The Arty Semite

Home for the Holidays

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

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Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Flickr/Avital Pinnick

“There’s more?!” exclaimed a colleague rather incredulously upon learning that I was going to be out of the office for the third time in as many weeks because of the chagim, the Jewish holidays.

She didn’t know the half of it.

Though they make a hash of my schedule and mincemeat of my workload, the chagim serve as a much welcome respite — a cocoon — from the demands of the workaday world. They also serve as a marvelous opportunity for people-watching and observing the human condition.

Yes, I know the holidays are supposed to be about the pursuit of higher, loftier goals, from addressing one’s shortcomings to communing with a higher authority. And they are. But now and then, a determinedly human detail — an incongruity — surfaces, which adds considerably to the occasion.

Here are a few moments that caught my eye and struck my fancy:

While at services on Yom Kippur, I espied a pair of shorts peeking out from under the folds of a kittel, the long white shroud that many observant folk — men, mostly — wear to remind them that their fate hangs in the balance. It is also customary to wear a suit, or, at the very least, a white shirt and a good pair of long pants, underneath one’s kittel as yet another reminder of the solemnity of the day.

By privileging comfort at the expense of formality, the shorts exemplified what the anthropologist Mary Douglas called “matter out of place.” There was something funny about them, too. The sight of them brought me up, well, short, and made me laugh aloud, much to the consternation of my fellow worshippers who were assiduously attending to their prayers.

On the first day of Sukkot, the seats of the synagogue I attended were filled not just with worshippers but with plastic shopping bags from a local food emporium, prompting me to wonder whether en route to synagogue, people had first stopped off at the market. You might easily think so. It turns out, though, that the sturdy plastic shopping bags were a convenient and handy way to transport and safely contain the etrog and lulav used in the course of the Sukkot service.

Another incongruity. A synagogue in my neighborhood that is usually chock-a-block with black-hatted, extremely Orthodox male worshippers — a congregation commonly known, in Yiddish, as a shtibel — was closed for the holidays. On the face of it, this made absolutely no sense: How could an orthodox synagogue, punctilious in its ritual practice, be closed for Sukkot, one of the major festivals of the Jewish calendar?

On further reflection, though, everything fell into place. That the congregation temporarily closed its doors was not a matter of ritual declension as much as it was a matter of heightened religiosity: the need of a sukkah. Given the difficulties inherent in observing this ritual commandment in an urban setting, the majority of the congregation’s members celebrated the holiday where access to a sukkah was assured: in Israel or, closer to home, in Monsey, Lakewood, Lawrence or Boro Park.

Given their diminished ranks, and with it, the looming possibility that those few who remained in the city would not be able to constitute a minyan, a quorum for prayer, the shtibel did the sensible thing and went dark.

In each and every instance, you have to marvel at the human touch.


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