Cougel Goes to Church.

The first time I went to Church, it felt strange. It felt strange because it didn’t feel as strange (or guilt inducing) as I thought it would (or should) for a Good Jewish Girl like me who was raised observant and had only attended synagogues. In the forty years since I’ve been on this planet, akin to a Jew who wandered through the desert for forty years, perhaps I was beginning to shed my former perspective and develop a new one.

I wanted to go. I wanted to not only support my then Christian goyfriend, who I knew I was going to marry, but because I was curious. I wanted to see if what I had heard about Church growing up, or had seen on “Little House on the Prairie,” was authentic to the experience, and a tiny part of me was also curious how I would react hearing the name “Jesus Christ” invoked more times in an hour than in my entire life.

The first time, I might have heard my mother’s voice gasping (she’s okay with it now. Thanks, Ema!) and maybe the intimidating reprimands of a Rabbi or two. I marveled at the pretty pamphlets that contained that day’s service, replete with sheet music for a sing-along and scripture excerpts for the sermon, which were then tossed in the trash upon exit – distinctively different than the unchanging, repetitive Hebrew prayers in my synagogue’s prayer book which were holy, and if dropped on the floor accidentally (as I had done many times as a child), had to be quickly picked up and kissed with penitent reverence.

When the Pastor announced the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper, I watched in wonder as the congregants – including my husband – filed out from their rows and walked to the front of the room where a table with silver trays awaited, lined with bread and tiny glasses of wine. I was tempted to have a shot of wine for breakfast, but the pamphlet guidelines for Receiving the Lord’s Supper read that this “is the family meal for Christians… we invite all baptized Christians who are members of a congregation that proclaims the gospel…to join us.”

No wine for me. The pamphlet kindly gave me an out: “If you are not a Christian … we encourage you to spend this time in prayer.” As I sat and waited for this portion of the program to conclude, I looked around at the crowded room and wondered whether I was the only Jew in attendance (dark curly Jew-fro not withstanding). It appeared that way. Did anyone notice? Did anyone care either way? I was preoccupied and concerned over how my boyfriend’s faith and mine would intermingle once we were married and had a family, and what it “meant” for me as a Jew to be going to Church, a topic I explore in depth in my memoir.

That was two years ago. Since then, I’ve found a traditional egalitarian synagogue on the Upper West Side that I love, and I light Sabbath candles on Friday night. My husband happily joins me. Occasionally, I even buy a Challah.

And concurrently, I go to Church with my husband about once or twice a month, depending on our schedules, and depending on our need to connect with one another, and God – the two frequently indistinguishable. We either go to the Upper West Side service or ride Citibikes together to the downtown congregation, and walk in holding hands, the music emanating from the stage welcoming us. I look forward to the sermons, which remind me of my Chumash and Talmud classes, where hidden meaning behind the scriptures and stories are revealed, like poetry demystified. I get excited when the Pastor references the Old Testament, or a passage that I recognize, and imbues it with a new perspective – not only a Christian one but also relatable and applicable to my daily life – that I hadn’t thought about before. Sometimes I even take notes, mixed in with elaborate doodles (like I did in Chumash and Talmud classes) and bring the pamphlets home with me. photo 3

So looking back, it’s clear that I no longer go to Church out of curiosity, but because I enjoy it. Yesterday, after an intense week of emotional challenges as well as blessings (stay tuned for next week’s blog about that), when my husband asked what I wanted to do this weekend I surprised myself by answering: “Let’s go to Church. There is a lot I want to thank God for, and pray for.”

But the true and perhaps more subtle reasons did not become apparent until I stood in Church today, listening to my husband singing the hymn, his deep melodic voice unselfconscious and full of love. My heart filled with tenderness, and then I looked around at the other congregants, couples with their arms entwined, singing joyously, a mother and her toddler leaning into one another, her finger guiding him across the sheet music, their mouths moving in unison.

When it was time for the Lord’s Supper and everyone stood up to receive it, I sat down like I always do, but it didn’t cross my mind to think about what that looked like to anyone. Instead, I closed my eyes and spent the time in prayer. A little Hebrew might have snuck in there too.