Part of the comprehensive Temple Emanu-el Bar Mitzvah training calls for the Bar Mitzvah boy and family to attend a minimum number of B'Nai Mitzvot in the year leading up to their own celebration. I can't remember what the number was, but it's more than five.
Given that we are Jews, and San Francisco Jews at that, plenty of people we know chose to take this particular edict as more of a suggestion than a requirement. Not us. There are a few things you can say about my bride, my child and I: we love a party, we show up on time, and we honor our commitments.
There are two sactuaries at Temple Emanu-el, as befitting a massive mega-synogogue that employs multiple rabbis. This is good, because it allows for two B'Nai Mitzvot each weekend. Otherwise, there'd be a terrible backlog of Jewish teens aching to enter adulthood with nary an alter at which to do so.
To add another layer of complication, students at Brandeis Hillel Day School must schedule out their events two years in advance. Since everyone is required (again, another "suggestion," I've since learned) to attend each other's Bar and Bat Mitzvot, we must make schedule out well in advance, so as not to step on each other's toes.
On the day we sat down at the temple to schedule our Bar Mitzvah date, we had so far attended one event at the temple. We were total rookies. I can't remember what the event was for, but it took place in the smaller, more intimate Martin-Meyer Sanctuary, not the imposing, church-like Main Sanctuary.
We would later learn that approximately 85% of the kids in the Jawa's class had chosen to hold their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs in the Martin-Meyer Sanctuary. At the time, all I knew was that the Martin-Meyer Sanctuary seemed to be the physical embodiment of why I'd never joined a temple as an adult. My response to it was visceral, negative and total.
Backtrack with me a bit, here -- I am a Jew, born a Jew, circumsized a Jew, raised a Jew. And the truth of being a Jew is that you can run, but you can't hide. I could have dyed my hair blonde and drank endless seas of gin and tonics, Hitler wouldn't have cared. Still a Jew. You put me in a room full of Jews, yes, I am one of them.
If you were to add up all the time I've spent in religious settings, though, you'd find that since I was eighteen, actually, since I started dating non-Jews (and they have all been non-Jews), I've spent more time in other people's houses of worship than my own. Consider the impact of four years at a Jesuit university (Santa Clara, the name famously misplaced by my grandmother when my Great Neck cousins asked her where I went to school), plus another year of grad school at another Jesuit University, followed by two years of teaching at a Catholic high school, and I'm probably as much a Jewsuit as I am a Jew.
Or so I think. Remember, you can run but you can't hide. Raised Jewish, trained Catholic, full of guilt, as the saying goes.
A couple of times during my fledgeling years, I let girls talk me into going to religious events. Once in high school, I went to a Campus Crusade pizza night because I figured all the hot chicks would be there. I was correct. None of them were looking for a swarthy heathen non-believer that night, though.
In 1990, my then-girlfriend told me I had to attend church with her if we were to have any kind of future. It was one of those non-denominational mega-church outfits, with the easy-listening rock music, the bright-eyed, enthusiastic pastor and a women doing sign language for the hearing impaired. I looked over at my precious girlfriend, whose eyes were shut in rapture, her arms held straight up to the sky, and thought, "We. Are. Doomed."
And we were.
Two years ago, we were treated at Martin-Meyer to what I thought figured was the San Francisco Jewish version of a lite rock Christian service. Being Jews, we had hippies where they had clean-cut preppy blondes. Some guy with a ponytail, playing the guitar, walking up and down the center aisle and singing folky versions of prayers to greet us as we entered the room.
I grew up thinking that being Jewish meant resenting the intrusion of any religion, including my own. That ponytail guy brought out the most base, self-loathing feeling of "otherness." My first response was to think, "Geez, this guy better shut up. What if someone hears?
This not being Nazi Germany, we were fine. The singing, the dancing, all of that, though? Not for me. I left convinced I would prefer an old-style religious experience, with the old men mumbling and swaying, the rabbi bringing down an Old Testament-style angry God kind of sermon. Must be the latent Catholic in me; Hebrew, Latin, what's the difference?
Based on this experience, and based on the fact that our Bar Mitzvah guest list would include a disproportionately high percentage of people who are not Jewish, including many who've never had much exposure to the Chosen People, we decided to opt for the main sanctuary. "It's more church-like," explained Sandra Bullock to anyone who asked.
Then the Bar Mitzvahs started. Week after week, we sat in Martin-Meyer. Weirdly, the ponytail guy never returned. I got used to the silver-haired hippie cantor and her bongo-playing sidekick. The folky mandolin playing I found soothing. My wife and I began to appreciate the intimacy of the room. In the Main Sancturary, you have to climb a big flight of stairs to get to the Torah. Here, it was only a couple of steps up.
The big room comes with a choir and an organ, which suddenly seemed dull and outdated. The big room cantor is operatic. No one sings along, for fear of butchering her beautifully-enunciated lines. And the room is enormous. Our little Bar Mitzvah party might get swallowed up by its enormity.
About three months in, we changed our minds. We wanted the Martin-Meyer. So we went to the woman in charge of such things and asked if we could move.
No dice. It's already booked for another Bar Mitzvah that day. Besides, through this whole thing, even as he watched most of his classmates opt for the groovier Martin-Meyer experience, the Jawa has steafastly insisted he prefers the Main Sanctuary. And, as his mother still points out, though now more to convince herself than anyone else, "It's more churchy. It'll be more comfortable for some of our guests."
Did we make the time-honored mistake of assuming that God was more likely to show up in a room more formally designed for His grand presence? Was it yet another case of Jewish self-loathing on my part? Did we cave, assuming the worst about our non-Jewish guests, rather than inviting them to immerse themselves in modern Reformed Jewish culture?
Whatever the reason, we are sticking with the Main Sanctuary, at the risk of it intimidating our Jewish guests and causing intense flashback boredom to our guests raised in The Church. In case of either occurance, here's a tip: there are 108 lights in the Main Sanctuary. Count then.