? That's a hard sell.) Now I'm no Moreshet Yisrael regular (this was my first time there in about 6 years), so maybe there's crucial information that I'm lacking (e.g. perhaps on ordinary weeks everyone who wants to attend services has to sign (BEFORE SHABBAT) a loyalty oath to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, and this requirement is waived on Yachad weeks, which would indeed make Yachad much more pluralistic), but this seems farfetched.

So what makes Yachad different from other weeks at Moreshet Yisrael? Again, I don't have enough direct experience with Moreshet Yisrael to make a strong comparison, but it seemed to me that Yachad was trying to achieve 1) spirited davening, 2) a welcoming and friendly community, and 3) a diverse set of participants (or at least diverse within the Americans-studying-in-Israel-for-the-year set; the service was advertised to a wide range of denominational and nondenominational educational institutions). And my impression was that they successfully achieved all three. So this post should not be construed as a criticism of Yachad's content, or as a suggestion that they should be doing anything differently.

But these goals have nothing to do with pluralism. Diversity does not equal pluralism; if it did, then Chabad events would actually be pluralistic, as would the Kurdish synagogue mentioned above on the week that we attended (since EAR and I are American Ashkenazim). And the first two goals are a classic case of using "pluralistic" as a synonym for "good". Believe me, I'm all in favor of good davening and friendly communities, but I've certainly been to independent pluralistic havurah (insert more adjectives of your choice) services where the davening sucked, and I think if institutional denominational synagogues want to have good davening, they're entitled to do so without labeling themselves as anything else. It would be a shame if the word "pluralistic" became a barrier such that non-pluralistic communities felt that they couldn't make their davening better or their communities more open. The melodies were also far more diverse than one might typically expect at an American-influenced Conservative synagogue, but again, that shouldn't require any sort of special permission.

(I acknowledge that there may have been political considerations behind labeling Yachad as "pluralistic". Whoever came up with the idea probably realized that it wouldn't go over so well with the synagogue's longtime members if s/he had said "How about if, once a month, we have good davening?", so s/he had to come up with a different descriptor to explain how this service would be different, and "pluralistic" seemed like a crowd pleaser. Another baffling approach to the same concern can be seen in the synagogue bulletin, which lists Yachad as a "young person's [sic] minyan". I don't think I met the young person whose minyan it was.)

So I don't think Yachad is doing anything wrong by not being pluralistic (and really, who would expect anything outside of the Conservative box at the Conservative flagship?), and they're doing a lot of things right. But they should rethink the way they label and advertise themselves, so that "pluralism" doesn't lose all meaning.

(And to make it clear that I'm not knocking Yachad or Moreshet Yisrael, I'll praise Moreshet Yisrael for the fact that the giant chandeliers in the sanctuary are now filled with compact fluorescent lamps.)


  1. Compare with "The library is a young person's best source for information on elephants." I don't think there's actually a problem with the phrase you've [sic]'ed!

    (Or: "A dinner isn't complete without dessert.")

  2. I think you've hit on the fact that the Conservative movement views itself as being inherently pluralistic. After all, they claim that all the independent/pluralistic minyanim are really Conservative.

  3. Musical diversity is not to be underrated. As a mechanism for making people of substantially different backgrounds comfortable it can be quite powerful. In fact, that is one of the founding ideas of Kol Zimrah. Aesthetics in this case overhaul with identity in deep ways.

    That said, i think your underlying point is correct. People ought to use the several different terms as descriptors rather than value judgments and the misnaming probably occured due to a PC moment where someone needed a micro-targeted synonym for singy-young-people-friendly.

    Thanks for the field research BZ!!

  4. Great post.

    I've had the pleasure to go to an authentic Yerushalmi synagogue in Yerushalayim on Taglit. Oddly, they cut off the psalms (95-99 and sometimes 100) that are sung by other Jewish communities during Kabbalat Shabbat - the only community I thought did that was the Spanish-Portuguese. Apparently, Syrians do the same. And hazzanim everywhere love to embellish Bameh Madlikin for some reason. Kinda overboard for a little-known piece of Mishna.

    It was Shabbat Vayehi, and to mark Jacob's death, they used Maqam Hijaz. (It's the Klezmerische scale that all who have listened to Hava Nagila before are familiar with) You can find the Maqam of the Week according to SY traditions (Yerushalmi is similar) on Incidentally, I was offered the final aliyah, even though I didn't bid! I honorably refused. On another note, this shul starts communal singing of El Adon at "Smehim b'tzetam", and not at the beginning - also a Syrian tradition.

    Do me a favor - check out Degel Yehuda in Talpiyot. They're a Sephardic egalitarian (GASP!) congregation that recently affiliated with the Masorti movement. (Was it a good choice?) Then write up a little feedback, okay?

    I think I'll visit the little Teimani place at the UWS next time I'm up there visiting KZ.

  5. We've been to Degel Yehuda. It was a bar mitzvah that week, so the vibe was similar in some ways to an American bar/bat mitzvah service: there was a big crowd of people who seemed to be there only for the bar mitzvah, and therefore weren't participating so much, in contrast to some of these other places, where everyone was into it. So that made it less exciting. Still, it's egalitarian! And Sephardi! So kol hakavod to them.

  6. The Yachad minyan is also non-pluralistic since it requires kashrut standards and is also quite strict about them (see email).
    Also, it displays a minute level of trust for people's kitchens.
    Oh yes - don't leave town without going to Pinati.

  7. Thanks for the heads-up.
    Maybe things would be "better" during a non-BM week. Hell, perhaps the environment at any of these other "more serious" synagogues is similar when they have a BM. I gotta see for myself when I'm in E"Y.
    (On an obliquely related note, I was at Shearith Israel the morning of my KZ visit. There was a BM, but the service wasn't molded around him. In fact, aside from a flawless Torah reading, you could barely register his presence. Kudos to them for not falling into the dreaded "BM Trap".)

  8. i used to go to that Yemenite shul frequently on Friday Nights because i get sick of Carlebach very fast :-) .
    The one time i made it there in the morning it was a very very very lllllloooooooonnnnnnnng parsha, and i think i fell asleep twice during the leining because of how long the leining with tarjum went.

    I was actually disappointed a bit with ‘Ades because most of the people there didn't sound like the Syrians i'm used to from Brooklyn — they all had Israeli accents when they davened instead of SY ones.

  9. Re: Yemenites - I've heard that as a bar-mitzvah rite of passage, they are expected to memorize the entire torah (luckily, that also seems to go with their trope being patterned, rather than set out as punctuation).