The Rabbi’s Christmas Story and a New Prayerbook

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, January 5, 2018 / 18 Tevet 5778

Summary: Rabbi Kosak talks about attending midnight mass this year at a Catholic church and relates what it reminded him about synagogue life today. Finally, he talks about our new prayer book, which will be introduced on Saturday, January 20th. 

The Rabbi’s Christmas Story and a New Prayerbook

The roads were already icy by midday on Sunday, December 24th. I wasn’t overly concerned. We had just put new tires on the Subaru five days earlier, and there’s nothing so sticky as a fresh pair of treads. That plus the Suby’s all-wheel drive made navigating the hills around us pretty straightforward. Still, coming back from a milk run, it was clear that many other vehicles were having trouble. One skidded out going down Sunset Boulevard, slapping into the curb.

The top of our street hits 600 feet, and turning down it, I knew that my neighbor Sharon was never going to get to church that night. Her car wouldn’t make it. She sings in the choir at St. Elizabeth’s of Hungary. That’s a sweet, intimate Catholic parish up off Terwilliger. Lots of curves and solid tree cover. No chance that what little sun there was could have warmed those roads.

Pulling in front of her house, I knocked and offered to take her to midnight mass. After all, it’s one of the holiest days in the Christian year and Sharon wouldn’t want to miss services, or worse, get stranded on a dark patch of ice. Besides, I knew her priest, Father Jim. He participated in our seder last year and we struck up a relationship. He’s this big barrel-chested grey haired guy with a very Portland beard and a resonant baritone voice. If you didn’t know better, you could mistake him for Santa Claus. Before getting placed at St. Elizabeth’s, he served in Alaska for a couple of decades. As much as he enjoys Portland, he misses the Alaskan wilderness and its people. So I figured, he’s been to my house, probably time to visit his.

Their choir was meeting at 8:30 to do some vocal warm-ups. Unbeknownst to me, they were also going to “carol” for a couple of hours before the mass even began. So what started out as a favor to a friend turned into a four hour experience. Here’s what I learned during that time.

First of all, it is amazing how many of the melodies were recognizable, not just of the carols, but from the service itself. That’s what happens when you are a minority in a Christian majority country. Movies, television, books and music–so much of the host culture seeps into my “yiddisher kopf”–my Jewish head. It’s important for us as Jews to recognize that, and realize that sometimes what seems Jewish to us might just be a product of the country we live in.

Second, there were moments of loveliness when I could sense the collective soul of that community striving to serve their God in praise. So different from how we seek Hashem! The flavor, the tone and the aesthetics were other; the embodied theology of the service was certainly different. Yet despite all that was strange to me, there was an authentic spirit at work in that room.

One of the sweet nuggets mined from my interfaith efforts is that what matters most is not that we we all share something in common. That’s obvious to the point of boredom. Rather, it’s how radically different we can be as we engage in the same endeavor. If God is anywhere near as vast as we like to think, then the only honest way to approach God must be from our uniqueness and our difference. It’s like a bunch of archers lined up in a field. Each has a bow, each faces the same direction and yet points their arrow of faith at a separate target.

Third, I was the “other” on Christmas eve, the person of color. Certainly, no one else was wearing a kippah that night. Probably it was the first Christmas that any rabbi had been there. But the otherness was more substantial than that. They were coming home, and I was a visitor. They were professing the depth of their faith, and I was an observer. As friendly and kind as people were, there were moments when I felt out of place. There’s a script to any religious service that the initiated know. Visitors suffer from their sudden illiteracy. I’m saying there were moments when I felt odd.

A New Prayerbook

This brings us to Jews today and our new prayerbook. Many Jews today feel like the other when they attend a synagogue service. Otherwise competent people step into a shul and suffer from sudden illiteracy. Except that they are experiencing it in a place that should be their home. Little feels more alienating than when home is not home. We lost a lovely family a year back precisely because they couldn’t get past this sense of dislocation.

There are no easy answers to this problem, because there are so many parts to it. All of the CNS clergy and staff wrestle with this question. We introduce accessible music or streamline services, and have greeters to welcome anyone who comes to our doors. Our adult education is geared to providing people with synagogue skills. Yet Judaism has a high knowledge bar.

One important piece to this puzzle is the siddur. Long ago, our Jewish prayerbook was designed to be a “short” summary of Judaism’s central beliefs and tenets. That may be the case, but it is still hard to decode. In today’s world of texts and tweets, it also doesn’t seem so short.

That’s why we will be introducing our new prayerbook, Siddur Lev Shalem on Saturday, January 20th. It’s modeled after the Lev Shalem Mahzor prayerbook that we use on the High Holidays. There are explanations, meditations and inspirational teachings on almost every page. I am deeply grateful to Jim and Lora Meyer and Ken and Carolyn Shine for making this possible. Their generosity will impact anyone who attends our services for years to come.

It is also worth noting that whenever changes are made to a service, it is often the regulars who can experience a sense of alienation. To help ease the transition, we will distribute a page reference to the current blue siddur and will have some copies on hand for those who want to ease into the new prayerbook.

In place of a sermon, we will grab some moments here and there to look at features and teachings in the siddur.

I trust this new book will help you find new ways into tefillah–into the heart of Jewish prayer.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. In the past few months, when did you last feel out of place? What were the circumstances and how did you address your feelings?
  2. What are some of the most important books you have read? How have they changed your life?

 If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.