This Week – Carnival Time

We arrived early for the Purim carnival last Sunday. The giant bounce house still lay in a wrinkled, uninflated wad on a corner of the parking lot. The only children around were, like our son, middle school volunteers, corralling the puppies for the puppy-petting booth, lining up bottles for the ring toss.

The temple brotherhood had sponsored a Red Cross Blood Drive van, so, with some time to kill, I signed up and sat in line.

A man from the temple stepped out of the donor van, rolling his sleeve back down over his arm.

“Remember,” he said, “When they ask you if you paid for sex in the past 12 months, ask them, ‘Does jewelry count?'”

Next to me, an elderly member of the Temple Brotherhood laughed, leaned over and offered his own topper, a kind of dirty-joke midrash. It involves a mother and her daughter and — it’s not for a family paper.

It was a cool, beautiful morning, and there I was on a sidewalk on La Cienega Boulevard, with a stranger telling me a foul, funny joke as if we’ve known each other all our lives. And I thought: I ought to go to shul more often.

When I do go, I’m always struck not by what happens in the sanctuary, but by the buzz of life and activity in the halls and lobbies and reception rooms.

On Purim, Temple Beth Am is a Brueghel painting come to life: Men, women and children in bright clothes, racing here and there, greeting each other, laughing, arguing, weeping in every corner of the frame.

No, it’s Brueghel plus a soundtrack. Man, it’s noisy. When it’s your kid beside you doing the yelling and tugging, you hardly notice. Now we buy our son and daughter a pack of tickets and they run off with friends. A new generation of 3-foot Esthers and 2-foot Mordecais are screaming for the mini-Ferris Wheel and squealing on the Whirl-a-Gig.

In another part of the carnival, I overhear a recently divorced man baring his soul to a friend, shedding tears on a stairwell. A single mom arranges a week’s worth of play dates for her son, so she can get in more overtime hours. Two friends trade news on a third friend’s cancer treatments. Their conversation quickly moves on to arranging meals and carpools for the ailing woman. Downstairs, in the deafening conviviality of the food room, a group of men discusses Hamas and the new school building project.

“Rabbi Malkus is in the dunk booth!” a day school father calls out to me. He gives it the import of a late-breaking news story and makes a beeline to take in the sight.

I saw the rabbi get dunked last year, as dozens of Pressman Academy students cheered. We’ve come a long way as a people, indeed, from Moses, to Hillel, to Maimonides, to Kook, to a rabbi in a skin-tight wet suit, shivering on a plank above some murky water. But the kids are having fun.

If “Crash,” this year’s Oscar winner for best picture, was about a Los Angeles where people needed to ram their cars together just to have human contact, the synagogue is the “anti-Crash.” It is the public square in the midst of the city; the village green in the midst of the country; the shtetl in the midst of the 21st century.

What confounded me at the carnival was how the vibrancy of synagogue playgrounds and pews — whether at Beth Am or Adat Ari El or Valley Beth Shalom or Sinai or dozens of other congregations in the region — contrasts with the portents of doom and gloom coming, as David Letterman might say, from the main office.

The Conservative movement is in a state of well-documented flux. Once America’s largest Jewish denomination, it has been superseded by the more liberal Reform movement. At the other end of the spectrum, the Orthodox movement has fewer adherents but a faster growth rate.

And although synagogues with successful day schools, like Beth Am, have many young families, the Conservative movement overall is aging faster than the others.

Conservative rabbis from around the world will meet next week in Mexico City at the Rabbinical Assembly convention to hash out future policy in the face of this numerical decline.

Many observers say the fall-off reflects a larger cultural shift. Conservative Judaism developed a century ago as a backlash against both Reform innovation and Orthodox stasis. It flourished in the postwar years, when all America wanted to have its change and retreat from it too.

But — so goes this analysis — in a polarized era of red versus blue states, secular versus religious, it’s not surprising that Judaism’s middle cannot hold. Conservative liturgy and law is too constricting for most Jews, too liberal for others. So the number of Jewish Goldilocks — for whom warm porridge is just right — is dwindling.

The problem with this explanation is that Conservative doctrine worked to keep many Goldilocks from getting any porridge, period. It excluded many of the Jews who would otherwise have been drawn to synagogue life. It was late in ordaining women, it is still dithering over ordaining gays — the issue will be a major source of contention in Mexico City — and it has been sluggish about welcoming and including converts and the spouses of intermarried Jews.

Without working to develop more welcoming standards, the Conservative movement will regain its primacy about when Dwight D. Eisenhower regains the presidency.

The impetus for its renewal, if it arrives at all, won’t likely come from seminarians and lawgivers, but from congregants and pulpit rabbis, camp counselors and school teachers. They’re the ones who understand that what a successful movement needs is less doctrine, and more dunk tanks.