Venice Beach was rather like St Kilda Beach on steroids: performers, fortune tellers, artists, souvenirs, incense, pot, arm-wrestling and tattoos and, of all things – a tiny synagogue.
‘I’m sure I can hear davening,’ said Al as they politely declined invitations for a free foot massage.
And there it was, right on the sand – a hall with the doors open to the breeze, and a Shabbat service in progress. Outside on the walls were murals – sort of half Chagall, half dream world. ‘The Young Israel of Santa Monica: Frum but Funky’ said the slogan. The congregation, mostly bearded, all appeared to be in shorts and leather sandals, and when they saw Al they immediately knew (sixth sense?) that he was Jewish. They were very cordial and welcoming, particularly when he accidently mentioned that he was a Cohen. He was given every honour. They invited him to read from the Torah, and even suggested he might like to lift the scroll up in the traditional manner for the tiny gathering of men to see. For all its ‘funky-ness’, it was Orthodox, so Rosa, the only woman present, was relegated to a white plastic chair at the back of the sandy hall.
* * *
The synagogues on the Upper West Side were an eclectic mix. Rosa and Al were intrigued because the building they selected to visit still bore the architectural features of the church it had once been. The congregation was different from that of the Young Israel of Santa Monica; these mostly young families were equipped with guitars and tambourines, and their yarmulkes were embroidered with fruits and flowers.
‘That design looks like a cannabis plant,’ murmured Al.
A charming young couple were particularly welcoming. ‘We’d love for you to visit for dinner tonight,’ they said. And so Al and Rosa, armed with the best bottle of Australian wine they could find, visited the tiniest apartment imaginable. They ate in the kitchen and no one could get up from the table unless the rest all moved. It was very Woody Allen – Manhattan.
* * *
‘I’m not ready to get up yet, you go for a walk,’ said Rosa one morning. And there it was again, the cultural ‘pull’, the ‘thread’:
Unpack the history suitcase, Al, and find your kippa, or, as it’s Noo Yawk, your yarmulke. Any normal tourist might go for a run around the Park, grab a Starbucks coffee and Krispy Kreme ‘donut’, buy the New York Times; but for you, an Australian Jew from Bondi, it will be different.
He returned in time for breakfast at the corner diner and told her all about the beauty he’d discovered in the city’s old Sephardi synagogues. Rosa’s never thought of him as religious, but there she was, probably wrong again!
* * *
‘The museums are all along Fifth Avenue,’ said Rosa. ‘It’s the posh side of Central Park.’ So they embarked on the time-honoured pilgrimage: the Guggenheim, the Frick, the Met – and then Temple Emanu-El, which is not a museum at all but the largest Reform synagogue in the world. The poor ‘huddled masses’ memorialised in so many schmaltzy movies and books were desperate to assimilate as quickly as possible and become real Americans. It wasn’t a case of ‘Gimme that ole time religion’; instead, they hurried to shave the beards, learn the language and change Schwartz to Curtis (cf. Tony), Beskidzka to Wilder (cf. Billy) and Marrix to Marx (cf. the Brothers). Many of them sealed the deal by ‘marrying out’. But American or not, the ‘thread’ still held and these aspirational newcomers still wanted a kosher place of worship for those all-important life-cycle events such as births, marriages (in or out) and death. Temple Emanu-El is on the tourist itinerary for Jews and non-Jews alike. Al kept a diary and wrote:
Temple Emanu-El is known to its critics as St Emanuel. Not surprising – it looks like a Renaissance church decorated in vaguely Moorish style. It seats 2,000. Service started at 5.15 and was to be broadcast on NY radio. Lots of organ music and a choir, cantor and two rabbis, none of whom was wearing a hat. There was a 30 minute clinical service with minimum Hebrew.
* * *
‘It’s Simchat Torah,’ said Al. ‘Be a good day to see what the Lubavitch are up to. Let’s go to Rebbe country in Brooklyn.’
‘Sure,’ responded Rosa, reminding herself that this was the Rejoicing of the Law festival and that the frummers were likely to be pretty excitable in their celebrations. It wouldn’t be anything likeTemple Emanu-El.
In Brooklyn they emerged from the subway station into a different world. Most pedestrians they saw were either black, or very Orthodox Jews dressed in black, and Al and Rosa felt quite out of place.
‘Did you remember to bring your yarmulke?’ asked Rosa, who was feeling rather self-conscious about her politically incorrect pants suit.
They heard 770 Parkway, the Lubavitch headquarters, before it even came into view. Simchat Torah is a festival for singing and dancing – ‘rejoicing’ is the injunction. Crowds of black-garbed men and head-scarved women milled about on the pavement outside the building where food vans were dispensing all kinds of delicacies and soft drinks.
‘Come, come inside,’ the men said to Al. ‘Come and celebrate!’
‘You too,’ the women said to Rosa. ‘Upstairs to the Ladies’ Gallery, you’ll have a lovely view of everything.’
So Al disappeared into the large downstairs hall and Rosa climbed the stairs. In the Gallery the women greeted her with enormous kindness: ‘You can’t see a thing from there in the back row. We’ll pass you down over our heads to the front row by the rail so that you can enjoy watching your husband dancing.’
And that’s what they did; Rosa was picked up bodily and ferried down to the front of the balcony. It was an astonishing sight, all these bearded men dancing and singing, and of course she couldn’t find Al anywhere in the happy throng.
No, this certainly did not have the same gravitas as Temple Emanu-El. And Al and Rosa didn’t really fit well in either place of worship.