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Friday, September 19, 2014

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Audience or congregation?

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A long time ago, I saw a wonderful one-woman show starring Lily Tomlin called The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe. At the end of the show, Tomlin confides in the audience that the aliens she befriended were watching them, thinking they were the actual show.

She says, “I feel one of ’em tug my sleeve, whispers, ‘Trudy, look.’ I said, ‘Yeah, goosebumps. You really like the play that much?’ They said it wasn’t the play gave ‘em goosebumps, it was the audience. I forgot to tell ’em to watch the play; they’d been watching the audience! Yeah, to see a group of strangers sitting together in the dark, laughing and crying about the same things… that just knocked ‘em out. They said, ‘Trudy, the play was soup… the audience...art.’ ”

I thought of this scene last week while enjoying Teatron’s new play Rabbi Sam, the story of a young American rabbi trying to change the world by shaking up a typical, sleepy congregation. His ideas, creative and inventive but sometimes kooky, are held in suspicion. And of course, within moments of his hiring, one of his shul’s longstanding board members decides he can’t stand the new rabbi and campaigns to get rid of him.

I thought of course that I would relate personally to the character of Rabbi Sam. Luckily, I didn’t. My first congregation, Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, not only tolerated my ideas, but in fact encouraged me to try new things with them. After that, my congregation in Boston, Temple Beth David, not only embraced change, but enthusiastically sought it out. And my new congregation, City Shul, having just been created, doesn’t have any “we’ve always done it that way” naysayers, and just about anything we try is going to be, by definition, new.

Rather, it was the audience I related to. I watched the audience more than I watched the performers. An amazing thing happened: sometime during the second act, the audience turned into a congregation. They were deciding whether or not they, too, liked this new rabbi, and I could feel them judging him not as an actor but really, truly as a rabbi. Was his sermon meaningful? Was he good with the kids? Did he relate to the older folks? Was he inspirational? And when he was just a “normal” guy with his kid, was he still “rabbi” enough for them?

The audience became a congregation at a synagogue in many of the same ways that congregations often feel like audiences at a play.

The guy behind me finished the rabbi’s lines for him somewhat impatiently. The woman in the row in front whispered loudly to her companion at several strategic points. And the gentleman a few seats down from me simply fell asleep, snoring with a start every few minutes. I felt right at home in this congregation. They smiled politely at the “rabbi’s” feeble attempts at jokes and shook their heads along with the supposed congregants at his outlandish stories. I think many of them “chose” a board member who was most like them and honed in on that character’s feelings for Rabbi Sam.

Being a rabbi is an often lonely and perplexing profession. We must be compassionate, but strong. Caring but professional. As great with nine-year-olds as we are with 59-year-olds and 90-year-olds. Up to date on the latest issues, but versed in ancient texts. More observant than our congregants, but thoroughly modern in outlook. Committed to Israel, but passionate about our community in the Diaspora.

I can’t tell you how many times people have looked into my grocery basket to see what “the rabbi” is buying. And yet people let their rabbi into the most intimate and important moments of their lives – the birth of their babies, the moment their kid becomes an independent teenager, their weddings, their loved ones dying, their mourning and their rejoicing, their simchahs and their sorrows.

So when I stand on the bimah, it’s the “audience” sitting together, laughing and crying about the same things, that really knocks me out. Don’t worry so much about the “actors” – the folks on the bimah leading the service. Better to start getting goosebumps from the people singing next to you.

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