Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Condemned to the Fiery Pits of Shul

I dislike going to shul. How bad it is varies from time to time, and shorter periods are more bearable than longer ones, but it’s never a pleasant experience.

There are a number of reasons for this. In no particular order: Its boring; I don’t socialize easily and so usually have no one to talk to; often the back-and-forth between the chazzan and the tzibur has the same effect on me as fingernails on a blackboard; shuls are often stuffy and I find that uncomfortable (when I was a teenager I often got dizzy in shul); I’m not always sure what I’m supposed to be doing; and my childhood experiences in shul were often unpleasant.
This is all without even touching the issue of whether davening serves any purpose.

When I was a kid my father davened in a shteible that was hot with the air conditioners running. At that age, I was about half the height of the adults, which put my head just about even with an adult’s waist. The man who sat in front of me had stomach problems.

Picture it. Shabbos morning. I stood up to daven shemoneh esrei. The men around me are shuckeling away, the tzitzis on their taleisim whipping around their waists. I try to simultaneously look at my siddur and avoid getting hit in the face. Then the man directly in front of me relieves the pressure on his aching stomach, and those nearby are treated to his, ah, perfume.

This happened every. Single. Week.

Is this why I dislike shul? Probably not. But it certainly didn’t help.

My dislike probably has more to do with not really knowing what I was supposed to be doing. I remember coming late to shul with my father for mincha one Shabbos afternoon when I was ten or eleven. My father hung up his coat and went to his seat. It took me a minute to find an empty hook, and then I hung up mine and went to join him. I was surprised to find him looking upset, and after a minute he asked me why I had walked across the shul during kedusha. Didn’t I know better?

I hadn’t even noticed.

That was, and is, a problem. I don’t pick up social cues easily, and no one ever really taught me what I was supposed to do in shul. I was supposed to just pick it up from being there.

Then there’s the sensory overload that is being in shul. People everywhere, constantly moving, constantly mumbling. Even worse is when the chazzan says something and everyone else responds with a roar that is like fingernails being dragged across a blackboard.

I find that the tune used for Rosh HaShanah and yom Kippur annoy me even more than those used other times of year. Between that and the long, long time davening takes, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur were pure agony.

While a lot of factors contribute to my dislike of shul, I think the biggest problem is that it’s incredibly boring. Most people I’ve asked tell me that they go to shul as much for the social as for the religious aspects. As I said, I don’t socialize easily, so what I’m left with is mumbling a lot of nonsense in a language I only half understand directed towards a being Who I seriously doubt is there.

There was an elementary school rebbe I had who described gehenom to us as sitting in class with the clock at one minute to recess and never moving. As a kid (before I learned to read clocks) I was constantly asking my father how much longer was left to shul. He would tell me there was another twenty minutes. After what seemed like an eternity to me, I would ask him again, and he would tell me, “About twenty minutes.” (It must have been annoying for him.) When I was a little older I would watch the clock.

I often wondered if I were dead and in Hell. It was always a bit of a surprise when davening ended and I discovered that I was, in fact, still alive.


  1. Why don't you go OTD and runaway from the frum world. The excessive legalism of Judaism creates one too many atheists.

  2. I've always wondered how frum people tolerate shul. My MO relative says her husband loves going because he can socialize there. To me, back when i did actually make an effort, it was painfully slow and boring. Just watched the sand grains of my life sliding down the timer. What makes those around you like it? Or do you think they secretly are happy it's done too?