And Now, For Something CompletelyDifferent

Some years ago, when I was in my “Jew In theLotus” phase of spiritual development, I approached the rabbi duringthe break in the High Holiday services.

“The problem with Jewish prayer,” Isaid, filled with the chutzpah of one with nothing to lose, “is thatit’s stiff and static. Judaism should be more like yoga. We shouldschedule an hour of physical exercise before getting down tobusiness.”

A few years later, I was finishing psychotherapyand had a new insight.

“The problem with the Jewish community,” I toldthe rabbi, “is that we don’t talk to one another. We should use theHigh Holiday services for personal connection. We should shorten theprayers and let people share the pain of their lives.”

Every few years, I fall in love with Judaism fromanother perspective, one that fills me with an urgency I can’t keepto myself.

The year I studied theater design, I criticizedsynagogue architecture and wanted everyone to sit in a circle. When Ibecame a feminist, I wanted the prayer book rewritten to begender-neutral. Last year, when I got a modem, I wanted the wholeJewish world to be on-line.

I thought I was brazen, gutsy — and nuts. Whyshould a 3,000-year-old tradition change for my times?

I look about me this Jewish New Year 5758, andfind that I got what I wanted, and then some. Jewish spiritualpractice, especially in Los Angeles, is indeed being influenced andreshaped by ideas that once were deemed, and dismissed, as either”countercultural” or preposterously modern. Without fanfare, andwithout controversy, our institutions have opened up.

I see signs of openness all around me. Despite allthe public acrimony and philosophical rigidity over Who is a Jew, weare, taken congregationally one by one, a more open and tolerantpeople. Reform synagogues increasingly hold second-day Rosh Hashanahservices. Liberal congregations participate in tashlich ceremonies,at which “intellectual” Jews throw their symbolic sins (bread crumbs)into the sea. There has been a blending and a merging at the grassroots, as we borrow from Eastern introspective religions, fromAmerican high-tech culture and even (imagine this!) from ancientJudaism itself.

This year, the linkbetween Judaism and yoga became even more elastic with thepublication of “Minding the Temple of the Soul: Balancing Body, Mindand Spirit through Traditional Jewish Prayer, Movement, andMeditation,” by Tamar Frankiel and Judy Greenfeld (Jewish Lights). Intheir popular workshops, held at synagogues around town, Frankiel, atraditional Jew who teaches religion at Claremont School of Theology,and Greenfeld, a fitness trainer, choreographer and cantor, areteaching Jews to bring the physical and the spiritual intoalignment.

The book describes (and illustrates throughdiagrams and photos) how a prayer such as “Mah tovu” can be enhancedthrough a dance-like routine in which the body traces the form of theprayer’s sheltering “tent.” The ancient kabbalistic understanding ofthe sephirot is likewise transformed into a physical practice, byascribing each variant of Jewish wisdom– strength, harmony,perseverance — to a specific site within the body. Yoga adherentswill recognize the similarities between the sephirot and Easternenergy chakras, but they won’t mind a bit.

As for rituals for sharing of pain, Los AngelesJews have moved well beyond the Happenings and Be-ins that made usthe psychotherapy capital of America 20 years ago; now, we’rereturning to ancient rituals for clearing the slate. Forgiveness,atonement, the desire for healing is in the air. This year, evensecular Jews are speaking of doing teshuvah — of turning over or changing theirlives, not by confession to God but by apologizing to eachother.

As for the influence of feminism on Jewish prayer,educated women have moved beyond the anger stage at perceivedexclusion. Instead, women are actively knitting themselves back intothe tradition: Poet Marcia Falk’s revolutionary “Book of Blessings”(HarperCollins) creates not just a gender-free translation of ancientprayers but a new formulation of the ancient Hebrew — almost a newlanguage. Don’t be surprised to hear the prayer for wine begin” N’vareykh et eyn hahayim ” — “We bless the source of life” — rather than” Baruch atah Adonai ” — “Blessed are You [masculine] Lord.” Falk’s book is aserious work of theology, whose influence will be felt over decades,not years.

As for the latest insynagogue architecture, go see the new Kehillat Israel in PacificPalisades (designed by Richard Weinstein) for the feel of a sanctuaryin the “round” (actually, it’s in the shape of a Mogen David). Thereis no proscenium “stage”; the bimah and the Torah ark arefree-standing.

“The point here is that we worship together andsee each other,” said Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben. That’s anunderstatement. At Kehillat Israel, everyone (including late-comers)and everything (hand-holding and snuggling) is revealed. The effectis of worshiping around the Eternal Light, which functions as acommunal hearth.

Finally, there’s the new Jewish world on theInternet, a place for learning and prayer. There’s The Jewish Journalweb site ( and Virtual Jerusalem(, which explains the lore and ritual of the holydays. You can hear the sound of the shofar on the Internet, courtesyof San Francisco’s Magnes Museum ( magnes/shofar/html).I’ll leave it for the rabbinate to determine if a virtual shofar isthe same as hearing the real thing.

Virtually and in reality, I wish you a sweet andhealthy New Year.

Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large of TheJewish Journal. Join her for her next “Conversation” at the SkirballCultural Center on Sunday, Oct. 5, when her guest will be Dr. JanetHadda. They will discuss the images of Jewish men in the writings ofIsaac Bashevis Singer.

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