a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Shul Review

Posted on: July 25, 2011

I’ve mentioned in several posts that I think that all people should visit a Baptist church at least once in their lives.  There are churches in Harlem that are on guided tours of NYC.  Tourists can attend these churches and get an experience of what going to church in NYC is like.  I’m not sure how much I agree with this sort of church visiting. 

A Few Church Memories:

When I was trying really hard to be Episcopal I attended the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine on the Upper West Side.  It too was on a guided tour map of NYC.  I remember sitting in church trying really hard to get into worship and getting distracted by tourists trying to figure out what exactly they were experiencing.  I remember their conversation vividly.

Tourist One in stage whisper,”There’s a Star of David, maybe it’s a Jewish Church”

Tourist Two in stage whisper,”No, there’s a crucifix.  Maybe it’s Catholic.”

Tourist One-“No the priest-person is a woman.”

Erika in full voice-“It’s Episcopalian and this is a real Sunday service so kindly shut up.”

They shut up, I went back to looking at the cute priest-person.

A few decades before hand I’m sitting in what is possibly the longest Sunday sermons in recorded history at Friendship Baptist Church in Toledo, Ohio.  At least the longest to my 11 year old mind.  The Holy Ghost dance had already been danced a few times.  Women and men are sweating profusely and fanning themselves vigorously as Pastor tries to finish the sentence he’s been working on for the past ten minutes.  “And Ga-wd”.   Yes.  Thank you, Jes-us!  Whoo.  Hallelujah, Jesus.  “And Ga-wd said”.  Oh, yes Jesus.  Hallelujah!  Praise his name.  “Ga-wd said”

Just as I’m about to march myself up to the pulpit and finish the sentance for him he continues ” Whoo, Jesus!  Thank you, Jesus, Hallelujah!…I just…I just gotta dance!”  and in that instant he’s off the pulpit again.  The organ starts up again and another few ladies fall out on the ground again.  At least another hour and a half before we’re allowed to leave.

A few years later in all-school Mass in high school, a black student got the Holy Ghost.  Right in the middle of Mass.  As I heard the familiar, “Whoo, Thank You, Jesus” I slumped down in my chair.  Naturally, as the token black girl in my home room a few of my peers asked me what “happened” to the girl.  I tried to explain and will admit as an adult, that I was terribly embarrassed.

Today, as a 31 year old I’m in a sort of in and in between place.  In my heart and soul of worship the Holy Ghost dance, while never something my immediate family engaged in, is part of my experience.  I would actually do the most praying in church. Praying that Pastor wouldn’t “zap” my mom with the Holy Ghost and embarrass me.  It seemed to me that Pastor held a magic wand and with a flip of his wrist, would and could shoot the Holy Ghost into an unexpected victim.  My prayer was always, “Please don’t let Mom get the Holy Ghost, God, Please!” 

She never did.  Instead, I have wonderful memories of watching my mother hear something in the message that caused her to stand up from her pew.  She’d sometimes stand with her eyes closed, face tilted upwards with her arms lifted about shoulder height, bent at the elbows, palms to the heavens.  Sometimes, in this state I’d watch her lips move in silent prayer.  Sometimes she’d just say, “Jesus”  sometimes tears would stream down her face.  I don’t know how I felt, really, as a child but as an adult reflecting on watching my mother’s connection to prayer, to God, to worship is inspiring and something that I will never forget.  I do remember feeling confused and at the same time totally in awe of her powerful connection to God.  Something I never felt.

Friday night I visited Romemu on the Upper West Side. Romemu’s About section is lengthy and thorough. 

“. . a welcoming home where men and women participate equally and fully in song, dance, learning and praying

. . an oasis in New York City where you can focus on your heart and catch your breath

. . a place where we chant Hebrew prayers together, sing powerful wordless melodies, and have moments of deep silence

. . a space that honors insights and practices found in many eastern spiritual paths, and that offers meditation and yoga within a deeply Jewish practice

. . a center dedicated to a Yiddishkeit– Judaism – that opens body, heart, mind and spirit to experience greater compassion, courage, and joy in our lives

Romemu (roh·meh·moo) seeks to integrate body, mind, and soul in Jewish practice. Unabashedly eclectic, we engage in body practices like yoga, infuse traditional liturgy with the energy of ecstatic chant, and ground our practice with meditation and contemplation. This is a Judaism that will ignite your Spirit.

We are a progressive, fully egalitarian community committed to tikkun olam, or social action, and to service that flows from an identification with the sacredness of all life.

Romemu creates an integral & holistic prayer experience based upon the on five basic freedoms:

Movement-Space to stretch, dance and find the natural movement of your body that opens you to prayer.

Voice-Safety to find many forms of voice, including singing, speaking, crying and laughing.

Thought-Thinking is both critical and analytical. Both spirituality and intellectual honesty flourish together.

Silence-Freedom to be silent, to quiet the mind and nurture the soul through time-honored contemplative practices.

Commitment- An invitation to commit, to be bound to a community that expects and relies upon your active participation, both as members of the congregation and as socially conscious and aware citizens of the world.

We believe that these five freedoms provide the foundation to live more meaningful lives; lives full of loving kindness, Spirit, peace, joy, and commitment.”

I still can’t quite put my finger on my experience at Romemu except to say that it was nostalgic.  Everything that they write on their website about what Romemu is was true.  It was sort of like being in a Baptist Church in that when so moved by Spirit, congregants stood up and danced.  It was sort of like being in a Buddhist temple in that congregants could pray in a seated position on the floor, there was time for a brief guided meditation.

Thing is, I’m not a holy dancer.  I’m not going to bring a drum to synagogue and pound away it it ( I went through my Lady’s Drum Circle phase in the early 2000s)  I always got antsy in meditation and don’t enjoy sitting still in silence for long periods of time.  I don’t really get into banging tamborines.  I do enjoy a space that makes room for these forms of worship, even if they’re not for me. I’m not inclined to clap all of the time, but I have in certain shuls I’ve visited, been moved to sing.  I’ve been moved to sway, I’ve been moved to clap, I’ve been moved to pound out the beat on my Siddur. I enjoy a space that has room for people to worship in a way that they see fit.  The way that the Reform movement modeled itself was to be more in line with Protestant counterparts, High Church if you will.  I’ve never been comfortable in the stiff, sit up straight, sort of worship spaces.  Can you imagine how some people would react if a congregant shouted, “Hallelujah” during Kabbalat Shabbat service?  People would look and stare, people would probably scrunch up their face in confused judgement, people would be shocked and appalled.  Why.  Perhaps because it’s not what they’re used to.  Perhaps they see something too Southern Baptist in it.  Perhaps it’s because it’s not what “we” do.  I wonder, though. 

Psalm 150 declares that we praise God and gives us many examples of how we’re to praise him.  When the Israelites were saved from Pharoah’s army at the Sea of Reeds Miriam leads the people in a song and dance of praise and gratitude.  Why have we lost this way of expressing love and gratitude to God?

I’ve visited a handful of shuls that have movement during prayer.  It’s something that I’ve been craving since I started posting a year ago.  I’m not sure if Romemu is my shul, it’s terribly far away and I was the only person of color present.  It misses points in areas but gains big points in other, most importantly engaged and an awed sense of Judaism.


2 Responses to "Shul Review"

Love this entry. I was raised Southern Baptist and know *exactly* what you’re talking about! The sweet old lady that ‘fell out’ on me in the choir loft one Sunday (and I mean literally, she was in the chair in front of me, got up, danced around, and fell backwards right on me)…what a day. I said many versions of your short prayer about the Holy Ghost after that!

“Why have we lost this way of expressing love and gratitude to God?”
I *have* wondered about that very thing too! Why does our joy on Shabbat and other holidays have to be so solemn? There’s been moments during the d’var Torah where I’ve had that flash of insight on a line of scripture and went “Amen” instinctively – and others have looked at me as though I was nuts.

It’s funny, though; my husband and I have made a GLBT synagogue here in Chicago our home, and even though I’m still the only black face in it, I feel more comfortable here than in any of the other shuls I shopped. And I think it’s because they didn’t look at me and go OMG diversity at last, or question my desire to be there; they just embraced me and didn’t care what I looked like.

Oh Holy Ghost Dance! 🙂 It can be quite alarming, especially when it comes out of no where-or when you’ve got a lady in your lap! 🙂

Folks should “Amen” in shul if something inspires them! There is a music director at a shul I’m interested in who’s mission is to “give Jews their rhythm back” it is, of course, not his “real” mission-it’s funny. One of the reasons Iove to visit Orthodox shuls is because there’s so much love for God and love for Torah. It’s liberating to see them davening with such abandon.

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