Sunday, August 31, 2014

Why Farbrengens Belong on the Couch

My fondest moments during seminary took place in what my friends and I termed the “couch room.”

Our cherished space was a musty little corner on the top floor of the school building. Adorned with two couches and a chair wide enough for two, the room begged us to abandon our beds late at night and relish in the air of comfort and camaraderie provided by that haven-like space. We would pile onto the weathered blue cushions and sink beneath a heap of blankets, munching on stale dinner leftovers and that terrible Israeli chocolate spread. The room was a cold-blooded entity: Freezing in the winter and sweltering in the spring. It absorbed the temperature of its visitors, wholeheartedly swallowing our joyful laughter and succumbing to corrosion at the exchange of sharp words and unexpected emotional outpours.

We most often found ourselves migrating to the couch room on Thursday nights, after our weekly public farbrengen had quieted. Those farbrengens were held in the main classroom on the first floor. We’d gather around the table on wobbly plastic chairs as we anticipated our special guest. A rabbi would usually lead the gathering as a guest speaker, awakening our minds with riveting, impassioned storytelling or by publicly reflecting on and clarifying a little-understood concept. By the end, our minds buzzed with excited comprehension of new ideas in Jewish mysticism, our hearts uplifted by chassidic tunes and the giddy aftertaste of sweet wine.

After the rabbi concluded his presentation, we’d ascend to our respective dorm rooms to strip ourselves of stiff pleated skirts in exchange for sweatshirts and slippers. Sleep was out of the question, for a storm of new ideas had just jolted us awake, beckoning us to engage with them.

When you’re hit with the initial primitive spark of an epiphany, you don’t automatically process it right away. It just kind of hangs over your head and follows you everywhere like a homeless puppy pining for attention, until you finally stretch out your hands and give it a comfortable home in your thought, speech, and action. You have to develop those epiphanies and endow them with a life and a voice. Without us to absorb those realizations into our lives, they’ll ascend beyond the world of action into a state of limbo, losing their potency and their relevance until some other fiery farbrengener seizes them again and releases them back into our world.

That’s why a farbrengen should begin at a table and end on a couch. The couch is where general concepts turn personal, intellectual ideas solidify into emotional convictions, and abstractions become applicable. It's where we learn how to form self-reflective responses to our daily experiences as Jews, housing a spiritual consciousness not restricted to a shul or a classroom. We need a comfort zone where we can explore our spirituality honestly.  The farbrengens in the couch room taught me to relate to G-d with vulnerability, and to do so actively rather than just be a passive recipient of a concept. They taught me what it means to not only commune with ideas, but to commune with my fellow in a raw, genuine way. 

The world “farbrengen” literally means “passing time.” It’s meant to be an exploration of reality in real-time, not isolated as a fancy community function that removes us from our natural way of being. A formal community gathering is only the beginning- not an event in and of itself, but rather an invitation to explore new conceptual frontiers on our own terms, on our own time, in our own space....and on our own couch. 

1 comment:

  1. Never a truer word -- "That’s why a farbrengen should begin at a table and end on a couch." Love every second of this read.It takes me back to that special place.