Your local Jewish Community Center is likely somewhat of a melting pot of the Jewish community spectrum in your area and, if it offers the right services, even the non-Jewish community. So it was no surprise that the cast and crew of Annie Get Your Gun, performed this year at the JCC in Atlanta, GA, contained less than a handful of Shomer Shabbat members – myself included. One of the beautiful upshots of this is that the individuals involved would never have done anything together if not for their unifying love for the performing arts. More than a dozen synagogues were represented among us, and the younger actors attend the local Reform and Conservative schools.
Getting the chance to know and interact with this group, the first thing that struck me was that everyone was aware of generally what it meant to be Orthodox. If home-baked snacks were brought in, people didn’t push us to try some. Nobody complained about our missing rehearsal for Tisha B’Av. Arrangements were made for us to stay for Shabbat in the local Orthodox community so we could have a normal, happy Shabbat day and still make the Saturday night show, albeit with little time to spare before curtain. In all, superbly accomodating.
Having spent my college years in the pluralistic haven of Rutgers Hillel, none of this was new to me. You do what you need to do on your own time, and then join up with the group for all the non-religious components. That was the plan a few years ago when this same troupe put on Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Same Saturday night show, same Shabbat hospitality, and a little bottle of grape juice, spices, and a candle in my costume bag. Gotta race out of the house as soon as Shabbat was over; surely there would be a few minutes to do an in-costume Havdala before showtime. But I was blown away when slowly the rest of the cast came over and said, “Hey, you’re making Havdala – can we join?” The lead of that play was a cantor and was offered to lead a delightful and quite musical little backstage service. My quick-as-a-flash words-running-together Havdala turned into a surprise bonding experience for the cast.
This year, I came prepared with the regular Havdala accoutrements. By Wednesday, people were already asking, “you’re making Havdala again this time, right?” The cantor had moved out of state in the interim, so the job had fallen to me. Not that I mind playing Chazzan in these situations, but I came to wonder, “why does everyone here care for Havdala?” What does it mean to everybody who is not Shomer Shabbat to begin with? And also for myself – did I even consider it something powerfully spiritual that everyone should be doing it? Was I supposed to?
I spoke with a few of the cast later that Saturday night about the proceedings. Some did endeavor to make Havdala on their own regularly but admitted that it just didn’t always happen, especially when the only Shabbat observence they had done in those 24 hours had been dinner the night before – Shabbat had essentially been over already for the whole day, or at least since after Shul that morning. Others looked at this like a return to their youth, the “summer camp” days, and while they know that they’re not connected to Shabbat much anymore they see value in using this as an excuse to relive more spiritually fulfilling memories.
Then there was the Southern Baptist in the group who really needed the whole story. It’s clearly insufficient to answer just “because it’s been done this way for generations.” I was happy to share a more detailed description of all the blessings, and it came with a bonus: it kept my mind fresh with the reasoning of why I say Havdala as well. What really hit home is describing the spices and the candle. The candle was a practical idea – the world (at least pre-electricity) was a dark, perhaps scary place when we didn’t physically bring light to it; the flame is there to indicate that we are now free to engage in that work again. Yes there are also more spiritual explanations for the fire, but I’ll leave that to the spices: when we leave what was supposed to be a day spent on a spiritual high, we need something to put a smile back on our faces.
This is where I saw the difference in my approach to Havdala relative to much of the other cast. I was in it for the flame: a utilitarian means to indicate that Shabbat was over and the week’s work could commence. And if I can do that in a minute flat, all the better. I understand how someone who is not Shomer Shabbat doesn’t see the value in that. But there is also the spices: there is a spiritual component involved which can certainly exist, albeit in a variety of different ways, regardless of one’s level of strictness with Shabbat law. That’s what everyone was focusing on, and that’s what generated the request for a full-blown, spiritually meaningful service. Everyone in that room had some kind of Shabbat experience, so everyone felt a connection to Havdala as being the end of the time allotted for that experience.
This is an issue that many Halacha-abiding Jews encounter regularly: performing a Halachic act that carries no spiritual meaning (see almost anything involving formal prayer). Some might not see this as a necessarily bad thing, and indeed there’s nothing Halachically wrong with that approach. However, as Jews of all walks around the world prepare for the high holidays, it’s important to remember that lessons about connection to God and Jewish practice can be learned from everyone around us, not just those who share your own theology.