The Profane Cafe
A true story (uncut version)
by Steve Schalchlin
I looked over at the little empty cafe from a baby grand piano, which was positioned between two massive marble pillars in the expansive, historical lobby of the DC Jewish Community Center, itself proudly located within viewing distance of the White House on 16th street in Washington DC.
It was the night before Rosh Hashannah.
The bare set of tables and chairs, kitchen door was sealed shut, seemed odd and out of place because all the other rooms of the busy community center with its gym, meeting rooms, school rooms, library and theater were usually teeming with life. But this small area had a sign posted in front that said CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE, followed by a list of nice restaurants over on 17th.
Jim Brochu and I had been here, at Theater J, located upstairs, for a couple of weeks with the run of his play, "Zero Hour," about the art, career, life and blacklisting of Zero Mostel, and we passed by the unplayed piano every day. Out here in this public space. Just waiting to be played. But, no. I was terrified of making a scene and being told to stop.
But, today, no one was around except Monty, an open-hearted woman watching over the door, usually buzzing people in. But it was quiet. So, heart thumping in my chest, I sat down and...god bless every one involved, but the shiny Steinway was in tune. Thank you.
The harmonies of strings and wood enriched the air as they reverberated off the tall, storied walls of the lobby/reception area/cafe; complex, yet clear and clean. Like adding oxygen to confined space.
I felt like a VW driver who suddenly gets to drive a Mazzarati. A well tuned piano in a room with perfect acoustics, with just enough reverb, is a space made in heaven. I decided right then and there that someday I would sing a concert in this place.
But, still, something felt wrong when I again looked over at the cafe behind me and off to the right. CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.
I saw barren wooden furniture -- black sticks like charred empty tree branches -- silhouetted by stark light from behind.
I scanned toward the door until I saw the pillars of the wall opposite mine. There, before me, as if suspended from the ceiling, were long rows of golden nameplates -- brass -- honoring the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and families who sacrificed to make sure this community center would always stand proudly in our nation's capital.
I couldn't see Monty because there was a marble pillar between us. Delia, who works for Theater J, passed through and stopped, briefly, but she was setting up a play reading in the library adjoining.
So, essentially, I was just singing to myself. The sound that the room brought to the piano was so beautiful, I got caught up in the moment. Not just in the self-satisfaction one has of hearing one's own voice actually sounding good, like in a perfect shower stall, but awed by the history and the tradition of the community that built this monument to its own survival and culture.
I thought to myself, "This is a sacred space."
At the conclusion of the song, I peeked around the pillar and then walked over to Monty; she had tears in her eyes.
She said, "You made me cry. You're good. But you know you're good, don't you?"
I hate that question. No, I think I suck, but yes, I've written and played music my whole life and I can fake it with the best of them.
I asked her about the empty cafe and she said it had been shut down for breaking a religious food law.
Later, I read about it online. It seems some kitchen worker, on a busy night, had "sneaked in" some sirloins from Safeway during a dinner rush, and the kosher officer, on duty that night, had seen it and reported it to the Board of Rabbis, and now the word was that it might be shut down forever.
My initial Gentile/Baptist instinct was to pronounce the whole thing "stupid," of course. Luckily, I didn't say it out loud. What hubris! To stand in judgment of the religious authorities and their traditions.
It wasn't my place to judge them. After all, this is not my place and not my community. I'm an outsider. Right?
Was that really the point of the Holocaust Museum and the DC Jewish Community Center? To create "outsiders?" Or is my outsider status all in my head? Funny, but seeing these things had opposite effect on me. These things pulled me in.
As the run of "Zero Hour" progressed, I attended almost every public talk-back and "town hall meeting" run by Ari Roth, the artistic director of Theater J. And, yeah, since I'm not Jewish, I didn't always relate to specifics, but what I did hear were lively discussions over "identity," and what it means to be Jewish, and to be human.
What startled me was the breadth and scope of the community. A devoutly religious Jew next to a committed atheist, but still finding common ground. But in what? Humor? Theater? Not politics.
Finally, Ari asked, "What is Jewish humor? What is Jewish thought? What are Jewish values?"
Growing up in the bubble of conservative Christianity, I can tell you that my knowledge of what was "Jewish" and what wasn't, was at zero. When someone said, on a TV show that they were Jewish, it made no more of an impression to me than if they said they were left-handed. My dad's left handed.
But, sitting in that theater, listening to the town hall meeting, I felt completely included.
Ari, again asking questions, "Do you have to be Jewish to understand and appreciate Jewish values?"
After the town hall, food was served in the hallway. And that's when everyone really came alive. Another "ping" moment. Back in Texas, it was "dinner on the ground." The great equalizer is the Buffet Run, to make sure you get the best fried chicken and not get stuck with the jello with the stuff in it!
I was sitting again at the piano, after seeing Monty's tears, and began playing again. A song about a mom who's just sent her son back to Iraq.
I looked back over at the profane cafe and thought, "Here we are at the most sacred moment of the year for Jewish people, and those tables are not filled with families breaking bread." The golden nameplates across the lobby were now catching the sun but there would be no happy faces reflected in them.
Immediately, I flashed back to the day before, to a room in the Holocaust museum. It had been my first time to see it, so the sorrowful ache of the experience still lingered in my bones. A room full of names. No, photographs.
They stretched from the floor to the ceiling. Hundreds of photographs of a town that was massacred. These pictures and names were all that were left.
But in this room, the names were put there in support. Perhaps, even in defiance. "Yes, I am a Jew! Yes! This is my community center! Yes, this is for my people! This is who I am!"
I felt sad and the whole thing felt unjust.
Rules or no rules, the idea that we could be in the middle of Rosh Hashannah and the tables stand silent. And the newspaper had said it might be permanent!
And it all just seemed so sad. Is it really a principle of Judaism that there can be no redemption? Not even for a set of inanimate objects?
I am not, at this stage of my life, much of an iconoclast, though I was when I was younger. In fact, I feel it's mandatory to be skeptical of institutions when you are young. Everything that becomes self-important is much more tolerable when you know you can throw a spit ball at it.
But, and this is going to be the most ridiculous part, I actually felt insulted. For my music. I felt nothing but sacred beauty in here, and now someone was telling me that I was wrong. I should have been hearing, what? Shame and disgust?
Did my songs became profane when they entered the airspace of the unkosher cafe? The profane cafe?
I went back to the piano and played out loud. I sang out loud.
I wondered if whatever was wrong here could be made right again and whether music...
Without hesitation, I began the opening, tender piano intro of "Rescue." I sang it as a love song to the DC Jewish Community Center and to Theater J.
When I rescued you
You rescued me
You are the gift I never thought I would see
And though it seems backwards
That's the way it should be
When I rescued you
You rescued me
The song washed through the room, quietly and gushed over the profane cafe. The piano, the voice -- filled the air, the floor, the ceiling, immersing everything in vibrations of healing and peace.
As I sang the last few words, pulling back into the carport, I can safely report that the space was restored to its full and proper sacred state.
Music can do this, you know. I swear. It's one of the rules of the universe.
Now, I realize the board of governing rabbis must make it official, but surely that's just a formality.
So, there. An entreaty and a small gift of redemptive music from an outsider who loves you.
Your cafe is not unclean. I promise. Not here. And not now.
And since this is DC, I can see the headline now:
Wayward Baptist refugee inadvertently consecrates the Jewish Community Center in Washington DC.
Now, there's a musical waiting to happen.
Besides, it's a mitzvah! L'Shana Tovah.