||Diary of a co-Shammush:|
Celebrating our first three years at home
By Hershel Weiss
For the Desert Sage
Synagogues have historically employed a caretaker, someone who lived at the temple and, in exchange, looked after the buildings, the grounds and, ultimately, the people who made up its community. This person was given the moniker of Shammush, loosely translated as “helper” or “servant.”
Today, the word is most often associated with the ninth stem on a Chanukah menorah, where the “helper candle,” the one used to light the others, rests. But this ancient tradition is being revived at Nahalat Shalom, where local artist Hershel Weiss trades his care and labor for a home and workshop within the community he loves. This is part of his story.
On Friday mornings Andrew comes over to work for a few hours before Torah study. Maybe we'll patch the crumbling stucco today or figure out where the roof is leaking from. There are weeds to pull, trees to trim, drainage problems to correct. We could try to fix the plumbing in the house, or finish remodeling the bathroom. But the invasion of Iraq has started and we don't work today. Instead we sit in the woodshop and talk about the bombing, and we cry together. Shabbat attendance is down, since this terrible violence began. At services later that night, the Rabbi shares her personal pain. Such a blessing! And seven of us listen, and sing and pray.
Saturday is the best day. The beautiful bubble in time, the day we get to create heaven on earth and really try to live the life we want. I walk four miles to the river chanting the Bhuddist chant I learned on the Hiroshima Peaceflame Pilgrimage last year. Two coyotes trot by in the bosque and I take a nap on the beach, the sound of water a backdrop for my dream, then walk back home chanting.
On Sundays I dance. Or try to learn how. I can't get over how lucky I am to learn klezmer dancing with a live band. And it's all just a few steps from my home! I am the idiot dancer, stumbling all over myself and everyone else. But nobody seems to mind. After a few weeks I have a revelation: I look like a fool up there, but it doesn't matter. I am in the arms of my community.
On Monday there's a good chance Dennis will stop in and chat for a while. He likes the smell of the wood in my shop. Dennis, an architect, works here in the office. We talk about the courtyard, and Central Park, and the campo in Venice.
Early mornings I sit with my tallis in the sanctuary. It's getting warmer now and soon it will be warm enough to learn how to put on tefillin. In generations past, one of the duties of the Shammush was to waken the men in the morning to come pray in the shul. I'm knocking on your shutters, brothers. Come join me at 6:30 a.m. in the sanctuary.
Tuesdays I'm here alone. I work in the beautiful woodshop that my co-Shammush, Bert, helped me create. I'm building a gate for Benay, and a scale model of the new entry for our sanctuary.
On Wednesday I'm so distracted I can't work. All the violence is making me too angry and afraid. So I go outside to pull weeds. People come and go for music lessons and other study. Some stop to say hi. I tell them all I'm having a terrible day. People know me. I'm part of a community. I feel much better.
Everywhere I look there is work to be done. We still don't have a parking plan or a permit to build a wall. The weeds are going crazy. I want it all right now: fountains and grapes and orchards, a bookstore, a gallery, a new sanctuary, a music wing. But it won't all get done in my lifetime. And what's the hurry, anyway? We have accomplished a lot in three years with this property. Besides, we are only required to do the work, not to complete it.
Thursday is Heder. Some of the young ones know my name. They have come to visit me in my shop and helped varnish dreidles. I am the man who gets their ball off the roof.
On Thursday night the men gather and share the details of our lives. Six Jewish men just trying to get to know each other a little better and figure out how to lend a hand.
At Sephardic Shabbat Maria says, “Shabbat Shalom, mi hijo,” and I could fall on the floor weeping, for I am Sephardic but this is the first time in my life I've heard these words.
When King Solomon built the first temple, things changed drastically for the Jews. We became a nation. It took seven years to build it, but nobody was in a hurry. Something that magnificent takes time. The Temple was our spiritual, cultural and political center for 400 years. Then our magnificent achievement was destroyed. How our hearts were broken then, but we rebuilt the temple 50 years later and had our second temple for 600 years. And it was destroyed and the people scattered far and wide. This second heartbreak must have been almost too much to bear. So, in our new communities we built synagogues and poured our hearts into them. No matter how poor the community, the synagogue was the priority, and it was beautiful. The people sacrificed to have it. Even the most humble wood-frame synagogue was built with great love by the best artisans and artists. The memory of the nation's heart twice broken remains inside us.
Our bank account is low. Our building and land need a lot of work. We have lost a great newsletter editor. But we will have a magnificent courtyard. We will plant fruit trees and vines. The sanctuary will be transformed. And right now we have each other. We know how to treat each other well. There's conflict, though, and we fall short sometimes. We remind each other too much of our own mishigas. Treated so badly as Jews for so many generations, we don't always treat each other well. We're impatient and we're easily disappointed and we blame. This old ancient disappointment we still carry around. We criticize and complain. We want each other to know that we hurt.
The water comes through the roof in buckets. When the wind blows, it rains shingles. The leaves haven't been raked for years, but I rake them. We are moving forward and it all takes time. It's not perfect, but it's perfect. It's not easy, but it's easy. Be thankful. The community klezmer band is a jewel in our keter. Every Friday two loaves of challah appear on the synagogue doors.
This is my home. This is where I do my work. This is my community. When the messiah comes, I want to be working on the sanctuary. And I'll finish my saw cut before I look up.