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How was shul for you?

by: Michelle Rosenberg - Last updated: 2003-10-17

Michelle Rosenberg

Michelle Rosenberg

Have you ever thought that when it comes to being judgmental, Jews are the worst?

"Joe Cohen didn't go to shul on Yom Kippur, how terrible. I mean, how awful!"

You can just see the mouth curling in disapproval.

This New Year was the first I didn't go to shul. Dad had been ill, Mum didn't have the head for it and I wasn't going on my own.

Ah, the relief! I wouldn't have to plough through the cupboard for the one long skirt I own, put on the itchy tights and sit in complete ignorance for two bum-numbing hours. And it was OK 'cos my mum said I didn't have to go, right?

For those of us who do go but don't get anything out of the experience, is it enough to say, "Well, at least I went," thereby implying you are a better Jew for having done so?

I'll be honest. My Hebrew is crap. You could say I fit into the "twice a year Jew" category. In shul for New Year and Yom Kippur, I can't follow a word of the service.

I stand up when everyone stands up; I sit down when they all sit down. I get annoyed by the women behind me who gossip; I watch the little children running in and out of the hall, the mothers handing babies over to the fathers and listen to the occasional indignant "SHHH!" from those truly observing the festival.

The women eye each other up, surreptitiously taking in what they're all wearing, whether it's the same shmutter as last year and how on earth Shirley Levy is getting away with wearing that bloody awful hat.

Do I get any spiritual satisfaction from shul?


But under normal circumstances, (if my father was in good health) would I dream of not going.

Of course not.

Would I ever consider going to work instead?

No way!

"I always go to shul with my mum, " I tell my friends. "Out of respect," I add for good measure.

But respect for who?

My mother is no more able to follow the service than I am. 

An old friend of hers reserves us both a seat every year.

We get there around 11, parking as close as we can without causing offence, never having enough change for the meter and endure the dirty glances from the really good Jewish families who have walked.

"Er, hello!" I feel like yelling. "At least I'm here aren't I?"

We have an unspoken agreement that as soon as an hour and a half has passed, that's it: we've done our bit for the year. I've really got it down to a fine art, sensing when the time is up without even looking at my watch.

Dad and brother come out of the men's section. And we up and leave with a sigh of relief as we trample back to the car.

The long skirt is relegated to the back of the cupboard and swiftly swapped for a comfortable pair of jeans.

So why do I go?

Perhaps I feel that even though I don't understand the service, just being there is enough to ascertain my Jewish-ness and give me a certain level of observance.

But just who do we try and prove ourselves to when we go to shul?

Do we go for the right reasons?

And by the same token, just how many of us are insistent that our own children will attend Hebrew school?

We want to do for our children what we won't do for ourselves.

I know I'll get a better sense of satisfaction in learning Hebrew and going to shul for my children's sake rather than for my own. Maybe then I'll be proving to myself that I'm giving my family their Jewish education - in order for them to decide how they'd like to use it.