It took a lot of courage and preparation for me to go to the synagogue for the first time. I even bought a book, To Pray as a Jew, by Rabbi Hayim H. Donin, which gives an outline of the service and the prayers used and how to behave in the synagogue, and read it beforehand. It turns out, ironically or not, that the book is also on my rabbi’s conversion course syllabus. Yeah, I do overthink these things.
I walked in promptly at 9:45, the advertised start time of the service, and pretty much nobody was there, except for the rabbi, the gabbai, and a few other people. No other women. I’ve since learnt this is pretty much normal for Beit Meshugge.
I’d agonised over what to wear, too. I knew the basic dress code, so I put on a very new black denim skirt (does a good twill imitation, and has pockets, since I still had to bring my wallet/bus pass, house keys, and a few Kleenex — I live too far from the shul to walk at this point, and I don’t yet have wearable keys for Shabbat), over-the-knee opaque black socks, new wingtip shoes, and a grey long-sleeved blouse. Turns out I hit it pretty much precisely, which made me feel better.
During the service, I had some trouble keeping up — those guys daven (pray) much faster than I can read Hebrew, and they use this very Ashkenazic pronunciation, which differs in the Hebrew letter tav (or sav) ( ת ), and changes some of the vowel sounds, so things like Shabbat ( שבת ) become Shabbos or Shabbes. Since I’ve learnt all my Hebrew from a modern Israeli pronunciation, I use a more Sfardi pronunciation, which means I (still do) get tripped up trying to follow the service.
I think I shook for the entire service. My friends and the book and everything were telling me it would be okay to just walk in and observe, but, I don’t know, culturally it seemed weird and presumptuous somehow to just walk into a “strange” house of worship.
However, I made it through, and actually managed to participate a little bit, and I got to talk to the rabbi…which began the whole thing, really.
Of course, any time I go to shul, I have to answer questions about who I am, especially after I introduce myself…since I have a perfectly good Hebrew first name that all kinds of Jews (and Muslims and Christians) have, but a Scottish last name. Heh. People also often want to know if I’m just visiting from another city/congregation, since I look vaguely plausibly Ashkenazi, too — I have dark tragic hair, deep-set blue eyes, and vaguely craggy features. I look like a lot of the Russian-speakers in Israel, actually. (There are reasons for that.)
The hardest question I have to answer during the after-service chat part is “Why do you want to be Jewish.” That’s a really good question, and I’ll let everybody know once I figure out something resembling a coherent answer.