I was thirty minutes late for the service, which we had found on Craigslist, and were drawn primarily because we didn't have to register for it ahead of time (as is the case for most High Holy Day services), and was advertised as "experimental and friendly." Those two adjectives can be quite the wild cards in this city. And yet it was a relief to know that the New Year was entirely capable of starting without me. Religion, particularly Judaism, has always left an almost backward impression on me--that is, the less I technically practice, or the less orthodox my prayer, the more I am struck by the sheer grandiosity of the universe.
And there's nowhere more unorthodox than a half-full room at the San Francisco County Fair Building in late September, sliding glass door open just enough to muffle the sounds of cars whipping by on Lincoln Avenue. The man on my right had a full beard, fuller than Moses', and he repeated every gesture the rabbi made, gesture for gesture. As with many Reform and/or post-Reform services, most of the songs were a series of voices competing for rhythm and pitch. And then something really spectacular happened: we sang the Sh'ma.
The Sh'ma is the most important prayer in Judaism because it carries its most basic truth: that there is one god. The prayer must be sung while standing, and most Jews bend their heads and bow at regular intervals. It is easy to remember, even for us non-Hebrew-speakers who grew up reading the transliterations, because it is only about four or five words. Now, I consider myself an agnostic at best, and even then, I'm not the best agnostic. The very fact that I don't believe 100% in one god cancels out my identification as a Jew in many circles, but that's another story. What happened tonight had less to do with my belief (or lack thereof) in any kind of god, and more to do with the sheer will to believe that filled that crappy little room.
What was different was the way the congregation sang the prayer. Instead of singing it as a whole phrase, or singing each word quietly in a full breath, we all sang each word fully, loudly, in a bizarre kind of harmony that wasn't melodic so much as absolutely willed.
Each note was so full, it was if an entire season was blossoming within it.
The curtains whipped at the open slider doors, and the man next to me bobbed his head on his full belly. And I was glad to be there, glad to have gotten lost on the K line, glad to be an experimental and friendly Jew.