Not Alone in the Room

Having no idea how many people will attend in person, I set fifteen chairs in a semi-circle and place the text sheets on them. Although 35-40 people attended the first two sessions in January and February, I expect fewer than ten tonight.

It’s almost 7:30 pm. I am alone in the sanctuary with our events coordinator, Hailey, who is monitoring the Zoom participants on the computer as they arrive. We quickly rearrange the set-up, moving the camera in front of the table where the computer sits and placing the Shabbat candles next to the computer. 

Glancing at the screen to see who’s in the room, I invite everyone to join me in the blessing. I strike the wooden match on the side of the box and light the candles. We welcome Shabbat together.

* * * * * * * * * *

In our previous sessions, we examined the biblical text of Genesis 19:1-29 and classical Midrashim to try to understand what really happened in Sodom. Tonight we are reading a modern poem, using a protocol developed by a high school English teacher and designed to engage participants in high-level analysis and discussion. The exercise requires that we read the poem aloud three times, responding to various prompts and sharing our responses after each reading.

This is not the best lesson for a virtual class. I make adjustments to the instructions as we begin the first read-through, inviting participants to type their responses into the chat, or wave to Hailey and unmute themselves to speak. We’re forced to proceed slowly as we reckon with this technology.

I ask for a volunteer to read the poem aloud for the group a second time and instruct everyone to note a line or phrase that jumps off the page. Then, I sit back and listen. The poet writes in the voice of Lot’s wife and transports us to the moment when she, Lot and their two daughters flee Sodom. 

I’ve read this poem and taught it dozens of times, but as Rick is reading the poem aloud from his living room, I hear something new: “…every living thing was simply creeping or hopping along in the mass panic.”

I’m not the only person in the room who notices this. As we unmute and share the lines we chose, Eve also reads this phrase. 

The next step in the exercise is to complete the sentence, “Reading this poem is like _____. ” I assure everyone there is no right answer—this prompt encourages us to reflect on the experience of reading the poem—and I demonstrate one response, keeping in mind the phrase that jumped off the page at me: “Reading this poem is like watching the news.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I see the chat screen begin to scroll with responses.

The last step of the exercise is to give the poem a title. Participants type their suggested titles into the chat and I read them aloud. Then we enjoy some virtual discussion about  Wislawa Szymborska, who conjures the interior monologue and perspective of Lot’s wife to make a single verse of Torah come alive. We agree that it’s challenging and exciting to let go of our assumptions about the biblical text as we see it through a new lens.

* * * * * * * * * *

It’s time to wrap up and recite kaddish d’rabbanan. I realize that not everyone has a siddur at home; that I didn’t share a link to the prayer along with the link to the text sheets; and, in our haste to reorient the room, that I neglected to bring my copy to the table. 

Hailey grabs a sheet for me from one of the empty chairs. 

I invite everyone to unmute, to say the names of the people they are remembering during kaddish, and to join in saying the prayer with me. I stand, facing the ark. The camera, computer, and candles are visible only in my peripheral vision.

I am the only Jew in the room.

We are all in the room together. 

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