If my pen is offensive, I’m gonna need some kind of warning.

Crossposted to Jewschool

If your communal standards are non-standard, do us all a favor and have some signs made. Please?

Last year, I spent all of Yom Kipur and the morning of Simchat Torah at Kehilat Hadar. I did a repeat performance this year, adding several hours at Bnai Jeshurun on the night of Simchat Torah.

On Yom Kipur this year, a gabai told me to stop writing in the margin of my machzor at Hadar. When all is said and done, it was frustrating, but not out of line. Hadar uses no amplification or anything on yom tov. It’s a community that defines its communal spaces as shomer shabbat. So I stopped writing.

But BJ is a whole other story. I have a whole list of regular complaints about BJ (it’s a meat market, etc), but Simchat Torah had me more miffed than usual. I’m often told that on the evening of Simchat Torah, BJ is the place to be. So I went.

Far beyond my usual complaints, it was a night club, complete with Israeli bouncers at all entrances and exits. The only thing to distinguish the gyrating mass of Jews from night club was the sprinkling of people dancing with sifrei Torah.

For me, events like this are a spectator sport. I felt most comfortable when the dancing was over and the Torah reading began. During the dancing hakafot, I stood off to the side, sporadically annotating my siddur and chatting with the many friends I was running into. It all reminded me a lot of summer camp. I was always that kid standing off to the side during Israeli dancing, grotesquely fascinated, but utterly unwilling to join in.

Amid all of this, there’s a piano playing, rabbis are singing loudly into microphones. Everything sounds beautiful.

Except for one thing. Four of five times during each half-hour dance hakafah, one rabbi or another would shout over the music into the microphone, “No pictures, please!” People were indeed taking pictures–with flash!–of the rotating clod of Jews. To me, far more distracting than the odd flash here and there were the announcements admonishing us all to stop taking pictures.

But I can understand it. The flashes distract. One person I chatted with said the flashes were more distracting to her than the announcements. Fine. The microphones enhanced the dancing worship, while the flashes detract. I get it.

But more than anything else, I was amused by the notion of shouting into a microphone to tell people not to take pictures. There’s something halachically hilarious about it.

And then some rather officious woman in fanny pack decided that my note-taking was a problem and told me to stop.

So now we come back to my original point: If your communal standards are non-standard, do us all a favor and have some signs made.

If there will be amplification, mixed dancing, totally nonreligious Jewish high school students, at least two well-known Orthodox rabbis (that I spotted), admonishments over the mics not to take pictures, My Number One Fan, a handful of Jewschoolers (hey guys!), etc., there’s no way to know what’s appropriate.

In a Conservative shul, in a Reform shul, in and Orthodox shul it is, with the occasional exception, pretty easy for someone as ritually literate as I am to know what it’s acceptable to do and not do.

So, fanny pack lady, despite the look of disgust on your face, it was perfectly non-obvious that what I was doing was wrong in any way.

If I can’t write in your shul, please have a sign made to go along with your no cell phones sign. How else is anyone to know what is appropriate? (Or, dare I say, allowed?)

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14 Responses to If my pen is offensive, I’m gonna need some kind of warning.

  1. Sue D. October 3, 2010 at 7:47 am #

    Good post. I once traveled from Chicago to New York just to witness the scene at BJ on Shabbat. I was not disappointed. It was a scene; as you richly . I can appreciate the irony of the Rabbi shouting into the mic. Shushers on steroids :)

  2. jen October 3, 2010 at 12:53 pm #

    Well, they could have turned the mics on before chag, such that it was technically halakhically okay. If I wanted to be charitable, I would assume that. In which case, your confusion is more about you not knowing the culture than about their non-standard behaviour.

    Talking of nonstandard behaviour, your post puts me in mind of Pepys’ visit to a shul:

    …after dinner my wife and I, by Mr. Rawlinson’s conduct, to the Jewish Synagogue: where the men and boys in their vayles, and the women behind a lattice out of sight; and some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press to which all coming in do bow; and at the putting on their vayles do say something, to which others that hear him do cry Amen, and the party do kiss his vayle.

    Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew. And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew.

    But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.

    Away thence with my mind strongly disturbed with them…


    That is to say, Simchat Torah isn’t the best time to visit a shul for the first time.

    • David A.M. Wilensky October 3, 2010 at 9:55 pm #

      Yeah, but it wasn’t the first time at either of them. And I had been to both without this being an issue before.

      And did I mention that no one asked me to put on a kipah at BJ or Hadar?

  3. Alex October 3, 2010 at 2:30 pm #

    number one fan! I should get a t-shirt made.

    Funny, I didn’t even notice the announcements about flash photography (or the photography itself), likely because I had used some liquid encouragement to help me loosen up my neshama. I tend to be fairly easygoing about these sort of halachic issues–despite my personal inconsistency, whenever I’m in a synagogue I have my phone off and certainly wouldn’t use a camera. But I don’t get so hot and bothered about “violations,” and I certainly don’t think flash photography was the most distracting thing going on in a room full of 500 wildly dancing Jews in various states of inebriation. But it takes some chutzpah to get in someone’s face about writing notes quietly in a corner when so much other crazy stuff is happening.

  4. Theophrastus October 3, 2010 at 3:41 pm #

    I’m completely with you on this. Simchas Torah and Shemini Atzeres are really hard holidays for me — people behaving their worst. I didn’t go to minyan this year — I just stayed home and learned Torah.

    Of all the melachos, writing seems the least likely to offend others. I’m sorry the kosher-police keep hassling you about it.

    • David A.M. Wilensky October 3, 2010 at 9:58 pm #

      Theo, I didn’t expect you to be on my side about this.

      Truth be told, I’m not bothered by the behavior of others on Simchat Torah. I just don’t wanna be involved. I actually think, if anything, what’s great about having raucous services on these holidays is that it may show someone a vital, exciting Judaism they’ve never seen before and encourage them to be more involved.

  5. Jon October 3, 2010 at 4:44 pm #

    The truth is the people who were carping at you don’t really care about halakha, they care about being the kool kidz and shaming others about melachos is one way to do it.


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