I can now say that I’ve experienced Phoenician and Tucsonian Shabbatot (I hope I have those Arizonan adjectives right). A wonderful family and a lovely Shabbat dinner were my reward for a pretty easy drive (I’m still a Californian at heart – two hours on the highway is just a warmup). As the house wasn’t exactly situated in the West Side of Manhattan – or the West Side of L.A. for that matter – it was a bit of a walk to the nearest minyan on Shabbat, but the weather was Arizona-in-February gorgeous and I love sampling different minyanim when on the road.
Armed with a pre-printed Google map and a water bottle, I set out for the 2.5-mile walk to shul. Overshooting it by a good mile (of course uphill), I was grateful that I located the house when I retraced my steps. And there, amid cactus and a picture portrait mountain view, were siddurim (prayer books), a Torah and nine – at the time – Jews waiting for a tenth. A brilliant woman most of you haven’t met yet (my wife) taught our children (and me) this essential truth: always believe that you’ll be the tenth. Meaning: saying or thinking that someone else will do it (or in this case, be it) is a surefire way of backing out of your responsibility. I couldn’t wait to tell her that I was indeed the tenth. Do not assume that someone else will do what you can do – someone else might not pick up that piece of paper, might not offer a stranger a kind word, might not write that letter to a public official.
Other assumptions not to make: when you’ve been blessed with living or working within relatively large Jewish communities, it’s too easy to believe – to assume – that Jewish life elsewhere is somehow less. Obviously, a critical mass makes it easier to populate a Yom HaAtzmaut celebration, or to find people to attend the local Jewish Film Festival. But no one should ever think that life – and in this case, Jewish life – is in anyway, Gd forbid, less meaningful, less vibrant, less important. The kavanah – the intentionality – among those thirteen (three more joined after me) was as powerful and authentic as anything found in synagogues of 300 or more.
Years ago, our family mapped out a fantastic summer vacation – we hiked during the day and attended live theater in the evening. In Utah, Arizona and Nevada we sampled regional and local theater groups – some in fairly large open-air theaters (Hairspray was particularly good), and some in pretty small, local black box theaters. Though we had done our homework and worked out a detailed plan of attack, we serendipitously stumbled onto a local theater when we had a free night. Mystically, they had four tickets left, none next to the other, so we all saw Kiss of the Spiderwoman in separate rows.
During intermission, we couldn’t wait to find each other (it wasn’t hard – I think the total capacity was 75 seats) to marvel at the performance. The acting, the singing, the staging, the lighting – everything was stellar, mesmerizing. The takeaway: not every exceptional performance is on a Broadway stage – and there are powerful, transformative moments to be found pretty much everywhere, if we but choose to look – and see.
That we had a memorable experience in a small town, in a correspondingly small theater, takes nothing away from Broadway, off-Broadway or their unfairly maligned sibling, off-off-Broadway. Just as davening overlooking cacti and mountains takes nothing away from hundred year-old buildings with scores of people praying. To assume that meaning is somehow missing from one is as misguided as believing that it’s missing from the other. It’s not the physical setting – it’s what happens inside it.
שבת שלום – Shabbat Shalom,