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The Shul Rat

 

I grew up going to synagogue (Shul is the Yiddish word for synagogue) every week, starting when I was four years old. Mom would drop me and my brother off at junior congregation on Saturday mornings, and then pick us up an hour later to take us to our afternoon activities (gymnastics for me and computers for him). I liked that the service for the kids was only an hour and in a small sanctuary, and that the leader of the services was kind of a kid himself, in his early twenties and doing bible trivia with us and giving out candy for correct answers. There was something special about being there with only my brother and no parents around. It gave us a chance to take ownership of our Judaism, and our synagogue, and not have it be filtered through anyone else, or through a sense of duty.

I also liked that after services we could wander around the synagogue, until Mom got there, and it was like wandering through the White House without supervision. We’d sneak around and make it feel really mysterious and dramatic. The ceilings were high, and the setting was so formal, and everyone was quiet so as not to disturb the goings on in the main sanctuary. There was also something wonderful about having a community outside of my family, and a building to explore. My extended family was not next door, or down the block; we didn’t even have big family dinners more than once or twice a year, so the synagogue was my sense of family.

I liked the older people at shul. They weren’t always warm, but they paid attention and looked me in the eye. I felt like my best self there. At school I was a good student, but got teased constantly. At dance and gymnastics classes, I was barely keeping up and certainly not a star. At home…eh. But at shul, I mattered.

When I was seven, my father started to go to Saturday morning services regularly, and not long after that, my brother and I stopped going to afternoon activities and just stayed for the rest of the adult services with our father. The main sanctuary was a big deal. There was a high ceiling and stained glass windows, and tapestries on the walls, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. I liked the smell of the prayer books, and the hard covers, and the golden type on the cover. I liked that I knew who was a regular and who was new. I liked having a set seat that I went to every time. I loved when the Torah reader, the mother of one of my brother’s good friends, would sing harmonies, and I could sing along with her, and learn from her.

 

USAKamSyn

My synagogue was not quite this grand, but I can dream.

For special occasions, like an engagement, bags of candy were made up and thrown onto the bima, and the kids ran up to get as much candy as they could reach. I never see this at my current synagogue. Maybe it’s been outlawed because someone could get hit, or someone could miss out on candy. Better to just have a table full of candy to choose from after the service, they think. Phooey.

bags of candy

Bags of candy! (not my picture)

After my father got involved in the synagogue, we started to go to Friday night services, which were a formal affair. Kids came with their parents, and the cantor sang his complex loops of song, and everyone dressed up.  After the service there was a sit down oneg (dessert and talk) in the social hall. Tables were set up in a u-shape, and tea and desserts were set out. There were always non-dairy brownies with chocolate frosting, and I always ate off the frosting and left the brownies behind. Then the rabbi would hit his teacup with his spoon to start the discussion, and the kids would rush out just in the nick of time. The rabbi resented this, and forced his own children to stay put, but the other adults seemed to understand that kids could not sit through a long and boring discussion so late at night, when there was a whole building to explore.

Sometimes we’d end up sitting in the dark, in the far reaches of the building, looking through the toys left out by the preschoolers, or telling ghost stories. Other times, we made up elaborate games that required running through the building, and hiding under benches in the small sanctuary, and even sneaking up onto the bima in the main sanctuary to see what the rabbi kept in his lectern.

033

“Are there toys at shul?”

010

“Or pizza?”

I would have loved to bring Cricket and Butterfly to shul with me, to run through the halls of the building and play tag and have an excuse to laugh and jump and not be so self-conscious. But I never struggled to feel “spiritual” at shul, it was just there, in the building, in the occasion, in me. I wish every kid had a place like that, where God is infused into the walls of the building and doesn’t have to be spelled out; where history is just there all around you, waiting to be discovered.

Cricket would be more interested in searching for the left over bags of candy, but then I’m pretty sure God is in the candy too.

007

“Candy?”

010

“Candy!”

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About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

73 responses »

  1. I really enjoyed reading this!

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  2. This was a very warm read, Rachel. Oh, I wish you could bring Cricket and Butterfly, too! What fun that would be.

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  3. What a wonderful memory.

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  4. I enjoyed this post very much. I had similar experiences growing up Roman Catholic and you brought up more than one memory bubble. Loved the photo of cricket salivating over candy. round here we salivate for cream.

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  5. Candy? No, they’re treats for peeps.

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  6. How wonderful, the post, the memory and the experience for you.. My memories of church were uncomfortable clothes, hard seats and being bored. The Catholic Church was trying to modernize and even though I was young I stopped enjoying it when they did that. The Latin and incense and candles made it seem special and kind of like magic. Maybe if we’d had older people who paid attention and looked me in the eye I’d have liked it more.We sure didn’t get candy or a chance to run around unescorted..

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  7. What beautiful memories! And I agree, that at its best, religion provides a place for everyone, including children, to feel that they belong and are valued. For some people, their synagogue or church is the only place they get that feeling. And that is truly priceless….

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  8. wonderful post- enjoyed reading it!

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  9. I loved this sentence….”I wish every kid had a place like that, where God is infused into the walls of the building and doesn’t have to be spelled out; where history is just there all around you, waiting to be discovered.” … God bless.

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  10. I loved imagining you and the other kids sneaking around the synagogue. Great story.

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  11. A nice post, Rachel; even if ‘health and safety’ has come to candy distribution

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  12. What a lovely post! It must have been magical to run around silently exploring after your hour was done. I was brought up as a Catholic and we had an old, interesting church with a choir loft and a pipe organ. There were tall marble columns spaced along the length of the church, each with elaborate plasterwork around the top, holding up the arched roof, but my favourite things were the beautiful stained glass windows. The sun shone though the side windows and I loved the different colours that moved slowly across the pews and the people. I’ve loved stained glass ever since.

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  13. Such a lovely post, Rachel. Thank you. It’s been a difficult week for Jews in this country (you may have heard); it’s so good to hear about the joy of the faith and happy memories of spiritual things. Pip

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    • I haven’t heard, please tell me!

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      • Hi Rachel – If you look up online Ken Livingstone and anti-Semitic remarks (he used to be Mayor of London), you will find the crisis which has blown up within the British Labour party and, furthermore, set the country alight. It all started with last week’s revelation of a cartoon re-tweeted during the Gaza fighting two years ago by Naz Shah, before she became a Labour MP. It suggested solving the problem of the middle-East by transplanting Israel to the US. She was suspended from the Party but Ken L then came on supporting her, with amazingly crass, anti-Semitic comments about Hitler’s ‘policy’. It’s gone on for about a week now, but it looks like it will ruin the Labour party’s chances in the local elections this week, and several really significant Jewish donors have withdrawn financial support. The Labour leader has launched an official inquiry into anti-Semitism within the party. Never has the Jewish population of this country (only 300,000!) been so much in the news: families, Rabbis, non-religious – all being interviewed. Check the news sites for details but what we have long known has now become a hot topic – that not only is anti-Semitism alive and well, it has now become a political stance conflated with criticism of Israeli government policy. Sorry if this is not well put! Pip

      • That is just scary! This has been a big controversy on U.S. college campuses. The line between criticism of Israel and anti-semitism has become very blurry for some people, but politicians, at least on the national stage, have not gone down that road. Yet.

      • Very worrying indeed! I’ll keep you posted. Pip

  14. Love your picture captios Rachel. We can take Maggie into the Abbey here, and she will lie down under the seat out of the way. Mind you, this is just for lighting candles for our dads, and not during a service. Saying that though, we did arrive just as one was finishing, and she was a little bemused by the sound of the organ.

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  15. Every kid should have a place like this! Amen and amen! Thanks for sharing your story with us, Rachel. 💜

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  16. Your photos are lovely. I wonder how the older ones at the Shul would have reacted if you had your dogs with you running around a bit 😉

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  17. Fantastic memories for you! Glad you had such nice experiences in your Shul.

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  18. I enjoyed reading this. I wish you could bring Butterfly and Cricket there, too 🙂

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  19. I just love how the dogs always surface in your pieces–the pictures make me laugh! We now attend a church that is really family oriented and I love how the kids are just running around being infused with community and a sense that being around God is normal. Thanks for sharing.

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  20. The first time I was in a synagogue was when I was a newly-elected councillor (we say that, not councilman, so we’re not sexist, perhaps by accident) and the new Mayor was Jewish. There was a tradition that a service was held wherever the Mayor worshipped or was supposed to worship. The building was modest and I chiefly remember two things. One was the head covering. A few councillors in the know came in hats, but this is rare nowadays in Britain and they looked like gangsters. The rest of us were handed little paper hats. Problem was, they were so light, you couldn’t feel them on your head. So most of the non-Jews during the service were periodically touching the tops of their heads to check the hat was still in place. It looked like some sort of ritual action. The other was that an impressive old man from the Jewish Ex-servicemen’s’ Association was on duty with a banner on a brass-topped pole. From time to time he snapped to attention and rapped the top of the pole against the low roof, which was only some kind of hardboard. I could easily see it going through and getting stuck, but luckily this didn’t happen.

    The second time was by invitation of the Mayor, who was something of a friend though a different party, but the third was in a very impressive building which struck me as distinctly similar to a Christian church of the more formal sort.

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    • A lot of buildings have been used as Churches and synagogues one after the other, or at the same time, so there’s lot of similarity in the architecture. The “paper hats” are hysterical. At my old synagogue they gave out very cheap white kippot that sat on the head in the same way as those paper hats, and we had a lot of men patting their heads, or crawling under the seats to retrieve the poor kippah from the floor. If you go to an orthodox synagogue, you will see a lot of gangster hats around the room, but they’ll also wear a black kippah under the hat, to be safe.

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  21. Good story. That brings back old memories of exploring a big old church as a kid – and knowing where to find every nook, cranny, and underground passage. Something the adults at their place of worship probably never find.

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    • My favorite thing was the cantor’s hidden entrance to the sanctuary. There was door out in the lobby that looked unimportant, but if you walked through it there was a catacomb type thing you could walk through and climb up the hidden stairs up onto the stage. The amount of time we spent trying to figure out how to open that door…

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  22. Baruch HaShem! I wish my Orthodox family growing up got the spiritual/God thing but they didn’t. I found it on my own in adulthood. Nice piece. Xo Mara

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  23. When I was in Army training (which lasted two years as a linguist), we weren’t *forced* to go to church, but you could either go to church or scrub the barracks with a toothbrush, essentially.

    I decided to go to church, but not belonging to any in particular, I went to different churches every week. It was an interesting theological culture study. I visited the Catholics, the Episcopalians, the Mormons, the Spanish Protestants, and on and on.

    I didn’t get to see a Jewish service, maybe because the Army only accounts for Sundays? I’m not certain, but I loved reading this post, getting more insight into what experiences you’ve had. Don’t want to intrude, but I’m fascinated by other philosophies, different perspectives. Felt like I got a brief glimpse.

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    • I’ve been to a few churches: Unitarian Universalist, Lutheran, and Episcopalian, I think, and tons of different brands of Jewish synagogues. It’s exciting to see how other people worship and find comfort, or don’t. It can help you to discover what works for you in particular, versus just what you are used to.

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  24. Thanks for the great read! I’ve never had to go to church, so my understanding of children’s opinions of attending weekly religious services is that which the media portray – that it’s boring, children hate it, they don’t respect it.

    I loved reading your thoughts about it, and really enjoyed imagining children playing around in a historical, gorgeous building. It made me wish that I had such an experience in my childhood. My family had always just been my small immediate family; I’ve never had the joy of an extended, non-blood-related family.

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    • I think at this point in my life I’d need a much bigger building to create the same awed-feeling. Maybe a castle would work. But it’s so worth it, to feel like there is something all around you, in the air. I thoroughly recommend it.

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  25. A great post which really led me into your childhood world – and as for your dog… very cute!

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  26. What great memories of your religious life. I love this phrase, “…where God is infused into the walls of the building…” Giving children the space they need in order to find God on their own time and in their own way makes all the difference.

    My Fat White Dog just went to the vet for surgery for tumor removal. Time goes by so fast when you have a 4-footed companion to love. I had no idea she was already 9 years old! Every time I take one of my loved companions into the vet for surgery, I worry. With Cricket and Butterfly as your constant companions, I’m positive that you worry, too, when they’re at the vet all alone.

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  27. So funny your candy memories in the synagogue…one of my most vivid memories involves the lack of candy we children received in our Christmas bags of oranges and nuts at the Southern Baptist church my family attended whenever the doors were open. I always hoped for candy!
    Great story.

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  28. I wish my church had made me feel as welcome as your Shul did you!

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  29. A great read.

    Thanks

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  30. I meant to comment before: shul rat is not a good descriptor for you!😀

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