Jewish Stuff

The Danger of Sitting In the Balcony Is That You Might Believe You Are Above Others

If you don’t know anything about Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, I urge you to read this first, as it will provide context for today’s post.

Yom Kippur services at Great Lakes, Illinois
Yom Kippur services at Great Lakes, Illinois (Photo credit: Center for Jewish History, NYC)

It’s always rough to find seats on the High Holidays.

This year, we found ours in the balcony.

I’d never sat up there before, above the rest of the congregation.

Above the rabbis.

Above the sacred scrolls.

It was weird.

Because we usually sit facing forward, facing the Torahs at the front of the room, normally I can only see the few people sitting in front of me and on either side.

This year’s bird’s-eye view allowed me to see all the way to the back of the sanctuary.

I could see people come late and settle in the uncomfortable green seats in the rear, rather than come farther up to find half-empty pews up front. I could see people holding their prayer books – going through the motions, standing and sitting at the right times – but whispering and laughing during much of the service. I saw people sleeping. And I saw people sending text messages. I watched as they tried to hide their devices on their laps or below their seats or behind their prayer books.

I have always wondered about people who attend temple on the High Holidays but don’t really listen to the message.

Our rabbi noted that the more difficult a holiday is to keep, the more people actually do it. He said this is why more people show up on Yom Kippur – a fasting day – than on any other regular old Jewish holiday.

I would argue it’s the life and death thing that packs the house.

For many Jewish people, there is a sense that if you don’t show up for the High Holidays, you are risking some serious bad karma: Why take the risk and stay home? Maybe some people think that just by showing up they might tip the cosmic scales.

So they come.

But why come if you are just going to talk? Or text?

Why come if your heart isn’t in it?

During his sermon, the rabbi called upon us to think about how we can be better people in 5773.

And then I was caught.

Because what was I doing but sitting there judging others?

I was ashamed.

Being a Smuggy Schmostein is rarely productive.

After temple, my husband, my son and I put on our street clothes, and walked to a nearby creek to perform tashlich, a ritual where Jews gather near a live body of water to recite a prayer in which we ask G-d to “cast our sins into the depths of the sea.”

As we emptied our pockets, removing all the lint and crud that had accumulated in the littlest nooks and crannies and shook out our clothes, I felt better. These rituals, strange as they might seem, do offer comfort. In performing tashlich, I felt like I had been given an opportunity to leave old shortcomings behind, thus allowing for the chance to start the year with a clean slate.

Standing by the creek with my long list of transgressions, I silently apologized for judging the back-of-the sanctuary-sitters, the chitty-chatters, and the temple-texters.

And I promised not to sit in the balcony again.

Because, really, who am I to place myself above anyone else?

Who am I to judge?

Last night at dinner, we dipped apple slices in honey, and I saw we were actually low on honey.

I made a mental note to add “honey” to my grocery list.

As is the tradition, we wished each other a sweet year, one filled with good health and peace.

And I extend the same wishes the same to each of you.

We could all use a little less bitter and a little more sweetness in our lives. Don’cha think?

So what’s on your real and figurative grocery list this week? I definitely need honey, but I’ll leave judgment on the shelf, next to the Ho-Ho’s.

Tweet this Twit @rasjacobson

78 thoughts on “The Danger of Sitting In the Balcony Is That You Might Believe You Are Above Others

  1. Sometimes it amazes me how much I can relate to these posts.

    After all, I am not Jewish (even if my Italian-Catholic Grandfather claims we are part Jewish because he had a Jewish nursemaid. True story.).

    There is something about the attention to tradition and the fact that my Jewish friends seemed to be the only ones that were as familiar with the Old Testament as I was, maybe.

    Anyhoo – the way I was raised, there are certain observances every year that draw even those who aren’t as regularly devout. And I find myself, on occasion, making judgments. About the texting, and the whispering.

    And then I kick myself. Because it really isn’t my place.

    I may rarely make judgments on the outside, but it’s still there in my head – so like you, I really need to put that on the shelf.

    Also, I am running low on honey. 🙂

    1. Oh Amber! Thank you for this response. I have been writing all morning. And deleting. And editing. I finally just hit publish. And then I held my breath thinking: No one is going to understand this. It is too Jewish. It is too specific. And then you tell me you get it. You understand. You do this, too.

      So thank you.

      For staying with me.

      For reading something outside your tradition.

      These are important days for me. For Jewish people.

      And I’m still without a computer to easily write the way I’d like. It’s still harder than it should be. But I’m writing.

      1. I always feel like I am going to offend someone Jewish by telling them I relate to their “Jewish-ness”. It’s not something you hear people say, you know?

        But I really do. I have a scripture from the book of Ruth engraved on a ring from when I was much younger (it was something a well respected old man quoted ABOUT me and I wanted to carry it with me everywhere and always). For the most part, only my Jewish friends understood the importance of it to me.

        So I am glad that me getting you was a good thing. 🙂

          1. That would be lovely! The verse is Ruth 3:11. I was 21 and moving FAR from home. He knew me for a long time and told me to remember that the verse was what everyone thought of me. It made me cry.

  2. I think this occurs in Christian religions as well. They are referred to as the C&E Christians. Those who only attend church services on Christmas and Easter. I’m sure there are just as many texters and sleepers. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s the VERY least they can do, or they just feel some sense of obligation to the social necessity of these holiday services. Or maybe they just like the festivities. But I definitely wouldn’t consider them devout or attentive while there.

    Syrup. I need syrup. So, also a sweet item. Apparently, we all need a little more sweetness in our lives. 🙂

    1. I don’t consider myself devout, but I am open to reflection when I am in any house of worship. I like to listen for themes that a similar of different from my own tradition.

      I was once in Temple and a woman told a bunch of teens that unless they were texting G-d, they needed to put their technology away. That it had no place in the sanctuary. I thought she was very brave.

  3. This is a fantastic post, and I can so relate to it. Whether it is the balcony seat in the temple or in the courthouse, statehouse, corner office, classroom, or mom’s group…we are all prone to doing this.

    I need baking soda, to scrub some of my own abrasiveness off.

  4. My reaction to this is the same as my reaction to the background post. Is it ok to repeat myself? I admire your sincerity and thoughtful introspection.

    A happy, healthy, sweet 5773 to you and yours.

    1. Thanks Hippie. I saw your earlier response. Each year, it’s a different thing. One of the things I love most about journaling, whether on or offline, is that I can go back and see that as much as it seems like things stay the same, I am aware that each year brings different challenges. As I grow older, I am aware that people that I love are no longer here. I didn’t feel that in my younger days.

      Sometimes I hold up the mirror and I don’t love the person I see. But some days I am more gentle with myself. I have some apologizing to do, and I have to forgive myself, too.

  5. I always struggled with this. We all should have standards and be people of discernment. Having good “judgement” is a positive, but “judging” has become a negative. “judge not lest ye be judged” doesn’t mean DON’T judge, I don’t think. It means that I need to use the same yardstick on myself as I do on others.

    Maybe it is OK to judge, to recognize right and wrong; to classify as good, better and best. We just need to temper judgement with compassion.

    Lovely, Renee! Best wishes to you and your family.

    1. Peg-O:

      Discernment is my word of the year, methinks.

      I believe in right and wrong. And I don’t think it is in good taste to bring electronics into the sanctuary. In fact, I believe it is downright disrespectful — especially when things bing and ping.

      But, as you said, there is a way to temper judgement with compassion. So it is possible to look at that behavior and say that the chick sitting in front of me who felt compelled to check her Facebook page during Rosh Hashanah didn’t necessarily make the best choice — but I probably didn’t have to jump straight to “That woman is a douche-bag.”

      I’m trying, Peg-O.

      I am.

  6. Hi Renee,

    As with confession for Catholics, like myself, those moments just after we have unburdened ourselves of our sins, as you do with tashlich, hold the greatest promise for the future. With a clean slate in hand, we can clearly see all of the good changes that we can make. Sadly, the human in us soon takes over — with all of the frailties that that entails — and we slip again. That we fall back into bad behaviors is inevitable, that we commit less of them is the hope.

    1. Trying to commit fewer transgressions is the goal.

      I’m trying.

      I’m really trying.

      Thank you for making me feel like I plucked a universal heartstring here. That this post wasn’t too specific to my own faith. I was worried.

  7. This was so lovely. Because I am a heathen (not really, but I haven’t been to church lately) I haven’t been judging anyone there. But I take my dog on the same route for his walk, and I was noticing all these houses with unfinished projects — things in the works for a long time. And I found myself, thinking, sheesh — couldn’t they find the time to slap some paint on that?

    And then I literally stopped. If my (all my) unfinished manuscripts were on display for anyone to walk by with their dog and view, well, I stopped judging right then.

    1. Oh! That is such a fabulous analogy! If only people could see all my unfinished posts. Or if they could see my computer’s innards. That would be like being caught with my pants down. Soooo embarrassing.

      I usually try to come up with a reason why people might do a certain unpleasant behavior. For example: Maybe one of the temple texters had to communicate with her elderly mother’s caregiver. Or maybe the teenager who flipped me the bird from his car just failed a test, so he wasn’t really mad at me; he was just mad at the world and needed to let off some steam.

      But I don’t understand the showing up in temple thing to distract others who are trying to really pray.

      But it’s not for me to understand, is it?

  8. Hi, Renee –

    Thanks for being so authentic. I’m Catholic, and we joke about how, except for Christmas and Easter, the only other services that are really crowded are the ones where you “get stuff” – Ash Wednesday (ashes) and Palm Sunday (palms, which the kids then braid into crosses during the service – one of these days, I’m gonna get an eye poked out). Don’t know why that particular “stuff” is so appealing, but there you go.

    Tradition, ritual, customs…all are crucial to our nature. It is how we conceptualize and process major turning points in our lives, and take stock of where we are.

    I’m a quick-to-judge gal, too, and I fight it, all the time. But it’s a good fight, Renee, because otherwise, it saps energy from our souls. Hang in there, hunny. 😀

  9. I fully understand what you mean. Someone’s cell phone actaully went off during our service. I am sure the rabbi must have heaard it but he graciously ignored it and kept on going, but everyone else in the Temple turned their heads to check the owner. For me, though, holidays mean family. We do miss you and your family at these times of year. We send you and your family wishes for good health and happiness in the coming year.

    1. I imagine officiating must be exhausting for the clergy members this time of year. They must see everything from their vantage points up front. It must be hard to know the congregation is only half paying attention to you.

      We miss seeing you all during the holidays, too. So glad you were able to make it to TechSupport’s bat mitzvah. That was a blessing.

  10. Renee- every year, while in temple for the high holidays, I too have to remind myself not to judge, because like you, I am in no position since I haven’t been crowned God. And I fight myself every time I say something judgmental since I slip easily into bad habits. But for the last 25-30 years I have realized that being judgmental is not a pretty trait so I need to keep working at it. Maybe someday it will be gone but until then, I too will keep at it. And I could use some delicious challah for break-fast next Wedensday night. Shana tova to the three of you! 🙂

    1. Betsy: I could use some challah for break-fast, too. I’ll have to grab that – eventually. I feel like you are one of the most gracious people I know, so if you admit to being occasionally petty and judgmental, well, I’ll consider myself in good company. Maybe by the time we are 100, we’ll have this humility thing down. 😉

      1. Let’s hope we can get to 100 or at least close and that we get to hang out together. And, let’s hope it doesn’t take that long to realize that judging people only makes us look petty. That’s what my mom used to say and she was truly the most gracious woman I’ve ever known. 🙂

  11. I liked everything you said. Our Rabbi spoke about trying to be a better person, too. He started talking about the end of the world – you know – the whole Mayan thing. Then he just asked to think about what you want to accomplish if you knew exactly when your time was up. At first I thought he was going to break into a Tim McGraw song, but he just asked us each to try to be a better person over the next year.

    But, honestly, the first thing I thought after I read this post was: Your temple has a balcony? I sat through all of Tech’s bar mitzvah and I don’t remember a balcony! At least you know I was paying attention to the service.

    I hope you all have a wonderful New Year. Hopefully we’ll all be together again soon!

    1. We didn’t let anyone sit up there for Tech’s service because we had attended a bar mitzvah a week prior where ALL the kids sat up there and they were totally noisy and disrespectful. We asked the custodians put ropes up to block the stairs on both sides. 😉

      I’m glad you didn’t notice the upper level.

      A friend met us on the bima for a congregational aliyah and commented that we were sitting in the “box seats.”

      That’s kind of what it felt like.

      It didn’t feel right to be there – above everyone — to me, anyway.

  12. Whoa. I just saw myself in the mirror.

    My suburban Catholic parish worships in a temporary worship center (a cafe-church-itorium if you will), built with the expectation that a proper sanctuary would soon follow. Twenty plus years later, we still sit in plastic chairs on Sundays. I hated this when we moved here, and insisted that my family would kneel at the appropriate times during Mass, whether we had kneelers or not. We started bringing foam gardening pads with us, so we could participate fully. Gradually a few other people started bringing their own foam kneelers, and the parish eventually supplied a basket with a couple dozen or so for the folks who wanted to kneel.

    We sit in the front, because if you’re the only ones kneeling and you’re in the middle of the room, you’re staring at the backside of the person in front of you. So my children know when to kneel and when to stand, because we can’t rely on the cues from others.

    After communion, I kneel, facing forward, with my head bowed and eyes cast down. I hear the murmurs of those passing by greeting their friends and neighbors, and I usually get my knickers in a twist over them behaving trivially mere seconds after receiving Holy Communion.

    I do this. All the time. Thinking I’m better than them because I’m kneeling on the tile floor and maintaining my reverence.

    Well, I guess I need to go to confession.

    1. Lisha:

      To know you , to know the way you live your life, devote your energy to being a good person… Well, I guess we really are in the same boat.

      And if religion is supposed to make us stop doing it, it isn’t working.

      But we can remind each other.

      Maybe we can keep each other on the straight and narrow, even if we have slightly different paths.

      You think it’s possible?

      If you ever see me getting all hoity-toity, you’d better call me on it. 😉

  13. A touching and thought-provoking post, RAS-J, as are the comments. I am an old white New Englander — I judge judges — so it’s always a timely reminder! As you may know, Catholics consider the Jews to be our elder brothers in the Law, and there are of course many similarities in our worship and even in sacramentals. One Lent, we were encouraged to take a white stone (um, or as many needed) from the baskets at the back of Mass/front of church to later cast into them the sin(s) we were never rid of, but wanted to be. We were to cast the stone(s) far, far from us either into water or some field or other, for the Lord That was and still is unusual, but I loved it. And once a year, we hold a Seder out in the parish hall after Mass (again, unusual– and again, what’s not to love?!) Well, there’s more (there always is!), but suffice it to say a) I’m glad that whomever comes to whatever in the Temple and the churches for whatever reason ARE there–it’s good, and He can work with those present; and b) may this new year bring you not only a perfectly behaved computer but the time to write to your heart’s content, and peace for you and yours, near and far.

    1. Hahaha! Thank you, Carol. For a bit of levity. And for reminding me that each time I dare write about my faith, it has resonance with someone else. Instill get nervous when I push publish on these types of posts.

      I’m really known for being a doofus in a funny way.

      You know what I mean.

      Meanwhile, why can’t I get to YOUR blog from your gravatar? Will you remind me of your actual blog name?! Please. Your comments are so wonderful!

  14. Really thoughtful piece, Renee. Judging is so much a part of our humanness, unfortunately. I try not to be judgmental, but I do from time to time.

    I try to sit in the front at church so I don’t see what everyone’s doing in front of me. Not because I’ll judge them, but because I get distracted by what someone’s wearing or doing or how they sing, etc.

    And I’m so with you about “… a little less bitter and a little more sweetness in our lives.”

    1. I guess we are hard-wired to judge. We have to decide if things are imminent threats.

      “Does this guy look like a good guy or like someone who might strangle me in a dark alley?”

      But it is important to try to override these primal tendencies, you know?

  15. Honest and meaningful, Renée. You have such a way of getting down to the nitty-gritty in your posts and I envy you that. Although I’m not Jewish, much of my extended family is and exchanging the sweet thoughts at this time of year is special. L’shanah tovah to you and your family.

    1. Patricia:

      I try so hard to get to the nitty-gritty. It takes me forever to post. You have no idea, so thank you for those kind words. This time of the year is really important to me. In fact, I just did a little apologizing. It wasn’t easy. One more to go, and then I’ll feel like I did what I’m supposed to do.

      *wipes brow*

      I hope that you have a wonderful year, too — starting now! 😉

  16. Nice post Renee. I love to sit in the balcony, especially in front where the only thing in front of me are the rabbis and the music. It is my place where I can focus best. During moments of standing I glaze across the room in quiet curiosity until my eyes avert quickly back to focus. Then I close my eyes and listen. Like you, I have had seats in the past I did not enjoy. My family used to sit in the back where I could only focus on the color of old women’s hats and the delicate stitching and fabric of the suits from various boutiques. I love knowing I can sit up close and hear and feel the words.

    I love that you are more aware of the place you might want to sit so you can find your peace.

    No matter where you sit, I will find you and my eyes will turn to you for a quiet moment. Maybe we will look at each other and maybe you will see me and wave. Either way, I will smile when I see you.

    1. Hi L:

      I know you dig the balcony. It didn’t work for me, but Hubby liked it so we may end up there again by default. That said, it might be better to be more in front — like you were. I’m not good with obstructed view. I suppose this is why, in college, I always liked to sit in the front row! I am easily distracted! LOL!

      No matter where you are I will always know how to find you and wish you a happy, healthy new year. 😉

  17. A good lesson here. I’m not Jewish, or belong to any specific faith, but the message is universal. It is so easy to judge, to condemn others for what they do or don’t do. But who are we to cast stones? I’m certainly far from perfect. I often feel guilt over things I’ve said or thought or done. I try to do things for the right motives, but then if I benefit in some way as a result, I question whether my motives were the ones I thought or if selfishness masked them all along. I have no idea if it’s normal to feel this way, but I do. I am always questioning my motives.

    Thanks for the post! I found it helpful 🙂

    Angela Ackerman

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Angela.

      I have a feeling this judgement thing is leftover from our most primal selves. Like when we had to look at someone and decide if he looked like someone we could trust or someone who might drag us into the brush and slit our throats.

      But I truly believe our more civilized selves need to rage against this kind of judgement.

      I am not prone to feeling guilty about my motives. I am, however, prone to feeling guilty because I take up people’s time and worry that I demand too much from others. (That is unrelated, but that is my truth for the afternoon.) Thanks for visiting me here today.

  18. Being a Smuggy Schmostein is SO FUN THOUGH. You could come hang out at our place and judge so many things, like our 10-foot tall weeds and Tupperware filing system!

    In all seriousness, I have a hard time with this, too. The whole, “Why show up if you don’t really want to be there / aren’t really present?” thing. Good for you for being able to step away from that train of thought – I’m not there yet!

    On my metaphoric and actual grocery list this week less booze. I’m doing aces; you would be so proud. Will you share your ginger ale?

  19. Okay, I don’t want to judge either, but texting . . . ugh. You get permission on that one. It makes me sad. It’s like is ANYTHING holy anymore???

    Okay, now I can get off my soapbox and focus on my own needs for improvement. I have way too much need to control–um, like everything. I’m working on the idea of “what will be will be” for this year.

    1. A former student sent me a link about a synagogue in Miami that tried to get people to actually use their technology to engage in the service. Because, you know, it’s hard for folks under 25 to stay focused on anything for extended periods of time. ANd they get twitchy without their electronic devices.

      Obviously, this was an uber-reform synagogue.

      And yet.

      I suppose, if the technology is being used in a way so that it supports the purpose of the day…


      Still, it’s hard to imagine the 80-year old man in the front enjoying the experience. Seems like the goal is to unplug to plug into oneself. If people aren’t able to do that anymore, that seems like a problem. (Check it out. I stuck it on my wall on FB.)

      1. I heard about that too on Tablet mag or some other mag I follow on Twitter. I would just hate to see even the high holy days become just a regular day. I try to unplug on Shabbat. It’s SO hard for me. But I’d like to think that two-three days a year we (as a people) could manage it. It really is like an addiction!

  20. Thank you for sharing this. I have always loved the original holy days, their meanings and traditions. Being a recovering Catholic, well we had our own traditions; there was a time I loved them also. Unfortunately, they had less true meaning and more pomp.

  21. I love hearing about the role of water in rituals, religious and otherwise. In Thailand, we celebrated Loi Kratong, where you’d make little Kratongs (floatable objects out of lotus flowers, banana leaves, etc) and float them down the canals. I think it was in homage to the spirits in the water, but I always thought of it as my sins floating away. 🙂

    1. I love that image, Leanne: the lotus flowers floating away, sins transformed into something stunning.

      We aren’t supposed to drop breadcrumbs in the water as we don’t want to “poison” the fish with our sins. Can you imagine all those far, toxic fish? 😉 That’s why we shake out our pickets — symbolically.

  22. I am totally awful at church. I go every week because my husband plays the organ, but I am not sure how much faith I have in the whole system. I do want my kids to be raised in the church because I believe it is a good base from which to make up their own minds. So I sit in a pew in the balcony (near the organ) and try to not judge the people who come late or just for communion. I try and just hope they are getting what they need and not just there to make yiayia (grandma) happy. And even if that is the only reason, well, good for them for caring enough about yiayia to give up their Sunday morning.

    1. Duffy. I think faith is supposed to make us feel good about ourselves, but organized religion has done a pretty good job of making many of us feel less than. All we can do is our best. I love that Judaism offers us the chance to apologize for our transgressions directly to the people we have hurt. We have to humble ourselves. It’s really hard.

      So sit near the organ and teach your kids to love the music. Something tells me you are doing better than fine.

  23. As always, I LOVE your posts. It was ironic you wrote about passing judgement…I attend a Christian church, and at last week’s service I noticed a couple that came in late to the service and then left early. I caught myself judging them…I, like you, felt ashamed. Shame on me. Who am I to judge? I am no better. I think while in Church our hearts open to our own human flaws and acceptance of others.

    What’s on my shopping list this week? A big bottle of humility, which is located just behind the judgement box. Thank you for bringing to life our humanity.

    1. Thank you Kristal. It makes me feel good to know that I struck a universal chord. But I wish it wasn’t such an ugly trait that we all hold. If we could extract that quick-to-judge gene ” I bet we’d be so much nicer to each other. 🙂

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