A few weeks ago I began to share with you the uncommon experience that is JRC on the high holidays. My intention was to share the stories but I got wrapped up in setting the stage. Now it is time for the stories.
The first is technically from Rosh Hashanah. Howard, our cantor, shared his experiences from his extended time off earlier in the year. Howard chose to visit services from the vast variety of Jewish, Christian and Muslim services in the Chicago area. One of his main themes was despite the great differences in the services in form, substance and god across religions and even within the different sects of Judaism, he was consistently welcomed warmly by both clergy and congregation wherever he went. His stories were often hilarious and I can not do them justice attempting to repeat them here. The telling of the stories lent two impressions. First that of the personal warmth and humanness of the storyteller. Second,common are our bonds as people no matter the specifics of what we believe and how we choose to seek an understanding of our universe.
There were two deeply moving stories. First, a man shared his experiences from within the walls of Folsom Prison. Yes the same prison made famous by Johnny Cash. Today it houses men convicted of the worst of the possible violent crimes. This man was not a prisoner but part of an annual program in which men from all walks of life share three days with 30 hardened criminals discussing their lives. Not just the lives of the prisoners but all the participants.
The first amazing part of this amazing story is that agreeing to do this was not enough to get you in. This man needed to be accepted by convicted killers and rapists. All would be sharing their darkest fears and secrets during the three days. Acceptance required standing up in front of 30 prisoners and being asked why they should trust you. At one point a prisoner got directly into his face. He spoke of weeping openly as he thought about his life and the mistakes his regrets. He was accepted.
The second amazing part is what he learned about the prisoners as men. That even those who had committed horrible crimes still had bits of humanity. One man spoke of his sadness that he would not be there for his young son and that he was afraid that his son would end up following a similar path to his. Even more interesting was what the JRC congregant discovered about himself. He discovered that he had built his own prison. One made of fears that kept him from becoming the man he wanted to become and from doing things he wanted to do. He had turned down for several years the opportunity to participate in this program. The thought of three days in the heat and discomfort of Folsom being with hardened criminals did not seem appealing. Yet in the end it is what set him free.
I was in tears listening to this story. I know that I have let the enormous pool of fears that engulfs me keep me from doing and being more. I could definitely relate. This was not the type of experience I would have had in the synagogue I grew up in. Yet it was extreme but not out of the ordinary for JRC.
While I like to tell stories. I am not a professional. At JRC there are several people who make their living as storytellers. Who even knew this was profession? On each day of the High Holidays one of our storytellers shares a story, typically a one of Jewish tradition with a meaning relevant to the holiday. I don’t particularly care for professionally told stories. I prefer ones that come from the heart told in less than perfect manner by a person. The sing-song cadence of the professional storyteller tends to bore me rather than pull me into the tale.
One exception was the story told on Rosh Hashanah about becoming a grandfather for the first time. This story was well constructed as one would expect from a professional but this was indeed from the heart. It sang with honest emotion. Contrast that with the storyteller on Yom Kippur. I had heard her many times before and as I said I tend not to enjoy a story told professionally. Yet on this day she seemed off her game. The sometimes faulty delivery actually brought me more into what she was saying than if she had been “perfect” as defined by the union of professional storytellers.
During the Torah reading portions, there will be three different readers. On Yom Kippur one of the readers was an elderly lady who actually read from a card rather than the Torah scrolls. The rabbi made a point of commenting that an exception was being made for Shirley. Shirley mad one small error during her reading but was generally great. I turned to my wife to ask how old she thought Shirley was. I had thought late seventies. My wife suggested eighties. More on Shirley later.
After the morning services, JRC has a long-standing tradition of having an “open mike” session. Anyone who signs up gets three minutes to talk about anything. We had never stayed for open mile. In the past our son would be anxious to leave. However, being empty nesters does provide extra freedom. So we stayed.
The talks covered a variety of subjects. Several people discussed the recent loss of loved ones and often spoke of the assistance and kindness provided by members of the congregation that helped them through. One poor man lost four close relatives in the past year. One man spoke on behalf of Israel and while acknowledging the flaws of this kindred nation was asking for continued support.
(As an aside, while I was growing up, the state of Israel was the just and righteous country. It was the little Jewish state just trying to exist among powerful countries that on multiple occasions tried to drive the Jews into the sea. Somewhere along the way many mistakes were made and horrific acts of violence perpetrated on the Palestinians. Israel is no longer without blemish. This is a difficult conundrum for Jews wanting to show support for a Jewish homeland.)
Other open mike topics fell into the general category of “I am doing good things and I am publically patting myself on the back”. OK, this may be a bit harsh. I am sure that these people who are doing very good things just want others to know about them.
The second speaker during open mike and normally the first was Shirley the Torah reader. She walked with a cane and needed help climbing the stairs. Her first words were “I am 92 years old”. That led to several moments of applause. She went on to say that in the past she would share statistics about her exercise routines. Miles walked, number of push ups done, etc. I am guessing that I have missed years of entertaining milestones from a woman much older than she looked. This year she spoke about the trials she had been through. She had been through several illnesses and injuries and for months had been in constant, considerable pain. Only fairly recently had a doctor, a JRC member no less, figured out how to relieve much of her pain.
Shirley spoke of how she began to doubt if she wanted to fight after being so worn down with so much. Maybe at her age it was time to let go. She had lived a good life, a long life. (I suspect that many people would think of themselves or anyone above the age of eighty in that way. Yet with someone younger they would be encouraging the person to kep fighting. Age discrimination?) Fortunately for anyone within the sphere of Shirley’s life she is still kicking. I for one look forward to next year when I suspect we will again be regaled with stat after stat of her exercise achievements. I certainly hope so.
We did not stay for the various discussion groups that followed the open mike session.By then we succumbed to the early hunger pains that are a part of Yom Kippur. It was time to go home and nap.
For those of you who grew up in and/or live in a Jewish tradition I suspect that JRC is not the norm. Yes we do say prayers, read Hebrew and the like but the connections to G-d, good works, and community are done in a way that is unique and special.