One pamphlet is on old white paper, simply says "Selichot" on the cover. the other is more colorful, says "Hardly Strictly Selichot"
Two service booklets used at Hardly Strictly Selichot at Congregation Beth Sholom. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

Solemnity without exuberance misses point of season

You may have heard that this season of repentance is supposed to be happy and uplifting. As a kid growing up in a large-ish middle-of-the-road synagogue, this sounded like hollow nonsense; settings like that are not known for exuberance at this time of year.

Now, after years of experiences in services very different from the High Holy Days of my childhood, I have come to look forward to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I have come to know this as a time of mixed emotions: Solemnly introspective, yes — but ecstatic as a great weight is lifted. Looking forward to change, yes — but anxious that I won’t succeed at change this time around, that my exuberance will be undeserved.

With all of that weighing heavily on my mind, I headed to Selichot. It’s easy to dismiss Selichot; I usually do. It’s a late-night service shortly preceding Rosh Hashanah, a collection of penitential prayers and poems — a preview of the holidays to come.

The one I went to was dubbed “Hardly Strictly Selichot,” a rousing, musical service hosted at Congregation Beth Sholom (Conservative, located in San Francisco’s Richmond District) and co-sponsored by Mission Minyan (traditional and semi-egalitarian, based in the Mission) and The Kitchen (independent, meets in the Mission and elsewhere — full disclosure: I am a member of The Kitchen). It was the first time those three communities had come together for Selichot, and I hope it happens again.

We began around 11:30 p.m. and were done just short of 1 a.m. We davened from a set of remarkably intact 1966 Conservative movement Selichot pamphlets and a supplement with extra songs printed for the occasion. It began slowly, as everyone was a little unsure of what this particular Selichot service would be. By the end, many had descended from the seating on both sides of the Beth Sholom sanctuary to dance in the wide middle aisle, in the center of which is an unraised bimah. Leaders stood around the wide podium singing, banging rhythmically on it, and playing a djembe, guitar and occasional oud.

Much of the service was chanted in wandering melody by Yehuda Solomon of Moshav Band, an L.A.-based Israeli rock/folk-rock/etc. group. Other segments were sung to melodies familiar from High Holy Days services.

I was enjoying the music and singing, but distracted by and anxious about the task to come: return. That’s one meaning of teshuvah, a word we hear a lot about this season, also frequently translated as repentance. I have, in fleeting moments this year and throughout my life, glimpsed my best self. At this time of year, I think about him and how to return to him and his better impulses. That is the project ahead of me now.

I have struggled in the last year to make changes in my life, mostly for my own benefit: eating healthier (or less unhealthy), exercise, etc. I’m tempted to think those kinds of things matter right now — but that’s not really the kind of improvement we’re after in this season.

We turn inward to examine ourselves — specifically, the things we do that affect other people. And, when it comes to this, I relate to the translation of Psalm 130 in the Selichot pamphlet: “Who could endure it, O Lord, if You kept count of every sin?” Part of a section of Daniel included in Selichot reads: “Righteousness is Yours, O Lord; Shame-faced embarassment ours.”

But what if I succeed this year? That is the question that occupies me now. The possibility of that success is the source of this season’s joy. And if I can just get it right, it really will be Shabbat hashabbatot this year — the Sabbath of all sabbaths, the complete rest that comes from being at peace with oneself.

Distracted though I was, I sang out at Selichot, hoping that this year — maybe — it’ll happen. Will my exuberance be deserved this year? Some years I get it more right — or less wrong — than others.

The service was just good music and good singing until certain melodies shook me and reminded me of the season. Moshav Band led us in an up-tempo Avinu Malkeinu to the tune most of us know. And we sang The Thirteen Attributes to the familiar tune (“Adonai, Adonai, El rachum vechanun”). Between those two prayers alone — or maybe it’s about the melodies — we were shocked into the realization that the Days of Awe are upon us.

For Selichot, there are many pieces that ask God to hear our prayers. I’m more concerned about whether I’ll listen to my prayers.

Jew in the Pew is a regular feature. Send religious, ritual and spiritual goings on to david@jweekly.com.

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the online editor of J. and "Jew in the Pew" columnist. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.