“This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Cue the music: Massenet’s Meditation. click here, then return to blog window.
Today is Saturday. I woke up with the sense that today was going to be a good day. I even posted on Facebook, “Today is a good day and I love EVERYBODY!”
Madame Renée had called and invited me to Shabbat service at a local synagogue. She is the French woman I met last year while I was out for a morning walk in the Moorings neighborhood of Naples. She asked me to help her change a light bulb in her garage and I soon learned her whole life story which I wrote about in my earlier blog titled, “The Professional Guest: Madame Renée.” (https://sherylthornberg.com/2015/11/25/the-professional-guest-madame-renee/). I had just been thinking about her and then she called. I need to pay more attention to these little “prompts” I get from time to time. If I haven’t thought about someone for quite awhile and then suddenly they’re on my mind for days, it’s usually a sign that I should pray for them or call them.
“I would love to go,” I responded.
“It’s such a lovely service and I get chills each time I go,” she commented in her lilting French accent. “For years, during my childhood in Europe, we were afraid to let anyone know who we were. We didn’t tell our neighbors, we didn’t go to synagogue. My father would read from the Torah and we would sing quietly together, but that was all we dared to do.”
“So you are Jewish, Madame Renée?” From previous conversations, she had mentioned she was, but then she talked about Christmas and Easter and other “Christian”holidays so I just wanted to be sure.
“Yes, yes, of course! My husband wasn’t but I am. I was always too afraid to tell anyone. Now I can go to synagogue and be open and free and it feels so good!”
I rejoiced with her. Freedom of religion is a precious thing. It is disquieting to see the ugly beasts of anti-Semitism and anti-Christianity rearing their repugnant heads in these current days of turmoil around the world. We must never forget what happened in the past, and we must never let it happen again. Christians and Jews need to see with one mind and one heart more than ever before.
I drove to Madame Renée’s home to pick her up. She appeared at the door in a gold and green boat-neck sweater paired with a matching green mid-calf pencil skirt slit up to the knees in front and wearing a neutral pair of mules. Her golden hair in ringlets draped her shoulders and a darling little green beret crowned her head. Even at 90, she retains her tiny figure and bon ton elegance. And she can still pull off a slit skirt.
We arrived a little early and took our seats. The Rabbi was up front praying in Hebrew, bobbing his head forward and back like they do at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Madame Renée is so petite, her feet did not reach the floor, so she swung them back and forth like a little child in rhythm with the Rabbi’s bobbing. Before long, I was bobbing too. Whenever there is any kind of regular beat or action happening, my body moves involuntarily. (This includes the regular cadence of music, printing presses, washing machines, and repetitive assembly line machinery.)
I quickly learned this was an Orthodox service because not a word was spoken in English with the exception of a couple three to five minute exhortations about how wherever we go, we are ambassadors of Hashem and are required to sanctify his name, to bring holiness to his name by being good to others. Sound advice for Christians, too.
The Rabbi sang/chanted in Hebrew and occasionally someone would shout out a page number. We had books to use but it soon became clear that I did not have the right book because the page numbers did not correspond to what I surmised was being chanted about. I was pretty sure the Rabbi was not prayerfully chanting about someone being stoned to death in Leviticus while the men shouted “Amen!”
In the front of the church was a beautifully-shaped, wooden ark built in a modern style. This is not an ark as non-Jews envision such as Noah’s ark. It is a receptacle or ornamental closet which contains Torah scrolls.
Above the ark hung an ornate Ner Tamid or “Eternal Light.” The Ner Tamid hangs above or stands in front of the ark in every Jewish synagogue. It is meant to represent the menorah of the Temple in Jerusalem as well as the continuously burning fire on the altar of burnt offerings in front of the Temple. It also symbolizes God’s eternal presence and is therefore never extinguished. Some are stunning works of art. I once did some Photoshop work for a glassblower who designed world-renowned glass Ner Tamids.
To the right of the stage was a large Menorah with seven brightly lit candles burning. Most Gentiles think of the Menorah as having eight branches because we usually see the Menorah around Christmastime and Hanukkah. The eight-branch Menorah is only used during Hanukkah to celebrate a miracle that happened in the second century BCE. A small band of Jewish fighters defeated the powerful Syrian-Greek army (a miracle in itself). Then when the priests returned to the Temple to light the Menorah, there was still a tiny amount of oil remaining that should have lasted no more than a day but had lasted for eight days! Hence, the nine-candle Menorah. (The ninth candle in the middle is used to light the other eight at Hanukkah every year.) The rest of the year, the seven-candle Menorah is used.
Having studied the Old Testament and the five books of Moses, I am familiar with the temple, the items within, what they symbolized and how they were used. I get chills in synagogues too because it feels familiar to me. It feels like roots. After all, we worship the same God. In history, the Jews were given the oracles of God (Hebrew: Hashem) and it was to them that Hashem revealed himself. Salvation comes through the Jews. Later on, God found fault with the Old Covenant which was not able to atone completely for sins. He said, “‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah’” (Jeremiah 31:31). Christians believe he sent his own son, Jesus to the Jews. Born as a Jew, Jesus is the spotless, blemish-less Lamb who came to be the once and forever atonement for sins, establishing the New Covenant that God had promised. Many Jews believed in him and received him as the Messiah. But many others did not. And according to the Apostle Paul’s writings, it was because of their unbelief that we Gentiles were able to receive salvation. If the Jews were the natural olive tree, the Gentiles were the wild branches that were grafted in. (Romans 11:11-31).
Back to the synagogue. It was divided down the middle by 15 frosted glass pieces etched with Torah scenes which formed a barrier between the two sides. On one side sat the women, on the other were the men, most wearing a Tallit or prayer shawl. The men prayed out loud during some parts, or shouted “Amen!” or sang along with the Rabbi. The women sang only during a few parts.
When you’ve never been to a place of worship for another religion before, you try to pay close attention to what they are doing so you do not look like a cretin—sitting down when they are standing up, looking around when they are bowing their heads, etc. I had to do the same thing at John Michael Talbot’s Monastery in Arkansas. It was a monastic Catholic service and there was a lot of standing, sitting and kneeling in an unearthly quiet setting. Much of it was spoken in Latin. My stomach was growling loudly which made me so nervous I was sweating. Only cretins have stomachs that growl in holy places.
Above everything else, one must remain quiet and respectful. I learned this rule growing up in church where talking, whispering and—God forbid—laughing was severely frowned upon but apparently, when you get into your elderly years, you forget how to whisper (probably because your own hearing has gotten so bad), and the Be Quiet Rule gets thrown out the window. Every so often, usually in the middle of the Rabbi’s prayers, Madame Renée would lean over to me and speak out loud, not whisper, something that popped into her mind.
“I saw my friends from Minnesota yesterday.”
“When we were children, we could not attend services like this. We were too afraid! They were driving the Jews out of Spain at the time…”
“Do you want some water?”
“It’s very cold in here!”
I tried to nod my head that I had heard and then sit back up very straight presenting the “quiet and respectful” posture, but how do you shush a 90-year-old woman, let alone a Jewish woman? Turns out, another Jewish woman. The woman in front of us finally turned around, put her finger to her lips and mouthed, “Please be quiet; thank you” to us. I was grateful for her. There were at least two other little elderly ladies sitting farther back and I could hear their conversations loud and clear.
“My son is coming down from New Jersey next weekend.”
“MY SON IS COMING FROM NEW JERSEY.”
“Oh? How nice!”
No wonder the Apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to Timothy, “Women should learn quietly and submissively…. Let them listen quietly.” (1 Timothy 2:11–13 NLT). Probably little old Jewish ladies chattered loudly during services 2,000 years ago too. It seems little has changed.
One of the few exhortations that was preached in English was about how Jews are commanded to count the days. One wakes up in the morning and proclaims, “Today is the 28th day of [whatever month].” The point is that all you have is today. Today is the day you get up, go to work, do good, and go for the blessing that the day offers. “Today Hashem brought a new day to me and I will live it with everything I’ve got.” One day at a time. Wisdom for everyone.
The service went on for two and a half hours, a bit too long for both Madame Renée and me. Her dangling feet were aching, my stomach was crabby and I was fidgety. I’ve sat through services in French, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Latin and now Hebrew. Any service gets long when you can’t understand most of it.
Afterward, we joined a musician friend of hers, Sandrea, and the others in the dining hall for a fabulous luncheon buffet. Madame introduced me as her friend. “She’s Swedish but she loves the Jews.” The Rabbi offered prayers and announcements about anniversaries and birthdays, and we all raised our L’Chaim (“to life”) cup of grape juice to celebrate. The husband of a couple who were celebrating their 47th wedding anniversary stood up and gave a short speech. At least he said it would be short. But after one look at his wife, he went down Memory Lane, teared up and regaled us with stories of their life together. It began with “I love this woman,” and traveled through seasons of how their love has remained strong over the years. With tears in his eyes, he recounted how she had stood by him and how he was the “lucky one.” I searched for kleenix and made sure I knew where my cup of grape juice was for the next toast. As someone who has tried and failed at love more times than I can remember, it was solidifying, heart-warming, and soul-satisfying to hear how one couple had stayed together this long and STILL, he loved her like when they first met. All I could think of was Mary Beth Carlson’s piano rendition of “Always.”
As fate (or God) would have it, I was seated at the Loud Mazel Tov table with a lively group of Jews from both the U.S. and overseas. As each anniversary was announced, they began banging the table and singing Mazel Tov as loud as they could. This made my day. Here I was, a Gentile seated with laughing, smiling, gnoshing Jews, enjoying this day, this once in a lifetime day. The silverware on the table jumped, the smiles broadened, and we were all in a scene from “Fiddler on the Roof.” Only it was 2016. The one thing that was missing were strolling musicians playing accordion and violin. That would have made it my Best Day Ever. This is what is is like to join an ancient culture. I can only partly relate to what it means to be part of an ancient culture when I watch PBS specials on the Scandinavian Vikings. They too were an ancient culture but unlike the Jews, they were assimilated. Although they were great sailors and traders, they didn’t practice the “do good today” rule very much.
As we parted, Madame Renée told me, “So you are going to be 60 years old. Don’t worry. You don’t look it. And maybe once you were a beautiful young woman. Now you are a “Ma-trone”—Matron. And whatever the Matron says, goes.” It was a blessing of sorts on me as I near my 60th birthday. I’m no longer the young Mademoiselle to be kissed on the cheek and courted romantically. Now I am the Matron. Now my word carries weight and what I say goes. This is why I like her so much… a seasoned woman who carries her beauty into her 90s, doesn’t take no for an answer, and presents herself like the child of an Ambassador, which she is. Older women have always been my mentors. Hashem has brought me Madame Renée, a Jewish mother to be my friend and encourager. And he has given me today.