When it was warmer, back in the fall, I met an older friend outdoors for coffee. A third person was there, someone she wanted me to meet. She couldn’t imagine how I’d never met them before. Winnipeg is like this, small enough so that everyone might have a few connections in common. Big enough that, actually, you don’t know everybody either. As it turned out, my new acquaintance was someone in the Jewish community. By the end of our meeting, I’d learned that she really didn’t like when new melodies were introduced at services. I suggested that it was important to keep learning, that the melodies themselves weren’t what was important. And that, in fact, some of the “new” melodies introduced were pretty old themselves, but just hadn’t been used at the congregation she’d attended.
She wasn’t to be swayed. As we parted, it was clear that I liked the changing tunes and she, most certainly, did not. This exchange came to mind because at the Saturday morning Shabbat service I attended (via streaming only) on Jan. 1, Adon Olam was sung to – snort – the tune of Auld Lang Syne.
All this came to mind, too, as I considered the Jan. 5 anniversary of when I started studying Daf Yomi, a page of Talmud a day. This year, in 2022, I’ll have pursued this endeavour for two years. I’ll be a fourth of the way through the commitment. At a page a day, this process takes seven-and-a-half years. For me, it’s mostly a solitary practice. I study late at night before I go to sleep, and only occasionally learn with others during a special class or siyyum (celebration when finishing an entire tractate).
I read mostly in English translation, only reading the Hebrew and Aramaic in chunks when I’m not too tired or struggling too much with the text. It’s not perfect, but it’s what I’ve got for now. It’s enriched my Jewish learning and practice. Now I find answers for many things I never knew before – the information has always been there, spelled out in the Babylonian Talmud.
For instance, I read in the tractate Megillah, on page 21, about the seemingly arbitrary rules we set up for ourselves – like how many parshiyot (Torah portions) we read, how many people can read each one and when. For the Megillah reading on Purim, we can sit or we can stand, we can hear one person read or several. How does this work?
I flashed back to all the different ways I’d heard the Megillah or even read it through the years, from spiels and Purim carnivals as a kid and onward. I remembered when I read the Megillah to myself in an airport on the floor, on a long layover between flights.
One snowy, cold Purim, crammed into a smaller, overheated, crowded room at Chabad, one of my twins nearly passed out in his polar bear costume. I rushed him through the open fire door, into the hallway, to the emergency stairwell. His colour returned as he cooled down. This, too, was a place to hear the Megillah.
Before my son nearly passed out, I remember that we were sitting near someone who smiled at us, in the integrated seating (men and women sat together) area. He was familiar, part of the community. Only later, it turned out he had a date in court for something that went very wrong. This also is community.
I thought a lot about variations to traditional practice last week as we watched services, streaming, on Shabbat morning. It was a bitterly cold morning in Winnipeg, the kind when the windchill is -45 and you feel remarkably lucky if your car starts. Except, because of COVID, we didn’t have to decide to stay home or go. On Jan. 1, there were only three people in the sanctuary. Two people ran the service, and one person did the streaming.
A service must be adaptable. One person, the cantorial soloist, read the entire Torah portion – a real feat, she did a beautiful job. So, I thought, here we have a tradition with a lot of rules, a lot of “ways things should go,” but also, to keep our traditions strong, we build flexibility.
In Megillah 21a, it says, if it’s the custom to say a blessing before the reading of the Megillah where you are, say a blessing. If not, don’t. Later, it explains, yes, here are the blessings to say and it’s good to say a blessing, but it’s a truly open discussion. Do what works and is usual where you are.
In the midst of the Omicron wave, I hear a lot of random but repeated comments: “in-person schooling is much better” is one. However, safety and avoiding healthcare collapse really must come first, in my view. In our family, during most of the 2021-2022 school year, we did remote schooling. I worked, writing at night. As a former teacher, I was able to help my kids learn and guess what? They came out of it better academically prepared than they were previously. What does this mean? There is no one size fits all. There’s no perfect way to be.
We are all different. Yes, we need to work together, as individuals and communities, to acknowledge this pandemic challenge. We must choose to do everything we can to be as safe as we can: vaccinate, wear high-quality masks like N95s, stay home as much as possible, social distance, self-isolate when sick, etc. But, there isn’t just a single way to take care of a community. That’s what Torah – and the talmudic tractate Megillah 21 – tell us. There isn’t just one way.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.