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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Grumpy Old Jewish Men

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.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ari Kinsberg said...

nice post.

personally, i'm already grumpy. now i'm just worried about being old.

queeniesmom said...

We're all creatures of habit and heaven help anyone who messses with the "correct" order of things.

I was laughing as I read this because our little shul just moved to theoretically a larger but much differently configured space. Each shabbat, the other half comes home with tales of who is jocking for which space. Pesach of course messed everything up. it will be interesting to see how long it takes for everyone to find their "space" minus the shtenders. That was another whole fight.

PsychoToddler said...

Sorry anonymous, I usually don't delete comments, but I prefer to keep names out of this (as do you, I assume, else you wouldn't have signed in as "anonymous"). Anyway, I don't think this is unique to any one shul. The first half referred to a Modern Orthodox place in NY.

Ari: I think the grumpy comes with the old. Or maybe the other way around.

QM: Truth is I don't care where I sit as long as someone points me to a spot. I hate coming in and trying to figure out what's available and what's already taken. As for shtenders, that really should be a post unto itself.

Neil Harris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scraps said...

Since I'm rarely home, I don't get bent out of shape when I come to visit and find someone sitting in what used to be my makom kavua. I don't live there anymore (at least on a consistant basis), so I have no right to claim the seat as mine, or at least that's how I see it.

However, what does annoy me is when I'm home, I'm in shul, and I have to go out for a minute so I leave my siddur on my chair...and come back to find someone else sitting there, or their coats and things dumped on it (we have a coatroom in the front, people!). In my shul, people are generally quite good about putting the siddurim away, so it's not like it's a safe assumption that no one's sitting there and the siddur's been there since two weeks before. So then, when I've been davening in that place for an hour or two already, I have to find a new place to sit and a new siddur. Hmph.

Halfnutcase said...

We end up using two different shuls for shabbos morning and everything else. In the larger shul for shabbos morning I have a placed staked out, and it's rather safe, especialy as I get there early.

However in the small shul I frequently get crowded out of my place in shul. My regular place, in the back with the table becomes the womens section when they are here, so I understand that. My other place, which I would use all the time if I could, is something else entirely. A while back I had staked out the isle seat in the back, because I A: am a little ansy sometimes and need to get up and move a little in the spacy isle, and B: I can get quite clostophobic when I cannot move without bothing other people. So one day someone else moves in to that spot. Decent guy, I don't remember how it happened, he just kind of appeared there at one point. I didn't complain, just sat to the side. I had in mind to make that my permenant place to sit, and just forget about the back table, but on shabbos he has his kids with him, and frequently this old guy comes who sits there as well, and so I move over quite a bit. Well this has been happening more and more, So i kinda got outed, and thats really ok. One of the reasons for my keeping with the table. I do not like sitting in front so much, Not even in the middle, Rather in tha back where noone will notice me, but now all four aisle seats in the back are unreliable at best, so where does that leave me? I often get physicaly crowded out of my seat in the back bench at the left isle because of his kids, and other peoples guests who sit right in there. SO I move around alot.

But I still don't like being pushed out of my seat. I don't like it at all.

Never said anything though.

(and then there was the time that the rabbi's son pushed me out of my makom kevua for many years already, but that is another story.)

Neil Harris said...

Awesome post.
It definitely a problem when you get to shul a few mintues late and your seat (or seats for the kids) are gone. I usually sit up front (no one really like to be there anyway) so I'm lucky. Maybe the Rav in you’re your shul should speak about makom kevuah?

Shifra said...

Great post... it's so scary when we become what we've always feared/hated isn't it? At least you are self-aware to realize what is happening.

Here's a old joke.

What are the first four words a Jew hears when sitting down to daven in a new shul for the first time?

You're in my SEAT!

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

almost every sunday morning i get to minyan to find this guy who i never see in shul any other day sitting in, or right next to, my seat.

and it's not like i could even just sit in the same area, because the guy says everything out loud as if he thought he were the hhazan or something! it's the most annoying, kavana-deflating, distracting, nerve-wracking thing ever. gah! so i end up having to sit halfway across the shul so i won't even hear him.

PsychoToddler said...

Comment deleted: Response deleted.

Scraps: In that situation I would not hesitate to tell the person that you were just sitting there and could they please move. It's more grey when you show up the next week and say, "I was just sitting here last week, can you move?"

Plus, that's obviously a "late comer" and should not expect any courtesy in the matter anyway. They should assume that they are taking someone else's seat.

HNC: It helps to kind of cultivate a makom kavuah and let the people around you know that it's yours somehow. But I hear you on a lot of the other issues. Lately, I've also been splitting time between the shteeble (as I call it) and the main shul, and so even if I make it a point to sit in the same spot in either place, and even if I come early (as is my current custom), effectively half of the time I'm absent at either place and my seats are "up for grabs", which is I think how this guy's father ended up at my table.

Also, the place where I usually sit in the shteeble often gets commandeered for the women's section on Yizkor days, so I have problems there. The shteeble needs more seats and less tables PERIOD (I'm sure M from MKE would agree), especially on yontiff's when teenagers are home.

Neil: (thank you for being sensitive about removing shul names, I don't like when casual searches turn up these posts): It's not so much the shul regulars who are an issue as it is the guests, or guests of shul regulars. They often don't know who sits where and can hardly be faulted for taking the seat of someone who comes late.

My issues are the following:

1. If there aren't enough seats for the GUESTS, make some designated areas for guests only, so they know that there is a section of available seats. I've often suggested that (especially when there are simchas in the shul), and on the one or two occasions when they've listened to me, it's worked out great.

2. If you are a regular and are BRINGING some extra guests and you want them to sit next to you, you shouldn't automatically just plop them into your neighbors' seats (as this guy's son did). You should either move to a section where there are enough unclaimed seats for all of you (if such a section exists, see #1), or arrange in advance with your neighbors to borrow their seats, or give up your own shtender to your guest and sit somewhere else.

3. If you are someone who likes to routinely show up halfway through mussaf and kick people out of your seats, I don't think you have a leg to stand on unless you are so rich that you singlehandedly support the entire operating budget of the shul. Otherwise, set your alarm clock a little earlier! Heck, if I can do it, anyone can!

Shifra: I can always count on you to appreciate my taste in irony. BTW that was the first thing I heard the first time I came to this shul.

Steg: Man, that IS annoying. You need to find some way to annoy this guy back so he leaves. Maybe try saying the entire thing back at him with a different Havarah or something.

tuesdaywishes said...

A shul we loved in Boston had a certain section of seats (on each side of the mechitza)that were not allowed to be sold for the High Holy days, so that there would always be a place for a stranger to sit. I wish that would catch on other places...especially the shul in Monsey where my son (age 11 at the time, and a guest in the shul) was kicked out of three different seats, then told the fire code did not permit him to stand in the aisle. He came home in tears.

Ralphie said...

Can't we all just get along?

PsychoToddler said...

TW: That's actually the reaction I received when I first went to shul, alone, as an 8 year old. No wonder I hated the place. I think you should have sent a letter to the shul rabbi to tell him about your son's treatment.

Ralphie: Isn't that my line?

Shifra said...

One more item on the topic of shul seating.
I mean it!!

This has bothered me since I was a kid... Why do men think it's OK to walk around the back of the women's section during davening?

I don't care if you left your talis there or you need a gemarah, send a woman or a kid to get it.

I'd like to see what would happen to a woman who just happened to take a short cut to through the men's section during kabalas shabbos.

OK I'm done now.

Miriam L said...

I don't think women are so territorial. The only time I've seen a woman claim a spot that way is at the Kotel, where there really isn't near enough room for the women. (But that's a rant for another day, maybe.)

Shifra - I think men wandering into the women's section is a Yeshivish thing. Don't recall that behavior at the Young Israel (MO) shul. I agree that it's rather disrespectful.

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mcewen said...

I think this is human nature in a nutshell. Whilst I'm not likely to be in that situation, I think the same applies in the average home. Just think about going around to visit your grandparents when you were a child. Each had their own 'chair' in just the 'right' position. No-one else would dare take that place, nor move the chair, even an inch.
Great post. I really enjoyed it.
BEst wishes

PsychoToddler said...

Shifra- Our Ezras Nashim is actually the front half of the Social Hall, where the kiddush is set up. Also, that's where the coffee urn is set up, so guys are constantly in and out of there.

But to be fair, it's mostly the guys with serious mental illnesses.

PsychoToddler said...

Miriam: I can't speak for women, but the situation in orthodox places is very different for women than men. They come much later in the service and obviously sit separately.

FQ and Therapy Doc: Thank You!

Mcewen: Welcome. I don't think you want to be talking about my chair...

Jewish Deaf Motorcycling Dad said...

So after reading your post before Shabbos, I go to shul this morning and... there's someone sitting in my regular seat! It's like you jinxed me. :-) I figured I'd let it slide just this once, and sat one seat forward. (No one in my shul seems to want to sit in the front row) Besides, I can hear the rabbi better that way. Then about 10 minutes into the services, the guy who normally sits two seats down from me came in, and must have told the guy in my seat that it was mine. He was tapping me on the shoulder and wanted to switch. Since I was in the middle of a paragraph at the time, I said it's not a problem, don't worry.

It turned out that the guy led part of the services, and was sponsoring the kiddish lunch. If I did ask him to move, I probably would have felt like a heel later on.

Hopefully next week my seat will sill be there though!

Ayelet said...

Terrific post (I had it saved to read since you wrote it).

I discovered that I had what they call "shpilkis"

Also, I will never understand the whole system the guys have in yeshivahs for seating. There's this whole "chazaka" thing which is complicated majorly by the fact that chavrusas often change with each new z'man. You have guys coming in a day before the z'man starts to work out seating issues and I believe they even have an arbitration committee set up. I just don't get it.