Tygerpen: Hold the applause till everyone starts quacking

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The kindly 87-year-old woman who lives upstairs recently warned me, “You may hear me screaming and moaning sometimes.” Stunned and running different inappropriate scenarios through my head, I was relieved when she explained that her chronic back problems caused her loud vocalizing.

Noise has always been a concern of mine. At my synagogue, for example, as with many other temples, the rabbis are sensitive to the noise of applause during services. Unlike small disruptive children or babies who can be carried outside, laid on grass and gently put to sleep by reading one of the rabbis’ old sermons, applause generally is discouraged because of the sacred nature of the sanctuary.

There’s also the risk that if rules against applause were relaxed, the sly congregation might abuse the privilege. They might, for example, be tempted to clap at length and drown out the bar or bat mitzvah boy or girl beginning the  Torah portion as a way to show favoritism (especially if there are two b’nai mitzvah) or, more likely, to accelerate or even terminate that portion of the service.

Faced with such problems, someone at the synagogue instituted a little hand sign known as the “synagogue clap.” In this silent motion, the top fingers of one’s hand (or hands) “clap” against the thumb, reminiscent of making shadow-puppet animals like bunnies, dogs, deer or ducks as everyone is required to do where there’s a wall or screen and a bright light.

That’s why I’m relieved when I attend a Kabbalat Shabbat service where instrumental music or singing is featured and applause allowed sparingly. At other Friday night services, I worry the synagogue will have prospective members or guests, including people of other faiths, who see an entire silent congregation with hands raised, indicating their approval with hand-puppet movements of barking dogs or quacking ducks.

Fortunately, I did not have to worry about applause at my first bat mitzvah. Yes, I had two. (More about the other in another column.)

I wanted a bar mitzvah — that was what we all called it, irrespective of gender — when I was young and growing up in Portland, but girls rarely went to Hebrew school or studied for one. Years later, I felt better when I read a note I’d written to myself at 14: “Henny Youngman never had a b.m. until age 80.” After I ruled out that Henny did not have chronic and life-threatening constipation, I vowed I, too, could be older and have a bat mitzvah.

That opportunity arose the first time I was up on Masada while touring Israel immediately after the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The 35 of us Jewish Americans were asked by our guide if we’d ever had a bar or bat mitzvah. It took a few minutes for people to raise their hands, since most were drenched with sweat from walking the 900-foot elevation of the twisty, narrow “Snake Path” along the sheer face of the rock wall on the way to the top of Masada. (I’d wisely taken the tram.)

I raised my hand tentatively, because when you’re Jewish, raising your hand may commit you to a volunteer position that an organization’s officer promises “will be easy and take hardly any time,” such as vice president of programming, major gifts solicitation or chair of the year’s annual fundraiser.

To my amazement, I learned no ceremony is needed to become a bar/bat mitzvah. At age 13 for boys and 12 for girls, children automatically become a bar/bat mitzvah, obligated to observe the commandments. At the small, hot and dusty outdoor amphitheater area, amid the ruins of the fortress and palaces built by King Herod, we tourists were given a slip of paper to utter a couple of prayers. After we complied, our guide pronounced that we were formally bar or bat mitzvahed. We celebrated by dancing the hora.

This is one way parents can save enormous time and expense. Use the historic setting of Masada for the bar/bat mitzvah and nothing is required except to show up: no months of anguished preparation (for the parents), no rabbi, no tutor, no Hebrew school, no memorization, no wracking brains over a kid’s sermonette, no invitations, no after-party. And short.

Best of all, at least in the case of our synagogue, no need for the exhausted boy or girl to stand shyly on the bimah overlooking a sea of silent quacking ducks.

Trudi York Gardner
lives in Walnut Creek and can be reached at [email protected] or via her blog, www.tygerpen.com.