One of the most significant stumbling blocks standing in the path of a Jew who is toying with the idea of becoming more religiously observant is embarrassment. Or more correctly, the fear of embarrassment.
You see, when viewed from the outside (i.e. from a Ba’al T’shuvah-eye view), religious communities and their intricate customs and institutions look suspiciously like a huge minefield filled with endless opportunities to stumble and humiliate oneself.
On one of my first trips to a synagogue after my decision to explore becoming more observant, I was offered an ‘honor’ during the service… which I quickly declined. Someone sitting nearby who correctly guessed the reason I’d refused the honor, tried to put me at ease by sharing the following joke that perfectly sums up a Ba’al’ Tshuvah’s deepest fears:
A non-observant Jew walked into a synagogue one Shabbat morning and timidly took a seat near the back. His intention was to watch the goings on without drawing attention to himself. But to his chagrine, the Gabbai (the person coordinating the service) noticed him sitting by himself and walked over to say hello.
“Shalom alechem” said the Gabbai by way of a greeting. “Are you a Cohen or a Levi?” Without a hint of irony, the newcomer shook his head and said, “No, I’m a Lebowitz. Dave Lebowitz.”
Instantly understanding that the newcomer was not familiar with the workings of a synagogue, the Gabbai gracefully ignored the small gaff and said, “Nice to meet you Dave. I’m Avi. We’d like to honor you with taking out the Torah in a few minutes.”
Dave looked thunderstruck. His big plan to sit inconspicuously in the back was quickly going down the drain, so he decided that the best strategy was to level with the Gabbai.
“Look”, he said, “I’m not religious and I have no idea what goes on in a synagogue. I appreciate the offer but I’d really rather just sit and watch this time around.”
Seeing a good deed in his sights, the Gabbai pressed on; “Don’t be silly, there’s nothing to it. I’ll explain everything you have to do. In fact, I’ll be right next to you the whole time so you can’t go wrong.”
Still seeing hesitation in Dave’s eyes, the Gabbai decided that a full explanation might be best.
“Here’s what will happen,” he began. “In a few minutes I’ll signal to you and we’ll walk up to the front of the synagogue together. We’ll climb the stairs and go stand by those velvet curtains. I’ll stay up there the whole time and I’ll show you exactly where to stand. When I nod to you, you’ll pull on the draw string that opens the curtains. Then I’ll point to one of the Torahs inside the ark. Whichever one I indicate will be the one you’ll need to pick up and hand to the guy who’s leading the service. Then you’ll go back inside the ark and see a bunch of silver ornaments. You’ll pick up the silver crown I’ll point out to you, put it on, then go back and close the curtains with the drawstring and then, when everyone else is following the Torah up to the reader’s table, you can go back to your seat. Later in the service when it’s time to put the Torah back, I’ll signal to you again and we’ll do the whole thing again, except in reverse order. Now that doesn’t sound so hard does it?”
Dave though about it for a moment and, despite his fear of committing some sort of inadvertent sacrilege, he reluctantly accepted the Gabbai’s offer.
A few minutes later the Gabbai caught Dave’s eye and motioned for him to make his way up to the front of the shul. He walked up on wooden legs and waited for the Gabbai’s next cue.
As promised, the Gabbai joined him next to the Ark and gave him a subtle nudge towards the spot where he’d be better able to reach the curtain’s drawstring. When the time came, the Gabbai nodded to Dave and watched approvingly as the curtains parted at just the right moment.
A few more moments passed while the congregation sang, during which the Gabbai took the opportunity to catch Dave’s eye and point out one of the seven sifrei Torah; a large one dressed in a deep maroon mantle. On cue, Dave walked up to the indicated Torah, lifted it into his arms and made a smooth hand-off to the Ba’al Tefilah who, by then, was waiting next to him.
The Gabbai again caught Dave’s expectant glance and jutted his chin towards an ornate silver crown that was sitting on a velvet cushion inside the curtains.
“I told you there was nothing to it” he whispered to Dave. And with that the Gabbai turned to make sure the other Gabai’im had cleared off the reading table in preparation for receiving the Torah.
Just then he heard the sound of muffled laughter coming from the congregation and turned around just in time to see Dave – who was following his instructions to the letter – trying to put the Torah’s ornate silver crown on his own head.
Now as improbable as the scenario in that joke may sound to someone who has grown up in an observant community, it is perhaps the perfect example of the kind of nightmares that keep countless not-yet-observant Jews from walking into synagogues and taking those first tentative steps towards observance.
I can tell you from personal experience that reading Hebrew and knowing the songs are the least of a newcomer’s worries. Rather, knowing where and how to stand… when to bow… when to turn around… and even something as simple as when to say ‘Amen‘ ,are the things over which a newbie is likely to lose sleep.
Obviously anyone who visits a synagogue more than a few times will have no trouble picking up the basics… and a gentle nudge from an understanding Gabbai or friend will often do wonders to bolster someone’s confidence. But at every stage of a ba’al tshuvah’s journey towards observance, there seem to be new pitfalls and fresh ways to feel like an idiot.
For example, I clearly recall showing up in shul on a Shabbat morning during one memorable Sukkot with my Lulav and Etrog… only to note with horror that nobody else had brought theirs. On another occasion I came to synagogue on the morning of Tisha B’Av and had almost completed putting on my T’fillin before I noticed that nobody else was wearing theirs. On yet another Tisha B’Av, I unwittingly accepted a Gabbai’s offer of the last aliyah to the Torah during the afternoon service… not realizing that this also required me to chant the Haftarah for the day (a friend graciously helped me through the blessings and then bailed me out by performing the required reading).
On one particularly cringe-worthy occasion, I remember being invited to sit next to the Rabbi on Shabbat morning in a small synagogue in California. I was so intent on not making any mistakes that I accidentally recited the weekday Shmoneh Esreh – complete with chest pounding ‘Slach Lanu…“.
It is now almost three decades since I started down the path towards religious observance… and apparently I’m not done stumbling yet.
You see, we will soon be celebrating my oldest son’s Bar Mitzvah. Many of his classmate’s fathers have been teaching their sons their parsha and haftarah, as well as preparing them to lead the various services. In addition, most of the boys have embarked on ambitious year-long study projects with their fathers in order to be able to make a siyum (completion ceremony) on a tractate of the Talmud at their Bar Mitzvah.
Quite the opposite of the proud anticipation with which most parents look forward to their children’s’ passing into adulthood, I’d been dreading this year for some time… knowing that it would reveal to my son, beyond any doubt, what a complete and utter ‘am ha’aretz’ (ignoramus) he has for a father.
Out of desperation I finally went to talk with a neighbor with whom I’ve been friendly for most of my adult life. I sought him out because I felt that no matter what I told him, he knew me well enough not be too surprised by the sheer magnitude of my ignorance.
So one evening about a year ago, he and I sat down and I laid my cards on the table. I told him that I wanted more than anything to be able to teach my son all the things that fathers teach their sons during their Bar Mitzvah year. But I simply didn’t have the tools. As I spoke, I could feel my cheeks burning red, but hurried to get everything out before I lost my nerve.
After I’d finished, we sat in silence for a few minutes while my friend considered his response. When he finally began I was surprised to hear a broad smile in his words. Far from being disappointed in me, he seemed genuinely surprised at my embarrassment.
He pointed out that despite what I may have been led to believe, there are plenty of reasons why a father might be unable or unwilling to prepare his son for his Bar Mitzvah. He rattled off several plausible scenarios:
- It may be that they don’t know how to ‘layn’ (chant) the Torah or Haftarah.
- It may be that they don’t know the proper way to lead a service.
- It may simply be that they know how to do these things… but they don’t want to be ‘the heavy’, sitting on the boy to study his lessons day after day, and prefer to remain on the sidelines to lend more friendly encouragement and support while an outside tutor ‘cracks the whip’.
As soon as he said these things I realized that they must be true. But in typical ‘ba’al teshuvah‘ fashion, I’d conjured up the worst-case scenario; that everyone but me knew what they were doing. And I’d used that misconception like a lens to magnify my own limitations.
He must have still seen some hesitation on my face because he immediately took charge of the situation.
“First of all”, he began, “I’m going to teach Gilad his Parsha and Haftarah. If you want me to teach him to lead the various services too, I’d be happy to do that as well. I’ve helped prepare plenty of boys in the community for their Bar Mitzvahs … and trust me, a lot of their fathers could easily have done it themselves.”
“And I’ll tell you a secret”, he continued. “When my older boys were in their Bar Mitzvah year, I set up a regular ‘Chavruta’ with someone else in the community to learn with us. I could have done it by myself, but I felt like having someone outside the family involved would help us all take it a bit more seriously.”
On the way back home from that chat I felt like I was suddenly able to breathe again after years of being underwater. How silly I’d been to think I was alone.
This week, our son Gilad will be called to the Torah for the first time and will read the parsha and haftarah that he’s been practicing all year with my friend. He and I will also be completing a tractate of the Babylonian Talmud which we’ve been studying all year with another member of our community.
And although I still see many inevitable blunders and stumbling blocks in my future, instead of this year of preparation with my oldest son making me feel like an ‘am ha’aretz’, it has brought me an unexpected and welcome sense of inclusion and familiarity… the kind that only comes after taking those first tentative steps past stumbling blocks, down a worthwhile path.
David Bogner, formerly of Fairfield, CT, lives in Efrat with his wife Zahava (nee Cheryl Pomeranz), and their children Ariella, Gilad and Yonah. Since moving to Israel in 2003 David has been working in Israel’s defense industry on International Marketing and Business Development. In his free time David keeps a blog (www.treppenwitz.com) and is an amateur beekeeper.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.