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Why There Was No Gabbai At The Regency Theater
(Jewish Action, Fall 1994)

Manhattan's Upper West Side boasts many wonderful houses of worship. Back in 1979, I belonged to two of them. One was Lincoln Square Synagogue - where I worshiped God. The other (God forgive me) was the now-defunct Regency Theater, specializing in film classics - where I worshiped Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart and, of course, Woody Allen (remember: this was 1979).

These two places had a lot in common. They both played to packed houses; it was practically impossible to get a seat in either hall, although your chances were slightly better at the Regency. And, like Lincoln Square, the movie house even had a "beginners' minyan" of sorts - like the time I brought ten of my uninitiated friends there to see Casablanca for the first time.

But there the similarities end. Over the years, I noticed one striking difference between these two houses of worship: At the Regency, you never saw a gabbai.

Apparently, Regency-goers rarely needed a gabbai or usher to escort them to their seats. Perhaps that's because they always came on time, if not early, to "services." What's more, if anyone had the audacity to talk - or even whisper - during the Regency's services, everyone around the culprit became, in effect, a gabbai.

Regency-goers were so devout that they would help you to do teshuva (repent) at the drop of a popcorn box. Occasionally, I needed to whisper a bit of narrative to my husband Michael, who is blind. I did so with trepidation, knowing that someone more religious than I would tap me on the shoulder and remind me that I was to refrain from personal conversations during services. And interestingly, I and anyone else confronted with this transgression meekly submitted to the reprimand, apologizing for our effrontery, our evil inclination.

And it was understood: These were the house rules. If you broke them, you'd better believe the peer pressure could get pretty intense! If you were an unrepentant sinner, they practically ran you out of the theater.

Now at the various synagogues I've come to know since 1979, you'll find a different scenario altogether. As a rule, if you ask people near you to stop talking, explaining that their conversation is interfering with your experience of the service, you do so at your own risk. Whereas the Regency perpetrator inevitably would apologize for his or her transgression, the synagogue culprit may be puzzled if not incensed at having been confronted.

I guess there isn't much peer pressure at my shul(synagogue). Perhaps those disturbed by the talking don't feel they have a right - as they do at a movie theater - to ask those around them to follow the house rules. And that's why my shul has a gabbai and the Regency didn't.

Well, I think the time has come for life to imitate art. Here is a modest proposal:

Why don't we divest the gabbai of his role as keeper of synagogue silence and play that role ourselves, just as we would during our favorite movie? For the "frummies" (pious ones) at the Regency, silence was deemed a prerequisite, a matter of life and death. And those buffs usually knew the film's outcome! Couldn't we set the same standard at our houses of worship, where our prayers really are a matter of life and death - and where we are not privileged to know their outcome?

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