The Steampunk Coffee… Synagogue

Editor’s Note: This is the blog we had scheduled to run today: a lovely piece about any gathering place becoming a sacred space because of the people there. As we read the news from Charleston this morning, we were shocked and saddened. We mourn the tragic loss of life, the violent deaths of men and women who had gathered in their sacred space to learn and pray together. This violation is painful, unjust, and heartbreakingly wrong. We are still posting this piece, along with our prayers for peace, and our hope that all places, and all people, will be safe to gather and share in fellowship.

I didn’t walk into Steampunk Coffee in Natchez, Mississippi, expecting to daven. Really, I was just looking for a cup of coffee and maybe some company … but somehow, that little coffee shop in Natchez became a synagogue, if only for a little while.

Natchez is a Deep South river city — it’s famous for its antebellum houses, its picturesque river views, its annual pilgrimage festival …  and it’s also home to about 12 Jews.

Small as the community is, I can reliably count on running into at least one of Natchez’s Jewish residents whenever I visit Steampunk Coffee. On a recent visit to Natchez, I was explaining this to Megan, my girlfriend (who also happens to be a soon-to-be-ordained-rabbi). We needed a caffeine fix, and I knew there was a chance we might also run into some of the local synagogue’s congregants when we visited the coffeehouse.

Unfortunately, as soon as I opened the door it was apparent we were eight short of a minyan — Megan and I were the only customers at Steampunk, Jewish or otherwise. Resigned to solitude, we sat at the bar and started a conversation with our barista, Robert. Megan caught sight of a guitar propped alongside the makeshift fireplace. Robert explained he kept it for customers’ use, asked if she wanted to play it, and then asked if she knew how. (Personally, I’d probably reverse the order of those questions. Fortunately for all of us, Megan does know how.)

Just as she was beginning to play, the door opened and I finally saw a familiar face: Ann. A significant percentage of the Jews of Natchez were now at Steampunk Coffee.

Megan began to play. The chords echoed throughout the small shop and Ann beamed as she recognized the music from her synagogue in New Orleans. Soon Robert’s curiosity got the better of him and he asked if there were words to the song. Megan began to sing Modeh Ani and I couldn’t help but join in. Pretty soon we were moving on to Elohai N’shama, as we made our way through the morning liturgy.

As far as I know, it was the Natchez community’s first shacharit service in years, and it was beautiful. The spirit that morning more than made up for the gaps in the liturgy, small number of worshippers, and lack of prayer books.

After about 20 minutes, our service came to a close. Ann had to head out for a trip to Colorado. Megan and I had to hit the road to Jackson. Just as quickly as it had begun, our service was over. Reluctantly, Megan put down the guitar, we said goodbye to Robert, and walked out the door.

We spent a good portion of the drive home talking about what had just happened. As much as it was surreal and even a bit absurd, it was also beautiful, and so deeply Jewish. Jews congregate in all sorts of places. In fact the word synagogue literally means gathering place — and isn’t that what coffeehouse means, too?

It’s worth keeping in mind if you ever find yourself looking for Jewish life on the road. By all means stop by the official synagogue. But also don’t be surprised if you find yourself in a small coffee shop and suddenly hear Sim Shalom, or perhaps even a sermon. Grab a cup and join in.

It will undoubtedly be beautiful.

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