I am a 22 year old Jewish girl from North London and I am on the hunt. No, not for a nice Jewish boy but for the ‘perfect synagogue’. It has to be friendly, welcoming, interesting and well …to be honest, I’m not sure.
Join me on a journey through our Jewish community; to the shtetl and beyond, one synagogue at a time!
On a sleepy suburban road sits the understated, elegant and very British orthodox community of Barnet Synagogue. It is simple, but pristine; shy yet friendly. It is everything one expects and hopes from orthodox Anglo-Jewry.
As I entered, I passed smiling members greeting each other with ‘good Shabbas’, old friends and complete strangers alike. No, it was not the same overwhelming warmth and outreaching friendship one might find at certain more reform, progressive or ‘Americanized’ congregations, but the warmth was there and it was authentic.
At the top of the stairs the two doors stand side by side. Ladies on the left, gentlemen on the right. What kind of hiding place was I about to walk into? Were there going to be curtains? Walls? Bars to pen us in? No. There is just one, large and well-furnished room with a subtle and tasteful division from just behind the bimah. Seriously, if I were fervent attendee I could practically read the torah over the shoulder of the Rabbi! I, however, am not a fervent synagogue attendee and neither were any of the women there on this sleepy morning. The front two rows of the ladies section were completely empty.
The wives and daughters, dressed smartly, yet not ostentatiously, sat as little islands of no more than two. These islands, however, are far from impenetrable. I just sat next to a kind looking woman and she actively helped me follow the service, even answering all of my inane questions.
The ladies section, at least on this occasion, was pretty ‘well behaved’, with only a little gossiping from a few women at the back. The stereotypical mothers’ meeting in orthodox services would stick out a mile here as we are all on one level and the men can hear and see us very clearly.
Most of the time, our heads were thoroughly in the prayer books as we carefully followed the proceedings. Thank goodness for the kind lady beside me or I would have been completely lost. In a reform service, one can expect page numbers and explanations to spout out from the rabbi at frequent intervals. This synagogue just expects you to know, maybe they prefer not to patronize their experienced congregates? Therefore, I guess you have a choice; either concentrate on your book to keep up, and have a very private service, or you can look up and drink in the atmosphere.
Reform communities pray as a community. Orthodox communities seem to come together to pray as individuals. Indeed, I had forgotten about the wonderful spiritual freedom the orthodox synagogue provides. As well as designated times for silent prayer, one could simply step back and reflect or pray on their own and no one would bat an eyelid. Religion is not screamed at you here. It is as subtle, yet present and vital, as the synagogue air we drew in that morning.
A spectator on an average Saturday morning service at Barnet Shul would not necessarily be presented with a show. There is no well-rehearsed choir, no bells and whistles cantor/ chazan and definitely no rock band or organ sounding keyboard. One just watches beautifully ancient practices performed in a dignifies manner as organic, ashkenazi melodies demurely flow around the men and women with the occasional, and possibly accidental, harmony.
Towards the end of the service, I was surprised by the American accent coming out of the Rabbi for his D’var Torah. At times, his rousing, almost Gospel-like, sermon felt a complete contrast to the prim and proper nature of the members; however, some subtlety and depth could still be found in the words he spoke. Besides, a little bit of contrast enhances any dish.
Barnet synagogue is not extraordinary, but nor is an English rose. In fact, yes. Barnet synagogue is an English rose. Beautiful, elegant, dignified and wonderfully British.
You can read Emily’s original take on the Parsha this week at www.synagogueslut.wordpress.