Year of Sundays

Year of Sundays


Congregation Beth Israel: This Shikse Couldn’t Find a Single Thing to Kvetch About

posted by Amanda P. Westmont

I can’t talk about going to Synagogue without talking about Rebecca Long, my grade school BFF. We were attached at the hip for a good chunk of our childhoods, which, in hindsight, makes her just as much a sister as a friend. I lost my virginity on the floor of Becca’s bedroom to a cute skater boy named Vince and the fact that she still talked to me afterward is one of about a million reasons I will love her until the day I die. ["I think it was supposed to be terrible, Amanda."]

Anyway, Becca was (is) a Jew. I was her goyeh. And we were inseparable.

This meant I occasionally tagged along with her to Temple, but more importantly, my friendship with Becca meant I grew up more submersed in Jewish culture than your average gentile. When it was time for Joel and I to hit the synagogue, she was my go-to-Jew for questions about which Passover service to attend (Friday Shabbat) and what to wear (nothing too sexy). It should come as no shock that I’ve been disregarding respectable fashion advice for years now, even from the likes of Becca Long.

All dressed up and ready for our friend Tracy's Bat Mitzvah. Guess which 13-year-old is me? Go on, GUESS.

It’s good to know that very little has changed in 22 years. (Well, except I need to lose 40 pounds if I ever want to wear that pink dress again.)

Me (and my stupid suede stripper shoes) with Joel before the service. Once a shikse, always a shikse!

Growing up I actually spent more time at synagogue than I ever did at church. The Jews aren’t like their Christian brothers and sisters; they actually PARTICIPATE in their religion. The go to temple! They send their kids to Hebrew school! They celebrate the Jewish holidays with more than just a passing Hallmark sentimentality! So I got invited a lot. It’s what they do. (See also: They FEED you.)

So when we arrived at Congregation Beth Israel on Friday night and the Rabbi greeted us with a warm Shabbat Shalom, it felt like coming home. Can I just say that Rabbi Michael Cahana is a total mentsh? I don’t have a shy bone in my body, so I happily stuck out my hand and introduced myself and everyone else in our Year of Sundays clan to him on Friday night and I INSTANTLY liked him. He’s one of those people who is simply lit from the inside. If authenticity of spirit had a poster child, it would be Rabbi Cahana.

I told him about our project and asked if there was anything we needed to know before entering the sanctuary. I’m glad I asked because he gave us two Shabbat restrictions:

No photography and no WRITING.

Of course after he explained it – no work on the Sabbath – it made sense, but it was still one of the hardest services for me to sit through because it was overflowing with awesomesauce and I couldn’t take any notes, which, for this old lady, meant none of it actually happened. I did, however, burn a few key memories onto my atrophied membranes.

Like the sound of the cantor every time she sang the word “Adonai,” the Hebrew name for God. I noticed Cantor Judith Blanc Schiff as we waited for the service to start and from the precision with which she set up her sheet music to the way she bustled around greeting people, she was all business. She has a very intentional way of moving herself through space and I instantly respected her lack of nonsense, just like I respect the Super Nanny. This didn’t strike me as odd until she started singing and this magnificent operatic voice came out of that matter-of-fact body. She sings almost as if she has no idea how talented she is. She’s just there to do her job and sing. I kept thinking about how Joel loves Catholicism because when the priest walks down the aisle with the incense you know God is in the house. I felt the same way every time Cantor Schiff opened her songbook: find your tuchus and sit on it because God is in the Temple.

I loved almost every reading from the Shabbat service prayer book. It’s not the Torah, but it’s every bit as eloquent. In spite of Becca’s many attempts to teach it to me, I couldn’t (obviously) follow along in Hebrew, so I found myself simply reading the passages in English and letting the cantor give them her own flavor.

Some standouts:

As you taught Torah
to those whose names I bear,
teach me Torah, too.
Its mystery beckons,
yet I struggle with its truth.
You meant Torah for me:
did You mean the struggle for me, too?
Don’t let me struggle alone;
help me
to understand,
to be wise, to listen, to know…
Lead me into the mystery.

Or this one about the Shabbat:

A thought has blown the market place away.
There is a song on the wind and joy in the trees.
Shabbat arrives in the the world,
scattering a song in the silence of the night:
Eternity utters a day.

And my favorite:

Don’t stop after beating the swords
into ploughshares, don’t stop! Go on beating
and make musical instruments out of them.

Whoever wants to make war again
will have to turn them into ploughshares first.

The Jews put a lot of emphasis on the passage of time. They count the days of the calendar and the holy days of Passover and Hanukkah and other holidays, too, I’m sure. I love it because what they’re really doing is living in their days, making them count, never letting time get away from them. It’s no surprise, given their history of oppression, that they embrace gratitude as a way of life. Staying in the moment – in the day, so to speak – is my goal for this whole spiritual journey anyway, so as I looked around the sanctuary, which is round and cozy and embraces the congregation like a rib-crushing hug from your Bubbe, I tried to stop yearning for the present and just be in it instead.

Of course, given that I had just that very afternoon published my first novel, all I could think about was how people were reading it, (Becca included!) so being in the moment was a FAIL of epic proportions, but hell, I’m a work in progress.

When Rabbi Cahana (whom I doubt will mind the fact that Joel and I refer to him as Rabbi Aloha) gave his Shabbat message, he focused again on the concept of time. On how easy it is to get lost in the counting. He encouraged the congregation to take the ordinary days – the in between days – and find a way to make them special, a concept I would have appreciated anyway, but found a thousand times more endearing because I was peeping at the opposite pew when it was delivered.

In the front row, an older couple sat beside their children and grandchildren and you could tell from the way their bodies fit beside each other that they’d probably been married at least forty or fifty years. Just as the Rabbi said “make every day special,” the man turned to his wife and stroked her cheek in a gesture so ripe with history, and love, and strife, and affection that I almost burst into tears at the sight of it. I swear I could write a hundred romance novels from the inspiration of that single exchange. Witnessing it made my day special, indeed.

Then we had the good fortune to witness a conversion, which is basically like a bat mitzvah for a grown-up. Molly had “been living a Jewish life and raising a Jewish family,” but she had not yet converted to her husband’s religion. (We should come up with a special blonde shikse high-five!) I attended at least a dozen bat mitzvahs in my youth, but this was definitely the first time I ever saw a forty-year-old woman slug the torah over her shoulder and say those particular words (which I can’t remember because, as I mentioned earlier, Becca stopped trying to teach me Hebrew two decades ago) (and I’m old) (which – HA! – means Becca’s old too!). All I know is that I found it touching, particularly the part where Rabbi Aloha hovered his hands above Molly’s head and basically welcomed her into the holy club of the chosen people. I could vividly remember when Becca said those words herself.

On both occasions, I was filled with awe.

And no small amount of envy.

After the service, we encountered an old friend of Joel’s, a homeless street dweller named Barry, who, much like myself, has a bit of a religion fetish going on. Apparently, he gets around the church circuit. Joel remembered him from the olden days when he used to drop in to the Kingdom Hall. Unlike the good people of Congregation Beth Israel, who treated Barry with kindness and kid gloves, the JW’s apparently “unwelcomed” him for his unseemly appearance.

Joel with fellow Kingdom-Hall-Crasher, Barry.

(Can I just say that I love Joel that much more (which was already a LOT) for putting his arm around Barry, who I estimate had last bathed some time in the previous millennium, and asking him to pose for a photo? Baldman’s a keeper.)

Then we partook of the wine and the matzo, which was not at all the disgruntled gesture it had been the week before.

For a culture so often stereotyped as penurious, they sure know how to give a full pour!

Rabbi Cahana explained that while they always pray over the bread and wine, much like saying grace, there is actually no religious significance to it. The wine and matzo (which would have been challah, except for it being passover), isn’t anointed or transubstantiated, it’s simply there to encourage the congregation to socialize after the service. Which is yet another reason to love the Jews: wine for the sake of wine. That alone is enough to get me verklempt!

In which two wanna-be Jews partake of the non-sacramental wine and bread.

We hung around for a while and introduced ourselves to anyone with a smile, which was pretty much everyone. Then the Rabbi  stuck around for almost an hour after everyone left so he could continue answering our questions, which were many. He even walked us across the street and let us into the main Temple.

Rabbi Aloha

The temple turned out to be the most beautiful edifice we’ve entered yet. It was rebuilt after the original temple burned down (suspiciously) in the 1920’s.

I fully intend to go back some day, just so we can sit there with our jaws on the ground during a service.

As far as I’m concerned, Judaism is what religion is supposed to sound and feel and taste like and I’ll be honest: I wish I could be a Jew. It has everything I want – a strong sense of community and culture, none of the answers, all of the questions and ridiculously good deli meat. All that AND they consider sex a mitzvah! (A good deed!) Unfortunately, since I’m already madly in love with a bald ex-Jehovah’s Witness, my chances of marrying into the faith like Molly did are slim to none. I’ll just have to satisfy myself like I always have – by looking over Becca’s shoulder and admiring its beauty from afar.

PS – If this wasn’t enough to make you love Congregation Beth Israel, let me introduce you to their YouTube channel, where you can see Rabbi Aloha singing “You’re the One That I Want” in his way-off Broadway production of “Schmaltz: A Purim Schpiel.”  It’s worth the price of admission.

YouTube Preview Image


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Sally

posted June 6, 2011 at 12:41 pm


This seems like a very warm congregation. Wish I was closer to it, I would love to visit there. I have always felt drawn to Judaism, but have yet to convert. It was nice to see in the links for the temple that there were people of color. Sadly, I have met many jews that are not welcoming to people of color and sadder still I have met many jews that do not consider converts as really being jewish.



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Dolly Ross

posted May 8, 2011 at 3:26 pm


…Wow, this Mother’s Day, I truly enjoyed this Beth Israel one, “This Shikse Couldn’t ….” Thanx, again !!! .. Dolly



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Michelle

posted April 30, 2011 at 3:47 pm


I loved your post! My family joined Congregation Beth Israel shortly after Rabbi Cahana and his wife Cantor Cahana joined. The warmth, music, spirituality, community and friendliness of the congregants won us over. My husband and I grew up Jewish and have been members of various shuls in various large cities throughout our lives. We find CBI to be the best combination of all that is important to us in enjoying, maintaining and expanding our religious identity. When I grew up (in another city), it was a chore to go to religious school, but here, our whole family enjoys participating in temple activities and wish we had more time to attend all of the wonderful programs that CBI offers. I am so glad that you enjoyed CBI too!



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Linda

posted April 30, 2011 at 5:59 am


Leah might be my daughter! I love her synagogue and the ancient words move me to tears and touch something very very deep. It was a thrill to be at her bat mitzvah.



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David Loftus

posted April 29, 2011 at 11:35 pm


I want to second Leah’s comment, Amanda: you don’t have to be born a Jew OR marry a Jew to become one — certainly not a Reform Jew with Temple Beth Israel congregation. Wanna be one? Go right ahead. My wife Carole was raised a Catholic, left that behind in her 30s, and eventually was drawn to Judaism. Portland is especially “blessed” to have an Introduction to Judaism class that is team-taught by most of the rabbis in town — Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox taking turns explaining Jewish ritual, history, law, holy day practices, death rituals, etc. Carole took the class in the fall of 1996 and I tagged along to stay informed on what she was up to. Less than a year later, she converted with Rabbi Rose, the long-serving and much respected predecessor of Rabbi Cahana.

We suspect that everybody in the class thought Carole was converting for my sake: I’m dark-haired, dark complected, highly analytical and articulate, and have a large, prominent nose. But no, I’m a lapsed Unitarian (they were too organized for my taste), and racially, a Japanese-Norwegian mongrel. I liked most of what I learned in the class, because you obviously don’t check your brain at the door of a synogogue. But I remain unaffiliated to any religion. Since I attend services at Temple Beth on an irregular basis, to accompany my wife and to say hi to all the friends we’ve developed since her conversion, I refer to myself as a “nonpracticing atheist.”

Let’s be fair, though. It’s not as perfect as you make it seem. There are many kinds of Jews in the world; some among the more Orthodox strains would say (and have indeed told her) that my wife is not a Jew. Not all members of Temple Beth’s congregation are alert, questioning, regular attendees; Rabbi Cahana would be the first to tell you there are plenty of folks he only sees once or twice a year, usually at High Holy Days, which makes their religious practice more of a social ritual, a family ritual, or a ritual of self-re-identification more than a truly spiritual exercise. In other words, not all that different from a lot of Christian congregants. The differences in religious practice and outlook are definitely there for the taking … but you have to act on them, all the same.



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Leah

posted April 29, 2011 at 6:10 pm


I’m not proselytizing, I swear, but you don’t have to marry a Jew to convert. I converted in my late 20s as a single woman and know plenty of people who have converted without a Jewish parter. I even know people who began as couples sharing the same faith when one converted to Judaism making them an interfaith couple.

I’m so glad that you had a wonderful experience at the synagogue and found a welcoming, informative rabbi to spend it with.



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g.

posted April 29, 2011 at 2:01 pm


Hooray! The behavior of the rabbi and the cantor and the other people at that synagogue make me be proud to be Jewish.

One of those prayers also hits on my favorite part of Judaism (well, at least reform Judaism): It’s not about being perfect and following every rule to the letter. It’s about struggling and learning and and listening and thinking and figuring stuff out for yourself.

So glad you had a good experience there… now I just need to find a synagogue that’s as nice as that one sounds…



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Jules

posted April 29, 2011 at 12:05 pm


The video was a great way to start the morning. I gotta love anyone who can put themselves out there like that. Nice pants too.

The service sounded lovely. If I didn’t already have a religion, I might be on the hunt for a Jewish boyfriend. Heck-maybe I will anyway. What about a Messianic Jew?



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