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Shavuot Ethnography

We come here every year and I can’t keep track of the years anymore.

They all seem to blend in together. As every time, the routine is the same. I walk in with a big black knapsack, like a teenage runaway or a homeless woman, fearful of losing it and all that it contains.

At that moment when the fear wells up — for I do recognize how odd it looks to shlep a backpack around in shul — I always think the same thing: I trust in You, God, but I don’t trust these people, or any people, to *not* steal my stuff.

It isn’t a big synagogue, but it feels big. The room is divided in half. The Torahs are encased in a special holding container in front. Starting partway down the room there is a wooden divider separating the men from the women, as is traditional. The entryway is in the back.

I sit down, and it is just like I was there yesterday. In this synagogue there is a designated member of the congregation, a man, who traditionally gives the women a prayer book as well as a Bible. I personally find this tradition annoying. But it’s kind of nice, because well-intentioned, and I gratefully accept the sacred texts when they are handed to me.

It is hard not to hold my iPhone in my hand.

Also, my eyes are bothering me. I feel a lot older than I did last year.

As usual there are more men than women in the synagogue. The few women that are there, are dressed to kill. Looking good, for Chabad women, is different than for other religious Jewish women; it seems like a value “baked into” the culture, just like making delicious food. It’s not like they wear the most expensive clothes, necessarily; it is that they look completely stylish. I marvel at the heels and wonder how they not only walk in them, but also carry kids.

The Rabbi is praying with great joy and intensity. I feel happy to hear it.

The ceiling is painted as though it were the sky. The wall in front of me is painted to look like the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

I’m standing there thinking my own thoughts when the Rabbi’s wife somehow appears at my side and greets me warmly with a one-cheek kiss. Let me pause here and say that I find the hello greeting altogether confusing as at my own synagogue, which is Sephardic, the women routinely do the two-cheek kiss, but to me it’s either one cheek or a hug, depending on how both of us are feeling.

They’re singing all the tunes I know. How I love the service at Chabad. It’s like song after song, I am right there with them.

Also it is entirely possible to walk in at 11 a.m. and still participate meaningfully.

They come around with the Torah not once, but twice and each time there are two Torahs to kiss. I kiss them joyfully, directly. I chase them to kiss each one.

Midway through the service I start to feel suffocated. This happens to me every week, no matter where I go to shul. I leave to get a breath of fresh air.

And then return. Mercifully the pace is quick, and before long the service is over. But not before we hear the Ten Commandments, and the Rabbi tells us to imagine we are right back there at Mt. Sinai. I do as he says, and a wave of spirituality permeates my body. I genuinely feel it and it’s the most amazing thing — I can’t describe it.

Back to reality, and the Rabbi makes the announcements. He announces that the Shavuot dinner will be held at 5:00, and there will be a “lavish buffet,” and most importantly ice cream.

At this the crowd goes wild. I can literally feel a wave of joy in the room.

We attend the Shavuot buffet. It is similarly joyful, with great and generous servings of traditional holiday food; beautiful outfits; really nice decorations; and one thing I didn’t mention before, which is  kids happily playing all over the place.

There is a palpable loneliness in the room, the loneliness of people who — married or single — never quite fit into a religious category or community. Whereas Chabad offers certainty, stepping outside it offers none.

The feeling of being outside and inside at once.

Always a little different.

Glad that Chabad exists, and is part of Jewish life everywhere.


By Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. All opinions are the author’s own; this blog is posted in the author’s personal capacity. Available for reuse under Creative Commons 3.0 License. For more information, visit

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