Reason rules

Temple Emanu-El

Rabbi Jacob Benzaquen offers interpretations of how historic events relate to modern Jews.

Rabbi Jacob Benzaquen offers interpretations of how historic events relate to modern Jews.

Photo By David Robert

Temple Emanu-El, 1031 Manzanita Lane, 825-5600, has Shabbat evening services Friday 6 p.m., Shabbat morning services Saturday 9:30 am, and a Thursday traditional minyan at 7 a.m. More information can be found at

Hunter and I had to get up early for the Saturday service at Temple Emanu-El, Reno’s conservative Jewish synagogue. The service began at 9:30 a.m.

While we were in the foyer, a young man, Charles, 8, took us under his wing. He introduced us to some of the items for sale behind the glass— a lot of which were associated with Hanukkah. There were dreidels (the little four-sided top used in a game with gold-foil-covered chocolate coins). There were also wine goblets, menorahs—too many things to note.

He showed us a book with Hebrew letters, and we compared it to an ancient Torah scroll on the wall. He showed us how the little squiggles below a letter make a vowel—there are none of the little squiggles (or punctuation or inflection) in the Torah.

We donned our yarmulkes (the little skullcap) and entered the sanctuary. At the front of the room, there was a representation of Moses’ stone tablets with the 10 Commandments and the small light above the ark (the room that holds the scrolls of the Torah). The wooden doors of the ark were fronted with the Star of David. On either side of the ark are the American flag and the Israeli flag. On either side of them, ornate, tall-backed chairs, then cupboards and more, less ornate chairs. Above and to either side of the ark were silver representations of menorahs. Toward the front of the dais were two lecterns and a smaller table with two wine goblets. In the very front was a large table from which the Torah would be read. The furniture was generally naturally stained wood.

The room held about 150 wooden chairs with padded seats and backs. At the beginning of the service there were 10 people in the synagogue. By the end, there were about 35.

Many prayers were said, with the Cantor Sam Silverberg leading the congregants as Rabbi Jacob Benzaquen said the prayers behind and toward the Torah. About the only English words were when page numbers were called, but we were able to follow the translations in the book.

The readings, which followed the Torah’s procession around the room, with people touching the scroll with their prayer books or shawls, were from Genesis, told the story of the twins Jacob and Esau. This is the bit where Esau traded his birthright for a bowl of soup. A variety of men and women, seven or so, assisted the rabbi with the scroll, with the rabbi reading most, but others assisting and then rotating out. At times he would stop to explain what he was going to read and how it related to modern times and the Jewish faith. There was no sermon per se.

The penultimate moment when Rebekah and Jacob conspired to fool Isaac into also bestowing his blessing upon Jacob instead of Esau, the rabbi said was paradigmatic of Jewish history and life.

Your voice sounds like Jacob, but [your hand] feels like Esau, he said, paraphrasing Isaac. He said the passage symbolizes a fundamental spiritual reality: In times when the voice of truth and learning is stronger, the voice of Esau (physical, warlike strength) is quieter. But when Esau’s voice is loud, it’s hard to hear the voice of reason.

The service continued with a reading from 1 Samuel 20:18-42, which was followed by more prayers of specific sorts (like for parents who’ve passed on) and then the young people came onto the dais to the ark for a final prayer. The service ended about 12:15 p.m.

This is one of those services where I could use a lot more room to describe everything that went on. It’s the kind of place that’s so rich in nuance that the inquisitive may want to experience it for themselves. I do know that if you call ahead, someone will be willing to show you the ropes.