L’shana tova, y’all, and a happy new year to all you Gentiles. I have a confession to make: This year, I did not go to temple. The High Holy Days around the end of September are the one time when most Jews go to their places of worship and gathering, both to atone for their sins in the last year and to welcome the new one—a kind of combination of Christmas and New Year. I think the disparity between regular and once-a-year attendance of Jews is much worse than for Christians (40 percent of American Christians say they go to church regularly, but only 23 percent of Jews say they go to synagogue). I know that many Jews even belong to synagogues just so they can have a place in the pews for the services during the High Holy Days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. My own attendance has been spotty, despite the fact that the temple to which I have belonged owns a magnificent and beautifully restored neo-byzantine structure designed by James Keys Wilson, the 1866 Plum Street Temple, which also happens to be the home of Reform Judaism.
It would be easy to say I am a bad Jew. Certainly I have never had a strong sense of religious conviction and belonging. Yet it is also remarkable how little tied to place the Jewish religion and culture is. The first site of communal worship was a tent erected around the Ark of the Covenant. The Temple of Jerusalem is by now a mythical structure that has not existed for millennia. The Jews went into diaspora around the time of its destruction and, through a combination of repression and lack of importance they gave to architecture, do not have a strong tradition of synagogue buildings. The fact that the Plum Street Synagogue is based on a combination of early medieval church layouts and ornament developed in Arab cultures is evidence of the lack of a native tradition of place and synagogue making. While there has been a Jewish revival of late, some of it as fanatical and backward-looking as its Christian, Islamic, and Hindu (and in places like Burma and Sri Lanka, Buddhist) equivalents, it has not resulted in the kind of mass edifice complex that has dotted America with megachurches, and the Mideast and parts of Europe with ever-larger mosques. Hasidic Jews have built neighborhoods where they can walk to what are usually non-descript schuls rather than concentrating on grand centers of worship. If you see them in your neighborhood it is usually in mobile mode, in and around a van they use to proselytize.
There is, of course, one place that looms large in Judaism, and that is Israel. For those of us that don’t live there, however, it is not a real site, just a—for me unfulfilled—promise of place where Jews could live in peace and harmony. My alienation from organized Jewish religion has been made stronger because of the frequent insistence during those services I have attended that my true place is this artificial state carved out of the Arab peninsula: I am told I don’t belong here, but there, which is a place that I do not think belongs in its current state.
For all that, some of the most interesting architects in late 20th century America have been Jewish. Their work has at times, as in the case of the early, pre-sell-out Daniel Libeskind, AIA, questioned the very act of permanence and place, and suggested other models for architecture—architecture as temporary, as a scaffolding, as gathering together, as a way of rethinking our world.
As an agnostic Jew who cherishes the culture and the traditions into which I was born, Judaism is a way of thinking and being that is nomadic and questioning, rather than being tied to the certainty of place or structure. In the end it promises a homecoming (“next year in Jerusalem,” we say at the end of the Passover service, the Jewish equivalent to Easter and its hope of resurrection) that is always deferred, allowing us to continue the search.
I did go to a Break Fast. That is the celebration of the period of atonement and one-day fast that serves to welcome the new year. Held in a suburban home with a gathering of both Jews and Gentiles, it embodied for me the place of Judaism in our culture and our life. It was about coming together, creating a moment of social connection revolving around a deeper meaning, and then going not so much home, as with the flow that is our modern life.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.