I am in my back garden somehow socially distancing with friends as we play chicken with English Summertime cloud-filled skies. Between the muddled talk of the boss’s children discussing poos loudly during intense Zoom meetings, how fat everyone is now, and people not wearing masks in Waitrose properly, I make a hushed confession: I am grateful that the pandemic has made an excellent pass not to go to Shul over Yom Tov.
These people are no spiritual slouches. As a great Rabbi once said too me propped up and half-cut at the Limmud Conference Bar late on a Wednesday night, ‘these guys know their Jewish shit!’ Yet each to a person I could see in their computer screen battered eyes they are thinking the same. Their reasons might be different and no doubt a lot less petty than my own. They were thanking in that tiny second (after which like a normal human being with compassion they return to the unjust horrors of death and misery it has spawned) our useless government for mishandling the crisis.
You see I hate Shul. Well, I hate the religious practice of Shul. I love building communities and all the gritty governance. The stuff that goes into maintaining the sausage factory of making an institution which doles out organised fun. I am that weirdo that longs for a two-hour in-person meeting discussing how you distribute the various rotas or think of new ways to attract ‘young families’. I also like watching others get joy from taking part in something which gives them a sense of self-worth or fulfilment or a cholent kiddush. I do have something of a passion for making the world less unbearable. It is the nuts and bolts of going into Shul and praying which makes me run for the hills. True irrational terror.
I have since I was old enough to understand the guilt tripping sermons of poor attendance and the utter disinterest of those around me. I hated it since I was made to endure going every Shabbat before my Bar Mitzvah for a year. How I sat on my own and watched the sad old men attempt to keep alive our dying East London Synagogue. That my Father who was meant to be with me would drop me off and go about some activities that fathers do and come back to pick me up. I know my Dad hated Shul even more than me. Alienated by not being able to read Hebrew and feeling culturally downtrodden by membership which used ritual not to inspire but to remind him of his own hang ups.
My Mother only believes in Schnauzers, her grandchildren and Marks and Spencer’s. Between the two of them I have memories of bacon beigels on Yom Kippur and becoming a Passover orphan after my Grandfather died. To many the love of prayer and ritual is crafted in the home. My home was unquestionably a loving one, but it had no time for out of date placations in a language which was more a wall than a bridge to the soul. Only since being in a relationship with someone who had a healthy childhood relationship with Shul could I stomach the benign practice around me. Yet even with her sat by me, it is more a pain than a pleasure.
Now I have a wonderful excuse! Why do I want to sit in a small room for hours without colourful songs, in a mask and not a chance to schmooze after over stale crisps? Why do I want to watch someone sing in their pokey office with strategically set Judaica behind them in some pre-recorded attempt to capture whatever Shul offers for those that care? I want to be safe. I am worried about local lockdowns. I do not want to see another video call. It isn’t really worth it. Think of it as a fallow year like they do at Glastonbury. I can roll off more like a shit fountain of empty excuses. Yet to me, and I expect countless others, it’s just a smokescreen because they hate Shul.
I may not see myself as remotely spiritual, but I have met many who see the rites and work of those few hours in prayer as a profound expression of self. My petty dislike of public singing pales in comparison to the wellbeing created for someone that needs the services. I hate Shul in the flippant way people hate broccoli or football fans singing on the Tube. I hate in a profound way seeing the suffering of others and how this pandemic has attacked us in every quarter of our lives. That this has given me an easy exit from a mundane problem but could leave us in a worse state. Which only adds a lashing of pure Jewish guilt to my synagogue going loathing. Which only makes me hate Shul even more.