As every Jew knows, the religious ones are the rude ones. They jostle and shove and step on you and they’re not apologizing anytime soon. The first thing I ever saw in Meron on Lag Ba’omer, almost five years ago: a father slapped his son’s face so hard he pirouetted a full circle before bursting into tears. There was no time to reflect, because the river of thousands pushed me forward. We entered the food tent and drank a lot of alcohol. Then, into the cave-building that houses Rashbi’s grave marker. The masses plucked me into their hot flow and my lungs drew at burning air as I said Tehillim into the back of the man in front of me. Some people panicked and clawed their way out. Others fainted, and a path opened in the full room for the paramedics and it was no longer my words but my entire face in the shoulder of a stranger’s silk frock. When I couldn’t stand it anymore I fought for the exit and the crowd spat me into the cool night, my entire body turned to sweat.
At sunrise, we returned to Jerusalem and my Rosh Yeshiva found me beaten and empty. He smiled a knowing smile.
He asked, “Tzvi, did you push?”
I hated it. As the cat says, “This is why we can’t have nice things.” Why can’t the religious life be like an Israeli salad course, cool and colorful, varied and healthy and delicious? Why must they make a brown oily cholent out of everything?
But I kept participating. Push. For years, I convinced myself that this way of life is more meaningful, that it could all be explained, bit by bit, from the battered black New Balances up through the sheitels. Push. I told myself that only family can trample on one another with impunity. Push. I tried to ignore my discomfort on the High Holidays in packed shuls and graveyards. Push. I told myself that when Moshiach comes and gathers the exiles to the Holy Land, there will be crowds. My struggles are practice for that day. Push. I reminded myself how important it was to love my fellow Jew, to appreciate their souls –
What a bunch of garbage. His soul? His elbow! That’s what I felt in my stomach as he pushed me aside. No more, I decided. I’m not attending. I’ll take my dead American high holidays in the nice synagogue in my hometown, where I have a seat and no one bothers me and my prayers float on the Rabbi’s beautiful words. I’ll spend Shabbos in a deserted Yeshiva alone, but no one will step on me. Of course, my Chassidic training made this decision difficult. There are several teachings that come to mind in objection to my new behavior. Rest assured that, in general, whatever lessons a two-hundred-year-old story may hold, they are easily ignored. Until…
This morning, I davened at Zichron Moshe. A synagogue. A neighborhood center. An institution. Its sacred, profound mission: a minyan, day or night, seven days a week, three hundred and fifty-four days a year. When no one is praying anywhere, someone is praying in Zichron Moshe. The synagogue is smelly and loud and the Ebola virus might originate from the ever-damp towels by the sinks.
Why would anyone go there? Some, as tourists – though after a visit or two you’ve seen nearly everything. For others, it’s simply the closest shul.
Today I realized: I go there to forget.
I want to wrap myself in my Tefilin where no one knows me. I want to pray slowly and sob, or so fast that the straps don’t mark my arms. I want to be the stranger who uplifts downcast spirits and who steps on feet in crowded crannies and I want it not to matter which, because we’re all just bits of white and black cloth caught in currents beyond our control with our voices crashing in holy counterpoint, “Amen! Baruch Hu uVaruch Shmo! Amen!”
I’m in the middle of talking to G-d (at least, that’s the official story) but the beggars stick their hands in my face with audacity bordering on inevitability, as if they claim to be the answer to my whispered prayer. They don’t take and I don’t give, because Zichron Moshe is all there is and the coins changing hands (or not, as I give the slightest shake of my head) are only small moments in a riot. I hope the performance means something to Someone, but it doesn’t mean anything to me, and it doesn’t have to, and that is freedom. It is inauthentic and impersonal and it leaves me giddy and thirsty for more.
For a moment, I forget my physical discomfort and I forget to be insulted. These are pennies I exchange for gold. I am entangled in a system that doesn’t know me and doesn’t want to be known. I am gone, and I’m alive. I remember I’m part of something.