Monday, August 31, 2009

Mad Men inspired ruminations on my shul

"I grew up in a club just like this" - Trudy Campbell in Mad Men #303

Jews don't have country clubs. Instead, we go to shul. Last night,on Mad Men, we visited a country club, where the characters who grew up privileged were right at home, while the ones from more modest background felt out of place.

I recognized their discomfort.

The shul where I grew up is nothing like the shul I attend today. My childhood shul was beautiful - high ceilings, handsome pews, thick carpet - and many in the congregation had adopted what I now recognize as WASPish habits and manners. There was something upscale about the place, something rarefied about the air. Announcements were made in a crisp and proper English. The Rabbi, a musmach of Torah v'Dass, spoke eloquently and powerfully. The place felt organized, managed, with an emphasis on derech eretz, by which I mean decorum and also the idea that anything worth doing was worth doing well.

The place where I pray today is about as different from the old shul as two places can be. It's a storefront, with peeling ceilings and worn out rugs. The Rabbi's English is labored, and littered with Yiddishms. Everything about the place feels slip shop, and improvised. The people are different, too. They are coarser, even rougher, then the men from the old shul my imagination now conjures. Unlike the old shul, where kiddush was served by uniformed staff in a well appointed hall, we take kiddush like vagrants, in the main sanctuary and the odor of herring and cholent never really leave the room.

A shul is like a country club. Its where we go for fellowship, friendship, a sense of place or belonging. Or, as Roger Sterling put it at the end of last night's episode, "That's the great thing about a place like this. You can come here and be happy, and you get to choose your guests."

A shul isn't exclusive, of course, but we self-select, each of us picking a place that appeals to us, based on our own unique set of criteria. I picked this place because it was nearby, and because it had a good group of guys. But now, as I age, and the answers to the old questions change, perhaps the time has come to extricate myself.

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