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Life's a Stage

November 13, 2022

Dr. David Fialk, Editor / Publisher

Our local Chabad rabbi called me on Friday, asking me to attend services Saturday morning. The Jews need a minyan, a quorum of ten males, to read the Torah and perform certain, communal prayers, the high points of the service. Years ago, I was a true believer, a practicing, orthodox Jew. Still keeping a few traditions of my people, I agreed to come. But, really, given almost any group of nine that absolutely needs a tenth, you can count me in.

Next day, I woke, went to the Saturday Market, completed my purchases, pedaled home, ate a quick breakfast, and rode the 10 minutes, a great part of it downhill, to the synagogue. Arriving, wrapping myself in the requisite prayer shawl, taking my place, I counted heads and realized that, indeed, I was the tenth man.

The rabbi makes it all look effortless, but really, he is doing a lot. He keeps everyone on track and entertained, while fulfilling the many, precise requirements of the service. An established synagogue has an assistant, a gabbi, who takes much of the manual work upon himself. Hyper-vigilant, helpful by nature, schooled in such things, if a bit rusty, if only partially, I have assumed that role.

I like when people tell me what to do. I just haven't met many people who know what to do. But when I find someone who knows what to do, I do it. So too, there aren't that many things that I can control. So, when I find something that I can control, I go for it. There, in my role as gabbi, the servant of the congregation, control was called for, taking care of the details to bring things off smoothly, and I was following the rabbi's lead. I wasn't always behind the scenes, but mine was much the same position as the lighting crew at the theater.

It's not easy to get Jews to agree on anything. (I can hear some Jew out there disagreeing with me right now, thus proving my point.) So, whatever your level of belief or disbelief, there is something beautiful about ten men, especially ten strangers of diverse backgrounds, as is the case here in San Miguel, coming together to worship the Divine.

After 75 minutes of services, the rabbi asked me if I wanted to lead the last section of prayers. When I accepted the honor, he thanked me, not because he was tired of leading things himself, but because he needed the freedom to slip out for a moment. He had to check in with his wife, who, with some assistance, was putting the finishing touches on the post-services buffet. Jewish holidays as a whole can be summarized: "They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat."

Ye of little faith can think of such things as participatory theater. But statistics show that people who have an active relationship with a Higher Power live longer and healthier. So, if it is participatory theater, it's particularly effective participatory theater.

For me it was not a show, not a performance. During the finale of the services, my cantorial flourishes were motivated by my conviction that I was praying to God. Unlike our gentile brethren, we Jews can complain to God; kvetching, we call it. Here and there, at the remembrance of some promised salvation, the longed-for dawning of a truer, just world, my voice took on a kvetch: "Nu? Hurry up, please. What are You waiting for?"

Jacob Gross, an 80-something-year-old member of our congregation up in West Hartford, was pulled over on the highway for speeding. The policeman, handing back his license and registration, asked, "Mr Gross, where are you going in such a hurry?" Jacob replied, "Young man, when you are my age, you have to do everything in a hurry."

As I grow older, I find myself less patiently waiting for the long-awaited redemption. Service over, I was in another, more immediate rush.So after shaking a few hands, I quietly slipped down the stairs and out the door, on my way to another engagement.

My way involved riding my bicycle back the way I came, this time uphill, to Libelula Studio on Stirling Dickinson, where my friend Veronica was to participate in a Family Constellation, beginning at noon. Arriving, slightly out of breath, locking my bike up outside, I slipped into the door that had been left ajar. The leader was involved in a short preparatory announcement to the group, 12 people seated in a circle. Her assistant greeted me, stuck a tag, already emblazoned with my name onto my shirt and placed for me a stool next to Vero.

This was my first experience of a Family Constellation, not that I would be the subject. My preconceptions, few as they were, turned out to be true. The process, like synagogue that morning, and I mean this in a most respectful way, was theatrical.

Four people, one at a time, in separate sessions, were to be the subject, the protagonist, if you will. The process would address some theme with which they wanted to come to terms. The subject, designating other members of the circle to represent their mother and father, or in one case a sister who had been kidnapped and killed. It was more like a reading than an actual theatrical production. Lines were spoken, but there was little action. Those without designated roles were in supporting positions. These supporting actors were directed by the facilitator to take positions, usually hands-on, in relation to those playing roles or to the subject herself.

That much, more or less, I had expected. What was unexpected was how moving it all was.

At first, I was surprised by how fluidly the supporters joined the skit, adopting various attitudes with ease, touching the subject with a therapeutic grace. Obviously, it was not their first rodeo. Then, there was what anthropologists call Participation Mystique. The whole ensemble, unsurprisingly the subject, but also the others, became emotionally involved. The "mothers" and "fathers," being fed lines by the facilitator, in some real sense, at least generically, became the subject's mother or father. Those in supporting roles also took on the spirit of the encounter.

The most surprising thing was how affected I was, and this never having risen from my stool. After three constellations I took advantage of a break in the proceedings to leave. It is a silly comparison, but there, paused on the sidewalk after having exited the studio and the aura of the constellations, I felt as I did back in 1965, having stepped out of the theater after watching Thunderball. All of six or seven years old at the time, I felt that the world was noticeably different than it was before the show, or at least that I was. There, under the trees on Stirling Dickinson, I got why those who would not be subjects enthusiastically show up for these things.

The facilitator fed lines to those standing in for the subject's parents. One, acting the role of father, was several times told to repeat, "Lo lamento mucho" (I lament it much). This line was interspersed with variations on, "Eras la pequeña. Éramos los grandes" (You were the little one. We were the grownups). And, "De verdad, lo lamento" (Truthfully, I'm sorry).

You might say that the difference between "I'm sorry" and "In truth, I'm sorry" is only one of emphasis. But I think this distinction is the magic of Family Constellations. Blinded by past traumas, our own tortured conditioning, we perpetuate the traumas and perversions that we suffered: "visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children," to quote a biblical phrase.

Anyone made aware of this truth, of the Truth, would lament the harm they have passed along. Everyone, no matter their current benighted condition, is, in that truer world, already sorry; "In truth, although I haven't yet told you, even though you are hearing it only from this actor who is playing my part, I am sorry."

On occasion, having tried to round up other Jewish men to help make the rabbi's prayer quorum. I find my acquaintances unwilling to participate. It seems, well past adolescence, where such behavior is appropriate, they are still busy proving their freedom and independence. But we all follow rules. Call them customs, traditions or habits, if that makes you more comfortable. These regulations are often as formal and binding as those governing a sport, soccer or fútbal Americano, for example. A play also has its rules, a script and stage directions to be followed. Yes, we can improvise, but only to the point that our fellow actors can follow along. And even if it comes to you to write your own part, the fun is still in playing together.

Oddly enough, Vonnegut (but when you "Vonnegut" you don't have to say "odd"), in his Mother Night, gives the moral of the story on the first page of the novel: "Be careful what you pretend to be, because that is what you are." What you think is going on, is going on, at least for you.

The benefits to those who got together last Saturday, to pray or to constellate the forgiveness of their family trauma, are real. Speaking with God and bringing me back to a childish state of wonder, the day was particularly theatrical for me. And to you who doubt my blurring of fancy with the truth, I fall back upon the authority of the Bard himself, who famously summed up the matter, opining, "All the world's a stage" and we all are "merely players".

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