I drummed along, but I just couldnt keep up with Judaisms beat

Rock ‘n’ roll made me confront my alienation from Judaism. In 1999, the end of the millennium, I played drums in a strange pop band. The singer in my band was involved in an odd, happening shul run by young folk.

I was intrigued.

“You should go,” she urged. “You can drum during the service!”

Bingo. I was there like Woody Allen on the psychiatrist’s couch.

Back then, Keneset HaLev met in a two-story house in the midst of some of the most run-down projects in San Francisco. Everyone sat on cushions on the floor in the comfy garage. People brought veggie potluck dishes and hung out, often continuing their Shabbat at a rave the owners of the house frequently organized afterward.

I brought my darbuka, a hand drum from Turkey — my ticket to spiritual inclusion. The Hebrew prayers were intimidating or annoying; the melodies mostly brought back bad memories of my Reform upbringing. But as long as I could drum along with the clapping and fervent singing, I felt a part of the communal experience — and it was infinitely more fun than the cloying Shabbat renditions of “Sunrise, Sunset” in my congregation when I was growing up.

And it offered more: Nice people I could relate to, cute Jewish girls, good food. And people drumming and dancing afterward. Perhaps a little hippie-ish for my punk-rock sensibilities, but, hey, I was caught up in the spirit of the Sabbath Bride.

Eventually, though, self-doubt began to creep back in. Me and my drumbeats, was that really Jewish enough for me to be there? I mean, I didn’t know the prayers, and it sure seemed like everyone else did. It became increasingly clear that the Kenesset HaLev community brought a lot of thought and vigor to its spiritual practice.

After the potluck I found myself drumming with a strange young man, all shaved head and pointy teeth. He was a good drummer, and we got to talking. I asked him his name — Anton Mahayana.

“That’s not Israeli is it?” I asked.

“No it’s my own invention,” a fusion he said he created from Satan enthusiast Anton LeVay and Sanskrit.

“Are you a Jew, Anton?”

“Not really. I just like the spiritual intensity of the scene here.”

I felt like I was looking in a funhouse mirror. Did he belong here? Did I, for that matter?

Suddenly my vegetarian lasagna wasn’t settling well and my darbuka seemed too heavy to hold.

Was Anton co-opting Judaism the same way that some white people take Native American names and attend sweat lodges? Or was he doing something more sophisticated, making a kind of spiritual smorgasbord?

As for me, I couldn’t decide if I was slighting the tradition as I got caught up in the spirit without understanding the meaning of the prayers and rituals. On the one hand, I could have been watching “Citizen Kane.” But I also could have done my homework, read the prayers, figured out the Torah portion.

We kept drumming, and the people around us kept dancing. I still felt queasy, but the atmosphere was electric.

A few days later at band practice, I shared with the singer my dilemmas from the previous Shabbat. Looking like a cross between Gilda Radner and Joni Mitchell, and fresh from teaching yoga and a Torah study group, she just laughed.

“Could you be any more Jewish? First of all, you feel conflicted about whether you’re Jewish enough; then you feel guilty about feeling conflicted. The rabbis of yore would approve of that already,” she teased.

“Secondly, Anton Mahayana is a weirdo, but he plays a great beat and he always brings good food, so what’s the problem?”

With that, we started rehearsing our melodramatic tunes.

I went back to Keneset HaLev a few more times before I got bogged down in self-doubt again. Anton Mahayana was nowhere to be seen. Sometimes I suspect he was a kind of spirit sent to teach me a lesson about myself.

When I figure out what that lesson is, I’ll let you know.

Jay Schwartz plays the trap drums in San Francisco, where he lives with his wife and canine. He can be reached at [email protected].