Saturday July 2 Great Synagogue and Israel Museum

We had a much more leisurely day than originally planned.  The Greek Patriarchate called and canceled our appointment, and suggested we might meet with them on Monday or Wednesday.  Of course we are scheduled up on Monday and Wednesday, so we probably won’t be able to meet with them, and there is no guarantee given their attitude, that they would not cancel again.

So we left the hotel and walked to the Great Synagogue of the Ashkenazi.  This is an Orthodox Synagogue, where the Rabbi of Jerusalem is in residence, and reflects the European tradition of Judaism as opposed to the oriental tradition known as the Sephardic.  The streets were almost deserted since it is Shabbat.  We passed the Prima King Hotel, where we stayed in 2010. We arrived after a 20 minute walk at the  Great Synagogue and indeed it is an impressive building with a very large four story school next door.  We had to surrender our cameras and cell phones at the door, and then went inside and up a flight of stairs to the main sanctuary.  The sanctuary is built three quarters in the round with the bema or podium near the middle.  Only men were on the main floor.  Women sit in the balconies.  Some fathers bring their children onto the main floor including little girls up to the age of about 7 or 8 year.  There are seats in the synagogue with little like desks where it is possible to prop open a prayer book.

There must have been representatives from 15 to 20 different communities of Orthodox Jews in the congregation.  The different communities can be identified by dress.  There are men without hats and with hats.  There were at least 7 different kinds of hats.  At least 2 different fur hats were represented.  The there were at least 3 different kinds of broad brimmed fedoras, and at least 2 different kinds of Hamburgs.  The hats then were worn in different ways.  Some on the back of the head, some on top of the head, and some pulled down in the front – wish I had pictures to illustrate.  Each different kind of hat and way of wearing it, represents a different Orthodox community.  Then there were sidelocks, and no sidelocks, beards and no beards.  Again each of these sartorial choices can represent a different community.  Then there were long coats, short coats, and no coats.  Finally and few of the men wore knee breeches and long socks rather than trousers.  What variety.  And then different communities sometimes would stand up during different parts of the service, while others remained seated.  When the Torah scrolls were taken out and put away, and during certain prayers, everyone stood.  During the long reading of the Torah, some people fell asleep, just like in church.   But there was a lot of movement in and out of the service, and moving around in the sanctuary, people greeting one another, and schmoozing.  At times it seemed like attendance was mandatory, but attention was not.

There was an all male choir, who were very good.  The cantor had an operatic quality voice.  Some of the hymns were very Western European, other songs were more in a minor key with a hint of an oriental flavor.  In the midst of the service I became aware of the crying of a very young baby, almost newborn, and I realized they were performing a bris, a circumcision, right there in the service.  The moil after making the cut sucked up some of the blood and pit it in to the cup of wine that was used for the blessing of the circumcision.  Now that’s literally the blood of the covenant.  When they brought the baby out of the sanctuary I was able to see through the door a tearful grandmother and a very anxious young mother, who immediately checked to make sure the moil hadn’t cut too much.

During many of the prayers following the reading of the Torah and the performance of the bris, most of the congregation was davening, bowing in rhythm with the music or the chanting.  Even not knowing Hebrew, the service was inspiring at times, and certainly afforded much to observe.  As we left the service Jonathan ran into his wife, Judy’s, college roommate.  It is a small world.

Over lunch at the Israel museum I asked the question on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being the absolute chaos in Hindu worship and 10 being a group of monks singing Gregorian Chant in perfect harmony, where would you rate the at the Great Synagogue.  Jonathan suggested that rather than chaos, we think of the spectrum of discipline.  The service in the Great Synagogue is highly structured but somewhat undisciplined with everyone doing their own thing.  Ray Dunmyer volunteered that he had attended a Papal Mass in St. Peters that was 4 hours long, and abou half way through the Mass he observed a mother with four children break out sandwiches for the kids.  A Papal mass is highly structured, but not always highly disciplined with people going in an out and attendance being important but not necessarily full attention.  The service in the Great Synagogue is three hours long.  I wonder if the longer the liturgy the less discipline.  So I wonder to what extent is discipline a necessary part of connecting with the divine?  Maybe more speculation on this later.

Because the Greeks had canceled on us and we were already part of the way there we proceeded to the Israel Museum, rather than returning to the Old City.  At the Israel Museum we spent some time at the Jerusalem model, a scale replica of Jerusalem as we believe it looked in 66 A.D. just before the Jewish revolt that ended in the destruction of the City and the Temple.  I have seen it on several occasions, but Ray had never seen it in its present location with many additions and improvements.  They up date it periodically based on new excavations in the City.

We also toured the Museum.  The last two times I have been in Jerusalem, the Museum was closed for remodeling and expansion.  In addition to an expanded collection of Israel antiquities, they also now have an art gallery and Jewish life displays from all over the world – fascinating.

This was also Ray’s first visit to the Shrine of the Book, where many of the Dead Sea Scrolls are on display.  The Shrine of the Book includes historical material about the Qumran Community and the Essenes, although I think they have not updated their interpretation of the Essenes with some of the most recent research and speculation.  There may have been some links between Essene communities and John the Baptist and Jesus.

We were able to return to the hotel in the mid-afternoon to catch up on our rest and a debriefing before dinner.




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