The Cocktail Party Contrarian: Stumbling Into Some Honest Interfaith Dialogue
This was a story about a group of people so at home in their religious surroundings that they sometimes treat them with less-than-ideal reverence, I explained, adding that it was actually a sign of devotion.
I had lunch the other day with a friend who isn’t Jewish but found himself at an Orthodox synagogue recently. He was half laughing, and half appalled, as he recounted to me what he found there.
“There is something called ‘the Kiddush Club,’” he began, referring to the small group of men who tiptoe out of the sanctuary during prayers for a quick break, usually featuring a lot of scotch and a lot of food. “The men I was with all just got up and left, right there in the middle of the service,” my friend reported. “And about 10 minutes later they returned to their seats, clearly soused, laughing and chatting. They were making all sorts of noise.”
His eyes were wide with disbelief just remembering it. “Right there in the middle of the service,” he said again, emphasizing the unimaginable audacity of it. “I had to shush them.”
He isn’t a devout Christian, but I could picture my very proper British friend when he did go to church. I imagined him always turning to the appropriate page in his hymnal as directed, dutifully respecting the sanctity of the space with his undivided attention and silence. With that as his likely reference point for good worship etiquette, he must have been truly shocked by this band of disorderly Jews.
He was looking to me, a Jewish friend, for confirmation that he had walked into the one aberrant synagogue in America where barbarian-like behavior occurred. Surely, Jews didn’t act like this in their own houses of worship.
I laughed. This was honest “interfaith dialogue.” I explained to him that Orthodox synagogues are filled with Orthodox Jews. They are the sort who regularly attend services, most weekly and some even daily. The sanctuary is their home away from home, and they can sometimes treat it like their living room more than a prayer hall. Some of the guys have a few drinks with their friends in the other room during the sermon, and they don’t always act like their rabbis taught them to in high school.
To me, I explained, it was a story about a group of people so at home in their religious surroundings that they sometimes treat them with less-than-ideal reverence. It was actually a sign of devotion, I said. You only drop your pretenses around family. I assured him that most American Jews are not regular synagogue attendees and tend to treat services more formally. So, in a sense he did experience something of an American Jewish outlier, but a really endearing one.
My friend smiled. He appreciated the explanation, but I could see the cultural divide left him just short of fully understanding. It didn’t matter. The best interfaith dialogue isn’t cautious sanitization of community quirks, but the willingness to acknowledge them and laugh about them with others. “Common ground” isn’t always available, and it doesn’t need to be to build bridges.
Ms. Sugar is a writer and philanthropic consultant living in New York. She is married and has twin teenagers and an English Bulldog named Batman.