"I'm not Jewish," I said to a man near the basket of skullcaps just outside the sanctuary. "Should I wear one anyway?" "Either way. Don't worry about it," he shrugged, a little amused by my question. Inside, I saw why: about half the men's heads were bare. Apparently, the Jews at Beth Israel weren't terribly worried about it. Twelve exalted chairs filled the alcoves of the wall behind the stage, but only three or four were ever occupied during the service, a setup that lent a casual air to a space tending toward, well, if not solemnity, then perhaps a modern sort of majesty.
Congregation Beth Israel was hardly bereft of tradition -- this was, after all, the first night of Chanukah. But there was a sense of fluidity about the observance of that tradition. Rabbi Paul Citrin and Congregation president Barbara Howard lit the Chanukiah before lighting the Sabbath candles, because, as Citrin noted, "you're not supposed to kindle light after you welcome Shabbat ." (Tradition.) But the candles on the Chanukiah were mounted jars of oil, so that it was impossible to keep the tradition of lighting the side candles from the center candle. (Fluidity.)
Said Howard, "We light these lights on account of the miracles and wonders, the battles and victories that took place...over 21 centuries ago. Adonai, even as you gave strength to the Maccabees, bless us too with a portion of your strength. Help us be proud Jews who know the Torah.... May the lights we kindle remind us...to bring light to others."
Rabbi Glenn Ettman picked up the then/now theme in the lesson, reading a section from Rabbi Elazar: "Doing righteous deeds of charity is greater than offering all of the sacrifices." "Think about Chanukah not just being a commemoration of a great miracle," said Ettman, "but that miracles still do happen.... Perhaps what we can take away from the teaching is that we ourselves...can work together to partner with God to bring forth miracles in our day." The program included a handout: "Eight crazy sites for eight crazy nights," suggesting websites such as http://www.savedarfur.org that families might visit together over Chanukah. The reading from Rabbi Elazar was another nod to tradition; Ettman later offered a prayer with a more contemporary feel: "Teach me, my God, to bless and to praise, for the secret of a withered leaf, for the splendor of ripe fruit, for this freedom to see, to feel, to breathe, to know, to wait, to stumble.... Let not my day be routine."
But it was music that carried the service and the concert that followed. Song after song, almost always in Hebrew, led by cantor Arlene Bernstein's deep, feeling voice and backed by a sharp ensemble (piano, guitar, bass, flute, drums, violin, cello) that produced polished arrangements of traditional song structures. (The sound was artful, once removed, more like listening to Brahms's "Hungarian Dances" than to the Hungarian dances themselves.)
Songs blessed Adonai following the lighting of the Chanukah candles -- "Blessed are you...who made miracles possible for our ancestors"; recounted the wonders of the Maccabees' victory -- "At this time of year in days of yore/ Maccabees the Temple did restore"; praised the "Rock of Ages" -- "Furious, they assailed us/ But Your arm availed us/ And Your word/ Broke their sword/ When our own strength failed us."
Songs welcomed Shabbat , "the bride of Israel": "Enter in peace, O crown of your husband.... Come to the people that keeps its faith. Enter, O Bride!" Songs welcomed the Torah reflection, prayed for teachers, asked for healing, and sent us on our way in the peace of Shabbat .
The concert following the Oneg Shabbat (refreshment session) gave tradition its due, but also wandered into the simply whimsical and flat-out entertaining. Sang Ettman during one song: " The Syrians said it could not be/ That old Mattathias/ Whose years were more than ninety-three/ Would dare to defy us/ They did not know his secret you see/ Mattathias dined on latkes and tea..."
Singer Heidi Gantwerk went sultry for "Ocho Kandelikas," and the show ended with an unabashedly '60s era pop anthem, albeit one based on Chanukah. Everybody joined in on the chorus: "Don't let the lights go out/ It's lasted for so many years/ Don't let the lights go out/ Let it shine through our love and our tears."
What happens when we die?
"Judaism doesn't know what happens," said Ettman. "It's a big mystery. We do, however, believe that souls are transcendent. The only thing that we learn from the rabbis to explain death is something called Olam Habah -- the world to come. We believe that once the Messiah comes and the Messianic age is proclaimed, we will all be coming back together to live as a full community. It's a here and now religion.... The deeds that we do in this lifetime will affect us in this lifetime."
9001 Towne Centre Drive, San Diego
Denomination: Reform Jewish
Founded locally: 1861
Senior pastor: Paul Citrin
Congregation size: over 1300 families
Staff size: 9
Sunday school enrollment: over 90 in the nursery school, around 550 in religious school
Annual budget: n/a
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: no
Dress: fairly dressy -- lots of jackets, ties, and dresses
Diversity: 40 percent of congregation part of a mixed family (Jewish/non-Jewish)
Length of reviewed service: service, 45 minutes; concert, 45 minutes