When I was eight, my parents sent me to shul to learn what it meant to be a Jew. And what I learned was that I hated the shul. Mainly because I went alone, and people were unwelcoming, and I felt like an out-of-place orphan imposing himself on a home where he was not wanted. So I stopped going. Eventually my father made the monumental decision to accompany me to shul, which was a big step for him because a) he could not speak or read a word of Hebrew until the day he died and b) he had a business to run on Saturdays which would somehow have to get along without him. Years later we found out that what went on during those Saturdays was that his employees would steal from him.
But go he went, and I with him, glad not to be alone, and not to be the only kid there without a father. The truth is that I would not have been alone even without him, because I had two of my mother's uncles who were regulars, from the "Old Country," Poland, and who were, as they say, "big machers" in the shul. They had seats way up front. Good seats, theater-style, with padded cushions and a place to stow their books behind the row in front. Dad and I sat on folding chairs way in the back, where the constant conversations drowned out the prayers from up in the front.
Frequently, when we walked into the shul, one of my uncles would notice us and motion for us to move up and sit in his row. I always dreaded that. Because of the Grumpy Old Jewish Men.
The issue was that there were no extra seats up there. Every seat was spoken for. And so if my uncle would make me sit down, it would invariably be in someone else's place. And I would sit there and squirm uncomfortably, next to my Dad, who understood not one word of what was going on, until the inevitable moment when the owner of the seat would walk in, scowl, say something incomprehensible in Yiddish to my uncle, and Dad and I would try to get up and leave. Except that my uncle wouldn't allow it, and now it became a battle of wills, a fight for supremacy, a geriatric low-testosterone match to see who would dominate that row of shul seats. My uncle would often win, but it would be a bitter victory for me, as I'd sit there conspicuously under the venomous stare of the vanquished old Jew, now forced to sit in the row behind.
So, yes, these experiences colored my view of the synagogue for many years, long after I had become proficient in the services, and had learned how to layn the Torah, and even had the opportunity to purchase seats of my own. Somewhere, a part of me consciously acknowledged that I hated those old men, and would never act that way myself.
And yet, over the years I have come to the understanding that there is a certain territoriality that comes with owning seats in a shul. Whether you pay for them or not. You have your seats. And you want to keep them. And you want to keep them from being usurped by others. I have always considered myself to be relatively altruistic in this regard. I have frequently come to shul to find my seats occupied by others, and most of the time I would simply sit elsewhere. As my kids got bigger and old enough to accompany me, I was determined that they sit next to me. Partly because I enjoyed my kids and was proud of their behavior and wanted them with me. But also because I had enough opportunities to observe what other men's children did in the shul, running around and making noise and not participating in the davening, and I felt that if I were going to shlep them all the way there, they would have to sit and behave. And to their credit, they have always been great in shul. Early on I'd position myself between them to keep them from constantly picking on each other, but eventually they learned to daven and needed little intervention.
Still, refined as they were, I still wanted to keep the family together. So my only criteria for shul seats was that there be four together. This was not all that easy, as people would often come and take our seats, or in one case, take the actual row and move it elsewhere. Eventually we were assigned a table with three seats, one less than I wanted but it worked for the most part as guests rarely sat there, assuming that the tables were "owned" by "machers" and not up for grabs.
Until last week. Last week I arrived in shul for a mincha/maariv service, and shortly after I started davening, a man came and sat next to me. My boys had chosen to sit way in the back this time, and I didn't ask the man to move. As Yom Tov approached I told my boys that we had to make incontrovertible our claim on our table and seats, and advised them to come early to avoid any confusion and hopefully make an ugly confrontation unnecessary.
I arrived for mincha on Pesach night a little early. Sadly, my boys did not. I can't say for sure why they were late. It seemed they were right behind me when I left the house that evening. But for whatever reason they showed up to shul considerably later than I did. And during that gap several things happened. First, I arrived to find a tallis bag on my spot. I picked it up and put it on the shtender next to the wall. I sat down. No one else was there. I waited for the boys to come and take their seats. They did not arrive.
I found myself getting aggravated and increasingly restless. Where were they? Didn't they understand what was at stake? Here, my row was empty. There was room for all of us to sit in our designated spots. Surely, the new guy would come and see us there, and realize the seats were taken, and go sit somewhere else. Perfect. An elegant plan. No need for unpleasantness. And still they delayed. Five minutes went by. The davening started. Ten minutes. Finally I started to say Shmoneh Esrei. I felt someone stop behind me, look around, and then squeeze past me. It wasn't one of my sons. It was the new guy! He took the seat RIGHT NEXT TO ME. And there was nothing I could do, because I was in the middle of the silent amidah and could do nothing to communicate with this guy, to wave him off or tell him to abort, these seats are taken!!
I could feel the anger welling up inside me. Anger towards the interloper, who had dared to occupy one of my seats. Didn't he realize these table seats were all designated? How could he simply come in and claim a seat in macher-territory? Anger at my kids for blowing a chance to end this all peacefully but decisively. Anger at the guy who was the son of the interloper. I had issues with him anyway. Because he had somehow finagled a shtender right next to my row.
I had wanted a shtender for some time, because there were only three seats at the table and four of us, and my back was giving me trouble, and I needed more room than I could get sitting at a table, because I discovered that I had what they call "shpilkis" and needed to cross my legs and move around, and I wanted more space, so I had asked for a shtender in the aisle next to the row, right near my kids' table, and was told there was no room for one, and here, this guy, who had been in the community for only a few months managed to get a shtender in that very spot, and wasn't going to give it up for anything, and now his father was trying to muscle his way into MY row... and I could feel my ears turning red with rage, and shmoneh esrei was almost over...
And that's when I realized that I had become the Grumpy Old Jewish Man.