The Temple and Tony Kushner: Worshiping Art and the Art of Worship

Living in New York, it's pretty hard to find yourself without something to do. There is always someone's band playing on Ludlow Street, or a friend's one man show in alphabet city, or a comedy club desperate to pull you in off the sidewalk. There are book talks, burlesque shows, and wine tastings every night of the week. Sure, you can feel overworked, under-appreciated or disconnected here. But unoccupied? Please. Still, that great invitation, the one that knocks all other options off the table, the one you know for certain you're going to show up for, that's a bit harder to come by. And it isn't always the glamorous star studded backstage pass. Mine came from a rabbi.

When I was 15, the last place in the world I wanted to be on a Friday night was at temple. But this Friday, Oct. 8 at 5:45, I am thrilled to find myself waiting inside the doors of Central Synagogue, thanks to a personal invitation from the senior rabbi, Peter Rubinstein. The invitation came about because of a Huffington piece I had written, which the Rabbi's wife, Kerry, had read. Kerry, a delicate, pretty brunette, meets me in the entryway of the stunning, Moorish revival gem of a sanctuary. Introductions and hugs abound as she leads me down the aisle of the soaring, ornate space, telling my story to each congregant we stop to greet. It is an impressive night to make a small-time writer like me feel like a celebrity, since the true guest of honor for the evening is Tony Kushner.

Kushner is there to accept the temple's Shofar Award, a yearly acknowledgment Central Synagogue gives to someone "who's lived a life of Jewish values, whose advocacy, mission, and accomplishments are informed by the beliefs of the Jewish people." Given the subjects Kushner has torn into over his career and the groups he has lent voice to, he is an ideal recipient. Given my interests as a writer and an actor, I am an ideal observer.

At five of the hour, Rabbi Peter Rubinstein introduces himself, shakes my hand, kisses my cheek. His eyes are bright behind thin-rimmed glasses, his smile easy and warm. He tells me how glad he is to meet me and invites me to dinner after services, along with Kushner, at the apartment of the chair of the Shofar committee. When he returns as the service is about to begin, Kushner is with him.

"They were going to make me sit on the bimah," Kushner grins sheepishly. As Kerry and I nod, he sits down between us.

When I was 15, my friend Charlie Smith lent me his copy of Angels in America. It sat on my shelf until winter break, but as soon as school closed and I had a respite from homework I peeled back the cover of Millennium Approaches. Hours later I closed it, only to open Perestroika, the second part of Angels. At 15, Kushner's writing was everything I wanted to believe theatre could be -- brutal, challenging, breathtakingly beautiful. It still is.

I am not quite over the shock of sitting next to Tony Kushner when the service begins. In many ways, Central Synagogue itself feels like an exercise in beauty. The space, from the stained glass windows to the elaborately patterned walls, could give any European cathedral a run for its money. And for the first hour I feel a bit like I'm at a folk concert. The songs we sing are prayers, but in addition to the exquisite voices of the cantors leading us, there is a band and back-up singers. As far as shows go, it's a good one. Then it is time for Kushner to speak.

The Shofar Award is given to someone who is not a member of Central Synagogue. Of course, there's a praise aspect to the award, but it's also about the temple community making a connection, a new one. It's this idea that has my attention. That hope for a sense of connection, that's exactly why I'm here.

As Kushner rises, he smiles at Kerry and at me and then heads to the bimah. "Practical," he says, as he takes the award, picking the actual shofar off the award's base. Laughter slides through the congregation. Kushner then tells us that his speech is displacing the evening's Torah reading.

"I shouldn't have told him that!" grimaces Kerry, turning to me. But no one else seems too concerned. Kushner is tall, but there is something bird-like in his appearance. His hands are large and, as he gesticulates, seem a bit like wings.

This is not an easy moment in history. But Kushner preaches for patience. He explains that change doesn't happen overnight. But times of great peril are also times of great possibility.

For Kushner, growing up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the 70s were certainly a perilous time. "The South is what happens when you don't own up to your mistakes," he says. But unlike many of the Northern friends he later made at Columbia, his high school was integrated. Because of the busing system, because of the intensity of the need for change in the South, Kushner experienced what happens when the world shifts.

When I get scared -- for myself, for the state of the world -- I go to the theatre, I go to a museum, I turn up Bach's cello suites on my tiny computer speakers. I seek out art in any way that I know how. After the economy crashed and work became more difficult, I spent nearly every Friday night at MoMA because it was a free reminder of a world that is larger than myself, my concerns, this moment in history. In Chagall's villages, Klimt's women and Monet's water lilies lie proof that there is always more that can be seen and understood no matter what slice of the world you are looking at. The power of art, of feeling a great mind at work, should never cease to be arresting. When I was 15, my encounter with Kushner's writing was not a reminder of this power, it was a first understanding. I learned that there can be redemption in confronting pain, that choosing to look without flinching means the possibility for great change. To meet him for the first time in an actual temple was a strange turn of events, to say the least.

To close, Kushner reads a little-known scene from Angels. "The play is very long and I tell directors they can cut this scene, and usually they do." The first New York revival of the play -- for which Kushner skipped out on a preview to be at Central Synagogue -- chose to cut it as well. The punch line of the scene rests on one of the main characters, Louis, not visiting his grandmother. But the heart of the scene is its second to last line: "You should struggle with the Almighty, it's the Jewish way."

Religion can be a dirty word in our current culture. Extremists from al-Qaeda to the GOP's evangelical contingent dominate our headlines. "God" is too frequently invoked as a justification for holding on to societal ills like marriage inequality and Don't Ask Don't Tell, or opposition to the Park51 community center. According to a recent article in the National Post, the self-identification of "spiritual, not religious" leapt from 9 percent to 14 percent among American adults between '98 and '08. In Rabbi Rubinstein's own Rosh Hashana sermon he explained that "fewer than a third of American Jews presently belong to synagogues." He added that my generation is "the least overtly religious American generation in modern times." This was the sermon I watched on my computer alone in my bedroom. Where does religion fit into the life of someone like me? With the plethora of New York City museums, my discount theatre tickets and even my iPod as sources of soul food, without religion what is lost?

When I was 15, my mother used to talk to me about the importance of the Jewish community. Back in high school I didn't really want to hear it. Community was something obligated or mundane -- community service, community center, the Jewish community. But now I am all grown up and I live in New York. New York is the antithesis of a small town, or perhaps it is an infinite number of small towns crammed into a few square miles. Every day we walk past thousands of people just going about our regular routines, yet most of them remain opaque. So often here we find ourselves on the verge of a connection. Nearly as often the edges melt on contact, the pieces slide apart.

But not always.

After the service, at dinner in a gorgeous upper East side apartment, I fall into conversation with Michelle Klausner, who was introduced to her husband by Rabbi Rubinstein. Michelle tells me the story of how she found Central Synagogue at a time in her life when she was lost, unhappy in her first marriage. She began by coming to services, every Friday night and every Saturday morning for a year. Eventually she became an adult Bat Mitzvah, an endeavor involving years of study and commitment. When she first walked through the doors, she hadn't known a soul.

When Michelle catches me again later in the evening, she has an ulterior motive. She pulls me to the center of a group of men and women and, after a quick round of introductions, the talk turns to eligible members of the next generation.

"Lily, you have to meet my son, he's 29," says one woman in a gray blazer.

"My son is 27 and he's very tall," says another

"My son is 30 but he lives in LA. It's too complicated," sighs a man with dark gray hair.

Attributes are listed, Ivy Leagues enumerated, accomplishments recounted.

"Listen," says one women pulling me aside, "you can have your pick of any of them. Just see which one you like, they're all great guys."

"Why are we telling this young lady all of this information?" asks one of the men.

"Because this is what we do!" exclaims Michelle.

* * *

There are, of course, many differences between artistic and religious institutions. But for me, one of the main disparities is the focus on community: In artistic enterprises, connections are the happy by-product; in religious endeavors, they are often the goal. Do I expect to fall in love with one of those single, eligible sons? Oy, that might make my mother happy...

But on the Monday morning following the services, I get another email from Kerry. She invites me to come back to services anytime I like. She also tells me to let her know when I am coming. That way we can sit together again. It's an invitation I'll be taking her up on.