(Continued from here.)
(One night last week I dreamt that my synagogue decided to have another set of High Holy Day services in Guadalajara, Mexico, and I was asked to help lead. We'd stay at a luxury resort, but the services themselves would be at at 7-Eleven on the side of the highway so as to reach the most people. It sounded like great fun, especially the lounging-by-the-pool part. I think this means I need a vacation.)
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah I was at the Usual Church, where we have Shabbat services for half the year. (Only families with young kids got to use the actual, gorgeous synagogue this Yamim Nora'im, which wasn't large enough for the rest of us.) I love this place, which is big, grey, unassuming, unadorned (in deference to our co-tenancy, and well above and beyond the call of duty, they removed all church-related symbols from the walls years ago), and home to five or six different religious groups and a few small orchestras. Show up on the right winter evening and you can hear African sacred music against the backdrop of Shostakovitch or someone's Bar Mitzvah Torah portion. My favorite parts of the church sanctuary are two slightly bedraggled stone angels on either side of altar; I've decided they must be the serafim and ofanim we invoke in the Amidah, always standing tall despite decades of damage from a leaky roof.
Although I tried to be fashionably on time, I was still the first one in the Secret Rabbi Room. By 8:55 we had all gathered and hugged hello. Everyone was so energetic and happy that you might have thought we were about to run a marathon instead of stand immobile and pray for three hours. At the bima, I was amazed at how crowded it looked even at 9AM (one benefit of dividing a few thousand people into two locations instead of three). I began to sing: "Hareni mikabelet..." and heard what sounded like an echo, but couldn't have been; it was a man's voice. At this church, unlike yesterday's, I could both see mouths moving along with the prayers as well as hear what was coming out of them. The sound from the back of the sanctuary was a warm hum, a blanket of words alongside mine. From the first row, however, I could hear every utterance—flat, loud, a half a beat behind—as clear as if the singer were an inch from my ear.
I have a feeling that our first-row people, who always sit in the first row, have cousins in every religious tradition that ever existed. Ms. Loud is a champion volunteer, and once donated an important internal organ to a total stranger, saving his life. Goodness personified, she sings with boundless zeal. She is also tone deaf. Mr. Louder has been studying holy texts (the Torah, in this case, but his Buddhist, Muslim, and Methodist counterparts use different books) since birth. He can summon up appropriate verses at the blink of an eye. He loves to pray and occasionally stands and shouts his favorite lines, sometimes even a second or two before the hazzan gets to them. He is also tone deaf.
And there they both sat, about two feet away from me.
(To be continued.)