This story actually begins on Rosh Hashanah at Chavurat Lamdeinu. Rabbi Ruth Gais mentioned a quote from former JTS Chancellor Louis Finkelstein:
When I pray, I speak to God; when I study, God speaks to me.
This really resonated with me. But I immediately thought about taking it one step further. Following the tradition of my mother, I make notes all over my siddurim and machzorim. Probably to an even greater extent than my mother does. I’ve often thought that I kind of study the siddur while I pray. Does that make me the rare lunatic to whom God actually speaks while he prays? (I mean this half-seriously.) Either way, ever since Ruth planted this quote in my head, I’ve been thinking about the notion of writing during prayer as a spiritual practice.
Now, I know that writing is one of the forbidden forms of work for those who observe Shabbat in that way. I’ve also been to Hadar three or four times before and never been asked to put on a kipah or told to stop scribbling all over my siddur. So I figured these were OK things. On YK this year, I got a rude awakening about the extent to which Hadar is willing to tolerate halachic deviance.
During shacharit, a gabbai came over to me and handed me a little business card with a page number and a task on it and asked if I’d like to open the ark on page such and such. (Hadar gives out honors in this way. It’s very novel, I think. The cards suggest using them as a bookmark for the page on which your honor will take place.) I politely said that I couldn’t because I was using a different machzor and I was afraid I’d miss the right time. He said, “OK. Well, can offer you first gelilah?” I know when that is, so I said, “Sure. Thanks.”
A few minutes later, he came back, holding a little black kipah. “Can I offer you a kipah?” I told him that I’d rather not. He seemed hesitant and confused. “OK. Well, when you go up to dress the Torah, we’d appreciate it if you’d wear one.” Fine by me. “Sure. I understand. Thanks,” I said, taking the kipah. I had also been annotating my machzor all morning so I had a pen tucked behind my right ear. “And if you could just put the pen away when you come up.” Fine by me. “Sure. I understand,” said.
A moment later, I realized that I had my own kipah with me and pulled that one out so I didn’t have to use the borrowed one. I went ahead and put it on, borrowing some bobby pins from Dana, so I wouldn’t forget.
Then he came back again. “Actually, we’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t write at all, out of respect for the community. If you have to, please go to the back and do it privately.” I grudgingly said, “OK. I understand.” I was pretty pissed, but didn’t really have any room to argue with the guy, especially since I was appreciative of the fact that he hadn’t insisted I wear the kipah the whole time.
So as the Torah reading was winding down, I went to stand in the back such that I’d have a clear shot to the amud when he called for gelilah. Standing back there, I decided, in the spirit of YK, that I’d find the gabbai later, during a break, and apologize to him, honestly, for being such a pain in the ass about everything.
By the time I got up there to start dressing the Torah, it was pretty clear that the gabbai has decided that between the pen and the kipah and everything that had already passed between us, I must be some kind of uncouth loon. So he felt the need to give me detailed instruction on how to dress the Torah. What he didn’t know is the I spent the better part of my life dressing the Torah more often than not at lay-led services at CBI.
The guy doing hagbah sat down, of course, with the front of the Torah toward him, making it hard to put the belt on. To make matters worse, it was one of those wacky Torah belts with the three circular clasp things that have to go through these holes. Its was damn near impossible to put it on backwards. So now I’m fumbling around and taking forever with the belt, so I look like even more of a moron than I already appeared to be. Once the belt is buckled, it’s a little higher than it should be. So I’m about to tug it down when the gabbai leans over and says, “If you could just pull it down to halfway.” I know.
Then he hands me the Torah cover. Like every other Torah cover ever, it’s got a slit in the back so that you can pull it open like curtains and ease it over the scroll easily. Well, this is clearly not the way the gabbai usually does it. You can, of course, leave the slit closed and lift the cover all the way over the Torah and drop it on from above. I guess he prefers that way because he starts looking at me like I’m doing something wrong again.
Then he gives me the breastplate, which I put on without incident. I had noticed when the Torah was brought out that it didn’t have crowns, so I know not to wait for them. But whoever was reading was obviously using a yad, so now I’m waiting to the yad. I turn back to the gabbai, expecting the yad. He already knows that there’s no yad to be put on so to him it looks like I’m waiting for further instructions. So he says, “You can go sit down now,” in this tone that says “Why are you still here? You’re done. Duh.”
So I go sit back down. Earlier, I had been considering keeping my kipah on, but I decide to take it off before I’m even back at my seat.
I did not write anymore, but I also decided not to apologize to the gabbai.