Saturday, February 21, 2004

Imagine walking into a gospel church,
where the only texts used are the Torah, the Prophets,
and, primarily, translations of the traditional shabbat shacharit morning service
where most of the male congregants wear brown tuxedos with bowties
and most of the female congregants wear aqua-blue ruffled shirts, brown neckties and brown skirts
where most males wear kippot and tallitot
and most females cover their heads with black doilies or aqua-blue bows
and many men and women where medalion-like ribbons on their breasts
where congregants refer to each other as "deacon" and "elder" and "sister"
where the cantor, the chazzan, is a choir conductor
and the entire congregation is the choir (with especially gifted members leading and dancing in the front row)
where you can barely hear the cantor because he is more concerned with waving his baton in his hands
to bring out the many voices of the congregation
where every member of the congregation is a great orator
and where all English dramatic readings from the Shacharit service are spontaneously responsive
because members of the congregation
need to respond
("True" "Isn't that right!" "Amen!" "Only one!")
where the entire community comes to their feet to sanctify the holiness of a teenage girl's song
where everyone rises together to sing happy birthday to a little boy
where the entire community sanctifies each other through God
where all the music is gospel
and all the words are Jewish
when you have imagined this and so much more
and probably when you are crying
out of sheer awe and amazement
at the kavannah of this community
then you have entered the First Tabernacle
on the South Side of Providence.

Between the morning Sabbath school and the service that began at 11 and ran unti 2
There was a break for tea and pastries
We were seated as guests of honor
at a table with a white tablecloth and guilded silverwear,
where an elder of the congregation told us about his history and the history of the community
and spoke out against the objectification of religion.
Religion is not something you can get,
he told us.
Religion is something you do.
Religion is something you do when you get up in the mornging,
when you walk down the street, when you mow the lawn
Religion is something you do all the time.

the only tragedy of the experience
is that I can remember so few of the songs
I am going to contact the congregation's offices after the weekend
and try to get them to send me a recording

Friday before Shabbat, I went to the 1pm services at the Muslim student center
Rafai began them with a call to prayer
Which uses a beautiful and ornate melody
very similar to the chanting melodies of sephardi Jews,
belted out emotively
with pregnant silence between each phrase
A RISD student, Sahib, gave a sermon
about the important and difficult balance between hope and fear
and about the infinite mercy of Allah
The formal service that followed was brief
and only a little uncomfortable for me standing behind and not participating
and consisted of some recitations and
different levels of prostrations
performed in synchrony.