Notes From Friday Night

I’m in the bathroom of Sinai Temple, hunched over my notebook, scrawling down words in the fluorescent light and wondering what I was thinking when I decided to catch Friday Night Live, alone.

My skin has a greenish hue, which I notice when I see my face in the mirror. I write down the word “green.” I’m in the bathroom because it’s not proper to write on Shabbat and I don’t want to offend anyone, but I do want to remember the experience so that I can describe it later. I’ve always been a compulsive note-taker. Jotting down ideas helps me organize my thoughts and make them real. It is probably also useful in the pursuit of removing myself from the goings-on. A two-for-one compulsion.

Friday Night Live is a relatively new Shabbat service designed to attract 25- to 40-year-old Jewish singles. The Westwood service has become increasingly popular since its inception in June, now attracting standing-room-only crowds of up to 800. They come for an accessible service, and they stay for the post-prayer mingling session, which involves Israeli folk dancing and platters of Chinese chicken salad. I’ve come to check it out, more as a writer than a “single,” although, technically, I am both.

I stuff my notebook into my purse and head into the crowded lobby, where I feel as if I’ve just gotten off an airplane and no one is there to greet me, while behind me is someone’s long-lost Uncle Al, who is being barraged with hugs and balloons. It seems as if everyone knows someone, so I pretend I’m looking for a friend until the service starts, when I plant myself in the back row.

The familiar melodies of the songs are soothing. I begin to relax, only reaching for my notebook sporadically to take notes in one-word bursts I hope will be enough to jog my memory later.

Oprah. Commitment. Jealous. Atonal. Showoff. Cell phone. Haven.

I look around at this huge room full of mostly single people, and I remember this therapist I saw on Oprah. The therapist said “single” was a defeatist word, and that we should think of ourselves not as “single” but as “open to new experiences and relationships.” It’s this kind of positive thinking, she said, that will help the universe bring love into our lives. Blah blah blah.

All the positive thinking in the world isn’t going to help me, I think, noticing a guy who bears a striking resemblance to that actor who plays Carter on “ER.” I have a little problem with commitment. I can’t commit to a relationship, but I take it a step further. I can’t commit to not having a relationship. This accounts for the stable of pseudo-boyfriend-type guy friends I cultivate, not wanting to rule anyone out but not able to let anyone in. Call Oprah. I think I’m a loser.

I notice a couple holding hands, standing against the back wall because they couldn’t get seats. For a second, I’m jealous of those two. They seem so happy together, sharing the experience, standing close, having that thing most of us want.

Everyone is singing, and the music is beautiful. I want to join in, but I’m tone deaf and embarrassed to sing in public. I remember when I first learned these songs, when I’d belt them out in services, before I knew I couldn’t sing. When did I start singing in my head instead of out loud? A soprano voice behind me pierces through the communal sound. She’s singing the harmony. What a showoff.

As the group sings, Rabbi David Wolpe makes his rounds up and down the aisles. His smile is warm and welcoming. I like that he does this; it makes even us back-row people feel like we are part of things.

A cellular phone rings. The rabbi takes the opportunity to tell to us that Shabbat is a time for inner peace, that if we can’t take a couple of hours away from our cell phones and pagers to connect to ourselves, we really need to come to services more often. The synagogue, he says, should be a haven.

I stop taking notes.

The rabbi’s sermon is about courage. He encourages us to have the courage to be ourselves, honor our souls and become who we were meant to be if fear didn’t stand in our way. Abraham, Moses and other Jewish heroes had the courage to argue with God, he adds. As Jews, we have the responsibility to live courageously.

Wolpe’s words are moving, and his delivery both dramatic and full of humor. This is the stuff, I think to myself. This is the stuff that keeps people coming back to Friday Night Live. And as for the “mingling” factor in this equation, I suppose it beats an “open to new experiences and relationships” dance or hike or vegetarian dinner or Jewish “open to new experiences and relationships” event. After all, we’re all just here to pray, right?

The service ends, and it’s time to socialize. I don’t Israeli dance for much the same reason I don’t Hebrew sing. I do eat, though. I fill my plate with some salad and cookies and attempt to maneuver through the crowd, using the paper plate as my crowd-parting device. The warm feeling I had during the service dissipates as I pretend I’m looking for someone again. The mingling begins to take on a sinister tone.

There are a thousand little rejections to be had at such affairs. Someone looks at you and looks away. You try not to take it personally. Someone stops to talk to you and immediately begins to scan the room, their eyes darting around for someone better. You position yourself in proximity to the “ER” guy, but he doesn’t notice you, and it’s very likely you have food in your teeth. You try to be discreet getting the Altoids out of your purse, but you can’t get the tin open. You run into a guy you know who offers to open the tin for you, and you suck on a mint while sticking to him like antisocial glue. You recall with vivid clarity why you don’t go to these events, even just as a writer.

Courage is one thing. “Open to new experiences and relationships” events are another thing entirely. I gulp down another plastic cup full of sickly sweet wine and head for the door.

Teresa Strasser is a 20-something who writes for the Jewish Journal.