The 100 Yiddish Words Everyone Should Know: Shul

Those of you read this blog might have noticed that I am a secular Jew. I haven't completely abandoned ritual Jewish practices, but I definitely have secularized them. For example, I celebrate Passover, but in my own way, with something I call a minimalist seder: I get drunk on a bottle of wine and watch "The Ten Commandments." It's basically the same, but my four question tend to be along the lines of "What was Anne Baxter thinking?", which I think is the question the wicked child asks. All my questions probably are.

So there is not going to be a lot of religious Yiddish in this collection of 100 words. But, secular though I may be, I love the word "shul." I don't go in one very often, and, when I do, I'm usually more interested in what the caterer is up to than the rabbi, but "shul" is nonetheless my word of choice.

"Shul," you see, means "synagogue." And for those of you who are very new to the subject of Judaism, "synagogue" is from a Greek word meaning "assembly." And for those of you who are very, very new, and are temped to ask if synagogues are Jewish churches, no they are not.

But for the sake of continuing this discussion, yes. Synagogues are Jewish churches.

Synagogue has a stately sound to it, and the movement I grew up in, Reform, went even statelier, calling their houses of worship "temples." And many synagogues are stately, looking like somebody accidentally got some Masonic Temple designs in their Classical Revival blueprints.

That's the sort of place I went: Temple Israel in Minneapolis, which boasts a sanctuary so large that local symphonies will sometimes use it as a performance venue. There is a hidden choral balcony where heavenly voices emerge, chanting sublime classical Hebrew melodies over an unworldly pipe organ.

It's constructed to engender a sense of awe that is occasionally undermined by youth rabbis whipping out guitars and playing camp songs, but, still, the magnificence is genuine. It is a place that separates the sacred from the profane -- the words above the ark that contains the Holy Torah scrolls reads "know before whom you stand," and you can't help but know. The sanctuary dwarfs you, and everybody, and we are specks in God's eye.

I feel a little badly about calling such a place a shul, which is small and human and homely (in the Yiddish sense of the word, haimish, which means folksy and warm and home-like.) But I just like the word shul more, mostly because it is a Jewish word, rather than a Greek word, as synagogue is, or a Latin word, as temple is, and I like to use Jewish words for Jewish things.

Although, in fairness, shul is Latin -- it derives from schola, which meant "school," among other things. And it's also Greek, as Latin borrowed it from the Greek word σχολή, which also meant "school," among other things. But we Jews adopted it very early on, and, as far as I can tell, we're the ones who made it mean "place of worship," as all the other derivatives, including the English one, mean "school."

By the way, shul also means school, which it often doubled as, and still does. I had classes in the sanctuary at Temple Israel sometimes with my then Rabbi, a genial fellow who looked like Vladimir Lenin and would sometimes just completely lose his temper with our class and turn beet red, which certainly detracted from the sanctity of the place. Know before whom you stand? A Communist tomato, that's who.

But this is another thing I like about the word shul. Sure, education is supposed to be an elevated undertaking, but it is, in fact, a tough, irritating gig. Kids are pretty wretched. I don't blame them -- I was pretty wretched. I couldn't help myself, I was a teenager, and teenagers are basically maniacs.

Trying to get teenage Jews to shut up, sit down, stop playing grabass, and learn how many commandments there are, well, if that's a holy act, it's one with both hands in the profane. And at these times a more homely word seems right for the school-slash-synagogue where this happens.

There are also synagogues that actually are little places. European synagogues could be little wooden shacks. I went to a synagogue once in Bangkok that was a room in a hotel. A small, homely word seems right for a small, homely place. Maybe we humans should know before whom we stand when we pray, but, if there is a God, he should know who stands before Him -- small people, with small lives and small concerns, setting some time aside in their small, homely lives for something sacred. And he should see them in a place that frames their lives. A place that is likewise small and homely.

Maybe man goes to Temple, where can be elevated. But God, if He exists? God goes to shul.

Some examples of the use of the word shul:

The Tarnished Image, Louis M. Sandman: "The Jew, who is kind to his fellow man but does not come to shul, is a better Jew than the one who comes to shul every day, but is unkind to his fellow man and oppresses him."

Tevye the Dairyman: And, Motl the Cantor's Son, Sholem Aleichem: "During our first week here, my mother began asking around about a shul where she could pray on Shabbes. In New York, thank God, there is a shul on almost every street."

The Alster Files: The Truth as I See it, Joseph Alster: "Every morning before sunrise, the old man slowly and deliberately gets out of bed to do what he has been doing since the days of his youth — to prepare to go to his house of prayer, the shul.  "