Beyond the synagogue

Left: "Beyond the Synagogue"; right: Rachel B. Gross (Courtesy)

    “Is the Jewish deli the new synagogue?” Andrew Silow Carroll asked in his headline for a recent JTA article. He posed the question after speaking with author Rachel Gross, who recently published her book Beyond the Synagogue: Jewish Nostalgia as Religious Practice.

    The notion that Jewish life can be found outside the synagogue is not new, but is perhaps a more urgent and topical concept now that so many synagogues are—and remain—closed.

    We are about to go into Passover without having opened the doors and that means we have completed an entire cycle of holidays—outside our synagogues. Yet, Jewish life in Omaha continues, from the never-ending Zoom classes, services and meetings to random phone calls, food drop-offs, social-distance walks (when it’s warm enough) and life-cycle events we refuse to miss—even if we attend from our living room. More than ever, we are aware of what’s missing when we can’t physically come together. Once we can open those doors again, we will flock back stronger than ever, determined to enjoy each other’s company- I do not doubt that.

    “I’m arguing against a bunch of things,” Gross said. “One is a really narrow understanding of American Jewish religion tied to legacy institutions like synagogues, federations and JCCs. Thinking narrowly about Jewish religion, especially as synagogue services, has led American Jewish community leaders and some scholars to see American Jewish religion in decline. And I, building on the work of many scholars in religious studies, see religion really broadly. I think about religion as things that are meaningful to people and that place people in meaningful conversations with their community, and things that establish really sacred relationships between people, the divine and ancestors — a whole range of sacred relationships and networks. And when we think about religion that way, it lets us broaden our scope and see American Jewish religion as thriving in places that American Jewish community leaders have not largely focused on.”

    There is a lot here we can pick apart and criticize. In fact, I think there is enough in this paragraph to debate for weeks. But, besides the fact that JCCs do not equal religion (where did she come up with that?), we are more than a religion, we are a people, and so of course not every Jewish aspect of our lives happens in shul. And: Jewish life, if you want to narrowly define it only in religious terms, happens in the home as much as at synagogue. And our homes are still very much open, thank you very much. besides, even though synagogues have closed, if services move online, are they really closed? So we temporarily exist in a different space, so what?

    Gross also said: “Everything depends on money and, in fact, everything depends on material culture, which is the academic term for stuff. I think it’s a mistake to think of religion as “higher things” divorced from the material world in which we live. I’m interested in how religion works in real people’s real lives. And that’s through commerce and that’s through material goods. We’re physical beings in a physical world.”

    I’m not entirely sure why this irritates me so much, and please don’t take my word for it, but I think Gross assumes a great many things about how organizations and synagogues operate. Whoever said our religious life was divorced from the everyday and the mundane? Don’t those already go together? Why else do we have a bracha for handwashing and getting up in the morning and, for goodness’ sake, going to the bathroom? It sounds like she has some preconceived notions that lead her to conclude Jewish organizations and synagogues just don’t get it. She also introduces the idea that the Jewish identity that is expressed in food will most likely pop up elsewhere in our lives as well. Just because we experience eating a bagel as a “Jewish thing” doesn’t mean it will be the only Jewish thing.

    Maybe; I can agree with the notion that our shared food has created a cultural bond, but I can’t think of eating a knish or a brisket as a religious experience—or even a pathway to religion. I want to have my cake and eat it. I want the food and the service. I want the books and the music and the prayers, the life cycle events and the sermon. I want the vacations to Israel and the hamsas on the kitchen wall, the jokes and the movies and the Priestly Blessing. Most of all, I want to know that the synagogue is my home.

    The underlying problem here is the idea of choice: to be Jewish is something that must be expressed a certain way to be valid. Gross accuses Jewish organizations and synagogue leadership of the sin she commits herself: the faulty belief that there is a right way to be Jewish, that there is only one way. You either get stuck in how things used to be, or you move with the times. Perhaps I just don’t get it (it wouldn’t be the first time) but every time an academic tries to explain us to us, I feel like there are a lot of empty words on the page. Tell me Jewish life does not only take place in the synagogue, and I’m with you. But don’t imply the synagogue is no longer relevant. You want ‘real?’ The synagogue, for many of us, is very real.

    The Jewish deli is not ‘the new synagogue.’ Neither are the museums, the theaters, the library or the kosher section at your local supermarket. The synagogue is what it has always been, a patient building that welcomes us home, where we can pray, bond, build relationships and be ourselves. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.