Question: What, exactly, was my father?
Answer: He was the personification of his favorite word, which he both used and misused with equal delight. First, last, and always, Samuel Reuben was an iconoclast. Things to him were always either “iconoclastic” or “highly iconoclastic.” If we were looking for a roll of film, we could find it “in the iconoclastic section.” If we noticed someone who was particularly clumsy, he was an “iconoclastic spastic.”
All in all, my father may very well have been less a religious man than a man who found pleasure and comfort in the trappings of religion. Entwined, of course, with his personal brand of iconoclasm.
When I was a child, the Beth El Temple held its morning services in a small sanctuary overlooking Lake Michigan. On winter mornings, members of the congregation could look through windows facing east and watch the sky become an awesome panorama of pinks, yellows and oranges as the sun rose.
Of the many European immigrants who helped to make up Beth El’s membership, a few were frail, elderly men with mottled skin on slightly palsied hands. Some had thick Jewish accents. Some were survivors of concentration camps. Most were on the tail end of careers as successful businessmen. All had led full, long and involved lives. These, along with a few devout or nerdy teenagers and a smattering of American-born members like my father, answered the call whenever the rabbi needed that eighth, ninth or tenth man to make up a “minyan.”
Such a polyglot might have been typical of any church or temple in the United States, except for the hierarchical differences between Christianity and Judaism. In Christianity, the priest or minister is perceived as being on a loftier plane and closer to God than the layman. In Judaism, there is no go-between. There are just a few old Jewish guys praying on one end of the telephone, and God himself holding the receiver at the other end. The rabbi is an employee of a given congregation, to be hired or fired at will. His job is to act as teacher and spiritual leader. If the congregation doesn’t like what he teaches, or if he’s out of sync with their spiritual needs, he’s out.
As a consequence, each Jewish man is, in effect, his own temple, because when it comes to prayer, atonement, and blessings, it is just him and God. Multiply that level of autonomy by every member of a congregation, all of whom have also been given God’s unlisted telephone number, and what you land up with is a group that has a natural inclination toward discord.
Iconoclasm, here we come.
At every sunrise service, it was possible to stand at the back of the sanctuary and listen to anywhere from 10 to 30 men reciting their prayers in Hebrew…all at a slightly different pace. It was a cappella, off beat, off key and off the wall. Despite the presence of a rabbi or a cantor to lead them in prayer, this congregation would not be lead. Imagine a Christian congregation singing “Amazing Grace,” each one of whom begins the hymn a second or two earlier or later than the rest. Imagine that some of them are singing it the way it was written, some are giving it a bluesy inflection, some a calypso beat, and others are convinced that it’s really rock and roll. Now imagine all of that going on in bad voice and in Hebrew, and you’ll have a hint of the sound effects during the sunrise services at Beth El.
Why the dissonance? Was it just to be uncooperative and disagreeable?..