I Read Tehillim in My Favorite Bar

If you are any flavor of Orthodox Jew, you know that halacha (Jewish Law) is complicated. Probably if you are any flavor of Jew at all, you know that.** Plus, as the old joke says, where there two Jews, there are (at least) three opinions.

There are 613 Laws in the Torah. That seems like a really *big* number.

It happens that there are some of these we can’t follow today because they are only applicable if one is living in Israel and the Temple is still standing. I’m not and it isn’t, so I can subtract 244! (I know I shouldn’t be so happy about that. I’d love to live in Israel, and although I’m ambivalent about animal sacrifices, I’d be pretty happy if the Temple was standing again. Still, if I can’t have those things, 244 less Laws is a good thing.)

If you also leave out Laws that are dependent on special circumstances, you can subtract a few more. And of course, as a woman, there are some time bound Laws I’m not required to observe. Still 270ish Laws is more than plenty.

Learning is my favorite part of being Jewish. And that may be why I’ve been driven to learn more about being observant, which means more about the Laws. But I have to say, if you are not born to it, figuring out even 270 Laws, and the details of how you are supposed to follow those Laws, is a substantial challenge.

Besides the number, there are also *way* more than three differences of opinion on the Laws’ meanings and how you are supposed to fulfill them. Which is to say, there is the Oral Law: the commentaries that are supposed to explain the laws and thus make it easier to obey them. At my current level of learning the explanations often make everything seem even more confusing.

Add to that the fact that people often hold (do things) based on their family’s traditions. Obviously, as a convert, I have no family traditions.

But the Law (or the commentaries on the Law) provides a solution. What you are supposed to do is “create your own personal Rav.”

A Rav isn’t the same thing as a rabbi, although they can be rabbis. A community’s Rav is someone recognized as having extensive training and experience in providing guidance related to specific, practical, aspects of the Laws.

But your personal Rav is different. It is someone you trust, that you know knows more than you do, but not so much more that your questions seem trivial and boring. And they also know you. They can deal with you… and your questions.

In my case, that means someone who doesn’t mind me emailing them random articles I find on the ‘net and texting them slightly weird questions on a regular basis. Once you ask your question, and receive an answer, you are supposed to follow your Rav’s opinion.

That last part is often a tiny bit difficult for me. Oh heck, who am I trying to fool? It’s a *lot* difficult.

For an introvert, I know a lot of people. That isn’t quite as weird as it sounds. I don’t dislike people. Strangers just make me… withdraw. Usually into a corner of a room where I can watch what’s going on without really participating.

But I actually like being around people that I… well… like. It’s just that there isn’t anybody I can be around all the time. Being with people sucks the energy right out of me, and to recharge I have to go off somewhere and be alone.

Or… I can go off to my favorite bar. It turns out I can recharge there as well. Who would have thought?

Most people I know fall into two categories: friends or acquaintances.

Friends are people I’ve known a long time, who often know me better than makes me comfortable: better than I know myself. My very old friends, and my Ex fall into this category.

Acquaintances are people who know my name, and I know theirs; and we know a little about each other’s lives. We can “chat” comfortably. Or as comfortable as chatting gets for me. I can talk quilts, and Jewish philosophy for hours. But small talk, with anybody, makes me *squirmy* really fast.

Anyway, falling somewhere outside those two categories are my personal Rav, my favorite bartender, and random strangers in my favorite bar.

I consider my Rav close to the friend end of the spectrum, in that he knows me pretty well. I usually learn with him in class once or twice a week. He and his wife invite me to Shabbat meals on a regular basis. This has allowed me not only to have the best meals I have in any given week, but also to get to know and interact with an actual happy, functioning, Jewish family. And given how dysfunctional my own family was, it is quite a new and interesting experience for me on many levels. And one I truly appreciate.

On the other hand, he has only known me for a relatively short time, and there are some things that just don’t come up in discussions in Torah class or around a Shabbat table.

My Rav absolutely… 110%… does *not *approve of me hanging out in a bar.

He doesn’t approve of me having a favorite bartender either, but that is mostly just an add-on to the hanging out at a bar thing. Plus favorite implies knowing more than one. But really, if you visit any bar more than once, how do you avoid knowing more than one bartender?


I have to admit, this is one subject where I pretty much ignore his opinion. I may get a little bit of slack on this one, because I didn’t directly ask him whether or not it was OK for me to be there. And I didn’t ask him about having a favorite bartender either.

Other than the fact that he exists, my Rav doesn’t know anything about my bartender. I suppose I actually don’t know much about him either: He’s young. I’d guess not even 30. Good looking. Smart. And a seriously good bartender: good memory, lots of energy, very charismatic.

He makes one of the best Margaritas I’ve ever had. And given I used to make it a point to be on the lookout for the best Margarita in the US when I used to travel a lot for work, I’ve had quite a few. He also introduced me to Jamison’s Irish whiskey, which is now my other favorite thing to drink.

I’d say he’s about half way between friend and acquaintance.

And the random strangers? They’re not friends or acquaintances. In other situations, a lot of people I don’t know in a noisy, smallish room make me immediately want to be somewhere else. But for some reason, it isn’t that way when I’m in this bar.

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I’ve been there during the day and very late at night. I feel perfectly safe there alone. Maybe because some of the bartenders are women, as are some of the customers; or because I am there often enough that a lot of the bartenders do know me.

Maybe it’s because other than a few polite nods of acknowledgement from other folks at the bar, I’m pretty much ignored. They’re on their cell phones. I’m on mine. Glancing up now and again at one of the TVs that line all four walls, most showing live sports, with the occasional newscast or reality show thrown in when there aren’t a big enough variety of sports on.

(I once asked the owner why they have that exact number of TVs, around 23 I think. He said it’s because when sports’ seasons are at their peak, they can show all the games at the same time. Oh… said probably the person least interested in sports that you can imagine.)

The noise (happily from music and conversation not the TVs) and the dim light let me feel alone, while still being *almost* with people. It provides me with all the social interaction I want or need on any given day; and even lets me recharge. And no, I don’t understand the why of that.

When I’m upset, as I often was at my last job, I’d sit in there with the dark and the noise, drink shots of Jamison’s, and read Tehillim on my cell. It helped.

This is where my personal Rav comes in. I wasn’t too sure about whether it was OK to read Tehillim in a bar, so I did ask him about that. He told me that, at least, is OK. However, he also said it didn’t seem like the sort of place a woman working on becoming observant should be hanging out.  He’s not wrong. There’s no way I can say I don’t understand why he doesn’t approve of me being there.

The things I drink: Margaritas, and Jamison’s are kosher. The things I usually eat: fish and chips (without the chips), but with the coleslaw, are not. They are, however, some of my favorite things to eat and it makes me sort of sad that eventually I will have to stop eating them there.

Of course, my Rav’s concerns are not mainly about what I am eating and drinking.

Naturally, a lot of non-frum things go on there: flirting and pick-ups, in various gender combinations. I notice, but I don’t care. First of all, no one is doing anything I haven’t seen before. And second, I’m certainly not there for that.

It was never how I met guys, even when I cared about meeting guys. Picking up strangers, the couple of times I did it, never went well. And it was soooo long ago and in a galaxy, eh… state far, far away.

I do watch. It can be interesting. Sometimes funny. Sometimes sad. But it isn’t anything I care about. It’s just randomly watching random people.

The thing is… my Rav doesn’t understand about my bartender. I haven’t ever had the chance to tell him this, but I think G-d draws me to this young man. I think She wants me to tell him something. To be honest, I’m not sure exactly what that is yet. But I keep getting these… nudges.

He isn’t Jewish, but when I first met him he was in, what seemed to me to be, a pretty serious relationship with a secular Jewish girl. And I had this vague thought that maybe I was supposed to help her get back to Judaism. Maybe get him interested as well. I am, after all, part of a congregation that does kiruv.

But… they broke up. So I suppose that wasn’t it.

Maybe it has something to do with this: his mother has brain cancer.  He told me a few days ago that she has no more than three months to live.

He told me in a *text*! What the heck do you text back to that?

It took me awhile to send one back that said the only thing I could think of to say: that I would include her, and him, in my prayers every morning.

Prayer is a lot, but in cases like this, somehow it doesn’t seem like it is. You want to do more. You want to… help. You want to… offer comfort. You want to… I don’t know… make it not be true. And, of course, you can’t do any of those things.

I had this thought come to me that the Tarot card that represents him is the Major Arcana card, the Hanged Man. (If you think anyone who has read Tarot should be burned, please just forget you ever saw this.)

The symbols on that card indicate someone who sacrifices themselves for others. I told him this and he said he’d never heard of the card but he agreed it does represent him. I am more and more sure G-d is trying to tell him something through me. I wish She would let me know what it is.

Anyway, before I left the bar the last time I was there, he and I had a quick shot of Jamison’s together. It was busy and he didn’t want to talk about what’s going on with his mother. So we just shared our drink and I left.  Given that halfway between friend and acquaintance way we know each other, what could I say that wouldn’t sound trite.. or useless… or too personal?

I’ll be going back to my favorite bar. I could pretend it’s only because there’s something G-d wants me to do there. But I won’t say that, even though it’s true.

The reality is I enjoy being there. Alone with the noise and the dark and the strangers. Drinking Margaritas and Jamison’s and eating that lovely treif fish and coleslaw. And chatting with my favorite bartender when he has a couple of free minutes.

I have to hope my Rav will understand.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

*This article is the fault of several of the other Hevria Bloggers. We were in a Google Hangout together, and somehow we got on the subject of favorite bars. I said that I read Tehillim in mine, and they said I had to write an article with that title. So here it is.


**Just FYI – I have no issues with any flavor of Judaism’s concept of the Law – be it Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative or any other variety – but in this article I’m talking from an Orthodox point of view, insofar as I understand what that is.