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Op-Ed: Missing the comfort of ‘my’ seat in synagogue when the whole world is askew

Congregants talk after Rosh Hashana services at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
(Los Angeles Times)

One Saturday morning last fall I arrived at my synagogue, only to discover that someone had taken my seat.

I’ve never been a regular at a bar or a restaurant or even a gym. But on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, I go to synagogue. And I always sit in the same place: on the aisle, not too close to the front, not too far from the action. A couple of rows behind Ruth and Reuven, across the aisle from Cheryl, just in front of Len.

What happens when you get bumped from your regular place, your set routine? We’ve all faced that question as the pandemic has scrambled schedules and shuttered shops and cafes.

And I keep thinking about my spot in shul.

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To be clear, my Los Angeles temple doesn’t have reserved seats. Like every congregation I’ve ever belonged to, though, it does have an unofficial, unspoken seating chart. The young families cluster near the back, the older folks up front. There’s the woman who positions herself near the entrance to catch friends as they arrive. And the guy who stakes out an inconspicuous spot to read novels undetected.

Anyone who’s ever been in a college seminar or group therapy knows that it’s human nature to settle into a regular place. When it comes to synagogue, though, there’s more at play. The Talmud venerates anyone who prays in what is called in Hebrew a makom kavua, a regular place. It is said that Abraham, the first Jew, made a practice of talking to God from one particular spot.

For good reason. Being in a familiar space makes it easier to focus. Losing that place throws you off — as I learned when I found that a family of guests, early arrivals for that week’s bat mitzvah, had unwittingly displaced me. I glanced around and settled into a spot one row back and a few seats in.

It was OK. It was a place to sit. But it wasn’t my makom kavua.

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It felt like putting on someone else’s sneaker. Even if it’s my size, it’s not my shoe. Same room. Same rabbi. Same prayers. But everything felt a little … off. The whole place looked different. The whole world seemed askew.

Kind of like now.

After five months without in-person services at synagogue, I miss the singing. I miss the rabbis’ sermons. I miss seeing my friends. But mostly I miss being in my seat — that fixed place I could return to week in, week out.

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I miss the routine. I miss knowing that whatever life has thrown my way — work stress, awful news in the headlines, tension or disappointment or celebration — I could return at week’s end to that same spot. I could watch the light stream through the window at the same angle. I could stare at the same ceiling. I could close my eyes and hear familiar voices from all sides singing the same prayers.

Yes, I’ve tried Zoom services, even enjoyed them. But I end up missing my spot even more — and contemplating why I go to synagogue in the first place. Theological conviction? A sense of obligation? Or just rote habit?

Those are all factors. But the pandemic has made me realize that what I value even more is something else: knowing that for a couple of hours on Saturday morning I’m in the right place — in the room, in the world, in my life. For that one brief stretch of time, I’m where I belong.

That’s what I long for now — more than the familiar tunes or the cookies afterward. When we’re feeling unmoored, it’s natural to yearn for the familiar.

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That explains another Jewish custom: After a loved one dies, when you return to synagogue, you don’t sit in your usual place. At the moment you most crave the comfort of routine, you’re expected to forgo it.

Why? Perhaps it’s a way of manifesting outwardly what’s happening inside. If you feel disoriented, confused and lost, why pretend otherwise?

But before long, the custom goes, the time comes to return to your regular spot.

When will that day arrive for us as a society? Lately, I spend my Saturday mornings at home with my family and a prayer book. Sometimes I close my eyes and envision the morning when we can return to the rhythms of daily life. I’ll walk the half-mile to my synagogue, smile at the security guard, stroll inside and make my way to my seat.

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There’s a good chance that when I get there, I’ll find that somebody’s already taken it.

That’s all right. It’s all part of the routine.

Tom Fields-Meyer is a Los Angeles writer. His memoir “Following Ezra” was a finalist for a National Jewish Book Award.


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