What happens when a Christian enters a Shabbat service? Tears!

Originally published on The Times of Israel 

I was thinking which pants to put on: the dark leather one or that black one that isn’t so tight on my body. I went with the second one.

It was a chilly Spring evening as I walked through Central Park, up until 68th Street. Turned left, walked a few more steps and as I saw the building I stopped before entering. I had too many feelings messing with me. Suddenly the security guy told me: “Shabbat Shalom,” opened the door, ushered me in and there I stood: a Christian in a synagogue entering her first Jewish service.

At the entrance, there was a man and a woman welcoming everyone and handing a Bible to all. I automatically stepped towards the woman. Not sure why I did that. Maybe because I often have no idea what level of Jewishness I am entering to when I meet Jews. It really is an issue.

She looks at me, smiles and hands me a Bible. I wasn’t sure what to do. Frankly, my first unconscious thought was ‘this is not my Bible; I don’t know what to do with yours.’ So I quickly told her: “Well, look, I am not Jewish, I’m here as a Christian who is on a journey.” And boy, that felt awkward. I felt more confident on my first dates than entering this Shabbat service.

“Welcome!” She was smiling even more by now. Then she directed me towards the chairs and explained that I could sit ANYWHERE I want. “Except on my chair, my dear, don’t sit on my place there.”

OK, I thought, she is really cool, I’m safe.

The service had already started as I entered and I wasn’t sure how this whole thing was going to make me feel, so I sat in the last row. It also gave me a good view of the synagogue, and I wanted to look around and observe.

And to observe I wasn’t shy of.

As I sat down, the first thing I did was to open my phone and…and then it hit me: ‘you idiot, you’re at a Shabbat service.’  I looked around rather embarrassed, but I concluded that nobody saw it. I felt relieved. And then the lady from the entrance appeared from nowhere handing me another Bible that she opened for me somewhere in the middle: “Here, this the song now. You can see it in Hebrew, then in phonetic and then here, in English. Enjoy.” With that, she left and I then realized, she did see me touching my phone.

I finally found my place and looked at the Bible, then looked up and saw that there is a whole band and it suddenly seemed that I was at a Klezmer band concert, not a religious service. I looked down to the Bible again, and there, I had my first epiphany: ‘Ah, this is what it means when they tell me “I speak only ‘Service Hebrew’.’” You know, I never understood when Jews told me they didn’t speak Hebrew just service Hebrew. I was like how is that even possible? Tonight, I understood and tonight I was fluent in (Service) Hebrew for a full hour.

The cantors (who lead people in singing,) had such beautiful voices that I sat there mesmerized. In Christian services, we would have a person accompanying the songs on a piano, but apart from a Gospel service in Harlem, I didn’t think services can be actually joyful and not sorrowful. Meanwhile, people were walking around, welcoming each other, and singing. And I was trying to sing too, and I can only imagine how bad I actually sounded. While they were reciting the Hebrew songs, I quickly read the English translations and it didn’t feel strange. I felt quite OK and I thought to myself:  ‘I’ve never felt such a comfort in any Christian service.’ As I write this down, it hurts a little. But then again, why would I lie to you? Or to myself?

I was a regular church-goer until I turned 15 when I stopped going. My grandfather was the priest, and I always felt that all eyes were on my brother and me whenever we were at the church. I was observed how I sat, how I prayed, what I wore. I was questioned why I am not attending Sunday schools; I was humiliated at the Bible class because I could not prepare enough as I was doing ballet professionally. So I decided, I didn’t need church for me to have a conversation with God. I stopped going to church services but I never stopped believing, and whenever I needed a moment of silence, I would enter any church that had an open door.

Here, as a complete stranger both in town and in the community, I was free. I didn’t need to satisfy anyone.

And then the rabbi arrived. The rabbi was a she. My thoughts took over again; I don’t recall attending any service with a woman priest. She was really casual as she was talking about the injustice in our lives and the Torah. She was great, and I liked how she talked to us as if we would be friends not sitting somewhere ‘below’ her. I remember my church visits as a kid; I always felt it was a theater with hierarchical stands and pitches and grandiose arm movements, and I often needed my father to translate what the talk was really about.

So again, I liked this rabbi.

In the midst of it all, I saw a girl, checking her phone. And not only was she checking her phone, but she was also wearing a mini skirt without tights. And when I say mini, imagine MINI. I wasn’t sure what to do with this picture. Then I turned to the left, and I saw that guy reading something on his phone. I really wanted to tell them, you know guys, we are at a Shabbat service – but of course, I didn’t.

The rabbi left, and frankly, I missed her punch line. I was too occupied with these weird acts and mobile phones during Shabbat that I actually missed the rabbi’s point about the injustice. I really wasn’t proud of myself at this point.

A new song started, and I was so clumsy that I actually opened the Bible upside down and backward. Never mind. I asked my neighbor where we were: “Page 248.” – She said. I go to page 248, but it was clear that we weren’t singing the song I found there. She came to my rescue and said “the other page 248”. If I was even following something until now, I lost it all at this point. What to make of two 248 pages in one book? Later, after the service, I learned that it was one for the Hebrew and one for the English counting. Yeah, not confusing at all.

Then I saw the first woman in a yarmulke. Learned about it, but never saw one before. And then I saw the first man without it.

The rabbi told us to rise. So we all rose. This we do in the church as well, but only if you sit on the ground floor, if you sit on the elevated floors, you don’t stand up. And as my family was always up there, I was rather jealous of those sitting down as I felt they had some special role that they needed to rise.

We started to sing a new song. It was beautiful. I got goosebumps all over my body. Then suddenly people took a 180-degree turn, and from the last row, I became the first and 80 people were looking at me eye to eye. So seeing that this is no game here, I followed the wave diligently, and I turned, now starring at the wall. I assume we turned towards Jerusalem. Correct me if I’m wrong.

The service continued with a prayer to the sick; the rabbi read the names we pray for in the community. Then we prayed for the recently deceased ones. And while due to the page issue, I didn’t find any of the prayers, there was something comforting in the community litany. To tell the truth, Christians do this too.

Before the service ended, we had one more song for a great Shabbat: “Unwind for 25 hours, and welcome Shabbat with love.” – said the rabbi.

And man, that last song broke me down. I saw that old couple holding hands, that mother caressing her son, and I don’t’ know why but tears started to flow on my face. I didn’t only weep, but I really cried. I cried, and I couldn’t care if anyone even sees me. I cried not knowing the why.

I put back the Bible to its place and left the room with everyone else. The same woman who welcomed me now handed me a little plastic glass with a red juice in it. I tried to ask her what this was for, but she was passing by too quickly. There was a short prayer outside of the service room, and then everyone shouted Shabbat Shalom and drank up the liquid. It wasn’t wine, as it would be for a Christian service, and I still don’t know what it meant, but that was the end of my first Jewish Shabbat service.

Then the woman appeared again: “Did you like it?” 

“I loved it.” 

She didn’t answer, and I was wondering again if it was appropriate to say this at all.

Then a guy stepped to me and asked: “Are you new here? You looked a little lost.”

All I could say was: “You have no idea… I’m a Christian.”

“Oh, welcome, it doesn’t matter. Hope to see you soon.”

Did I just catch her praying after the bathroom?

Just before my first class at the Grad school, I bought the book Judaism For Dummies. As dumb as it sounds, it’s actually genius. And while I avoid reading it on the metro during my tiresome commuting minutes, I am reading it everywhere else. Yes, including the bathroom. (And here I need to mention in brackets that in Europe I’d not read the book in public because the title says Judaism;  in  New York, I’m not reading it because it says Dummies, and revealing the slightest version of being a dumb in NYC, is not something you do. You can decide which excuse is better.)

This book is frenetic and exactly what an almost Jewish person (aka not Jewish, but wishing to be one) needs to read. But you know what, I think most of the Jewish people should read it too as it turns out sometimes I know more about Judaism than my Jewish friends.

One thing is for sure, most people in my Jewish circle had their jaw dropped when I asked them: ‘Why do you pray after the toilet?’

‘What are you even talking about?’ They asked with less interest than I’d expect. After all, they are Jewish; I am not.

‘I am talking about that you guys pray after using the bathroom.’

Silence. So I explained.

Observant Jews whisper a prayer after their visit to the bathroom that says “Thank You, God, who formed human beings with wisdom and created them with openings and orifices. If one of these orifices were ruptured or one of them blocked, whoa – it would be impossible to stand before You and survive. Blessed are You, God who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.”

I’ll admit: I smiled when I first read about this.

So I quickly looked up if Christians have any similar prayers that I don’t know of, but the only remotely close search result that came up was: is it disrespectful to pray on the toilet?

Well, I don’t know how my grandfather, who served as a priest until his retirement, would answer this, but if you want to hear my take on it, I say, there is no place that is disrespectful for a prayer. In fact, I made a pact with God when I was 14: I’m not attending Church anymore, but I’ll talk with you every day. God said: ‘OK my child.’

Asher Yatzar (meaning, ‘that was formed) aka the bathroom blessing whisper might sound an act of a far too religious person (but again, what is too religious anyway?) and if you are a secular or a non-believer, it might be something that you would just roll your eyes at. But if you’re someone who thinks of himself or herself as a spiritual person, this prayer is absolutely in line with everything today’s new age gurus teach you.

From Louise Hay through Deepak Chopra to Tony Robbins, they all say the same: be grateful. Stop the running, and in-between your routines acknowledge the miracles of life. And you can laugh, but being able to pee without help, without pain, without an effort is a true gift. (If you have ever had a kidney infection, you know exactly what I am talking about).

So as I was reading about Ashe Yatzar, I thought OK, I might not pray in the Jewish sense, but sometimes I do think about it how lucky I am to be healthy and be able to go to the bathroom without too much of a hassle. (Not counting the hassle your roommates give you during morning hours.)

But then today, just before class, there was this girl. She whispered something as she was walking towards the classroom. And I stopped her because I wanted to know if she got the job she applied for. She was a little hesitant to stop – and I was even thinking why is she talking to herself? But then she did stop, and she did answer me. She got the job.

I said mazal tov, and I went to the bathroom as my routine preparation for the 2-hour-long-no-break classes.

It was only on the R line on my way home when I realized: ‘Oh, shoot, I think I just caught her praying after the bathroom.’

And there, between City Hall and Cortland Street, I was once again in my delicate balance between embarrassment and naivete. Embarrassed because how could I interrupt her prayer? And then naive, since how should I know? I am just an Almost Jewish.

You think I am overthinking it? Perhaps. But this is why I am here. My only question is what do I do when I break someone’s prayer? Do I apologize? Or do I just shut up and walk away?

I don’t know. Do you?