Tourist in a Cathedral


At Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica, I couldn’t help but compare my shul from childhood.

by Lois Greene Stone

I walked into Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica and was awed by gold-tipped carvings, statues, a magnificent altar. I sat in a pew for a few minutes, trying to take in the splendor of such a structure. I imagined a Hollywood-type wedding where guests rose as a bride glided down the aisle, rose petals at her feet, and Prince Charming touching her arm as both kneeled in the surroundings of vaulted ceiling and glamour. Adding to the magic, I mused about the massive organ sounding out the traditional wedding march, and a Mass in Latin with incense waving and priestly robes on clergy, and echoes bouncing from gilded walls.

As a little girl, I saw my neighbor in her pretty Communion outfit ready to go to her Catholic church. I wondered why I couldn’t have such a bridal dress and headpiece, or a wafer put in my mouth, or even walk into a big, big church. Definitely, I believed, people, on bent knees asking to be blessed, have to feel a great presence of the Almighty in huge buildings with stained glass windows. My synagogue was, at first, just a room above a shoe-repair shop. Later on, a house on Northern Boulevard in Queens County, New York, was converted into a shul with classrooms from the original bedrooms. A velvet drape with gold, embroidered letters, reading “In memory of _________,” was the equivalent of an altar cover. It certainly looked neither spiritual nor splendid like a church’s altar.

My mind visualized parts of my past as I sat on a pew toward the rear of the Notre-Dame Basilica. Hmm. Could I whisper my private thoughts amid these distractions of art and architecture? Might I constantly stare at polished wood pews and glittering gold decoration rather than a prayer book? Could I twirl a grager in here, or march around doing dancing movements during Simchat Torah? This basilica was beautiful; my little shul, with the center of attention being the Torah scrolls adorned with silver breastplates, was also beautiful. I didn’t realize this growing up. I assumed that such golden trappings as were found in grand cathedrals were what tapped into religious souls, whatever a soul was, and someone as powerful as the maker of the entire universe would prefer a palace to a converted house; it still looked like a house, no matter what the mailing address label said.

For the girls’ confirmation, we 13-year-olds put on white robes like the ones worn for high school graduations. The congregation was seated in the chapel—what had been a master bedroom—and we climbed the fire escape to make our special entrance to the bimah. The outside staircase wasn’t easy to navigate in the ankle length robe with its flowing sleeves, but I pretended to cope well. What would a girls’ confirmation be like in Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica? A fairy tale, perhaps? Would I have remembered little details of my religious rite of passage, and the small leather Bible given to me by the Ladies’ Guild that continues to hold family birth/death dates, had I been in a majestic building like this?

People near me were speaking French; I didn’t understand them. I was not allowed to learn Hebrew as a girl, and, hearing the foreign language, I smiled, thinking that I wouldn’t have understood the very same persons had they been speaking Israel’s official language.

The church was a gorgeous art gallery and museum, and a complete escape from the real world, but, for me, it didn’t allow reverence. Maybe, as a little girl, decades ago, I would have felt the same had I walked into the house of worship my neighbor attended; I never considered that before, and it seemed to surprise me. My maternal grandmother scolded me once when I stubbornly refused to cross a street so as to avoid walking in front of a Reform synagogue. And, at about age ten, I so wanted to peek into the one near Central Park in New York City, but didn’t, as I sensed my grandmother’s presence and heard, in my mind, her scolding words. Yet, in a Montreal tourist attraction, as an adult, I still felt my identity. Why did my mother’s mama think I’d change my religion at age ten if I ambled by a non-Orthodox place?

Childhood instruction, services, and my marriage took place in that house converted into a synagogue, and I was connected to simple yahrzeit plaques and an eternal light. Sitting in that space in Montreal, I first realized my roots were significant. My father’s name was etched on a bronze rectangle, and my mother had paid for the space next to it to be saved for the ‘whenever’ she died, and her name would be added to the yahrzeit wall. After my father’s burial, in his memory, my family bought a new eternal light for the shul. It was there above my canopy of flowers as I wed. I didn’t care that this ceremony, elegant meal, and gentle violin music were taking place in a large basement room that was both sanctuary and ordinary meeting place. My religious wedding was also meant to embrace my childhood learning, to embody my dad’s presence as I witnessed my widow-mother’s courage and courtesy with all the guests, and to not be a ‘show.’ It was a union, not an event. My roots, an important part of me. It seemed so strange to take time to emotionally understand the adult ‘me’ just by sitting in a church in a foreign country.

A Moorish-Gothic structure on Plum Street in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, straddled church and shul in its architecture; my oldest grandson became bar mitzvah there. Sitting in a pew with familiar books that read from right to left, listening to chants in a language that I still couldn’t read/write/speak, I was not a tourist, but, rather, was there, with family, to participate in and witness his religious rite of passage. My deceased maternal grandmother never really understood that Orthodox/Conservative/Reform are just different branches of the same tree. Even in this structure, which didn’t conform to any religious building I’d ever been in, I was connected to tangible yahrzeit plaques and a visible eternal light. Sometimes identity is quite simple, and a different time or place is merely a reminder.

About the Author

Lois Greene Stone
Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Her poetry and personal essays have been included in hardcover and paperback book anthologies. Collections of her personal items, photos, and memorabilia can be found in major museums, including 12 different divisions of the Smithsonian.

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