15 August 2010

Where It's Headed

5 Elul 5770

There is a kind of role to the position of rabbi that often doesn't get talked about--namely, that of diplomat for the Jewish people and its traditions.  I'm especially conscious of this at weddings, and so it was Saturday evening at a ceremony I officiated for my cousin-in-law.  While both bride and groom identify as Jews and chose therefore to have a Jewish wedding, what they meant (and what many of us mean, in a way) is a Jewish wedding *ceremony* with at least one hora danced at the reception.  They don't mean all the guests are literate Jews and the food is kosher and the wedding itself is followed by sheva brachot, seven days of feasts where blessings and celebrations continue.

This is because, for more than half a century, Jews have been living in multiple-identity constructs, building personal and professional relationships with people from all walks of life and benignly assimilating into the mainstream of American life.  No surprises there.

What does surprise me, however, is when, in 2010, I can still be greeted at a wedding by those who say, "I've never been to a Jewish wedding before!"  Serving as a rabbi for more than 14 years, it never ceases to amaze me that there remain pockets of America where social relationships between Jews and non-Jews haven't fully reached the stage where seeing our life-cycle events isn't ubiquitous.  I guess there just aren't enough of us to go around.

It's not just those who are not Jewish, by the way.  Saturday night, like at most weddings, the Jews themselves express a quiet but enthusiastic appreciation for being part of something Jewish.  Incidental as their engagement with Jewish life may be beyond the typical ritual of showing up at Shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, these moments are weighted with a kind of surprise, relief and then pride and satisfaction at how meaningful Judaism actually is.

Rabbis have puzzled over this equation for quite some time:  Knowing that there's nothing that satisfies the desire for community more than the actual experience of community.  The pressure brought to bear on rabbis for *entertaining* services is a red herring, masking the reality that people just don't really want to be in Shul.  If you make it more enticing, I'll come--that kind of thing.  But the depth of our relationships with one another and with the tradition, in fact, derive from simply being present over time.

What really complicates things is how community is defined.  Community and Jewish community are two different things, in a way--at least they used to be.  Watching the bride and groom dance, observing their friends, scanning the room and noticing the guests--there was virtually every walk of life, several languages, varied faiths, and many different countries of origin represented there.  The broad categories of love, marriage, music, food, family and friendship were the binding agents to the evening.  The Jewish ceremony long over, the community of wedding celebrants ruled the night.

The band leader, a brilliant and talented young artist living in Brooklyn, led a band that was more like a rhythm and blues gig than a wedding.  And it set the mood of celebration perfectly.  It was what the celebrants were more comfortable with.   The band launched into Maybellene, bringing to mind another kind of diplomat of an authentic American and African culture, Chuck Berry, who, as you can see here, performs and represents for an audience that in some ways, is seeing something for the first time.

About half-way through Maybellene, the wedding band launched into a hora and the party turned up to its highest notch of the night--we call this the hora effect.  This is the moment at every wedding, I thought, when the Jew arrives in America:  the circle of sweat and exhilaration that declares our place on these shores as rooted and legitimate as the first founders of this great nation. 

We rabbinic diplomats convene the sacredness of the occasion; and the people mix about, building community on their own terms, redefining a new paradigm of what it means to be a Jew.  We need each other on this journey, that's for sure--since, on a certain level, neither of us is certain where it's headed.

1 comment:

Marco Siegel-Acevedo said...

When Debbie first introduced me to shul, what struck me most besides the service was in fact the hora effect you describe. There was a social event after one Friday night service; when the invited band struck up their first tune an instantaneous, almost sly and sensual look of delight crossed the faces of the bent elderly and disaffected teens alike, as they surged forward and linked arms. Ancient and intimate, it was unexpectedly familiar to me: the last time I'd seen it was on the inter-generational faces of my fellow Puerto Ricans at a party when someone threw some salsa music on the turntable to break the hip-hop monopoly. This inspired us when we planned our wedding reception: the theme was Latino guy meets Jewish girl at a 50s Catskills resort. The music was Tito Puente at Grossingers, mambo meets hora. And it was the 50s--what the heck, Chuck Berry was in the mix too.