Friday, September 11, 2009

Shabbat Shalom

The beat of bongos greeted us as we entered the sanctuary. Smiling little girls in sequined headbands and skirts skipped down the aisle and took their seats next to doting parents. Elderly couples walked carefully behind them, calling out, "Shabbat shalom," to familiar faces. A young woman, her bald head wrapped, but barely hidden, tried to quiet her rambunctious pre-teen son.

It was Friday night, September 11th, and this was not the Sha-BBQ that I had envisioned.

Although a driving rain and fierce winds forced the party inside, it did not dappen our spirits. I looked to my left and saw the smile of my friend, Jenifer, and her wife, Cyndi, and their beautiful baby boy, sitting on her lap, digging into a Zip-lock bag full of Cheerios.

"They asked me if I was interested in enrolling him in pre-school here," Jenifer whispered to me. "But he's Muslim," she explained of her African-American foster child. "He's just here for shabbat with us, but he has his own thing," she added, planting a kiss on his cheek. "Got it," I nodded.

"And you know me," Cyndi laughed. "I'm not into any religion at all." I caught a glimpse of the small gold necklace she was wearing.

"Wait a minute, is that a Star of David?"

"Yep, I support my wife . . . and the community. And you gotta see my new tattoo," she continued, her eyes lighting up as she looked at her wife's smile. "I got her Hebrew name written on my arm," she said proudly, pointing to her shoulder. I shook my head, laughing. "Great stuff," I responded, the wine starting to swim around my head as the Klezmer music picked up the tempo.

Two tween girls in front of me shimmied to the sounds and busted out a couple of hip hop moves as the cantor sang. I strained to see just who was rockin' out on the bongos, but it remained a mystery. I couldn't help but hear the lady a few rows behind me to the left who tried to out-sing everyone else in the congregation. I rolled my eyes in Cyndi's direction. "There's always one in the crowd, right?" I didn't know a word of the lyrics, but the vibe in the sanctuary sounded as if Jimmy Buffet might join in. It felt like we were on a booze cruise in the Caribbean.

As the music faded out, we said prayers for the sick, the dying, the departed, for our recently fallen soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, by name. A nine year old girl stood up and told the congregation that she was praying for her friend to get well so that they could go to the movies, and play games, and do the things that they normally did together.

After the service ended, we all gathered at open tables to nosh on some kosher hot dogs and burgers. Three generations of a family joined our table, thankfully without judgmental looks or curious glances at my gay friends and their baby. The mom introduced her tween daughter, dressed in a brown skirt suit, matching her long dark hair and eyes, and her own mother, with silver hair and hip glasses, and sweet blue eyes.

"Do you do timeouts with him?" the girl asked Jenifer bluntly, who was sitting across the round table, feeding small bites of a burger to her toddler.

"No, honey, not yet, he's too young for that."

"Oh. Do you do headshoulderskneesandtoes?" she asked slurring the words together rapidly.

"Yes, and he loves it!" Jenifer responded. The little girl smiled.

She told us she was twelve years old, but her speech and mannerisms told a different story, of a child delayed cognitively to that of a 6 year old. She looked in my direction and fired off random questions with a piercing stare and a mechanical tone:

"Do you have a dog?"

"Not yet, but I want to get one!" I told her.

"What does your mom say?" she blurted out.

"She says, 'Go for it!'" I told her, not skipping a beat or pausing at the oddity of the question.

I told her that I had a baby who was going to come to Sha-BBQ too, but it was past his bedtime, so he was home with his daddy.

"Did you see the play, Annie?" she wondered in response.

"Yeah, it was really cute. Did you see it? Did you like it?" She nodded.

Her grandmother exhaled an internal sigh of relief. Here we were, perfect strangers, engaging this little girl in conversation, no matter how random, disjointed, or surprising the questions. And we did so without judgment or ridicule or uncomfortable looks.

"Do you like Pepsi?" she asked me, noticing that I was drinking the same thing as she had in her hand.

"Oh, I love Pepsi!" I exclaimed. "Cheers!" I yelled, raising my soda can to meet hers across the table. She smiled at me and clinked my can.

"Shabbat shalom!" Everyone at that table raised their drinks too.

The grandmother sitting next to me turned and patted my hand delicately. "I hope you and your husband join," she said. This community? Where differences are not only tolerated, but celebrated? I nodded back at her. We are already members.

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