Let me be clear. Before anyone who is observant or worshipful or orthodox takes offense. I am not saying religion stinks or that religion sucks or that religion is something to be mocked, derided or pooh-poohed. Just the opposite. I am a fan of religion. I am a member and practitioner of a religion (Judaism), and I firmly believe that many, many, many great things have been done and will continue to be done by people who are “religious.”
No, I’m saying something something completely different. I’m saying religion “smells.” Literally. It has an odor. Well, not religion itself. But its houses of worship and its practitioners do.
You know I’m right. Admit it. I know you’ve been on that tour of the great cities of Europe, and you’ve gone into this cathedral or that — one that was built in 1060 A.D. — when indoor plumbing consisted of throwing a bucket of water on a turd that someone left on the steps. When e-mail meant sending a giant half-wit named Egon the Execrable to the next town with a message that said, “stop burning your turds when the wind is blowing in our direction.” When iChat meant a Court Jester named Igor chattering away incessantly.
Now, tell me that you didn’t walk into this fabulous house of worship — the Cathedral of Flying Buttresses — and think, “Jesus, what is that smell? It smells like the basement of a fraternity house after an all-night toga party.”
Or take a more modern example. Walk into any large church or synagogue in Manhattan, one that was built in the earlier part of the 20th Century. I guarantee you that it smells exactly like your grandmother’s house used to — faintly of mold, dust, mildew and old lady.
But, it’s not just the buildings. It’s the people that populate these buildings. They smell too. In fact, they smell worse.
Today, was was Rosh Hashana – the first day of the Hebrew year of 5772 (Author’s Note: For those who aren’t Jewish, the number of years in the Hebrew calendar — 5772 — mark the number of years since Creation . . . of the first Kosher Deli and the first Egg Cream. For more on this, please see Genesis 20:12, “And, God said, ‘let there be Coney Island with many great culinary delights that cause bloating and arterial blockage.’”).
As I say, today was Rosh Hashana. And, my wife and I were very excited to attend synagogue this year, as it was going to be our first Jewish holiday celebration with our newborn son, Ivan, who is just 5 weeks old. Also, coming with us were Ivan’s grandparents and Ivan’s aunt. So, it was all set to be a wonderful family occasion.
And, it was . . . until. Until somehow we wound up standing next to a woman with b.o. Now, in her defense, she was a perfectly delightful woman. She smiled at us. She was polite. She congratulated us on the birth of our new son. And, she reeked. Like a 300-pound man named “Tiny” who works sanitation on a loading dock and showers only every other Thursday.
Now, it’d be one thing if it had been Yom Kippur, which is the Day of Atonement. For on that day, Jewish people atone for sins they’ve committed during the past year. And, frankly, I can think of no better way to atone than forcing yourself to smell someone who smells really, really bad.
But it wasn’t Yom Kippur. It was Rosh Hashana. The Jewish New Year. A festive day of celebration. We were supposed to be joyous and happy. And, we tried. But, it’s a little hard to be happy when you’re holding your breath.
Then, another congregant came up to us to wish us L’Shana Tovah (which is Hebrew for “Happy New Year! I hope this year’s brisket isn’t as tough as last year’s.”). Like the woman with the b.o., he couldn’t have been friendlier, more pleasant, nicer. But no sooner did this man open his mouth then an odor wafted out from someplace that I can only imagine is deep within his bowels. It was an odor so foul, so acrid, so acidic, that my only guess is that in a past life he was a dragon who liked liver and onions and who drank lots of coffee. His breath was so bad I was afraid for a second that it would stunt my son’s growth.
Now, lest anyone think that I am beating up on my own people, let me say that I’ve been to churches for various religious ceremonies (particularly friends’ weddings). And, I can report that the Jewish people – a people who have achieved and accomplished much – have not cornered the market on smelly congregants. At one wedding in particular, I was in a Catholic Church seated next to one of my friend’s great aunts. This lady, like the above-mentioned Jewish congregants, couldn’t have been sweeter. She was an Irish lady with a charming accent, a lovely disposition, and a welcoming, all-embracing manner. She made me feel so at home, so much a part of the festivities and her family. There was just one problem. From her smell, it seemed that no one had bothered to tell her that she had died two weeks prior to the wedding. Yes, that’s right. She smelled like death. And, I don’t mean in the metaphorical sense, like she was old. I mean she smelled like when they had come to pick up her up and give her a ride to the church, they had to pry open her coffin with a tire-iron, and they were in such a rush to get her to the church on time they forgot to hang one of those pine-tree shaped air fresheners in the back of the hearse with her.
Now, these are but a few small examples. I am sure if you took a poll of Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Baha’i, Mormons and Others, you’d find a similar result. The bottom line is that people who frequent houses of worship smell.
And, at first, I couldn’t figure out why. But then I realized it. It came to me like a bolt of lightning out of the blue.
Sometimes God doesn’t answer prayers. You can imagine why. God is busy. He/She has a lot to do. And, you hear enough people bleating at you, praying, asking you for a million dollars or a pony or to get laid that night, and eventually, I’m sure it gets to the point where God just puts his/her hands over his/her ears and says, “la, la, la, la, I’m not listening. Can’t hear you.”
And, these people have figured that out. So, they smell to get God’s attention. Because God can wear earplugs, but God can’t close his/her nose. God still has to breathe. And, of all people God knows better than anyone not to cut off his/her nose to spite his/her face.
So, the next time you get stuck next to a smell-bomb in your particular church, temple, mosque, etc, just know that that person is about to have their prayers answered, if only so that God can get a breath of fresh air.