What follows recounts an early-December trip to Florida. I started it then and applied finishing touches today.
At 11:00 AM on Saturday I was to be found sitting on the bima of Temple B’nai Aviv with the rabbi, the cantor, and the president of the conservative congregation, my arms wrapped around the Torah, as my wife’s niece chanted her Haftorah portion. I heard David Byrne’s voice singing “And you may ask yourself–well, how did I get here?”
Good question. I’m neither Jewish nor religious. I was baptized, received First Communion, and confirmed in the Roman Catholic church. I abandoned church at age 16 when I started working all day Saturday and Sunday in a grocery store. Since then I’ve only attended Mass at weddings and funerals. My wife is Jewish, our sons were raised Jewish and bar mitzvahed, and I have been a contented atheist.
We are in Florida for the bat mitzvah. The religious component involved a Friday night service and a Saturday morning service. I’ve attended dozens of bar and bat mitzvahs over the past 15 years, heard dozens of thirteen year old children chant their Torah and Haftorah portions, read speeches about the deep connection between the readings and their lives, and pledge to give a portion of the their gifts for Sedakah. A temple service instantly transports me back to the day-dreamy state I entered in church.
I was in that dreamy state, gazing blankly at the temple’s stained glass windows, when I heard my name: “Now we call to the bima David Randall . . . ” Huh? People are called to the bima to participate in the service by reading from the Torah or chanting prayers in Hebrew. I know that every Jewish prayer starts with “baruch atah adonai” and then branches into specifics that I’ve always covered by mumbling “watermelon watermelon.” That is the extent of my Hebrew. I looked at my wife. She shrugged her shoulders. I walked to the aisle to join our son Samuel, also called to the bima. “Do we have to read?” I whispered. He shrugged his shoulders–who knows? I passed my father-in-law. “Watch out!” he said. “They’ll try to convert you up there.” We joined the third bima guest and received our instructions sotto voce: we were to prepare the Torah for its return to the Ark. “You” said the rabbi pointing to Samuel, “will roll the Torah. You”–gesturing to the other man–“will cover the Torah. And you”–me?–“will hold the Torah.” I stood by as the Torah was rolled and covered. The rabbi instructed me to cradle the Torah in my arms, handed it to me, and led me to a chair at the front edge of the bima. Samuel and the other guest returned to their seats. I stayed on the bima, elevated above the rest of the congregants.
Torahs are big. Torahs are heavy. They consist of a mile or two of parchment on which a trained scribe has written the Five Books of Moses. The parchment is wrapped around two long, polished wooden spindles. Each week the spindles are turned to scroll to the correct portion. At the end of the Jewish year the process begins again.
My lack of religious belief does not extend to desecrating objects that others hold holy. Not on purpose, at least, or with my wife and her extended family watching. I held on to this Torah like grim death. I held on to this Torah as if it were my only personal flotation device in the stormy mid-Atlantic on a moonless night. I held on to this Torah with conviction. I used the same technique from when one of my sons fell asleep at the Fourth of July fireworks at Albemarle Field and I had to carry him a mile back to the car. I joined my hands together beneath the spindles, ordered them not to let go of each other under any circumstance, and bore most of the weight on my right chest and shoulder. (Maybe that’s how I hurt my hip.) The Torah did not cooperate by wrapping its arms around my neck. It was all up to me. I adjusted my grip, shifted the weight slightly, and settled into the seat to hear Lizzie’s Haftorah portion. Had Michael Phelps’s Olympic event been Torah-Holding, I would have kicked his bony ass off the podium.
It was about this time when “Once in a Lifetime” drifted across my consciousness. (Sorry, Lizzy, but you chanted in Hebrew and my attention wanders.) How did I get here? “Let’s see, I took a left out of the Towneplace Suites (‘you can tell we are classy because we spell town with an e!!’) on Three Villages Road and walked past Bonaventure Boulevard to Indian Trace, but then I took a shortcut through the parking lot.” (I’m told that such a literal answer can be a sign of schizophrenia; aim higher.) Is there an answer if you don’t believe in binary answers to complex problems? Maybe I got there by
Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
My thoughts returned to the bima as Lizzie neared the end. The Torah rested securely, if uncomfortably, against my shoulder. Lizzie finished and the rabbi retrieved the Torah from my clenched fingers. I walked from the bima, humming “same as it ever was, same as it ever was.”