High Holy Days Service Crashers

by Heather Robinson

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From The Jerusalem Blueprint


When we first moved to New York City in the late ’90’s, my friends and I, being young, single, and low salaried, decided it wasn’t too big a sin to “crash” Yom Kippur services. (Meaning, to sneak into services we hadn’t purchased tickets for).

Oh, those (relatively) carefree pre-9/11 days … Maybe it sounds like a lot of chutzpah, but at the time, fewer options existed for single people who didn’t belong to a synagogue, and who didn’t have – or care to spend – over 300 hundred bucks for a spiritual experience.

My friend Natasha used to worry that God would be angry with us for this practice.

(Considering that Natasha, the only one of us burdened with conscience about this behavior, is also the only one who is happily married, I wonder if she might have been correct).

Then again, we approached the adventure with a spirit of mirth, not disrespect. And, as we told various security guards and congregants we met, we really did want to pray. But that didn’t prevent us from getting into a few High Holy Days misadventures.

Natasha, a tall, curvaceous brunette, was into “suits” – or men who worked in finance. For that reason, we started our High Holy Days shul-hop by heading for “the biggies”: Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Ave and Park Avenue Synagogue. (In these pre-Soho Synagogue days, we thought these were the places we would be most likely to find Wall Street types).

Natasha, Rachel, and I comprised our threesome. Rachel, my former roommate from the 92nd Street Y, was a devout hipster (before that word had taken on its newer meaning), and wasn’t into “suits.” An offbeat redhead, she wanted to find a funny, creative, irreverent guy (her ideal was Ferris Bueller). “Why can’t we go downtown?” she asked when apprised of the plan.

“Because downtown guys are going to have long, stringy hair and want to ‘hang out,'” said Natasha, whose family had emigrated from the former Soviet Union and who had no patience for artistic poverty. “Because you deserve to date a guy who will take you out to dinner.” (Rachel, who was chronically exploited in entry level fashion industry jobs and also by brilliant, artistic men who often chose her couch as a place to crash and eventually either come out as bisexual or hit her up for loans, couldn’t argue with that). So we struck a compromise. First uptown, then down.

At that time (my early twenties) my romantic ideal (which I have ever so slowly come to accept is a unicorn) was a “Wall Street humanitarian,” or a highly ambitious master-of-the-universe with a heart so tender he would prioritize my feelings above all else (except for the feelings and well-being of our children to come) and who also managed to be politically active, stand up for Israel, and fight for animal (including human) rights. In reality, my recent dates had been with a motley crew of young professionals who weren’t exactly setting the world on fire. One, a mortician, had been nice, but a bit too old for me. Anyway, I figured High Holy Days services on the UES was as good a target as any for finding my man.

Sharing lip gloss aboard the 6 train, we decided that Natasha, striking in a low cut black wraparound dress that showcased her remarkable breasts, should go in first.

Attempting nonchalance as we approached the front doors of the city’s oldest, and arguably grandest, Reform synagogue, we were stopped by hefty bald security guard who asked for tickets.

“Oh, we’re the Cohens’ granddaughters,” said Natasha. “Zaide has our tickets.”

The man hesitated.

“And we’re late,” I piped in.

“Our grandfather is going to kill us and that would be bad karma on the holy day,” said Rachel. (Rachel was a Ju-bu).

“Wait here,” the guard said, returning with a 60-ish woman in a black suit, whose peroxide blond eyebrows were dyed to match her hair.

“May I help you?” she asked in a tone that suggested she didn’t intend to.

“Uh, yes,” said Natasha. “We’re here to attend services with our grandfather, Mr. Cohen.”

“And which Mr. Cohen might that be?” she asked, radiating hostility.

“Leonard Cohen,” I said, prompting a guffaw from Rachel, who is Canadian.

“This service,” the woman spat, enunciating each word as if it were a tiny ice pick, “is for members only. Members of our congregation, who have reserved seats. If you wish to attend this synagogue, you must make arrangements, in advance – ”

“Ma’am,” I said. “We’re only 22 and we’re not with family. Would you really turn away young people on the holiest day of the year?”

Her nostrils flared (being reminded that spirituality should trump the rules on Yom Kippur was pressing her buttons). Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone approaching. Tall and slim, black hair, white face. It was Ron – the mortician I’d recently dated!

“Ron?” I asked. He smiled broadly.

“How are you?” he asked. “I didn’t even know you belonged here.”

“We don’t,” I said, “My friends and I don’t belong anywhere and we didn’t think we’d be turned away if we came–”

“Of course not,” said Ron. “Mrs. Weiss, these young ladies are my friends. Let me see if I can find them some seats.”

Mrs. Weiss shot us a look a pure rage as Ron led us inside the main sanctuary. Turned out, Ron was volunteering as an usher while he completed his internship as a mortician. I thanked him profusely and, although I never saw him again, will remember his act of High Holy Day kindness.

Perhaps we should have stuck around and spent the day with Ron. But after the morning service, my pals and I were ready to move on to the next synagogue.

We debated whether to get something to eat but decided against it. For one thing, we wanted to respect the holiday, and second, as Natasha put it, “What respectable Jewish girl passes up an opportunity to diet?”

At Park Avenue synagogue, we walzed right in. (Maybe because at this point, it was afternoon and many people had left or taken a break).

I felt a rush as I surveyed the beautiful stained glass windows and the many dark haired, yarmulked heads. Our best bet for meeting eligible men, I figured, was to ensconce ourselves in the center of things and seem to belong, so that when services broke up, we could mingle.

Suddenly Rachel, usually the most laid back of our group, took the lead, striding down the center aisle, motioning for us to follow.

Curious stares accompanied us as we made our way to the front, but I was concentrating on not stumbling in my four-inch patent leather heels as I surveryed the room. Rachel was heading straight for the front of the sanctuary!

“Is she nuts?” I wondered, momentarily noting the juxtaposition of Rachel’s long red hair cascading over her funky gray vintage cape and elfin-looking shoes in this conservative (in every sense) place.

“Excuse us,” Rachel said as she stopped in front of the third row and motioned to the two elderly women sitting there to let us in to an unoccupied section.

I heard murmurs as we settled in. The service was dignified and, as I recall, beautiful, but we weren’t there for long before one of the elderly women turned to us and said, not unkindly, “Do you know whose seats you’re in?”

“Um, no,” I said.

“This pew is reserved for Mr. Ralph Lauren and his family.”

“Seriously?” said Rachel. “Ralph Lauren the designer?”

“You mean like the Polo shirt guy?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

Not long afterward, he arrived, looking as pressed and debonair as he does in the Polo ads. He was with his wife, a tall, statuesque blonde who looked irritated.

“Mr. Lauren, very sorry,” said Natasha, who sat closest to the aisle.

We gathered our jackets and purses, setting our prayer books back into the slots provided on the back of the pew in front of us and trying not to feel too humiliated. Mr. Lauren was classy about the whole thing. I think there might even have been a touch of amusement in his voice as he said something like, “All right ladies.”

Bounced from the front of the sanctuary, we mingled a bit afterward. Natasha tried to get Rachel to give Ralph Lauren her card or ask him for a job but she wasn’t into the idea. Instead of meeting men, we wound up speaking to the elderly woman who’d broken the news to us that we were in the Laurens’ family pew.

“When we saw you girls sit down we thought, ‘My goodness, do they know whose seats they are in?'” she said.

“Well, the real question is, does Mr. Lauren know whom he just booted?” said Natasha. Pointing to Rachel she added, “One of the foremost up-and-coming fashion designers on the Lower East Side?”

“Oh, to be young like you girls,” the woman said with a smile. “You should keep that spirit! L’Shana Tova!”

She kissed each of us on the cheek.

Looking back, while we didn’t encounter the men of our dreams, it was a lot of fun. And although that may not be the intended spirit of Yom Kippur, we have the rest of our lives to atone.

This entry was written by and posted on January 10, 2015 at 3:52 pm and filed under Features.