Their small hands clasped tightly in mine, we stroll the three blocks down Grand Street and climb up the thick granite steps to enter through the shul's imposing mahogany doors. But Instead of walking into the domed main sanctuary to join the congregants, I pull the kids to the right into a dark narrow corridor, leading down a bank of rickety steps. We emerge into a musty fluorescent netherworld of a basement where nutty children scamper about, yipping like puppies in a dog run. Unhooked from invisible leashes, my own two pups rush off to join the commotion bouncing off the worn sheet rock walls, to hide and to seek, and stuff their mouths with appalling and sticky handfuls of generic brand cheese doodles and moderately stale cookies, washed down with orange soda.
With the kids safely devoured and carried away by the juvenile throng to some distant corner of the basement, I've been handed a highly prized reprieve, albeit a very temporary one. I retrace my steps, climbing up the creaky stairs to join the services in the vaulted sanctuary with its Ionian pillars, precariously dangling chandeliers and stained glass windows.
But instead of taking a seat in a pew near the center, picking up a prayer book and joining the service, I glide into the very last row, flush up against the back wall. This is where my weekly Sabbath posse sits - a handful of other backbenchers that dumped their kids in the basement just as I did.
The ark doors slide open to reveal four Torah scrolls, each clothed in embroidered velvet and topped by gleaming silver crowns with tiny bells. We rise from our seats along with the other congregants, and sit when the ark is closed and stand once again when it's reopened, only to lower ourselves to our seats a few moments later.
But praying we're not. Sitting or standing, we gossip shamelessly, whisper about politics and women, or rehash tales of off-color elementary school mischief. This material however generally proves finite, running its course in half an hour or so.
Our conversation gets more interesting when we turn from the finite of gossip and politics to the infinite of theology. After all, what venue could be more inspiring for a discussion of religion than beneath the canopy of dazzling signs of the zodiac adorning the vaulted planetarium-like ceiling, as Abraham, Moses and David gaze down from the stained glass walls?
Only that our theology differs from that shared by the rest of the congregation. My fellow backbenchers and I, regular synagogue attendees, are all apostates. We animatedly discuss what we don't believe.
Every single week the congregants gather to recite the same litany of benedictions and hymns beseeching a God of justice and mercy to protect and defend them from afflictions and enemies. In one back-to-the-future hymn, the congregants ask for a return to an idyllic life of daily sacrifices to God on the Temple altar, just like it was in the good old days.
The soulful blessings and hymns are second nature to me, but I resist joining. How can I address a deity who either won't or can't listen? It really is odd to be an apostate among the devout, who firmly believe that God himself dictated the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai. Now I am of the sacrilegious opinion that God never composed anything, let alone the Torah, which I view as the brilliant handiwork of a long and distinguished line of very talented Jewish authors. The construction of the Bible and the identity of its authors remains one of history's most fascinating puzzles, and simply averring that 'God did it.' seems to me like a cop-out.
So what keeps me coming back to join the posse of shul unbelievers week after week? Perhaps it's a sense of community, and experiencing the privilege of being a link in a three thousand year long chain. Or maybe it's a more prosaic reason, like the two hours of freedom from the yoke of child rearing, a great way to kill time on a weekend.
Still, one attraction in particular overrides all the others, one that has little to do with God or Bible. At the conclusion of the weekly Sabbath service, the congregation invades the basement, now arranged with long rows of tables loaded with platefuls of delicacies such as pickled herring, kikhl and a local concoction called potatonik. A member of my apostate posse distributes plastic shot glasses spilling over with fine scotch. We raise our tiny glasses with a hearty 'lekhayim', to life, an ancient declaration uttered by Jews for thirty centuries and counting, believer and apostate alike.
I lean back in my flimsy folding chair as the scotch warms through me pleasantly. Just then, five little worm-like fingers lace through my thinning hair. Instinctively I reach for the back of my scalp, which I discover to be anointed with a lumpy orange-brown paste of mashed cheese doodles and Oreo cookie. Thus my Sabbath reprieve has officially concluded.