LOS ANGELES (Oct. 18)
I’m in the bathroom of Sinai Temple, hunched over my notebook, scrawling down words in the fluorescent light and wondering what I was thinking when I decided to catch “Friday Night Live” alone.
“Friday Night Live” is a relatively new Shabbat service designed to attract Jewish singles, ages 29 to 40, in Los Angeles. The service has become increasingly popular since it began in June, and now attracts standing-room- only crowds of up to 800. They come for an accessible service and they stay for the post-prayer mingling session, which involves Israeli folk dancing and platters of Chinese chicken salad. I’ve come to check it out, more as a writer than a single — although I am both.
I stuff my notebook into my purse and head into the crowded lobby, where I feel like I’ve just gotten off an airplane and no one is there to greet me, but behind me is someone’s long-lost Uncle Al who is being barraged with hugs and balloons. It seems like everyone else knows someone, so I pretend I’m looking for a friend until the service starts, when I plant myself in the back row.
The familiar melodies of the prayers are soothing. I begin to relax. I only reach for my notebook sporadically, taking notes in one word bursts I hope will be enough to jog my memory later.
Oprah. Commitment. Jealous. Atonal. Cell phone. Haven.
I stare at this huge room full of mostly single people, and I remember this therapist I saw on “Oprah.” The therapist said “single” was a defeatist word, and that we should think of ourselves not as “single,” but as “open to new experiences and relationships.” It’s this kind of positive thinking, she said, that will help the universe bring love into our lives.
All the positive thinking in the world isn’t going to help me, I think, noticing a guy that bears a striking resemblance to that actor who plays Dr. Carter on the television show “ER.” I have a little problem with commitment. I can’t commit to a relationship, but I take it a step further. I can’t commit to not having a relationship. This accounts for the stable of pseudo-boyfriend- type guy friends I cultivate, not wanting to rule anyone out but not able to let anyone in.
I notice a couple holding hands, standing against the back wall because they couldn’t get seats. For a second, I’m jealous of them. They seem so happy together, sharing the experience, standing close, having that thing most of us want.
Everyone is singing, and the music is beautiful. I want to join in, but I’m tone deaf and embarrassed to sing in public. I remember when I first learned these songs, when I’d belt them out in services, before I knew I couldn’t sing. When did I start singing in my head instead of out loud?
As the group sings, Rabbi David Wolpe makes his rounds up and down the aisles. His smile is warm and welcoming. I like that he does this — it makes even us back-row people feel like we are part of things
A cellular phone rings. The rabbi takes the opportunity to tell us that Shabbat is a time for inner peace, that if we can’t take a couple of hours away from our cell phones and pagers to connect to ourselves, we really need to come to services more often. The synagogue, he says, should be a haven.
I stop taking notes.
The rabbi’s sermon is about courage. He tells us to be ourselves, honor our souls and become who we were meant to be if fear didn’t stand in our way. Abraham, Moses and other Jewish heroes had the strength to argue with God, he adds. As Jews, we have the responsibility to live courageously.
Wolpe’s words are moving and his delivery dramatic and full of humor. This is the stuff, I think to myself. This is the stuff that keeps people coming back to “Friday Night Live.” And as for the “mingling” factor in this equation, I suppose it beats an “open to new experiences and relationships” dance or hike or other Jewish “open to new experiences and relationships” event. After all, we’re all just here to pray, right?
The service ends and it’s time to socialize. I don’t Israeli dance for much the same reason I don’t sing.
I do eat, though. I fill my plate with some salad and cookies and attempt to maneuver through the crowd, using the paper plate as my crowd-parting device. The warm feeling I had during the service dissipates as I pretend I’m looking for someone again.
The mingling begins to take on a sinister tone. There are a thousand little rejections to be had at such affairs. Someone looks at you and looks away. You try not to take it personally. Someone stops to talk to you and immediately begins to scan the room, their eyes darting around for someone better. You position yourself in proximity to the “ER” guy, but he doesn’t notice you and it’s very likely you have food in your teeth. You try to be discreet getting the Altoids out of your purse, but you can’t get the tin open. You run into a guy you know who offers to open the tin for you and you suck on a mint while sticking to him like anti-social glue.
Courage is one thing. “Open to new experiences and relationships” events are another thing entirely. I gulp down another plastic cup full of sickly sweet wine and head for the door.