Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Do You Know The Secret Password?

A young man was dating a non-Jewish girl, who was very interested in learning about Judaism. They took classes and the girlfriend expressed interest in going to synagogue. The young man, who was excited to bring his girlfriend to shul, spent a considerable amount of time describing what the service would be like ("standing, sitting, but no kneeling") and what she might expect ("great food after").

The evening arrived and progressed smoothly...or so the fellow thought. During the all-important car ride home, the girlfriend was seething. "What was the point of trying to make me comfortable when you didn't even tell me the secret password?" she sputtered.

You know. The secret password that the sweet Brotherhood usher or some other welcoming face proclaims when you cross the sanctuary threshold.

"Shabbat Shalom!"

Doesn't seem so threatening. And yet...imagine, if you will, what it would be like if you'd never heard these words before. What is an appropriate response? Is this a question? A statement? What reaction should it elicit?

All too often, those of us in the know unwittingly keep those who are not in the know in the dark. How often do the intellectual elite use phrases, words, or analogies that will be missed by others? How often do we use Jewish colloquialisms or vocabulary from the pulpit and inadvertently crack someone's fragile sense of belonging?

The above story is a true one, and got me thinking about what I can do to help close the gap between the haves and the have nots. After all, more and more of our congregations and centers are filled with people who were not immersed in the language and culture in the ways prior generations have been. And even those of us who were fortunate to be surrounded by such richness in our youth may not know the origins of so many of our phrases and customs. A perfect example? "Shabbat Shalom."

Believe-it-or-not, there are others like me out there who ponder the origins of such things. Others who are far more erudite and knowledgeable than I. In fact, Philologos writes a fabulous weekly column in the Forward on such matters and uncovers their philological origins. A recent installment of Philologos investigates the secret code, enlightening even those of us "in the know."

So the next time you insert "Shabbat Shalom" (Hebrew greeting meaning 'Sabbath of peace'), "farfallen" (Yiddish for 'a lost cause'), or "bimah" (Hebrew for 'raised platform,' and used generally to refer to the pulpit area in a synagogue) into the conversation, just remember that we are instructed not to put a stumbling block before the blind and to take this teachable moment -- and teach!


Anonymous said...

well, it might be nice if you would translate them in your post for anyone reading who doesn't know what that means. like myself

Rivster said...

That's a great point! Thanks for your suggestion!