I find Jewish culture interesting, and there are many large communities here in Indy. The neighborhood we’re moving to has many Jewish families.
So suppose we just started going to a temple? I am just your average-looking white guy, and my wife is Japanese. We certainly don’t look Jewish.
Would people assume we knew what we were doing, were possibly converts? Would we be greeted with acceptance or with mistrust and disdain? Assume that we would sincerely be interested in joining and would also be open and frank about our lack of Jewish heritage and worship experience. “Yes, we just decided to make this our church, um, I mean temple.”
I don’t think I’ll actually try it, but I do admire the strong communities they have here. Thanks for your thoughts on the above.
Probably no one would care. It’s not like they ask for your name and family background when you walk in. Lots of Jews don’t “look Jewish” (I’m Exhibit A) and there are converts from all sorts of ethnic background, so even an Asian person probably wouldn’t get a second glance. It’s considered rude to ask someone if they’re a convert, so it seems unlikely anyone would question you or your wife.
If you want to sound authentic, though, don’t call it a temple*, call it a “shul”, which is the Yiddish word for school (and synagogue). It’s polite to say “Shabbat Shalom” or “Good Shabbos” (again, Yiddish) to people you encounter, as well.
Keep in mind that Orthodox shuls seat men and women seperately, so if you want to sit with your wife, look for a Reform or Conservative shul. Shuls often don’t advertise what movement they belong to in any obvious way, but their website will usually say.
*“Temple” is only correct for Reform synagogues, not Orthodox or Conservative shuls, and even then isn’t used all that often, esp. with recently built synagogues. Current theology in all three mainstream American movements hold that the only Temple is the one in Jerusalem (which doesn’t currently exist).
How much Hebrew would I have to know in order to follow along and not look totally ignorant? Are all the songs (are there any songs?) in Hebrew, or are there English songs equivalent to Christian hymns?
Would I need a yarmulke, and would my wife need to cover her hair? Etc.! Thanks for any further tips.
As for the Hebrew, it would depend on whether you went to a reform, conservative, orthodox, reconstuctionist, or other congregation. I’ve seen both English & Hebrew songs in reform, but only Hebrew in the conservative shuls I’ve attended. Many congregations will have transliterated copies of the major parts of the service & prayers- Hebrew words written in phoenetic English. This will help immensely.
The hair covering will vary with level of orthodoxy. Reform, not so much. Conservative or higher- yes. Though they will have a basket of kippot (yarmulkes) available in the foyer for borrowing, and scraps of lace known as “chapel caps” for your wife. If you go to an orthodox shul, she should cover her hair and be dressed modestly.
If it is your first time, try and have a Jewish friend go with you. Failing that, I’d stick to conservative or reform congregations, as the orthodox ones may be confusing, and you and your wife will be seated seperately. I’d also suggest the Friday night services over the Saturday morning ones- they are shorter (1 hour as opposed to up to 4 or 5 hours, at least at my conservative shuls), they have a song about licking rats (ok, not really, but the Hebrew sounds like that if you don’t know what it means), and tend to be smaller, less overwhelming, and, IMHO, more relaxed. You can also call the Rabbi ahead of time and ask them about what is appropriate for the specific congregation you wish to try.
In general, be respectful, dress nicely, follow along as best you can, and enjoy!
I’d highly recommend starting at a reform synagogue. There will be less formality, more English, and probably a more diverse congregation. You should probably put on a yarmulke, but your wife certainly won’t have to cover her hair. As inkleberry said, a Friday night service would be a good bet. Also there are several Jewish holiday services that are good for beginners. Lots of goyim report enjoying Passover seders. Purim and Simchat Torah are fun family-oriented holidays.
I really doubt you’ll be treated with anything but acceptance, especially at a reform synagogue. As Kyla said, many Jews don’t “look Jewish.” I’d just assume you were a Jewish guy with a Japanese wife, who may or may not have converted. Reform Jews have much looser standards about conversion and interfaith marriage than other groups, so a lot of mixed couples end up reform.
While you could just show up for services, attend, and leave, I’d think it would be more polite to introduce yourself to the Rabbi, and tell him that you just wanted to see what it was all about. That’s common enough, and nobody minds that sort of thing. You needn’t tell him that you are thinking about joining or anything. You’re welcome to just go to the service. If you like it, and want to continue going regularly, you might want to meet with the Rabbi to explain your feelings. But you can decide that later.
Oh yeah–there will be a lot of standing up and sitting down. Just follow what everybody else does. ;j
To add to what inkleberry said, some Conservative and Reform women wear a kipa, but most don’t. Unless you’re going to a very Orthodox shul, I wouldn’t be concerned with your wife covering her head at all. But you should definitely borrow one of the kipot they keep at the shul.
Most of the Hebrew liturgy is sung. The rabbi will have a short sermon, but if you go on a Friday night, it’s mostly singing. There are lots of tunes for the same prayers, which are used variously by different congregations, so don’t be self-conscious about not knowing it. I know three tunes for “Lecha Dodi”, and I’m sure there are plenty more that I don’t know, it just depends on which tune a specific congregation prefers.
In theory, Reform congregations are more likely to have English versions of the songs alongside the Hebrew, and Conservative and Orthodox shuls are more likely to be entirely in Hebrew, but in practice this varies - I’ve been to Conservative shuls that had loads of English, and Reform shuls that did the liturgy entirely in Hebrew. Orthdox shuls will inevitably do all the singing in Hebrew.
The prayerbook is called the siddur, and they often have the Hebrew transliteration and sometimes an English translation alongside the Hebrew.
The Saturday service is much longer and - imho - probably a little more confusing for people who have never been to a Jewish service. If you’re interested in learning a little bit about Jewish practice, I’d definitely recommend Friday night services first.
Dress nicely, but going all out formal is hardly necessary. Business casual is perfectly fine, but I would recommend your wife wear a skirt, the first time at least. Better safe than sorry.
In an Orthodox shul, at least, pretty much the entire service (songs and prayers) will be in Hebrew, with a smattering of Aramaic. The announcements and the rabbi’s speech (on Saturday morning, if there is one) will be in English, but it’s not like church services (as I understand them), where the sermon is perhaps the major event. Growing up, we didn’t even have a speech half the time in my synagogue, as my rabbi didn’t like speechifying.
Honestly, you’re going to look ignorant during your first visit to an Orthodox synagogue if you’ve got no previous Jewish experience, no matter what you do. Looking Orthodox takes practice (you probably wouldn’t even wear a yarmulke properly your first few times), but people in shuls almost always try to help out those who don’t seem to know their way around the service. You won’t offend anybody unless you do something that anyone with common sense would see as blatantly rude, since the very fact that you don’t fit in means you aren’t expected to know the rules. Jews don’t have a monolithic look, and if you’re a white guy, nobody would definitively say you weren’t Jewish based just on looks. In an Orthodox shul, they will almost certainly assume that you’re an irreligious Jew, and that a Japanese-looking person like your wife is perhaps interested in converting. (If she were already a convert, she’d have walked the walk for a while first and would know the ropes.) I’ve never asked people who don’t seem to know their way around a shul if they were Jewish; I’ve always just assumed, as why would you be interested if you weren’t?
I don’t think you’d be greeted with ‘mistrust and distain.’ Puzzlement, yes, but you’d have to actively earn negative feelings.