My first shabbos in Berkeley

The aron was open and three women were standing around it. They had just placed the torah back after the drasha; if I would have walked into shul at that moment I would have wondered if I was in the right shul and I would have walked outside and checked the address again to make sure that I was, in fact, in an orthodox shul. I didn’t even get into shul until the middle of laining and yet the whole process had taken hours–wait, was it hours? I couldn’t recall, I was thinking of the philosophical ramifications of left wing orthodoxy and the blurring of lines between Conservative and Orthodox shuls.

Sure I have before seen women hold the torah, dance with the torah and kiss the torah. After all, I had grown up going to the Carlebach shul on the Upper West Side where all that was accepted. Though, while I had thought we were the only ones in shul who watched TV on Saturday afternoon when we got home from shul, I didn’t know terms like ‘progressive’ and ‘egal’ back then.

I was sitting wedged between the Rabbi and assistant Rabbi. I have never even heard of this “assistant Rabbi” idea until recently– I assume it’s just a way for Modern Orthodox Rabbinical schools to get their graduates jobs faster and give them some real pulpit experience. Yet, here I sat wedged between the two of them. It was the first time I had been in a Modern Orthodox shul in which the shul dignitaries sat with the people. It was as if they were practicing some sort of Communism here. Why weren’t the Rabbi and assistant Rabbis sitting up front with the President with Israeli and American flags on each side? Hey, where were the flags?

Then, I remembered that I was in Berkeley, California, the locals call it Bezerkeley, – the type of place where flag burning is something people just do and the type of place where there is a list of counter Anti-Israel protests on the back of the shul bulletin, because people in Berkeley, and the Bay area in general, sure do love hating on Israel. I mean, it’s such a pastime here, kind of like playing chess on nittel nacht, except here it’s done more than once a year.

Beth Israel is Berkeley’s modern orthodox shul: left wing modern orthodox. This wasn’t no Young Israel moving to the right crowd, this was a sing song “let’s pretend shabbos shacharis is Rosh Hashanah” length davening. It didn’t help that I happened to show up on the day of a bar mitzvah so davening seemed to drag on and on and I hadn’t even heard anything besides laining yet.

Every seat in the shul was taken. The butt cheek room was minimal and I made a mental note that I would never show up to this shul again during an event. I couldn’t even scratch my balls since I was sitting in the front row, right behind one of those bimahs that juts into the women’s section to give them an equal view. The mechitza was low but not absurd, more then kosher and it even forced me to stretch in order to get any glimpses of what lay behind it — though of course I did make the effort. The effort didn’t yeild much- the bar mitzvah boys friends looked kind of cute, but 13 is a couple years too young for me, so I tried to find all of the women wearing talesim and yarmulkes, like everyone told me there would be. I was kind of disappointed because there weren’t any.

Though there was a lack of butt cheek room and the inability to scratch my balls without the entire congregation looking at me, now that I think about it I could have gotten away with it, but everyone looked so bored that they were just searching for something to do, something to look at and the guy in front with the purple shirt scratching his balls would have been very entertaining. Yes, I said purple shirt — after all, I was in Cali and when in Rome etc.

So I’m sitting there trying to find the friend I was supposed to meet. I suppose friend is too loose a term, but really a fan who had emailed me a few months ago inviting me over for some Mexican food if I were ever in the area. No one except for one kid recognized me, which is a good thing because the second people recognize me they always ask me if I am going to write about them or whatever it is I am doing at the time, and that always ruins it. I always want to inform them that I don’t just write about anything and everything, I actually need something to write about.

Finally it came time for the bar mitzvah kid to be called to the torah, he wore his talis the correct way, even though the solemn faces of the guests, who all wore red suede yarmulkes (so they can be racially profiled when called up to the torah) wore their talesim like capes and scarves. They all sat unmoving, for there was nowhere to go, the hall right in back of the shul was being set up for the lunch and people who are guests for a bar mitzvah usually stay put. The kid gets called up and he makes this bracha like I have never heard — I wonder if this is what it’s like at Conservative and Reform shuls. He lained very nicely, and I began to wonder if had he made a mistake, would he be corrected by anyone – but his aliyah was very short. It was then that I recalled that Vayigash was in fact my bar mitzvah parsha.

There was a yasher koach from the rabbi and a couple of “pshhh” but no mazel tovs, no singing, no ring around the bimah, just moving along to a short speech from the Rabbi about the bar mitzvah boy and then all of that bimah stuff that makes your stomach growl. Y’know, that stuff that yeshivish shuls don’t do, like prayers for Israel and the Government, do people who don’t agree with government policies still say the prayer for them? I noticed during the mi-shebarachs that many of the names were in English (very cool) and that none of the names were ridiculously long and that no one seemed to be using the mi-shebarach to figure out how many names they could say really quickly. I have always thought that some people were just pulling names out of thin air.

Then there was the haftorah sung by the bar mitzvah boy and then everyone threw candy, and I witnessed something that I never thought would happen. There was only one kid waiting for the candy to be thrown. The lone kid was this little chunky kid who will definitely be one of the few obese kids in Berkeley, scampering around on hands and knees picking up candy. Mighty boring candy for a bar mitzvah by the way, Sunkist candies and individually packaged sugar fruit slices like the kind you eat on pesach in a tea room. One kid running for candy, what kind of place was this? Were the parents so healthy that their kids were disgusted by candy and they wanted nothing to do with the candy grabbing? Were the kids so liberal that they didn’t want to take part in the violence? Let’s admit it, kids picking up candy after an ufruf or bar mitzvah isn’t exactly friendly sport. To my relief a couple of kids joined in, but it was way too friendly, I wanted to see kids beating each other up for the prized red fruit slices, but it never happened.

Then the bar mitzvah kid got up to speak, the assistant rabbi told me he would speak 5 minutes, the rabbi assured me no more than 8. I wanted to get up and leave but I didn’t want to lose my seat and appear as if I came to shul just for the Kiddush, so I decided against my ideology and stayed in for the speech.

The kid blew me away!!!

The second the kid opened his mouth and started talking, I felt like I was watching a veteran of junior toastmasters, a master child orator. Seriously, the kid was brilliant and very funny. Not only was the speech interesting and thoughtful – it was funny. Very funny. He spoke about deception and when it was halachically permissible to deceive another person like Yosef did with his brothers. He brought up commenting on a bride’s beauty even if she was ugly and some others. But it was his manner of speaking that was so enrapturing. He didn’t look down at the paper and speak like he was going to have a heart attack. He looked at the crowd and felt totally cool up there. So what if he pulled one of his devar torahs right out of the stone chumash commentary?

I did find out later that his father is the president of the shul, and he is actually a person worthy of shul presidentship, which does kind of explain his son’s ability to publicly speak. In fact it was one of the first times that I felt the shul president was actually cut out for the announcements. Almost every time a shul president gets up on shabbos, I always mumble in disgust and wonder how on earth this guy got the job – to us non-board member folks it seems that the shul president’s job description is simply to make speeches about sisterhood meetings and the weekly mincha times.

After the procession with the torahs through the shul by the both the men and women, and after musaf and all that good stuff the sisterhood consisting of three middle aged women got up on the bimah to “bless” the bar mitzvah boy. It was really just another way to extend shul another few minutes while I wanted to jump up and just mow down the tables of food that I knew waited outside. I was hoping it would be good but since I didn’t take a reconnaissance mission I had no idea what lay in store for us, it could be kichel, herring and stale sponge cake or it may be a feast.

Thank God it was the latter and when we embarked out of shul, I tried to go faster but this guy in a very slow electric wheelchair blocked my way. I wanted to pass him but I felt the Berkeley-influence in me rising up and restraining my violence. In Berkeley pedestrians rule the land, which means if you decide to cross the street anywhere – all of the cars stop for me, I assumed it was the same with wheelchairs.

Kiddush was very green and it soon turned out it was vegetarian, a bummer, but the quantity and quality of the food made up for the lack of anything close to heimishe. Seared ahi tuna, with a mango salad, Caesar salad with some mighty fine feta, Mixed greens with corn and croutons and a bunch of veggies and dips. The challah wasn’t too great – but I had my fill at the Chabad rabbi’s house on Friday night whos wife makes excellent challah and quite a bit of it. I sat down with my new found friend and he introduced me to some peeps.

It was a shame I didn’t get to show up on a regular week that I could check out the shul in its normalcy. I didn’t get to gauge whether it was as friendly or just nice. I have noticed that people in Berkeley aren’t that friendly, but they are super nice. Contrast that to Dallas where everyone wants to talk with you and invite you over.Then again the people some of the most interesting folks, they all have cool stories, are interested in interesting things and use great ingredients in their food, what’s not to like?

I am going to write another more general first impressions of Berkeley area later this week…