On Friday I went to "Friday Night Live," a monthly service run by Sinai Temple, a conservative synagogue in Beverly Hills, that attempts to to get "young professionals" (ages 21-39, we're told) into the synagogue whichever way they can.
I went last month and drank a huge cup of coffee beforehand, thinking I was in for, you know, a Shabbat service, but it turned out I was in no danger of falling asleep. In addition to the rabbi and the cantor there's a large band with horns, bongo drums, saxophone and other random instruments popping out of nowhere. The whole service served mainly as an excuse for the songs, which seemed to last about 17 minutes each. A benign-looking prayer of three lines of Hebrew turned into a Andrew LLoyd Webber tune as covered by Jethro Tull. In reality, they sounded kind of like tracks off of Paul Simon's "Graceland." At one point I sang "Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes" along with one melody, and it fit perfectly. I kept expecting the ten-man African chorus Ladysmith Black Mambazo to emerge from the wings.
And then, the next month — this past Friday — they did. Sort of. For the third straight year, in celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday month, the temple invited a church choir and a black preacher. This time, during the songs, the choir would sometimes participate, and would sometimes sing their own songs, with lines like "God is awesome" — not Christian, really, more just general atheism.
The service was so out of the ordinary that I found it rather hilarious when the rabbi had the audience chant the v'ahavtah in a normal manner, and the audience dutifully turned into zombies again. The v'ahavtah is a prayer that everyone always takes such pride in chanting, or being able to chant, making it all the more ridiculous that no one knows what the hell the Hebrew means. Everyone's earnestness always makes me feel embarrassed and I do my own form of rebellion by chanting half-heartedly while silently reading the English translation. I thought it was rather amusing that the temple seemed to be saying ok, we'll bring the young kids in with our alterno-folk-funk-klezmer cover of the Mi Chamochah, but don't worry, we'll let you chant your v'ahavtah in the same boring old way.
Then the preacher came on to give the sermon and he got pretty animated. Really animated. Like yelling and screaming and flailing about, possessed by the power of his ideas and his oratory. But it was all about very general things. Like Osama Bin Laden bad, America good. And at times verging on anti-religious -- in one line he complained that in the presidential election, the candidates have to show how much they love Jesus in order to get elected. This election? The one in which the only candidate with any sort of religious fervor that anyone cares about is Mike Huckabee? I felt a little bad for him, since the crowd was perhaps the least responsive he's ever faced. bunch. Jews are unresponsive by nature, and these Jews were also shell-shocked by the whole display. One or two people seemed to give a couple "yeahs" and "uh-uhs" but I they were in the choir.
In 28 years of going to services, I've heard maybe one round of applause. This service had a dozen.
Afterwards, as per FNL custom, the "young professionals," ages 21-39, wait in line to get into the "lounge," where Jews are supposed to eat, drink, mingle, so that they may eventually date, have babies and move to Israel. A cop stands at the door making sure everyone is at least 21 and at most 39. He had to kick out two women who looked like they were in their 50s.
Last month, the lounge served one alcoholic drink, vodka and cranberry juice. This month, the drinks consisted of water, beer, and Hanson fruit sodas. But really just water and Hanson fruit sodas, since the beer was gone in about 15 minutes. Oh, and the food on the table was fried chicken, corn bread, and collard greens. The first problem with that is that it's not kosher to put chicken and products made with milk on the same table, which I don't really care about, but which is an amusing oversight nonetheless. The second problem: Who brought this food? Did the choir and the preacher bring it? Ok then. But what if the temple brought it? They might as well have gone right ahead and called it "Black People Night."
I want to note that none of this was particularly offensive to me — as it was to some people — but I did spend the entire time completely dazed and amused. Weirdest. Shabbat Service. Ever.