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May 28, 2006

Parallel play

At daily minyan, things tend to be quiet and "businesslike." People come to daven, and there's very little chatter going on. Christians brought up in a church environment would be shocked at how much chatter takes place at Jewish services on shabbat (Sabbath), and it's true with the orthodox more than the conservative, the conservative more than the reform. Now that I've been going to daily minyan to say kaddish over the past five months, I've become a lot more unhappy with the chatter on shabbat, especially during the kaddish. (I was always annoyed with chatter during the kaddish even before I became a mourner -- it seems so disrespectful -- and I made it a point not to talk during kaddish.)

Another thing is that when I say the kaddish, I try to say it together with the other mourners as much as possible. I grew up playing an instrument in band and orchestra, and I'm used to trying to blend in with others. A lot of mourners just say the kaddish at their own speed, and it can get seriously out of whack.

When you combine these two things -- chatter and individualism -- you can get real chaos. In fact, recently, one mourner came over to me after just such a kaddish and said, "That was chaotic!" To which I responded, "Saying kaddish is a lot like parallel play."

Those of you who have kids, or who have worked with kids, know what I mean by parallel play. Kids at a certain developmental stage will often play with the same toys, in the same room, at the same time -- but not together. Hence parallel play. Here is a clinical explanation.

Come to think of it, most davening is like parallel play, especially at daily minyan. The shaliach tzibbur, the guy leading the prayers, says the first few words of the psalm or other prayer out loud; then, everyone finishes it silently or muttering the words just audibly at his own speed, or, really, at his own degree of fast; and finally, the leader says the final line out loud. And on you go to the next prayer.

At the beginning of Oscar Wilde's play Salome, the Jews are portrayed as constantly arguing noisily:

Noise in the banqueting-hall

First Soldier What an uproar! Who are those wild beasts howling?

Second Soldier The Jews. They are always like that. They are disputing about their religion.
Which isn't too far from the actual truth. The Jewish version of this, of course, is "three Jews, four opinions." But the way to appreciate this properly is to listen to Richard Strauss's opera by the same name, which uses the Wilde play in German translation as its libretto. When you hear the "noise in the banqueting hall," it sounds a lot like davening.