GUIDE TO GOING TO SHUL
Worried about looking like a lemon (or worse) in shul? Finding the service impossible to follow? "Shul Rules" is your ten step guide to synagogue confidence.
1. If you arrive after the start don't sit down right away, but instead open a siddur (prayer book) near its beginning (remember we read right-to-left) and spend 2 or 3 minutes turning slowly through the pages while mumbling under your breath. If you recognize any of the Hebrew words, say one or two of them a little louder so those around you can hear that you know a thing or two.
2. Ideally, find a seat just behind someone who looks like they know what's going on. (You can tell this person because they are likely to be mumbling to themselves under their breath). Make sure this person is using the same prayer book as you. Keep a note of what page they are on by casually glancing over their shoulder every now and again.
3. When putting on the tallit (prayer shawl) wrap it around your head for a few seconds while mumbling under your breath.
4. Sprinkle your time in shul with more barely audible mumbles as you look intently at the pages of your siddur. Again, the odd word, phrase or line spoken accurately and a little louder than the rest will go down very well.
5. Don't jump up whenever the person in front does so. They may be stretching their legs. Instead, wait a moment until a significant proportion of the congregation are standing. In this way, even if they are all stretching their legs you won't look conspicuous.
6. See those guys near the front that are wandering around with an air of assurance? These are the shammosim (beadles). AVOID EYE CONTACT WITH THESE PEOPLE or you may find yourself being asked to do something strange like opening the doors of the Ark or, heaven forbid, say something in Hebrew out loud to everyone.
7. The easiest way to look the part is to 'shockl' (sway back and forth). I have met people who have won international shockling competitions without having a clue about where in the service they were. Advanced shocklers will even shockl when everyone else is sitting. (Of course, sometimes this may be a disguised leg-stretch).
Shockling is an entire lesson in itself but there are two basic forms. The "lateral swing" is usually seen in ultra-orthodox congregations. Here the practitioner is perfectly still from the waist down (feet together, naturally), while the top half of the body repeatedly twists at speed.
The "hammerhead" is more prevalent in mainstream orthodox shuls and, as the name suggests, the congregant looks as if they are trying to bang a nails into the floor with their heads. (I say "their" because women prefer to use this time for kibbitzing or kvelling over the way their grandson shockls.).
Shockling mainly takes place during a silent prayer known as the Amidah. This is about 10 pages during which you have no idea where everyone else is. All you do know is that there are some who would be contenders for the world speed-reading record whilst others, the truly devout, who really read every letter as though it were their last. You know when it starts because everyone takes three steps back, then three steps forward, then they bow. This is your cue to start shockling while turning the pages of your prayer book approximately every 15 seconds. The end of the silent Amidah is signaled by everyone taking three short steps back, bowing to the left, the right and the centre and then looking round to see who won.
8. Is the Rabbi speaking in English and yet you can't understand what he's going on about? If so, this is the sermon and it's your job to look alive. Paying attention to the sermon is a skill that may take many years to master rather in the way that one learns how to complete cryptic crosswords. The formula for this particular puzzle is fairly simple: The narrative of Torah portion you have just heard plus something from local or national news equals "you should go to shul more regularly" or "your home isn't kosher enough".
9. Feel free to talk to people near you at any time. Business, sports and general gossip are particularly appropriate topics of conversation. Seeking kavanah (intention to do mitzvot, good deeds) and listening to the sermon will be regarded with suspicion in most communities.
10. If you can keep your cool until the end of the service you will be rewarded. At last something that is familiar, and a chance to clear your throat and give it some as you bash out Ein Kelohaynu and Adon Olam just like you did at cheder all those years ago.
One final word of Warning. If it goes well and you feel confident enough to go back for a second week running you will be classified as a regular. This means there is a very good chance you will be asked to be the next President of the shul.